I wanted to know what was right and what was wrong. In November of 2010, I was shocked to finally understand David Hume’s Is-Ought theory which changed many of my presumptions about what I thought I knew.

The Biblical claim is that humans are unable to determine what is good and what is evil. This is the story of the Garden of Eden: rather than trust God to dictate what was right and what was wrong, the early humans believed the lie that it would be better to ‘know’ good and evil themselves and so they ate the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Many write this story off as a crude metaphor from some primitive desert people, unsuitable to inform us today of anything.

But amazingly, our most developed understanding of logic agrees that humans are unable to determine good and evil themselves.

Scottish philosopher David Hume put forward the Is-Ought problem in his A Treatise of Human Nature, attacking the idea that morality could be determined by humans. The Is-Ought Problem deals with the relationship between facts (that which is) and values (including that which we claim ought to be) and concludes that we cannot assert prescriptive or normative values based on descriptive facts. Human reason is absolutely unable to inform us of how we should live because of the gap between merely describing a condition of the universe and the jump that would presume to prescribe how we might like it to be.

’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.

David Hume

For example, it is sometimes suggested (by those such as John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Peter Singer, Sam Harris, et al.) that humans should pursue actions that produce the greatest amount of happiness or that reduce pain. But the Is-Ought Problem undermines this, saying that just because we can observe that humans dislike suffering there is no reason why human suffering would be objectively bad. Our dislike of suffering is merely subjective and cannot inform real moral claims.

The rules of morality are not the conclusion of our reason.

David Hume

Since describing the problem in 1738, no one has been able to develop a response that would allow values to be derived from facts. Attempts have been put forward to address the issue but though they claim to have solved the problem they have all merely side-stepped and gone around, ignoring the gap itself. After over 200 years, all attempts to defeat Hume’s thesis have failed because facts and values are qualitatively different things and there is no logical argument that will get us from one to the other.

And yet.

Most humans feel somehow intuitively that some actions, say stomping on kittens’ heads with high heels or shelling a children’s school with white phosphorus, are truly and actually wrong.

Because human reason is unable to bridge the Is-Ought facts and values gap, the only possible real moral values that could exist would be those that come from what Kant called the “noumenal” dimension, i.e., a realm outside of the natural world. Having ethics informed by the noumenal is commonly referred to as Divine Command Theory. The Is-Ought problem demands that morals come from an outside rubric (a supernatural force outside the observable universe) or they do not exist at all.

There are only these two possible options! People approach this in a number of ways:

  1. Moral Anti-Realists (Atheists): There are no objective morals
    • Nihilists: As such, morals do not need to be obeyed
    • Relativists, Emotivists, Humanists: Even so, we should act according to subjective morals, i.e., relative norms, emotional attitudes
  2. Moral Realists (Divine Command Theorists): There are objective morals as they are set by an outside force
    • Theists: God is the force that sets morals
    • Deists: an impersonal Force sets morals

So you have to choose.

Inside the Atheist camp, everyone agrees that there are no objective moral truths, Thomas Hobbes having definitively summed up the insurmountable Atheist implication in 1651:

For there is no such Finis Ultimus [utmost aim] nor Summum Bonum [greatest good] as is spoken of in the books of the old Moral Philosophers.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

While all Atheists accept that there are no objective moral truths not everyone in the camp is yet comfortable with the full nihilistic implications of religious unbelief. And so the Atheist camp’s debate is over whether relative moral statements and sentences should be obeyed. However, this debate has long since been resolved. As Nietzsche perhaps most succinctly put it:

If God does not exist then everything is permitted.

Friedrich Nietzsche

In addition to all the other massive inconsistencies pointed out that have discredited Relativism over the years, there really does not seem to be a reason why one should follow a moral statement under a Relativistic framework. Without a noumenal basis, an individual can ignore all morals and disregard all supposed qualities proclaimed by the Theists and Deists.

But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written… Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god.

Charles Bukowski

Even so, some confused Atheists continue to suggest that there is ethical behavior under their system. Max Stirner discussed this, claiming that Relativists are often proud of their claim that they can be morally good without needing to resort to religious rationales. Stirner insists this pride is actually a continued slavery. The Relativist boasts that he still wears his chains though his master is presumed dead.

Our atheists are pious people… Take notice how a “moral man” behaves, who today often thinks he is through with God and throws off Christianity as a bygone thing… Much as he rages against the pious Christians, he himself has nevertheless as thoroughly remained a Christian – to wit, a moral Christian. In the form of morality Christianity holds him a prisoner, and a prisoner under faith…

Max Stirner

The argument of the Nihilists is simply Atheism taken to its required and necessary conclusions. Those Atheists that employ wishful thinking because they are uncomfortable without morals are refusing to accept the meta-ethics demanded by their worldview. While they normally rage against inconsistent logic, those Atheists who continue to claim that morals are real without the noumenon (like Sam Harris) are bizarrely unwilling to admit that this position does not follow from their premises.

Is any of this to suggest that atheists are incapable of acting morally? Certainly not. All humans, regardless of their beliefs, are able to act morally should they choose to and many often do. Theists and Atheists alike do great works of charity and often perform morally good actions. However, the Atheist does so without a foundational logic other than their own individualist desire and perhaps a subsequent subjective framework preference. They may sometimes act morally and can indeed be congratulated for doing so but a reason to base this on apart from the whims of Egoism is inconsistent with their premises and unsound.

Many Atheists are dismayed to learn that people are less likely to vote for an Atheist than for any other group. In America, 53% of voters would not vote for a well-qualified Atheist. While Theists know that Atheists can act morally, they also know that when they do, they do so in spite of their unbelief in objective morals.

Similarly, Atheists often wonder why the normative imperatives they promote, say to follow a vegan diet or to participate in civil disobedience against Monsanto or to free Hetch Hetchy, are dismissed or ignored by the Theists they attempt to sway to action. Theists who evaluate potential actions inside of an ethical framework with a firm base are often not interested in arguments that have no objective basis upon which they are built. When an Emotivist puts forward a suggestion that they admit is not more than an emotional attitude, it is not surprising that those who believe morals are actually real are uneasy or uninterested.

Meanwhile, in the Divine Command Theorist camp, both the Theists and the Deists agree that morals are real and are set by a supernatural force outside the observable universe. The debate is about what such a force is like. The Deists hold that the force is an impersonal one, like the Force from Star Wars. The Force permeates through the universe (i.e., Pantheism or Panentheism) but does not really care about the beings inside the universe. It serves as a useful rubric that satisfies the requirement for morals to exist.

The Theists maintain that a force powerful enough to determine what is right and wrong would likely, or rather, necessarily have related powers and ultimate characteristics.

Where any principle has been found to have a great force and energy in one instance, ascribe to it a like energy in all similar instances.

Newton’s chief rule of philosophizing, Principia (1726). Book 3. Quoted in Hume.

The Theist argument against the Deists is a strong argument. Both groups believe in a force but as the Theists maintain, if such an all-powerful force exists but is not personal, such a force does not care about creation. A force that does not care, like the proposed Deist clockmaker god, would likely not even give us morals, meaning, or Love and instead has cruelly abandoned us in the abyss to fend for ourselves. As such, we have little hope of a beneficial outcome of whatever is going on. Additionally, the given Deist explanations for how we would know what is right and wrong from an uncaring force are often little more than ‘innate intuition’, which, as we seem to have different intuitions about morals, is hard to distinguish from subjectivity. Whereas the Theist explanation is that a God who cares has created a single definitive moral code that can be known.

The weakness of the arguments of both the Relativists and the Deists leaves the debate between Moral Realism and Anti-Realism as one between the Theists and the Nihilists.

This is a debate that has been raging since before history. And between these two positions, God and morals against the Void and amoralism, there is no neutral position. If there is one thing that historian Howard Zinn got resoundingly correct it was his adamant stance against neutrality.

You can’t be neutral on a moving train… events are already moving in certain deadly directions and to be neutral means to accept that.

Howard Zinn

Those who throw their hands up and refuse to take a position, claiming that one cannot know Truth or one cannot know Moral Truth are not neutral. This claimed Agnosticism has the same practical effect as Nihilism. That is, if we cannot know Truth, we are in effect in the same situation as Truth not existing and we again cannot speak about anything. The captain of a ship in a storm is being told by the Theists to drop the anchor and by the Nihilists not to drop the anchor and wanting to remain noble and Agnostic he “refuses to decide the anchor issue” and takes no action despite the ship drifting towards rocks.

If you want to believe in morals, and indeed in an objective, real definition of the qualities of Love and Beauty and similar values, you must believe in a supernatural force outside the observable universe.

Whatever you decide, whether Nihilism or its supporting Agnosticism or their opponent Theistic Moral Realism, you can be certain that your choice in this debate will affect your life. If you choose to believe that God and morals do not exist, or that we can’t know God or morals, this isolated position towards existence will absolutely change what you experience. Do not be lukewarm! Go big or go home! Jump all in! This is your life!

Indecision is a decision.