Jerry Coyne on Goodness without God

(Originally published on 17 October 2011)

Jerry Coyne recently wrote an op-ed in USA Today entitled, “As Atheists Know, You Can Be Good Without God.” Christian philosopher Matt Flanagan wrote an excellent critique, not of Coyne’s claim that nonbelievers can be good without God (which Flanagan grants), but of pretty much everything else Coyne wrote related to metaethics. I wanted to highlight a couple of areas where I especially agree with Flanagan, since Flanagan points out some errors that a scientist wihout philosophical training can make. I also want to state where I disagree with Flanagan.

First, what is the focus of Coyne’s critique? According to Flanagan:

The argument that our instinctive sense of right and wrong “is strong evidence for [God’s] existence” found its most important formulation in a 1979 article by Yale Philosopher Robert Adams.

Let me begin by saying that I am familiar with Adams’ work and have great respect for it, especially his magisterial, Fine and Infinite Goods. Also, I agree with Flanagan that Adams’ work has been influential among theists. Finally, I agree with Flanagan that nothing Coyne writes in any way undermines Adams’ moral argument(s) for theism.

It doesn’t follow, however, that Coyne is to be faulted, in the way Flanagan criticizes him, for not criticizing or refuting Adams’ argument. Coyne is writing in USA Today, not a professional philosophical journal, so I think it’s reasonable to expect Coyne to tailor his message to his audience. While I have no empirical data to back this up, if you want to name philosophers, I suspect that C.S. Lewis’ moral argument for God’s existence is probably much more influential among the average reader of USA Today than the work of Robert Adams. And Lewis does appeal to a variety of moral phenomena in in Mere Christianity as part of his moral argument for God’s existence. That phenomena includes not only what Lewis calls the “Moral Law,” but also moral emotions (e.g., guilt, obligation). Thus, I think it is legitimate for Coyne to offer a naturalistic explanation for moral emotions. In this sense, I think Flanagan is being unfair to criticize Coyne for not interacting with Adams.

On the other hand, Flanagan is absolutely correct when he says there is a difference between moral obligation and the feeling of obligation. So even if, for the sake of argument, Coyne is successful in offering a naturalistic explanation for the feeling of obligation, it doesn’t follow that Coyne has explained moral obligation in general.

Second, Coyne is simply wrong when he claims that moral emotions “couldn’t” come from the will or commands of God, even if we assume that Euthyphro dilemma is a fatal objection to divine command theories (DCT) of moral obligation. That is much too strong of a claim. Again, using the obligation vs. feeling of obligation distinction, at most the Euthyphro dilemma refutes the claim that moral obligation in general comes from God; it does not in any way prevent a theistic explanation for moral emotions, including feelings of obligation.

But is the Euthyphro dilemma a fatal objection to DCT of moral obligation? That’s not obvious to me at all.  I’ve read a lot of recent work by theists refining, clarifying, and defending sophisticated versions of DCT. While I am not prepared to take a definitive stance on the matter yet, here my sympathies lie with Flanagan. Why? That would be the topic for another post, some other time. 🙂

Update 24-Feb-16:

After the original publication of this post, I published my Primary on Religion and Morality. I cover many of these same topics in slightly greater detail there. LINK