Can Secular Philosophy Give Us Objective Morality? (2003)

A review of Michael Martin's Atheism, Morality, and Meaning
(Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2002)

Taner Edis


Philosophers have a way of going on quests to find reasons for what already seems intuitively obvious. Especially if religion is involved--it is hard to see anyone believing in, say, God, just because of convoluted metaphysical arguments. The arguments are there, perhaps, as a defensive measure, just to provide that extra feeling of certainty.

Religion, however, is not the only area where philosophy blends into apologetics. Debates over morality have a similar flavor. We might wonder if all the arguments are but a veneer over philosophers' deep-seated convictions about what must be right.

Atheism, Morality, and Meaning, although it is a book well worth reading, will not do much to allay such skepticism. Michael Martin is an eminent atheist philosopher, and he gives us a hard-hitting critique of those theistic arguments which claim that all is futile in the realms of morality and meaning if there is no God. It certainly belongs in the bookshelves of anyone who is interested in the debate over whether God is necessary for a moral life. However, although Martin does well in exposing some common mistakes of theistic moral arguments, he is less convincing when he argues for objective morality in a godless world.

A frequent accusation that religious believers level against skeptics is that, without God, anything is permitted. Doubt too much, and we summon the demons of moral relativism; we need God to extract us from that abyss. And so Martin is much concerned to establish that, even without God, we can have fully objective moral truths and the way to get a handle on such moral realities is through philosophical reflection rather than revelation and surrender to divine authority. If this were so, philosophical atheists could conclusively answer their religious critics. We would have a full-blooded morality; we could have everything our religions promised and better, as we would avoid the metaphysical baggage of spiritual realms and the mindless surrender to arbitrary commandments.

Even so, it is peculiar that Martin does very little to explore whether moral relativism is really such an intolerable option. After all, many atheists are relativists of some kind, if under that label we also include noncognitivists, error theorists and others who are comfortable with the idea that different courses of action may legitimately appear sensible, even moral, to rational people who happen to care about different ends. Gilbert Harman [1] argues that naturalists--those of us particularly impressed by modern science and concerned about locating moral perception and behavior in the natural world--are very likely to be some variety of relativist in this broad sense. We can, it seems to most naturalists, understand our moral lives within nature, without special moral realities and without there being objective moral truths wholly transcending our particular interests. However, old-school moral philosophers are much more inclined toward a fully objective, even absolute, morality. Morality, to them, is an autonomous discipline. Right and wrong are to be worked out within philosophical tradition, with little reference to our sciences.

Martin's book is very much an old-school work. He theorizes about the nature of morality, but makes no use of what, for example, evolutionary psychology and cognitive science have learned about the nature of our interests and our moral perceptions. In fact, even when he discusses something like moral character, this becomes a philosophical abstraction curiously disconnected from the interests of real-world actors. He criticizes religious ethics, but only as an abstract set of demands presented by conservative theistic apologists, and never as a pattern of behavior rooted in a religious way of life. And so naturalists who shy away from full-blown moral realism are not very visible in this book, though most have no more use for a God than does Martin. Even the views of those relativists such as Harman, who are more willing to stay in the bounds of traditional philosophical debate, are nowhere to be found.

So in the end, though Martin does a good job exposing mistakes of conservative theistic moralists, his version of godless morality leaves too many questions hanging. Here is a partial list:

  • Martin brings up ordinary language and everyday intuitions in support of moral objectivity. Fair enough, but many naturalists would argue that a wider view which takes modern science into account can better explain these commonsense notions of morality, without affirming moral truths. In physics, for example, we no longer accept that either common sense or metaphysical intuitions are at all reliable, unlike the days when ancient Greek cosmology offered the most sophisticated picture of the world. Similarly, many would argue that cognitive science has made enough progress that we can no longer afford to take our moral perceptions and ordinary moral language as unproblematically referring to an objective moral reality (for arguments over this claim, see May, Friedman, and Clark). [2]

  • In analyzing theistic claims that morality requires God, Martin loses sight of religious life as a way of integrating common sense perceptions and moral intuitions. Religion comes naturally to our species; our brains are built that way. It seems compelling to most people that morality should be closely linked to supernatural realities. The reason is not that people have been taken in by bad reasoning, which is curable by philosophical analysis. Martin would have been well served by looking at the work of cognitive anthropologists Pascal Boyer [3] and Scott Atran [4], who make it clear why religion so often provides a commonsense, practical context for living a moral life.

  • Martin uses ideal observer theory to make a case for objective morality. It is plausible enough that moral judgments would improve for someone who has all the relevant knowledge and can exercise an unclouded rationality. Naturalists who argue for a limited, partial objectivity in morals allow that some solid moral agreements can be reached; ideal observers could presumably achieve even tighter agreements. However, the question is whether, even granting that, we could have different enough ideal observers, with differing backgrounds and interests, that they would not converge upon the same moral dispositions. Ideal observers have a way of becoming too bloodless, thus it is hard to see why they should have an interest in morality in the first place. So philosophers try and patch up their ideal observers by incorporating "normal" human dispositions: compassion and the like. This, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a prime opportunity to design ideal observers which end up affirming the prior moral intuitions of the philosopher. These are well-known objections to ideal observer theories, and Martin does try to meet them. Never, however, very convincingly.

  • The omniscient ideal observer sounds suspiciously like God, and Martin is careful to argue that this need not be so. However, he does not address a possible theistic objection. God is supposed to have created the moral order of the universe, and it is plausible to think that a God would have arranged things such that ideal observers would, in the end, converge on the same moral feelings. The objectivity of Martin's morality depends on ideal observers regularly coming to agreement, and even if this were so, it would be a contingent fact about the world. Theists can argue that a God arranged the world so that things work out just so. The objectivity of moral truths would be best accounted for by a God who is both the ultimate ideal observer and the creator of the moral order.

  • Martin supplements ideal observer theory with an appeal to "wide reflective equilibrium." Few would disagree. However, as Harman [1] also points out, relativists make good use of such appeals: they demand that our sciences be brought more fully into the picture, to achieve an even wider equilibrium. When we do so, we find that we can explain a lot about our moral lives, from gut-level perceptions to the function of rules and principles in moral negotiations. And it appears, in contrast to what happens in science, that we cannot say our moral perceptions and rules lock onto objective external realities. At best, what we get are objectively good ways to navigate the social realm according to our interests. [5]

After addressing moral questions, Martin also answers the charge that, without God, we are condemned to a meaningless existence. Again, he makes some interesting arguments. And again, he succeeds in exposing the weaknesses of some important theistic apologetic strategies. However, he consistently limits himself to the brittle approach of conservative theists who seem, for whatever strange reason, to need to attach a stamp of rational certainty to their beliefs. But more-liberal religious people also worry about despair and nihilism being the fruits of atheism, without necessarily seeing this nihilism as being just a logical consequence of some metaphysical beliefs. Skeptics, they may suspect, by removing themselves from a religious life, lose touch with a way of perceiving the world which makes meaning and morality fundamental to everything.

In restricting his attention to conservative philosophical arguments, Martin also does not deal with more common motivations for finding meaning in "God's plan." For many religious people, even the setbacks in life, the petty nuisances, the struggles, become meaningful in the context of some Divine Drama, however hazily conceived. It may irritate no few rationalists, but the assurance of some purpose behind it all is more important than having even a vague idea of what this divine purpose might be. We faithfully play our part, and it is not in vain even when we apparently fail.

And with atheism--especially in its naturalistic versions--what to make of failure is often the big practical question. How does a godless person respond to genuine failure, to undefeated evil, to a world which is still stubbornly imperfect in the face of every humanistic effort to improve our lives? When a believer charges skeptics with holding that our lives are absurd, it is more likely they have such questions in mind and not a suspicion that atheists read too much Sartre. After all, especially naturalists tend to argue that ours is an indifferent universe, where truth, beauty, and good do not harmoniously present themselves to those who have mastered either piety or the art of philosophical contemplation. What then?

For all its intellectual defects, religion does appear to help many of us cope with such worries. And it does so within the context of a religious life. Divine commands, for example, may not be up to the job of grounding morality and supplying cosmic meaning. And Martin clearly shows why this is so. But to most religious people, divine commands are only part of the story--they do not work apart from the created moral order of the universe, the satisfactions of approaching the Perfect Good by cultivating a religious way of living, and the assurance that good will eventually prevail. Atheism denies this view of cosmic harmony, and it is no wonder religious people are inclined to ask whether the loss is too much to bear.

This is not to say that a more skeptical life does not have its own satisfactions. No doubt many atheists feel better off for their lack of faith. But again, those of us who do not feel troubled by the lack of a full-blown objectivity with regard to morals will also suspect that religious skepticism makes sense only within some ways of life, and that going without God will not work as a coping mechanism and an avenue to finding "meaning" in life for everyone. Some of us will go so far as to wonder if religiosity remains the most pragmatic, even rational, choice for many. [6]

Atheism, Morality, and Meaning succeeds in undermining some important theistic apologetics, and forcefully presents a vision of atheism which makes no concessions to religion in the realms of morals and meaning. All of this makes the book worth the cover price--and more. Nevertheless, readers who desire a broader survey of godless approaches to such questions will need to go beyond this book. And readers who start out with a more morally relativistic attitude than Martin will not find their views much changed in the end.


[1] Harman, Gilbert. 2000. Chap. 5. Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[2] May, Larry, Marilyn Friedman, and Andy Clark, eds. 1996. Mind and Morals: Essays on Cognitive Science and Ethics. Cambridge: The MIT Press.


[3] Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.


[4] Atran, Scott. 2002. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.


[5] Edis, Taner. 2002. Chap. 9. The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science. Amherst: Prometheus.


[6] Edis, Taner. 2000. "The Rationality of an Illusion," The Humanist. 60:4 28.