Morality and Atheism: An Exchange with Prof. Feser

Note: This is my initial post of an exchange with Dr. Ed Feser on the topic “Can morality have a rational justification if atheism or naturalism is true?” My answer, of course, is “Yes it can!” I decided to address the issue by spelling out, in some detail, what I think a good naturalistic theory would be.

In my second post I will directly address Dr. Feser’s post.

I thought that I recalled that our initial post on this topic had a 5000 word limit. I was wrong; it was 2500 words, and Dr. Feser adhered to that limit. I contacted Dr. Feser to ask what we should do, and he very graciously said for me to go ahead and post all of mine. He will make his response a bit longer than the original 1000 word limit.


What should a good ethical theory look like? That is, what are the criteria for a satisfactory ethical theory? Some of the virtues of a good ethical theory would be the same as the virtues of any kind of good theory, that is, it should be simple, comprehensive, consistent, coherent, explanatory, and confirmable. It should not face too many intractable anomalies and should not have to be supported by ad hoc devices or special pleading.

I think that the above criteria are sufficiently familiar and do not need much elaboration. Simplicity is important because theoretical understanding advances precisely by bringing complex and seemingly disparate phenomena under unifying and simplifying principles. Darwinian Theory, for instance, accommodates the vast diversity of life by drawing it into a single explanatory framework. Also, simpler theories, in the sense of those dependent upon fewer assumptions, give fewer “hostages to fortune” as the saying goes. That is, the more assumptions we make, the more opportunities we give ourselves to be wrong since reality is under no obligation to honor our speculations.

A comprehensive theory is one that accounts for numerous and diverse sorts of phenomena. Plate tectonics, for instance, accounts for such diverse phenomena as the spreading of seafloor from the mid-Atlantic Ridge, the “ring of fire” of the Pacific Rim, the shape of landmasses, the distribution of fossil organisms, and geological continuities on separate continents. A coherent theory is not simply one that makes sense, but one that fits with and is supported by other things that we know. An explanatory theory, as opposed to a mere scenario, is one that offers a clear account of the “how” or the “why” of the phenomena brought under it. To say that a theory is “confirmable” does not mean that it must be capable of decisive verification or falsification. However, it should be clearly exposed to the evidence and not sheltered by ad hoc insulators. Further, though every theory is subject to some anomalies and ostensible counterexamples, these cannot be too numerous or too intractable.

In addition to these general sorts of theoretical virtues, are there additional ones that an ethical theory should exhibit? I think that there are at least five additional desiderata for ethical theories:

1) Impartiality. No acceptable ethical theory can incorporate an automatic partiality to any kind of sentient creature. To the extent that we are justified in treating one group any differently than another group, there must be a real, morally significant difference to justify the disparity of treatment. Thus, we do not allow children to vote. This is because children are “works in progress” and are developing into presumably responsible adults but in the meantime lack the powers of discernment and judgment expected of adults. Being a child is a difference that makes a difference. Not permitting adults to vote because of gender or ethnicity is not acceptable because these differences have no known relation to capacities for discernment and judgment. They are differences that make no moral difference.

2) Intuitiveness. Scientific theories often must be counterintuitive. Quantum Theory is notoriously counterintuitive, for instance. However, it is important that an ethical theory not be gratuitously at odds with our basic ethical intuitions. For instance, an ethical theory that says that it is acceptable to rape if you can be sure that you will get away with it can hardly be acceptable. The reason that a moral theory, as opposed to a physical theory, has as one purpose the aim to show us how to live well, and to live well means, in part, to be at peace with ourselves and others. We cannot be at peace with ourselves or others if we espouse ethical principles that are in plain conflict with our deepest moral feelings. (However, as we see below, any theory that is useful in untangling ethical dilemmas must violate or at least limit some intuitions, since these dilemmas arise precisely when our moral intuitions clash.)

3) Reasonableness. I mean that an ethical theory should be reasonable in the sense of giving a cogent answer the classic meta-ethical question “Why is it reasonable be good?” Some answer has to be given to Thrasymachus, the character in Plato’s Republic who demands to know why we should not just be unjust and enjoy the benefits of lying, cheating, stealing, and deceiving, when it is to our advantage to do so. We need to have some reason for saying that Thrasymachus was wrong when he alleged that the best way to live would be to be perfectly unjust yet to be thought perfectly just. That way we could get the benefit of being totally self-serving, and yet enjoy the honors and respect accorded to those who exhibit morality. There has to be something unreasonable about such an option.

4) Modesty. As Aristotle observed, we should only expect the degree of certainty that is appropriate for any inquiry. In mathematics, naturally, we expect our answers to be precise and proven. In physical science, we do not expect mathematical proof, but we do expect strong confirmation of our theories by the evidence. In morals we are dealing with a subject that is by its nature highly complex and contingent upon circumstance and culture. Surely, we have to permit things in warfare, for instance, that would be criminal in peacetime. Because morality is highly complex and variable due to circumstance, we cannot expect our moral theories to prescribe and proscribe in detail and absolutely and without exception. Any theory that claims to do so will ipso facto be suspect.

5) Applicability. A successful ethical theory should be readily applicable to “real life” ethical problems and dilemmas. We cannot expect it to provide an algorithm for settling ethical disagreements, but it should shed light on the seeming conundrums and contradictions of thorny ethical issues. Ethical dilemmas arise when our moral intuitions clash. For instance, the clash of intuitions is seen in the emotional debates over crime and punishment, particularly the death penalty. On the one hand, we feel that the most heinous crimes deserve the most severe punishments. On the other hand, the execution of a murderer—sometimes decades after the crime—when the murderer is no longer a threat to society and when no deterrent effect is demonstrable, seems a concession to vindictiveness. A good moral theory should guide us here.

In my view, one ethical theory possesses all of these desiderata: Neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism (NAEN—pronounced “nane”). It is neo-Aristotelian because it is based on the basic principles articulated nearly 2400 years ago by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. It is naturalistic because it draws solely upon what our best science tells us about the world and ourselves. It appeals to no non-natural predicates or transcendent principles. It has nothing to do with religion or revelation of any sort. All of its claims are scientifically confirmable or, if they move beyond current scientific knowledge, at least are reasonable and well-constrained extrapolations from what is known.

Aristotle on Ethics

To understand Aristotle’s ethical theory, you must first recognize that, though he was interested in everything, he was first of all a biologist—probably the foremost theoretical biologist prior to Darwin. The most distinctive thing about Aristotle’s ethical theory is that it is rooted in biology. For Aristotle, ethics is the study of the good, not the good in general, but the human good in particular, and so the central question of ethics is this: What is the best way to achieve the human good? Or, in other words: What is the best way to live a human life? Aristotle held that you cannot answer this question until you understand the essential nature of the human organism. For Aristotle, to understand any organism is to grasp its telos, the essential set of functions that nature has set for each type of organism. Nature has endowed each type of organism with a distinctive set of potentialities, which, when fully realized constitute the full functioning of that organism.

What is the human function? Nature has shaped human beings to live a life of rationality in society with other human beings. All creatures flourish best when they are fully functioning, that is, when they are doing—and doing well—what nature has fashioned them to do. Put another way, the good for any creature consists in the complete actualization of its distinctive biological potentialities, i.e. in achieving its natural end and doing so as well as possible. Thus, a successful hunting dog is successful because it possesses the qualities of a keen sense of smell, eagerness for the chase, speed, strength, endurance, and obedience to its master. A hunting dog that has and exercises those qualities is doing as well as such a creature can. Likewise, human beings flourish when they consistently do well those tasks that nature has set for them, that is, to think rationally and to live in peaceful and mutually beneficial society with other humans.

To fulfill the human function and to fulfill it in the best way is to be virtuous. The virtues, as Aristotle conceives of them, are qualities of human excellence, excellence in fulfilling the human function. In other words, the intellectual virtues are the excellences whereby people learn to think rationally and the moral virtues are the excellences whereby people live successfully in society with other human beings. For instance, a person who is generous, courageous, temperate, and just will, in general, live more successfully among his fellow human beings than one who is selfish, cowardly, ill-tempered, or unjust. The former, even in difficult and humble circumstances will find fulfillment, while the latter, even if powerful and rich, will find happiness elusive.

Those persons who achieve virtue, that is, those who achieve mental and moral excellence, thereby achieve optimum functionality as human beings, both as rational and as social beings. This state, when not conjoined with dire circumstances such as extreme poverty or debilitating disease, is called eudaimonia, “well-being.” Eudaimonia is the most desirable state for a human being, and so its achievement is the best way to live a human life and the attainment of the human good. Eudaimonia, and the means to achieve it, and the circumstances that permit it to exist, therefore define moral value for human beings. The aim of any action of ethical significance is to be judged by whether and to what extent it promotes such value, i.e. the achievement of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia cannot be selfishly pursued, rather, since humans are “political animals”—creatures who only flourish in a polis, an organized society, the pursuit of the well-being of the individual must extend to seeking the well-being of each member of the community.

Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Theory

NAEN follows Aristotle by basing ethics upon biology and makes a concept of natural well-being the basis of moral value. It is “neo” because it has to adapt the Aristotelian approach to the enormous changes in biological science since Aristotle’s day. The biggest change, of course, is the development of Darwinian evolutionary theory. So fundamental was this change that a modern geneticist correctly observed that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Can the aims of Aristotelian ethical theory survive transplantation into a milieu so vastly changed?

Yes, remarkably, it can. For one thing, we can still identify a set of intrinsic human goods, that is, experiences or states that humans universally find intrinsically rewarding and worth having for their own sakes. Political scientist Larry Arnhart in his book Darwinian Natural Right (1998) identifies twenty such trans-cultural and trans-historical desiderata—experiences or conditions which humans everywhere find inherently meaningful, fulfilling and enriching. For instance, they include such goods as parental care, sexual identity, sexual mating, social ranking, justice as reciprocity, political rule, religiosity, intellectual understanding, health, beauty, and wealth. People everywhere and at every time value raising their own biological children. Of course, there are individual and cultural differences in the degrees and ways that children are valued. Some individuals dote on children; others are more like W.C. Fields. Some cultures are child-centric, others take more of the “seen and not heard” attitude. Still, as Arnhart documents, social experiments that attempted to thwart or redirect the desire to raise one’s biological offspring—for instance some of the utopian communities in the 19th Century and Israeli kibbutzim in the 20th Century—failed notably in that regard.

If certain ends are inherently desirable, then the achievement of those ends will be an intrinsic good for human beings. The good for human beings will be the desirable and human flourishing consists in achieving those naturally and inherently desirable ends. The achievement of the inherently desirable is enriching and fulfilling and constitutes what Aristotle called “natural pleasures,” those pleasures that give us the deepest and most enriching satisfactions. We achieve well-being or flourishing—the state that Aristotle called eudaimonia—when our lives are rich with the enjoyment of those ends that are naturally desirable. Again, not everything appeals to every person in the same degree. Social status, for instance, matters a great deal to some people, but relatively little to others.

Natural desiderata provide the basis for moral norms. We can judge actions, desires, laws, customs, social arrangements, and religious dictates with respect to their tendency to promote or impede human enjoyment of natural goods. By this standard we can say that Denmark, for instance, is a more successful society in promoting human well-being than North Korea or Pakistan. We can say that certain laws or customs, like Jim Crow in the Old South—and vote suppression in the New South—are bad because they frustrate equal access to natural goods for a large segment of the population. Individual acts, like a student’s decision to plagiarize, can be judged as bad because they disrupt the vital relationship of trust between teacher and pupil.

Far from undermining the idea of natural goods, Darwinian biology would seem to predict their existence. That is, we would expect that natural selection would dispose us to enjoy those states and activities that function to enhance our chances of passing along our genes to succeeding generations. Some of the goods listed by Arnhart, like parental care of offspring, are obviously related to the transmission of genes across generations. For others it is less obvious, but even here there seem to be some remarkable connections. For instance, it is hard at first to see how religiosity would relate to reproductive fitness. However recent studies by Scott Atran, David Sloane Wilson, Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, and others indicate that religiosity, or connected phenomena such as agent-detection faculties, confer greater individual or group fitness. Thus, Dennett proposes that pre-human ancestors developed a “hyperactive agent detection-device” to detect potentially hostile agents in the environment. Religion, he postulates, derives from the reproductively advantageous tendency of this device to generate false positives, to see agents where there are none. (A “hair-trigger” tendency to react to possible agents may make us “see” a lion when none is there—a minor inconvenience—but it will have the great advantage of making us react quickly when one really is there).

There is one way, however, that the Darwinian developments must alter ethical naturalism deeply. We now know, as Aristotle did not, that we humans are kin—not just metaphorically but in an absolutely literal sense—to all other living things. We know that genetically we are very close to some non-human animals, such as chimpanzees and bonobos. Indeed, evolutionary biologist and anatomist Neil Shubin notes that we retain so many features of our distant ancestors that we can speak of our “inner fish.” Advancing research shows that non-human animals share many of our feelings, even our “moral” feelings, and display a remarkable range of cognitive aptitudes. These developments have rendered the definition of ethics as concerned only with human life too narrow and parochial. We must expand our understanding of natural goods to encompass, at least, the well-being of sentient non-human animals.*

We may therefore define “Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism” as the claim that the good is the desirable, and the desirable is the well-being of sentient creatures. Further, moral norms will be those rules that guide us to the realization of natural goods and will constitute criteria for judging whether acts, intentions, laws, customs, or institutions do in fact promote the well-being of humans and other sentient creatures.

Practically speaking, the basis of human happiness is much the same for the modern neo-Aristotelian as it was for Aristotle. Human well-being consists in living a rational life in harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships with our fellow humans (and with sentient non-human animals, the neo-Aristotelian would add). The virtues are those qualities of mind and character that tend to maximize our personal well-being.

Objections to NAEN

Ethical Naturalism—of which NAEN is a type—has always been a controversial position and critics have devised a number of objections. Here we consider how the proponent of NAEN would respond to some of the most common types of objections.

Objection: Facts are different from norms. You cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” as Hume observed long ago. NAEN appeals to the facts of biology to support ethical norms, that is, facts are adduced to justify norms. Yet the facts of biology—or psychology, anthropology, and sociology—can only tell us how we do in fact act. At most, it can only tell us what we do regard as morally worthy or unworthy. What such empirical sciences cannot do is tell us what we should value. Perhaps we do in fact value the well-being of other people, but that fact fails to reveal why it is morally imperative that we do, i.e. why we should do it. Thus, NAEN fails in the most basic requirement of an ethical theory, that is, in providing a basis for moral obligation.

Reply: NAEN does indeed fail to provide a basis for moral obligation if “ought” is required to be based only on a categorical imperative. A categorical imperative is a pure ethical command that defines our duties as universal and necessary and therefore independent of fact or circumstance. Its commands, qua universal and necessary, are binding on rational moral agents as such, even if such agents are not human (ETs, gods, angels, etc.). Clearly, a categorical imperative cannot be based on anything contingent, like the facts disclosed by empirical science.

Yet there is good reason to think that ethical obligation cannot be grounded only upon a categorical imperative. As Kant recognized, only an a priori foundation can constitute the necessary and universal basis of a categorical imperative. This is why Kant claimed to deduce his categorical imperative from the abstract form of the moral law. Yet the only a priori requirement—the only absolutely general and necessary requirement—that Kant could claim to place on moral rules is that they must be universalizable. It is acceptable for me to follow a rule only if I can consistently will that all other moral agents follow the same rule. Kant offered the example that if we try to adopt as a universal moral rule “Lie whenever it is convenient to do so,” it would never be convenient to do so because nobody would ever believe anything anybody said, and so such a rule could not be followed.

However, it is well known that all sorts of morally atrocious rules would seem to be universalizable, that is, everybody could follow them. “Everybody must adopt my religion” or even “everybody must worship me as a god,” would seem to be rules that could, in principle, be imposed without generating any inconsistency or otherwise rendering impossible the application of the rule. Clearly, though, such injunctions are deeply disturbing even though they pass the only test that a categorical imperative can impose—universalizabiliy. So there has to be much more to morality than following a categorical imperative.

For NAEN, ethical norms are hypothetical imperatives that have the form “If you want to actualize good G in situation C, then take steps a, b, c…n.” For instance: “If you want people to thrive, then support education.” But if moral norms are hypothetical imperatives, then we will have to start with some values that are just given, i.e. all we can say about them is that we do in fact value certain things. As Aristotle observed, I might value x because it leads to y and y because it leads to z, but at some point, unless we have an infinite regress, we have to stop with something that, in fact, is just valued for its own sake and is not made valuable by anything else. For Aristotle, that ultimate value was human well-being. For the neo-Aristotelian, it is the well-being of all sentient creatures.

But by thus basing moral norms on what we find desirable “reduce” the moral to the merely prudent? Yes it does, unless “prudent” is taken as implying a kind of narrow, biased, or partisan self-interest. But if “prudent” only means “wise, judicious, or sensible,” then NAEN gladly identifies the moral good with the wise, judicious, and sensible and notes that those who, on the contrary, identify the good with the rash or the extreme have caused untold woe in the world.

Objection: But if NAEN is thus based on hypothetical imperatives, what do you say to those who reject the antecedents of your hypotheticals? What, for instance, would you say to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man who rejects happiness, including his own, and prefers to act out of spite? In general, if someone does not already value one of your “natural goods,” how do you get them to recognize your moral norms? Why not just be spiteful if that is what you want?

Reply: If the Underground Man genuinely scorns happiness, including his own, then there is not much that NAEN can say to him. But then there is not much that any ethical perspective can say to him. Kant might tell him that he is being unreasonable or Christians might tell him that he is going to hell, but he will just scorn that too. Sheer defiance is not a rational act and so cannot be addressed by appeals to reason. The question is whether the defiance is genuine or merely a pose. It is easy to say that you do not care about your own well-being, but really not to care is harder to achieve. If someone reveals by word or deed that someone’s happiness—even his own—matters, then there is a basis for rational argument.

In general, the way to motivate people to care about things is not to preach to them or argue with them. Instead, you try to make contact with something that is latent in them, perhaps buried under layers of habitual prejudice, selfishness, or negativity. The capacity of great art and literature to stir the soul and prompt self-awareness gives it great moral value. For instance, there are many who have renounced happiness by obsessively seeking revenge. They want to hurt their enemies even if it means that they thereby condemn themselves to misery. What can you say to such persons? Maybe you can get them to read Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which shows how Clytaemnestra nurses vindictiveness until, in the end, like some hideous parasite, it devours her from inside. Finally, she is no longer even human and is transformed, literally, into a spirit of vindictiveness, more implacable than the Furies themselves. Getting people to desire the good is often a matter of confronting them with what, deep down, they truly want.

Objection: NAEN is based upon the realization of “natural goods,” but are not many harmful and odious attitudes and behaviors “natural?” Isn’t the will-to-power natural, as Nietzsche thought? Isn’t it natural to want to dominate others and make yourself “top dog?” Might not attitudes like racism or sexism be natural in some sense? Isn’t it at least natural to favor your good over the goods of others, that is, doesn’t nature clearly intend for us to be egoists? In reality, being moral seems often to involve going against what is natural and learning to live up to a higher standard.

Reply: It only stands to reason that some behaviors and attitudes that might have been adaptive for early humans are no longer beneficial. 30,000 years ago, when humans lived in small bands of hunter/gatherers, it was probably advantageous to initially regard with deep suspicion those who were outside the group. After all, they might well kill you if they proved unfriendly. However, such clannish attitudes are out of place in the large, multicultural, multiethnic societies in which we now live. Those who are intolerant of those who do not look like, sound like, or think like them will have a hard time living in an open, pluralistic society. They will constantly be offended by their neighbors who dress differently, or like other kinds of music, or worship differently. Likewise, perhaps some degree of sexual aggressiveness, or at least adventurousness, is natural for human males, yet these proclivities can obviously lead to serious problems (e.g. Bill Clinton’s scandals). Finally, for those who get too censorious about the Bill Clintons, we have to remind them that the pleasures of indulging in self-righteousness are among the most harmful.

The upshot is that in deciding which natural pleasures are desirable, the ethical naturalist must ask whether and to what extent such pleasures are conducive to well-being in our modern context. A powerful man attempting to foist his attentions on an attractive but uninterested employee might well consider the personal and professional repercussions of a sexual harassment lawsuit. Hence, some pleasures, however, natural, might need to be moderated or denied. It is a sobering fact that indulgence in some natural pleasures might inhibit the enjoyment of other natural pleasures. Practical wisdom will tell us which pleasures to indulge and which must be limited. It is not an argument against NAEN that it requires intelligence and self-discipline.

Conclusion: The success of neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism

So, how does NAEN stack up vis-à-vis the criteria for a good moral theory laid down above? Well, it would certainly seem to meet the general criteria for a good theory, that is, it seems simple, comprehensive, consistent, coherent, explanatory, and confirmable. I will just assert this here and look more closely at how well it conforms to the criteria that apply especially to ethical theories.

(1) Impartiality: NAEN is clearly impartial. It values not only the good of all humans but also of non-human sentient creatures.

(2) Intuitiveness: NAEN is intuitive also. The well-being of humans and, increasingly, of non-human animals surely count as the most worthy ends of moral striving for most people. Even fanatics and fascists will say that their actions are aimed at such ends. If an ethical theory disregarded the human good, then it would, ipso facto be unacceptable.

(3) Reasonableness: One of the strongest points in favor of NAEN is that it gives a straightforward answer to the question “Why be good?” The answer is that this is the only way to be happy. We are, by nature, social creatures who flourish when we have successful interpersonal relationships. The virtues are those states of character that maximize our chances of successful interaction. For instance, one who is just, temperate, generous, and courageous will tend to get along better with others than one who is bigoted, short-tempered, stingy, or cowardly.

(4) Modesty: Like Aristotle, the follower of NAEN will recognize that ethical judgments cannot have the same degree of certainty as those in mathematics or the hard sciences. Notions like “well-being” must be vaguely defined since individual and cultural differences strongly affect judgments about what is desirable. For instance, some cultures are comfortable with near-nudity, while others insist upon total coverage. Therefore, a universal dress code is probably not attainable.

(5) Applicability: NAEN seems to provide at least as good a basis for addressing real-life problems as any other. It will probably be notably more successful than a religious ethic, which often, in fact, only exacerbates problems and increases polarization. For instance, as Christopher Hitchens observed, when two peoples lay claim to the same territory, the obvious solution is two states side-by-side. He reasonably asserts that the Israelis and Palestinians would have reached such a solution long ago were it not for the incitements of religious fanatics on both sides.

In conclusion, NAEN seems to meet the requirements for a successful ethical theory. In fact, I think that Alasdair MacIntyre was right when he wrote Beyond Virtue in the 1980’s. MacIntyre claimed that the extreme dysfunction of ethical discourse in our society—with opposing sides rapidly reduced to strident rhetoric and ad hominem abuse—is due to the comprehensive failure of what he calls “the Enlightenment Project” in ethics. He argues that the Enlightenment philosophers attempted to base ethics only upon reason and failed, leaving a de facto subjectivism in place. He thinks that the only way back from our current desolation is to return to the Aristotelian idea of humans as having a natural telos, a potential for mental and moral excellence—humans as they could be rather than how they so often are. I think he is right.

*Some would argue that the well-being of the environment as a whole should be included as an intrinsic good. I agree that the soundness of the environment is a crucial good, but it is debatable whether it is an intrinsic good or an instrumental good because it is vital for the well-being of sentient creatures. I will not enter into this debate here.