Atheist Foundations of Ethics

By John B. Hodges
Feb. 27, 2006


In the United States, evangelists often claim that atheists have no basis for morality, no "foundations" for ethics. This claim goes back at least as far as the Apostle Paul.

Many examples could be given of this claim, by historical and contemporary writers. Most famous is the character in the novel by Dostoyevsky, who says, "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." The claim is that for those without a supernatural basis for morality, all morality must be relative. All is permissible.

These evangelists also imply, and sometimes say outright, that those who believe in a god are more ethical than nonbelievers. "For theists, morality isn't relative. There is a standard by which to judge such things."

So, in their view, believers are morally superior to atheists, because THEY have a foundation for morality and WE do not. Not to mention the obvious, that they MUST be morally superior, because THEY are going to Heaven while WE are not.

So, are they right? Do theists have better foundations for their ethics than atheists do?


Ethics, generally, are rules, principles, policies for behavior, with the goal of ______ (fill in the blank).

Religious ethics fills in the blank with something supernatural. "Pleasing God", "Getting admission to Heaven", "Achieving Nirvana", whatever.

Atheist ethics fills in the blank with something in this world. What is the purpose of human life? We have our choice on that. "Promoting the health and happiness of my family, friends, adopted circle, and our descendants." "Contributing to the long-run survival of human civilization". "Maximizing my lifetime total of pleasure." There are a million possibilities.


Religious morality is based on faith. Faith is, ultimately, believing what you are told, by someone whom you have chosen to regard as an authority. Your chosen authority tells you about invisible things, Heaven and Hell and God, and about what this God wants you to do and not do.

Faith is required, to believe that this invisible god actually exists, that he/she/it wants your obedience, and that for some reason this god cannot or will not speak to you directly, but WILL speak to this self-proclaimed authority. You must have faith that your chosen authority is actually hearing from this god and not from some other invisible spirit, some mischievous or malevolent ghost or demon. You must have faith that your prophet is not making it all up out of whole cloth, and is reporting accurately what this invisible spirit is saying. If your chosen prophet lived centuries ago, you have to hope that the words of this prophet were recorded, copied, and translated accurately for, as Jeremiah said, "actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely". (Jer. 8:8)

If someone calls you on the telephone and says they are working for a good cause, what reason do you have to believe them? Last year Americans were taken for $40 billion by fraudulent telephone callers. If you know someone face to face in some OTHER way, and you then recognize their voice over the phone, then you have reason to trust what they say; but a stranger calling could be anyone. So, let us assume that the Biblical prophets are honorable men -- all, all honorable men. A prophet hears a voice coming out of the air, out of a burning bush, or whatever, and the voice says: "I am Yahveh, King of the Universe. I am the Creator of all things." How do they know, how CAN they know, whether this Yahveh character is telling the truth? We don't even know if this is the real Yahveh, much less the real Creator of the Universe. We don't know if it was the same voice speaking to different prophets. The voice could be some imp or sprite about three inches tall, playing a practical joke. It could be a demon with darker plans. Is this Yahveh really the Creator of the Universe, as he claims, or is he perhaps some local ghost? Perhaps Yahveh is lying, as he has sometimes done. (1 Kings 22, 2 Chronicles 18, Ezekiel 14:9, 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12.) Perhaps Yahveh is giving bad laws deliberately, as he boasted in Ezekiel 20:25. All this has to be decided subjectively.

Religious ethics comes down to obedience to (allegedly divine) authority. Just as "faith" consists of believing what you are told, religious ethics consists of doing what you are told. But a minute of thought will show that morality is not the same as obedience. We all know of examples where people who were obeying orders have done evil things, and other examples where people who were rebelling against authority have done good things.

We all start out as children, and we first learn morality by instruction from our parents. We know what is right and wrong "because our parents say so." For a small child, morality is nothing other than obedience to parents. This is necessary and proper, because the child does not have the understanding or perspective needed to live by a rational morality. Humans are a social species; we have been living in groups for longer than we have been human. Children are predisposed to learn morality and social customs in the same way, and for the same reason, that they are predisposed to learn language. Both language and ethics are vitally important tools for living, for a species that survives by cooperating in groups. Religion hijacks this childhood instinct, substituting an invisible cosmic parent for the earthly ones. Religious morality consists of obedience to the instructions of this cosmic parent, as reported and interpreted by whoever is bold enough (crazy enough, dishonest enough) to do so.

Religion teaches a child's view of ethics, that "being good" means "obeying your parent". It gives a moral blank check to those bold enough, dishonest enough, to claim to speak for God.

If there WERE any Cosmic Parent, it would not need human messengers; it could speak directly to whomever it wished. If a divine being wants me to do something, they should tell me, not you. If they have a message for all humankind, they could write it on the face of the Moon, in letters five miles wide. Any alleged "revelation" DELIVERED BY HUMAN BEINGS is presumptively fraudulent.

There is nothing more "relative" than supernatural belief. What you choose to have faith in is entirely subjective. What writings you count as scripture is both subjective and culturally relative. What interpretation you put on those scriptures is likewise. Sincere believers in the "same" religion have been pacifists and imperialists, millionaires and ascetics, Capitalists and Socialists, polygamists and celibates. Not to mention murderers. Religious morality is inherently subjective and relative, because it depends crucially on faith in invisible, untestable things.

When a believer says that his morality is "absolute", it means he is resolutely determined not to apply any of his own intelligence to moral questions. When he says it is universal and unchanging, it means his morality is indifferent to the consequences of trying to follow it in the real world. He may also mean that he is willing to apply whatever force may be necessary to make everyone else bow down to his own chosen Lord.

Prophets are those who are deluded enough, or boldly dishonest enough, to set themselves up as the local representatives of God. Being human, they may give out bad teachings, and may exploit their position. Understandably jealous and fearful, they suppress questioning and independent thinking among their followers and cast competing prophets as devils and servants of the Cosmic Enemy, the Great Satan. From this follows all the bloody history of religion. Instead of leading people to treat each other as kin, religion historically has led them to treat selected others as "enemies of God". Such enemies have been held to deserve whatever suffering you can inflict on them and more, until and unless they submit and obey.

Contrary to its claim to be the source of all morality, religion has sponsored and endorsed sectarian warfare, genocide, torture, persecutions of lesser sorts, slavery, male supremacy, inquisitions and thought control; even for the obedient, it has sponsored self-censorship, self-abnegation, self-mutilation, rejection of medical care, suppression of rational inquiry and scientific education. Priests have been allied with kings and dictators throughout history, using religion as a tool to keep exploited people quiet. Religion has perpetrated a wholesale swindle on the human race, diverting large amounts of time, thought, and wealth to appeasing a ghost, and the ghost's local representatives. It has perverted the field of ethics, severing it from any connection to the consequences for real people in this world, denouncing as sinful any attempt to apply human thought to moral questions.


Ethics, generally, are rules, principles, policies for behavior, with the goal of ______ (fill in the blank).

Atheist ethics fills in the blank with something in this world. What is the purpose of human life? We have our choice on that. The fact that we have our choice of what to value makes atheist ethics relative. The fact that our ultimate value is something in this world has the advantage that we can choose to value objective things, making our personal ethics objective. Doing X will, or will not, objectively contribute toward our chosen goal. For foundations, theists have their faith in invisible things. Atheists have the objective experience of living in this world that we see in front of us.

Where can we get "objective" ethics? Look at the consequences of actions for real people in this world. A consequentialist system has an ultimate goal and a lot of derivative values, which are recommended means to that goal. An objective ethic is a consequentialist ethic that has an ultimate goal that is objectively measurable. It then becomes an objective question whether a particular recommended means will in fact lead to that goal -- whether another means might be more effective. The statement "If you want X then you ought to do Y" becomes a statement about cause-and-effect relationships that is objectively true or false, and can be investigated by scientific procedures.

What about the choice of your ultimate goal, your ultimate value that you are pursuing? Can we say that some goal is "better" than others, and deserves to be adopted by everyone? I think there is one that we can predict will be widely popular, but there is no logical or cosmic necessity that it be adopted by everyone.

There is a built-in "default" goal of biological life, genetic reproductive success, also called "inclusive fitness" by biologists. For nonhuman life, this goal could be described as "promote the health of your family", where "health" is defined as "survival ability" and "family" is "all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your genes". Reproductive success is the goal that almost all living organisms pursue, because they follow their internal urges uncritically. Their internal urges are shaped by natural selection, and inclusive fitness is what natural selection selects for. In short, the default goal of biological life is to raise kids; failing that, help your kinfolk raise kids.

If the majority of living things pursue reproduction as their ultimate goal, by itself this implies nothing about what I ought to do. But I think it provides useful information I may wish to consider while I am choosing what I shall try to do.

Human beings are a special case in at least two ways. First, our self-awareness and free will give us the ability to choose our goals; inclusive fitness is only the "default option", toward which our nature will incline us unless we consciously choose to pursue something else. Second, humans are more than carriers of genes; we have original thoughts, we create, receive, modify, and transmit culture. Therefore, for human beings, "inclusive fitness" would as legitimately include our cultural kin as our genetic kin.

Because we are all the offspring of uncounted generations of family-health-maximizers, we may find adopting this goal consciously to be congenial. The goal I advocate adopting consciously is "promote the health of your circle". The boundaries of your circle are your choice, but it would be entirely natural to include yourself, your genetic kin and descendants, your cultural kin and descendants. (There are no sharp natural boundaries to kinship, either genetic or cultural, but near kin commonly receive more concern than distant kin.) If you have no personal interest in raising kids, or in helping your kinfolk raise kids, then contribute something to the culture.

"Health", defined as "survival ability", implies other derivative values. The more knowledge you have, the more friends you have, the more freedom, the more wealth, the more wisdom, other things being equal, the greater your ability to survive, and promote the survival of your circle. The fact that we have a "default goal" written into our genes by natural selection accounts for our intuitive feelings that certain things are "obviously" good or bad. But we don't have to depend on intuition; logic is a better guide.

Human beings are social animals; social animals survive by cooperating in groups. We have been living in groups for longer than we have been human. We are more social than any other species; the largest insect societies have a few million individuals, humans cooperate in societies of hundreds of millions, even billions. Because we are social animals, "Health" immediately implies "Peace" as a basic value. Our ethics must promote the peace of our communities.

In THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY, (an introductory textbook), James Rachels writes (p. 129): "The key idea [of the Social-contract approach to ethics] is that morally binding rules are the ones that are necessary for social living. It is obvious... that we could not live together very well if we did not accept rules prohibiting murder, assault, theft, lying, breaking promises, and the like. These rules are justified simply by showing that they are necessary if we are to cooperate for our mutual benefit."

In other words, if you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, don't kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. As Shakespeare wrote, "It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this."

Social-contract morality is the ethics of Peace. It can set the minimum standards of right and wrong. But there are many different possible ways a peaceful and cooperative society might function. Beyond the ABC's of right and wrong described above, necessary to the cohesion and cooperative functioning of any group, the ethics of Health can provide an objective standard for comparing possible societies. Societies can be judged better or worse according to whether they are a "healthy" place for your kin "unto all generations" to live in. The ethics of Health imply the political goal of Sustainable Civilization.


Human beings are storytelling animals. For most people, "the meaning of life" is what larger story they think their life fits into. They get great satisfaction from having a larger meaning for their lives. A philosopher named Braithwaite described religion as "morals helped out by mythology." People want a "good" story to include heroes with goals, ideals, and aspirations; to identify obstacles and challenges against which the heroes must struggle; to offer a real hope of victory. To provide meaning for their lives, people must regard the story as true, or potentially true, in its essentials. You must have good reason to hope that, if you live by the morals taught, the goals, ideals, and aspirations will be achieved in reality.

Religious folk get meaning from their religion, and feel that if they lost their religion, life would have no meaning. But the stories of religion are not the only stories possible. Meaning is the story you choose to join. There are other stories we can join, that have the advantage of being true.

The story of life on Earth is a larger story that everybody's life could fit into, and in fact does.

Reading the story of life on Earth has impressed me with the rarity and value of "the way we live now". For three billion years the highest form of life was blue-green algae. For a million years the human species made fire and stone tools, and lived by hunting and gathering in small tribes. For ten thousand years most of us lived by peasant agriculture, which is no fun. It would be a great tragedy if our civilization crashed and burned a few hundred years after discovering the scientific method. I would like to see a civilization based on reason and freedom last for geological ages.

If our civilization is to be long-lived, we must face the challenge of sustainability- stabilizing our population, establishing a long-lived peace, developing forms of industry that do not poison our water and air, forms of agriculture that do not create deserts, energy sources that will supply us for millennia. For our long-term health, we will also want to develop the ability to alter the orbits of the Apollo asteroids, whose orbits cross the orbit of Earth. Colonizing the solar system would not be a bad idea, either.

Fairy-tales about the supernatural are not necessary to give meaning or purpose to life. Instead of seeking a ticket to Heaven by being an obedient slave on Earth, we can gain meaning by taking a positive role in history, seeking to make this Earth a better place.


Given that we have our choice, of our personal goal in life, what goal shall we choose? As individuals, we can choose "life-goals" and "legacy-goals". Life-goals are whatever would be a satisfying life for you. This will vary according to talent and temperament. Legacy-goals are the net effect you want your life to have on the world. They are the last goals at which you have any chance to succeed. Considering that accident, crime, disease, etc. leave all of us uncertain as to our time of death, if you want your personal story to end in victory, you will choose your actions at all times in your life to be compatible with your desired legacy. In this way, your legacy-goal may set limits on what you would be willing to do to achieve your life-goals.

The ultimate source of fear and despair is death. Death is the ultimate failure, the ultimate loss. If you want your personal story to end in victory, what could be your response to this prospect? The antithesis of death is health, defined as the ability to survive. Though as individuals we shall inevitably die sooner or later, we can survive through our genes (families) and through our communicated thoughts (culture).

To the extent that you identify with your body, you will survive death through your family of the body, i.e. those that share your genes. To the extent that you identify with your mind, you will survive death through your family of the mind, i.e. all those with whom you share culture, with whom you could share your thoughts.

Joining the true story of biological evolution, we can seek to contribute to the health of our families. Joining the true story of cultural evolution, we can seek to contribute to the health of our society.

Cultural evolution has led to a steady widening of the boundaries of moral concern. The human species' development of comparatively high intelligence, the development of language, the development of writing, of new tools and methods, and in recent times of the scientific method of understanding the world, has led to a great increase in the potential value of reciprocity. "Reciprocity" here refers to the whole network of trading relationships which are peaceful, cooperative, and mutually beneficial. By discovering new ways of producing desired things, other than hunting and gathering, we discovered new forms of valuable cooperation.

For producing desired things by cooperative action, there are advantages to having larger groups rather than smaller. There are "economies of scale" that can be obtained only by larger groups. Larger groups can support having a greater variety of different products available, higher levels of specialized skill, and new types of production that are not possible at all on smaller scales. Other things equal, a larger group also has the advantage in intergroup conflict.

Cultural evolution has come to wholly overshadow biological evolution. With the continuing development of culture, the power of the human race has multiplied and multiplied again. Peace has gotten a whole lot better, and war has gotten a whole lot worse. It has become vastly more advantageous to avoid conflict and maintain peaceful cooperation, in ever-larger and more inclusive groups.

So- the fact that humans are not only social but also intelligent, not only carriers of genes but also carriers of culture, tends to make it advantageous to push out the boundaries of moral concern, beyond the reach supported by instinct. I think the natural limit of this process is to include all carriers of culture, all potential cooperators, all persons, in one society.

Beyond persons, we may even choose to include more, for at least two reasons.

First, I would advocate including "former persons"- those who have died, and those who have suffered brain damage. This I call the "insurance clause" to the social contract- we are all at risk of becoming "former persons", so we all have reason to want certain rights of "former persons" to be protected.

Second, I would allow an "adopted honorary person" clause. If any person wishes to adopt an animal or a "pre-person" as a member of their own family, being responsible for it's care, training, and behavior, I would grant the adoptee certain rights.

A third reason for including nonpersons would be compassion. John Rawls defined a "good person" this way: "A good person is one who has the qualities of moral character that it would be rational for members of a well-ordered society to want in their associates." In short, a "good person" is a desirable neighbor. For many reasons, a compassionate person would be a more desirable neighbor than a callous one. We want our neighbors to have at least some degree of compassion, but how much shall we ask for, as a matter of social mores? If we say that a certain minimum is required to be socially acceptable, then we must show that much compassion ourselves, which could become expensive. A modest level would say that we should not torture animals for fun. A higher level would require humane treatment of farm animals, even if that interferes with maximizing profits. A still higher level would ban hunting and promote vegetarianism. The level required by social mores will be culturally relative, subject to negotiation and change.


Ethics are rules, principles, policies for behavior, with the goal of ______ (fill in the blank). Religious ethics fills in the blank with something supernatural. This makes religious ethics inherently subjective and relative, because you must choose to have faith in what you are told, by some chosen authority, about invisible, untestable things. Atheist ethics fills in the blank with something in this world. We have our choice of what to value, so atheist ethics are also relative; but if we choose to value something that is objectively measurable, our ethics can be objective.

There is one particular choice of what we shall ultimately value, that we can expect will be a widely popular choice across all human societies and cultures, because it is favored by natural selection. Because we are social animals evolved by natural selection, we would be expected to value the health (survival-ability) of our families, and the peace of our communities. This offers a "natural" standard of ethics; the Good is that which leads to health, the Right is that which leads to peace.

Our reasons for "being ethical" by this standard include kinship, reciprocity, compassion, and the desire to have and preserve a larger meaning for our lives.

John B. Hodges
Enjoy Fantasy. Believe It Not.

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