It’s wrong, God or no God, to torture little children just for the fun of it. What basis we have for making this confident moral claim is another thing, but we know, if we know anything, if we have any moral understanding at all, that that is wrong.”
After all, the material universe knows nothing about right and wrong. It cares nothing about morality. To borrow the words of Richard Dawkins, ours is a universe not merely with no god, but "no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference". So how does Nielsen know? Forget "confident" moral claims. On what basis does he make moral claims of any kind?
A Common Misunderstanding
When I talk about this with those who doubt or deny the existence of God, the most common misunderstanding I encounter is expressed like this: "It sounds like you're saying that atheists don't believe in right and wrong, or that atheists are bad people."
I want to be as clear as crystal on this: No, I'm not saying this.
In fact, I've explicitly said the exact opposite. Because atheists are the image and likeness of God, they cannot escape believing in right and wrong. If I'm God's son by creation, so are they. If I have God's moral law written on my heart, so have they. Because of this, whatever they may say about the non-existence of God and the non-existence of moral law in a materialist universe, like Kai Nielsen they care about right and wrong and so wind up living more or less as though they believed in God and in the existence of a real moral law. As Nielsen says, "God or know God...we know..."
So my point has not been to argue that atheists don't believe in right and wrong, or that life has meaning, or that human beings have inherent value, or that unalienable rights exist. My point has been to argue that on the basis of their worldview, they cannot account for these foundational human values.
What I say to my atheist friends is that if they want to be consistent with what they say they believe about the universe in which we live, they should admit that those values are illusory and abandon belief in them. If there is no God, morality is, as Michael Ruse says, "a biological adaptation...just an aid to survival and reproduction...an ephemeral product of the evolutionary process."
Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring [to a moral law existing] above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction...an ephemeral product of the evolutionary process.... It has no existence or being beyond this and any deeper meaning is illusory."
The Happiness Standard
Some, who haven't thought their atheism through this far, will be bothered deeply by this sort of discussion. I had an atheist friend who cracked over the realization that the death of God brings with it the death of belief in a universe in which there is objective moral law. He asked to be baptized.
But very few serious and committed atheists fall to their knees and repent in sackcloth and ashes the moment you set before them the moral implications of their worldview.
Instead, most respond, "Hey, we don't need God in order to have ethics!"
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He believes we can make moral assertions by considering in each situation what will bring about the greatest total amount of happiness.
On this basis he argues for abortion. Most pro-abortion advocates accept the universally held premise that "innocent human life" should not be taken. What they reject is that the unborn fetus should be considered an innocent human life and treated as such. Singer does the reverse. He accepts the claim that the unborn fetus is an innocent human life (it's total fiction, he says, to try to argue otherwise). What he rejects is the premise that innocent human life should never be taken.
Rather he argues that innocent human life can be taken, if the result is a greater total amount of happiness. It's a matter of weighing things out on the scales of happiness.
Using this same rationale, Singer also argues in favor of infanticide---at least in certain cases. In his book Practical Ethics, he explains how the happiness standard works in practice:
When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects for a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of a happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second [not yet born]. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, according to the total view, it would be right to kill him."
But first, I want to look at the ethical theory of another very prominent atheist philosopher.
Can Science Answer Moral Questions?
Sam Harris presents a variation on the happiness theme. He completely rejects the idea that science can only tell us what "is" but can never tell us what "ought" to be. Instead he argues that: (a) Since morality is concerned about increasing the happiness and well-being of conscious creatures (especially humans) and, (b) since questions about what increases the happiness and well-being of human beings are questions that have factual answers, (c) these are questions science could over time answer for us---even as science answers all sorts of other factual questions.
As an example, science has taught us about sterilizing surgical instruments. This has led to the enhancement of human happiness and well-being. So why couldn't science answer questions we tend to think of as being moral---like whether abortion or infanticide or same-sex marriage tends toward the enhancement of human happiness and well-being?
It can seem at first blush that Harris is making some good points.
After all, it's true that increasing human happiness and well-being is at the heart of what morality is about. (As a Christian we'd say there is more to it than that, but this is at the heart of it.) And it's true that questions about what increases human happiness and well-being are questions that have factual answers and therefore at least could be answered through the use of reason.
And Christianity has always taught this! Christianity has always taught that the moral law of God is for our happiness and good, that it is written into nature and is therefore accessible to reason.
So far so (almost) good. But then you listen a little longer. And you begin to realize that where most people think in "moral" terms, Harris does not. As a consistent atheist who knows that morality is ultimately an illusion, he thinks in very practical, utilitarian terms. Like Singer.
Whereas we would say that torturing little children is intrinsically "evil", and that one who does this is "guilty" in a moral sense and is "morally accountable" for his actions, Harris would say the one who tortures little children is really lousy at enhancing human happiness and well-being and that he needs to be treated, well, as we might treat a dangerous crocodile that has somehow gotten on the loose.
You think I must be creating a straw man, here.
No. In fact, Harris explicitly equates the way we should think of and treat an ax murderer with the way we should think of and treat a dangerous crocodile.
When a crocodile attacks and tries to eat you, Harris explains, assuming you survive, you don't think of the attack in moral terms. You don't think of the crocodile as being "evil" or "guilty" or "morally accountable". You just want to do whatever is necessary to enhance human happiness. You understand that as a crocodile he was only doing exactly what he has no choice but to do given his nature.
The same with someone who attacks and tries to kill you with an ax.
The ax murderer is only doing, Harris says, what he must do given his nature, background, brain chemistry, etc. And because of this there is no reason to start throwing around words like "evil" or "guilt" or "punishment". We should deal with his as we would a dangerous crocodile.
Personally, I appreciate Harris's consistency. I really do, because it brings clarity.
After all, you remember what Michael Ruse said about morality in a universe without God? That "morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth"? That "morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction...an ephemeral product of the evolutionary process"? That "it has no existence or being beyond this and [that] any deeper meaning is illusory"? Well, think about it. In such a universe, how else could right and wrong be conceived except in purely practical terms?
Sort of like traffic laws. We don't enact traffic laws because we think there's anything intrinsically "immoral" or "evil" about, for instance, driving on the left side of a road. (I hope there isn't. I have some friends in England and Ireland.) We do it for the purely practical purpose of enhancing human well-being by keeping our streets from becoming rivers of blood.
And when Harris conceives of ax murderers as he conceives of crocodiles, and laws of morality essentially as we would conceive of traffic laws, he's being consistent with his naturalist worldview.
The Problem of Moral Obligation
The Marquis de Sade is infamous for his brutal treatment of women, including torture and murder. Believing in a morality derived from nature---the survival of the fittest---he once wrote:
As nature has made us [the men] strongest, we can do with her [the woman]
whatever we please.”
After all, wouldn't anything above or beyond that would be "illusory".
Singer explains why it is ethical to kill a disabled newborn. But he's also said that "killing a newborn is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living", because newborns lack important elements of what it means to be a person---"rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness". And so I wonder what basis he would have for limiting infanticide to the disabled. Why not allow parents to kill their newborns for any reason whatever---provided of course that the killing would result in greater happiness and so long as it would have, as he said, "no adverse effect on others"?
No. Singer and Harris and anyone who attempts to create a moral standard in an ultimately non-moral universe, have their feet planted firmly in mid-air. In the end, as much concern as they may have for the happiness and well-being of human beings, neither has an answer to the fundamental argument that for objective moral duties and obligations to exist, God must exist.
How so? Well, if it is "wrong" in some kind of absolute sense to torture little children, and if we are really and truly obligated not to do it, then a moral standard not subject to human whim must exist. And if such a moral standard exists, it must have come from somewhere or someone. So where? Who?
Christians believe that source is a transcendent being who created and established everything. When Christians talk about God, that is who they are talking about.