Secular Morality and the Is-Ought Problem

The topic of morality has always fascinated the freethinker in me that I’ve been reading, writing, and debating about it for years. But what fascinates me most is the realization that just when I thought I had it all figured out, there remains a gap that just can’t be bridged.

My position had been that we can be good without God, and that science and reason are all we need to chart morality.

Today I no longer hold that position.

But not because I no longer believe that science and reason can answer the question why we act in ways that are considered good, but because science and reason simply cannot answer the basic question of what is “good.”

Richard Dawkins as well as other scientists have shown how evolutionary biology can explain altruistic behavior, why we help others when there is no obvious benefit to ourselves or even when it would actually harm us, but they fail to explain why altruism is “good” to begin with.

Sam Harris has shown how science can objectively measure well-being and flourishing, but he fails to explain why we “ought” to pursue well-being and flourishing in the first place.

This is the argument of the philosophical theists, which happens to be more challenging to rebut than those of the fundamentalists who say that the Ten Commandments or the Bible (or the equivalent holy book of their religion) is the true moral code. Not unexpectedly, whenever an atheist blogger criticizes religious morality and asserts that secular morality is better, philosophical theists would accuse him of attacking a strawman and go on to say that he utterly has no idea what he is talking about.

Any attempt at establishing a moral code not derived from religion inevitably runs into the is-ought problem, an unbridgeable gap between what is and what ought to be. For example, there is nothing in the statement “people are suffering” that allows for the conclusion that we ought to find ways to alleviate their suffering – even though it feels like the most natural, instinctive, intuitive, and “moral” thing to do. That may sound absurdly callous and inhuman, but there is also nothing in the statement “that is absurdly callous and inhuman” that establishes why we ought not to be callous and inhuman at all.

Philosophically speaking, there can only be an “ought” when such ought is inherent; oughts are not emergent, that is, they cannot be derived from an “is.” And, philosophical theists would contend, the only way to have a moral ought is to have it built into us by a creator: if God created us and laid down certain rules, we ought to follow those rules not because of the fear of eternal punishment or even out of gratitude for the gift of life, but because that’s what we were created to do.

While the term ought is currently used to indicate duty or obligation, its etymology traces back to “owe” and “own.” In other words, one could say that we ought to obey God (assuming he exists) out of moral duty because we owe him our lives and he owns us.

But then here comes the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” If it is the former, then there is higher standard of morality to which even God must adhere; if it is the latter, then there is nothing to stop God from giving arbitrary commands that are capricious and oppressive because whatever he commands will always be morally good, whatever that means.

The philosophical theist, however, addresses the Euthyphro dilemma by postulating that God is the good, or God = good, so he cannot therefore command anything that is not morally good, and at the same time he is not subject to a higher standard of morality because God is moral goodness itself.

The only problem with this argument is that the contention that “God is the good” is a bare assertion, a matter of arbitrary definition and not a universally accepted fact or a logical conclusion derived from verified premises.

722px-The10CommandmentsOne can imagine that a perfectly objective and binding moral code is something written by a perfectly moral creator and directly handed down to all humanity, that is, not through prophets or some self-proclaimed divine messenger.

This is where both religion and philosophical theism fall short. Religions cannot agree among themselves what God’s laws are or even who or what God is; philosophical theists, on the other hand, merely assert that there is a moral law not found in any holy book but somehow written in our hearts, but they fail to establish that it is our God-given conscience talking and not our own selfish manipulative wills considering that there seems to be no consensus among the hearts of men and women.

Philosophical theists like to boast that their morality is superior to secular ethics because it has an ontological base (i.e., God), meaning they have an objective basis for conceptualizing such moral system. They do have a point, but unfortunately such ontological base is simply assumed. Take away that assumption or challenge it by demanding proof and the base crumbles, leaving their morality hanging by the thread of a bare assertion.

Of course, philosophical theists like William Lane Craig would say that the existence of God is an altogether different debate, and that all they are claiming is that “if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.” Craig himself pointed out that these are conditional claims, so until they conclusively win the debate on the existence of God and, more importantly, prove that God not only created us but indeed wrote his moral law in our hearts, theistic morality remains sitting on one huge assumption.

And while secular ethics also makes an assumption that well-being is good without explaining why it is good, it appeals to the moral nihilist which I seem to have become. With all this talk of the is-ought gap, I no longer use the term “moral” without qualifying it. Instead, I prefer to use the term “civilized.”

While civilized is a relative term particularly when used to refer to society (e.g., societies of decades past considered themselves civilized but some of their practices like discrimination are barbaric by today’s standards, just as future generations will surely have something to condemn about today’s norms), I like how civilized societies continuously expand their circle of awareness, granting rights to more and more displaced groups and individuals (and even animals), taking care of their well-being.

I may not be able to explain why we “ought” to be civilized, but it feels good to me as it apparently does to a lot of people – civilized people, that is, people who do not require an ontological base or demand to bridge the is-ought gap before deciding that it is the moral thing to do.

Eventually, the secularist will have to admit that his morality is not objective insofar as his moral values are not founded on something that transcends humanity. But this is not to say that his concept of right and wrong is determined by nothing more than the norms of society notwithstanding how civilized or compassionate a particular society has become.

Whether society matures or degenerates into a dog-eat-dog world where “might makes right,” secularism offers the following principle laid down by George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the term secularism: “Individual good attained by methods conducive to the good of others, is the highest aim of man, whether regard be had to human welfare in this life or personal fitness for another.

Such principle may not have an objective foundation in the sense that it is nothing more than one person’s assertion regardless of how many others may have intuitively come up with it on their own or how practical it may sound (e.g., personal welfare achieved to the detriment of others is often short-lived), but once internalized, it is a straightforward ethical code to objectively judge and guide people’s actions in an ever changing society. Opponents of secularism may easily point out that we have not established what “good” is, but it would take a lot of semantic acrobatics for them to argue that we cannot objectively define what welfare is.

Once we decide that we’ve had enough philosophizing over the is-ought problem in relation to the moral value of what we take for granted as good, we can focus on how to pursue our welfare by means conducive to the welfare of others. If you consider such pursuit good without obsessing on why we ought to pursue it, it can be said that you’re a compassionate, practical, and civilized person. But if you can’t subscribe to secular ethics because it lacks an ontological base – because there is nothing in the statement “people are suffering” that allows for the conclusion that we ought to find ways to alleviate their suffering – then congratulations! You are a philosopher.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


  1. What if the moral code that theists believe was created by God wasn’t arbitrary at all but based on something REAL instead? The writer assumes that because all religions can’t agree on a moral code, the different versions of God they believe in must have very arbitrary rules of morality, and therefore, no real foundation for a universal moral code can be found. But the foundation is very real, and it is based on the concept of love. The only framework in which a moral code makes sense is one in which the Creator, or God, is the very essence of love itself. Any religious framework in which God does not love his creation in the same way that a good father loves his children must have an arbitrarily set of rules indeed! Only when one sees the infinite worth in EVERY individual simply because they are loved by the Creator does a universal moral code make any sense. When one embraces this idea, it no longer becomes difficult to see that we are all, in a very real sense, brothers and sisters to each other, and must treat each other as such.

    So, taking a step back, a serious thinker of morality must not ask “Is religion a solid foundation for morality”, but rather “What is the RIGHT, or most logical religion for morality?” The are many scientific theories to describe a phenomenon, but just because there are many theories doesn’t mean you have to reject science altogether! The proper religious framework for morality I just described must be simple and elegant, like a good scientific theory, and have love at its center. It is worth noting that this rules out Islam, which any Muslim will tell you, does not view God as a loving father. In their religion, you are within your right to kill someone for leaving Islam, or for being unfaithful. Love for every human being is not within their framework. The closest religion on Earth that fits the theory of a God of love, though executes it imperfectly, is Christianity. Over the next few hundred years, when the “progressive” values of our society make it morally acceptable to mercy kill newborns born with permanent disabilities, put bed-ridden elders “to sleep”, and have term limits for marriage contracts, you can bet that the same kooks who believe in protecting the unborn will also stand up to protect the victims of these shenanigans…all for the simple reason that they belief that every human being has infinite worth in the eyes of their God, even when society has declared their existence as of marginal importance.

    My point is that love is the missing component of the theist argument presented by the author in order for religious morality to make any logical sense. Secular morality will always change with societal norms, but one can easily conceive of a universal moral law when given the framework of a God who loves every individual and gives them infinite worth and dignity.

  2. Hi, I think concerns about morals only apply to a person because of his relationship with others. If there was only one man living on Earth, to whom would he be moral or immoral to? Think of yourself as separate from society. Every person is a separate being , making each individual his own steward and best personal critic. Morals are what makes us better people to ourselves. This creates individual growth. I have read before that other people are us in a different body which the group grow.

  3. So basically the quest for morality’s origins continues and it will continue for generations to come.

  4. The idea of “group selection” comes to mind, and how individuals’ behavior in their community would shape how they deal with strangers. When we’re away from our home community, we take our “ought” with us, and make the assumption that *some* of our behaviors apply in the new place, when dealing with these new Others. So long as we’re dealing with a recognizably human predicament where some kind of ‘moral’ judgement needs to be exercised, there will always be some set of basic rules that apply to the situation, that will be taken as axiomatic (not deriving from other rules). I take it that it’s the choice of axioms that guide ‘civilized’ judgement and behavior that’s the problem.

  5. Agree. But the same can be said about God belief. We can be good with God belief. But it doesn’t mean we will be. Through God belief what is to be considered good? And are competing claims of what is good parsed by God belief?

    Is kidnapping girls and selling them into slavery good? Or is educating them and treating them the way you would treat other human beings good? God belief has justified both. If the argument is that non-belief in God cannot pull us to the direction of good, God belief pulls us in multiple directions with each direction staking the claim of being in accordance with God’s will. If with non-belief in God leaves us lost, it appears God belief leaves us just as lost as well.

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