This question is a step backwards because I've run into trouble with definitions on my original question: What would be the logical consequences of human will/nature being corrupt?

Is there any way to define terms such as "evil" or "good" that do not depend on a divine being as the source of that standard? Obviously atheists and humanists use these terms as well so there must be alternative definition to those offered by mono-theistic religions which base their standards on those beings. How can I define 'evil' or 'corrupt' in a way that would would be meaningful in a logical or theological way without using God as a premise?

  • 3
    Humanists endorse a universal morality based on the commonality of human nature; cf. wikipedia's entry on 'Secular Ethics'
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 22:06
  • 2
    @Caleb I believe you dismissed Mitch too quickly. You assume that a moral ethic can be defined without dividing "us" an "them". This presupposes the existence of a non-relational standard. A non-relation standard implies an ultimate standard which begs the source of the ultimate standard. In other words, by discounting a relational standard you can only have a divine or pseudo-divine standard, which then makes answering you question impossible. You must allow for a relational answer or your question is meaningless.
    – chuckj
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 7:09
  • 1
    Nature does not tell you anything of what should be it only tells you what is.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 9:01
  • 1
    @Caleb picture a community who had never heard of psychological science. one person turns to another and says "when our child died i was sad". must this sentence make no sense to other party?
    – user6917
    Commented Dec 31, 2015 at 14:12
  • 1
    "a bunch of serial rapists got together to form a club and in their minds rape was a good thing, would their collective definition of good become more or less acceptable in the eyes of a wider audience?" Only if the victims also think that rape is a good thing. The only clubs that makes sense when determining universal objective morals is a club that contains every moral agents; everything else is subjective (dependant on whether you're in the club or not). Veil of ignorance is a common tool to help this.
    – Lie Ryan
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 1:35

15 Answers 15


The concepts of "good" and "evil" form the basis of our moral viewpoints, and science suggests we develop these viewpoints on an individual level with influences from our cultural upbringing. That is, it is suggested that all people (including the religious) take their moral viewpoints not from a book or a higher power but from an amalgamation of cultural standards and our own ratiocination.

The Poverty of "Universal Morality"

There is a natural tendency in human beings to believe that there is a purpose to our existence. Those who do not claim to know the purpose at the very least like to believe that one exists, for a purposeless life would be thus a life without meaning, and a life without meaning does not seem to be one worth living. Whether people realize it or not, everyone's views of morality all hinge upon this idea—that there is some purpose or goal of our existence and each of our actions must be done in a way which maximizes our likelihood of reaching this goal or fulfilling our purpose. As simple as it sounds, however, there is an inherent challenge to discovering "ultimate" purpose or some universal meaning among things. Indeed, knowledge regarding the intrinsic nature of the universe is quite clearly outside the scope of human cognition, let alone scientific investigation. Just as one cannot seriously claim to know what the "First Cause" or first event of the universe was, so too can one never claim to know anything about an ultimate purpose, as one could always postulate a superior purpose. For example, one can claim the "Big Bang" is the first event, but our very concept of time implies there is always a before and after. Thus, one can conceive of an event prior to the Big Bang, perhaps initiating the Big Bang itself, and something initiating that too, and so on and so forth. This is called infinite regress, and it is essentially the same problem which undermines any potential claim as to the ultimate purpose or meaning in the universe. We may conceive of the universe as an expanding bubble or crystal ball within the palm of a divine creators hand as he peers deep inside, and yet through our unbounded concept of space we will invariably ask, "What universe is this divine creator himself standing in?" Not only that, but where did he come from? Our very core concepts of time and space lead us to always question any ultimate beginning or ultimate endpoints, and thus—until these paradigms are changed—it seems that the answers to such questions will be forever beyond our grasp.

And yet, this new understanding does not make the concept of morality completely defunct. It simply moves the concept of morality from its prior universal pedestal to the pedestal of social contingency. That is, the morality we speak of is not a phenomenon of the universe itself but of social groups1. Contrary to one's initial reaction to this finding, being contingent and not universal actually makes our task much easier; for imagine if we had to set out to investigate that which underlies the fabric of the universe? Again, a virtually impossible task. What is left for us instead is to find out what provides the basis for the widespread (although not completely universal) human tendency towards a moral state, what bearing it has in relation to our evolutionary past, and how we can use this knowledge to better ourselves.

1 Extra care was taken here not to say "human" social groups, as morality surely exists in non-human animal species to varying degrees (Brosnan, 2010; Haan, 1982), and it is conceivable that even an alien race would abide by a moral code.

God/the Bible is actually not a source of morality

The first part to my answer already shows why God cannot be a source of morality, and many people have spoken of the moral shortcomings of the Bible so I won't belabor the point too much. Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation, puts it best when he wrote:

The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding, given the contents of the book. God’s counsel to parents is straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13-14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13, and Matthew 15:4-7). We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes. (p. 8)

Further investigations into the moral constitution of the Bible show that the practice of slavery is supported in both the New (Matthew 10:24/24:45-46, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-4) and Old Testaments. The Bible even tells us we are free to sell our daughters into slavery, and the things we can’t do to our slaves is beat them so much that they go blind or lose their teeth (Exodus 21:26-27).

It has been suggested that the Bible was morally appropriate for the time it was written; even if this is true, such a position concurs that the Bible is no longer a viable source of morality in modern times. The point is that—however you slice it—the Bible cannot seriously be thought of as a source of morality in any reasonably moral person alive today.

So where then does morality come from?

Although Jean Piaget was one of the earliest recognized to have developed a set of stages for moral development in children, it was Lawrence Kohlberg who would later develop the famous 6 stages of moral development still used today in psychological instruments and research. Although they have undergone some revision since they were first published over fifty years ago, they have been heavily verified by research over the years and remain the dominant theory today regarding moral development from childhood through adulthood.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

What studies consistently find is that people of even similar backgrounds and faiths will vary markedly with regard to their "stage", further confirming that there is no set standard or law that everyone draws from, even from within the same religion or culture.

What researchers have found in the past fifty years of studying moral development is that the greatest predictor of being in the advanced moral stages is not religious or spiritual views but level of education and intelligence.

What does this mean? It means you're a moral person because you're smart. :-) Your age, gender, religious denomination, among others do not significantly predict for moral stage. So when you ask "Are there any non-divine objective standards of good/evil?", the answer is a resounding Yes, there are non-divine standards of good and evil; in fact—as I try to highlight in the second section—it is difficult to suggest that there are any sources of morality other than the "non-divine" standard (holy books, deities, etc).

Bloom, P. (2010). How do morals change? Nature, 464(7288), 490.
Brosnan, S. (2011). An evolutionary perspective on morality. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 77, 23-30. Carpendale, J. (2000). Kohlberg and Piaget on stages and moral reasoning. Developmental Review, 20, 181-205.
Endicott, L., Bock, T., & Narvaez, D. (2003). Moral reasoning, intercultural development, and multicultural experiences: relations and cognitive underpinnings. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, 403-419.
Haan, N. (1982). Can Research on Morality in Scientific?. American Psychologist, 37(10), 1096-1104.
Krebs, D., & Denton, K. (2005). Toward a more pragmatic approach to morality: a critical evaluation of Kohlberg’s model. Psychological Review, 112(3), 629-649.
Musschenga, A. (2009). Moral intuitions, moral expertise and moral reasoning. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 43(4), 597-613.
Rest, J., Narvaez, D., Bebeau, M., Thoma, S. (1999). A neo-Kohlbergian approach: The DIT and schema theory. Educational Psychology Review, 11(4), 291-324.

  • 9
    You appear to have gone to some trouble with this answer, but I have had to downvote it for several reasons. First of all, it isn't particularly useful in answering my question. The third paragraph has the useful piece of information that morality apart from any divine absolute must be contingent on society. Other than that, you have done a good deal of ranting trying to disprove religion and standards based on some form of divinity which is specifically the opposite of what I asked for which was for any way define morality APART from an argument based on religion.
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 10:21
  • 10
    Furthermore you stray into a critique of the Bible and it's Christian interpretation. In doing so both your answer and the quote your cite display a complete lack of understanding of the views they criticize, making the whole section a perfect straw man on a topic that wasn't even relative to this question in the first place.
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 10:26
  • 14
    Your question was "Are there any non-divine objective standards of good/evil?" You asked specifically for where atheists and humanists define their standard of "good" and "evil", i.e., their moral standard. My first point is that universal morality is undefinable, the second points out how God/the Bible isn't a source of morality, and the third points out where it does actually come from. It precisely answers your question as to how atheists and humanists (and everyone, really) develop morality—through culture and education and self-reasoning.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 22:27
  • 5
    My detailed critique of your answer should be enough to prove that conjecture wrong, but seriously this is an SE site where answers are supposed to specifically address the questions. Did you just confess to putting up a piece of propaganda for a view contrary to the one you know from elsewhere that I hold in which 2/3 of the points do not even relate to my question on the grounds that I wouldn't read it anyway?
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 23:00
  • 6
    I think it is a very good answer, and I also think it addresses the question appropriately. I would simply add that morality is not absolute. People disagree on morality all the time. This, in my view, makes absolutist views on morality completely frivolous and nonsense. People don't even agree on which translation of their favourite holy book is the right one, let alone which tidbits to cherry pick to support their momentary point of view... Is it immoral to eat pork?
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 20:54

It's useful here to remember the distinction (most clearly interrogated by Nietzsche) between the opposition "Good/Evil" and the opposition "Good/Bad".

"Evil" is a theological term; it is ultimately grounded in some sort of dogma.

"Bad", on the other hand, is a pragmatic term. That which is "bad" is merely "not useful".

Thus, using the latter opposition, one can point to some notion of "the good" which not necessarily founded in religious belief.

This allows for the formation of all kinds of utilitarian ethics, as well as virtue (Areté) based ethics (such as Aristotelian) without any theological commitments.

  • Thank you, this is a useful distinction. I can see how in the absence of an absolute standard only a pragmatic approach that defines "bad" in relation to some social norm is useful. This helps us deal with ethics as a culture comprised of mixed beliefs. What about 'evil' vs. 'immoral'? Those two terms seem to both get used by non-theists, I'm still not sure what they mean by them.
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 11:37
  • 2
    "Immoral" just means "in violation of the local moral code." That morality might be justified upon utilitarian grounds, or Aristotelian grounds, or theological grounds, or according to a number of other ethical theories. Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 17:01
  • 1
    @Michael Dorfman: So slavery wasn't immoral until people believed it was? If people in a region start believing torturing children for pleasure is okay, does that mean it really is in that region? Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 18:43
  • 3
    @DavidSchwartz: I'm not arguing for a relativist morality-- I think you are misreading me. I'm pointing out that there is a distinction to be drawn between a set of morals (i.e., a given moral code) and the philosophical justification for said moral code. If people start believing that torturing children is ok, then they believe it is ok within their own moral code. Naturally, someone with a different moral code (such as ourselves) will view the matter differently. If one wishes to argue that there is a universal moral code, one must then come up with a suitably universal justification. Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 18:59
  • 3
    @DavidSwartz One of the reasons that slavery has virtually been wiped out (in western civilization at least) is because people started to believe at some point that slavery was bad, so it went from accepted to tolerated to unacceptable as cultural opinion changed over time. Regardless of how abhorrent other's cultural practices and beliefs might be to you or I, for those others it may be entirely acceptable. Right/Wrong/Good/Evil doesn't truly come into it as it all comes down to individual and a culturally subjective frame of reference. I think this is effectively Michael's point.
    – S.Robins
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 12:02

An obvious non-divine standard of good/evil is that found in Buddhist thought and philosophy:

A state is evil because it leads to suffering; a state is good because it leads to happiness.

In Buddhism, morals are both absolute and utilitarian; evil states can never lead to happiness, so they are intrinsically evil - but only for that reason, not based on any external authority. External authority for good/evil would actually be a subjective standard; it seems to me you are begging the question by asserting divinity to be objective.

  • +1, good answer -- though perhaps I am having some trouble understanding in what sense these terms could be understood absolutely, especially if they are "pegged" to somewhat fuzzy human categories like happiness and suffering
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Nov 26, 2011 at 15:42
  • 2
    Fair enough, though suffering is not understood to be a human category; anything that arises is by definition non-happiness, since it cannot last, hence suffering. Happiness is defined as the absence of suffering, i.e. absence of arising, hence lasting and eternal. Anything which perpetuates the cycle of arising is considered evil, anything which aids in its deconstruction is considered good. It's in this sense that they are understood as absolute. Commented Nov 26, 2011 at 16:34

In one sense, there is no objective standard because "good" and "evil" are words, which are used by accord (but not objectively) to denote various states of affairs. Thus, any "objective" account of good and evil will first have to find some objective descriptor of states of affairs, and then argue that this comports sufficiently well to our conventional usage of "good" (and perhaps "evil") that we can consider it to be good and evil. (Even if good and evil are intrinsic properties of the universe and are defined by a divine being we would still have to make this connection!)

Also, since we do not have access to internal mental states of others (or even ourselves in many ways), it is difficult to make a case for something being evil--which carries connotations of some sort of malice or enjoyment of suffering--and for something simply being bad. Having acknowledged this difficulty, I will avoid specifying either bad or evil from this point on.

One strategy for at least defining good and bad/evil is simply to do it by accord--you go out and measure what people's moral intuition tells them. This has been done multiple times, and Peter Singer's take on the results is here. People have an almost irrational moral intuition: their intuition is to be something like a utilitarian, and yet certain tradeoffs provoke profound revulsion in practice (e.g. if somehow torturing a thousand innocent children would prevent a million innocent children from starving in Africa, should you do it?). So in a sense this strategy works: you learn what people think is right and wrong, and the level of commonality between people of all cultures is a powerful argument for promoting that to the status of at least good and bad and possibly good and evil.

However, this strategy also has a profound failing: it might be objective in that you always get the same set of rules, but it's not universal, because very many of the rules of right and wrong are dependent on the background of the person doing the evaluation. For example, if you belong to group A, then it is "right"--if there is no better way--to kill a group of five B, only two of whom are really a threat, in order to prevent them from killing 10 A. If you belong to group B, this action is "wrong". (Note: I am not aware of any specific study that shows this, but you can find many hints of it in views on, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been the most heavily studied.) This makes it inordinately difficult to reason about what correct actions are.

Another strategy, which is extraordinarily infrequently taken, is to start instead from the source of moral feelings. They're necessary, most likely, in order for complex social creatures to gain the benefits of sociality without becoming reproductively unfit or being exploited by freeloaders. In other words, morality is selected for because it gives us a fitness advantage (or, stated negatively, it keeps us from going extinct). Things that keep us from going extinct tend to be thought of as "good", and things that make us more likely to go extinct are "bad" (or "evil"). But why let evolution have all the fun? We can rationally make the judgment about propensity-to-cause-extinction ourselves. This is now both objective and universal, though it will be impossible to evaluate or be irrelevant in many situations. Triggering global thermonuclear war? That's dire enough to be a potential threat to the species; that's clearly bad/evil. Lying about who scribbled with crayon on a door? Probably can't be evaluated, and probably doesn't matter one whit.

However, for the kind of good vs. evil that religions like to posit1, I think this latter strategy hits nearer the mark: there is only one axis, from "helps survival of the species"2 through to "causes extinction", against which everything can be weighed. Furthermore, any appeal to intuitive morality is logically subservient to this analysis, given that all our evidence is that our intuitive morality is evolution's way of getting a good enough answer on this axis most of the time.

1 In this viewpoint, the question of "are humans by nature evil/corrupt" would be answered as: no, not usually, in fact they're by nature very good, but because evolution acted in a particular environment and is an imperfect optimizer anyway, there is no particular reason to believe that intuitive morality will always lead us away from extinction. The societies we find ourselves now (and will find ourselves in the future) are rather different than those of our evolutionary history, so we should expect some major mismatches (just like we like to eat too much sugar now because historically we did not frequently encounter too much sugar as a problem).

2 I have here arbitrarily chosen species as the relevant unit. One could choose genus, individual, tribe, all life, or some other grouping. The reason for choosing species is that genetically, we are almost all identical at the species level, so there isn't much evolutionary argument for favoring one small group at the expense of the rest of the species. However, given that systems like this have barely been worked on at all, it's not clear to me whether one will nonetheless run afoul of different answers depending on the size of the group.

  • The identity of ethics and survival value is exactly opposite in all cases of interest in religious ethics. Killing 3/4 of all male children at random and allowing polygamy is Darwinianly more successful than keeping males alive, and this practice is known in ancient cultures. Euthanasia of the mentally ill, sickly and frail is also in some sense Darwinianly beneficial, but ethically wrong. It is the fact that ethics and communal Darwinian self-interest don't coincide that makes religious ethics important.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 15, 2012 at 1:08
  • @RonMaimon - The comment section is much too small to respond adequately, but over half the people on the planet hold religious beliefs that, followed logically, posit that annihilation and possibly eternal torture of most people on the planet would be a delightful thing. Besides, killing 3/4 at random is not a good strategy in almost any situation, and given "death with dignity" movements based on compassion it's not clear to me there's agreement on how ethically wrong some "euthanasia" is. Anyway, playing the game of "who used bad reasoning to justify abuses" isn't very productive.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 15:11
  • @RonMaimon - (In case it isn't clear, I profoundly disagree that survival value with all issues taken fully into consideration very often gives ethically contrary results; almost always, it's a result of trying to apply some simplified idea of fitness without paying attention to the relevant qualities of humans. Really bad idea. Really bad idea evolutionarily, too. The drawback I see with evolutionary/survival ethics is that it doesn't constrain behavior very much--we're too resilient. Thus, secondary systems (possibly including religious ethics) are probably needed.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 15:14
  • 1
    To defend hell is hard, if you take it literally--- it is a comfort to those who were facing torture execution at the hands of the Romans, and who needed to know that God is on their side, not the side of thier torturers.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 15:31

Consider the fact that humankind has, for the most part, entered secular modernity -- and that humanistic benevolent democracies are the norm in most wealthy countries; this would seem prima facie evidence there are indeed effective "non-divine" standards of good and evil.

The problem is of course determining what exactly "good and evil" mean in the context of secular ethics. Note that this isn't exactly a trivial subject even when you've got a theological framework to help sort out conceptual problems. At any rate, many secular ethical frameworks have evolved since the waning of religious institutions' influence over the state. Wikipedia's entry on the subject may not be the worst place to start. From there:

Secular ethics is a branch of moral philosophy in which ethics is based solely on human faculties such as logic, reason or moral intuition, and not derived from purported supernatural revelation or guidance (which is the source of religious ethics). Secular ethics can be seen as a wide variety of moral and ethical systems drawing heavily on humanism, secularism and freethinking.[citation needed]

The majority of secular moral systems accept either the normativity of social contracts, some form of attribution of intrinsic moral value, intuition-based deontology, or cultural moral relativism. Approaches like utilitarianism, subjective moral relativism, and ethical egoism are less common, but still maintain a significant following among secular ethicists.[citation needed] Little attention is paid to the positions of moral skepticism and moral nihilism, however many religious and some secular ethicists believe that secular morality cannot exist without God or gods to provide ontological grounding, or is at least impossible to apprehend apart from authoritative revelation.

It must be mentioned that the concept of secular ethics is not necessarily opposed to or inherently contrasting with religious ethics. Certain sets of moral beliefs, such as the golden rule or a commitment to non-violence, could be held by each position and mutually agreed upon. As well, it must be mentioned that secular ethics have been developed differently given the different times and different situations faced.

  • 2
    The issue with this answer is that there is a small but important group of religious folks behind most modern states which guide morality. Where they were absent, you had an eschetology replace them (Marxism) or horrific ethics (Fascism), or sometimes both. The religious stuff is still used for ethical guidance today.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 18:48
  • 1
    @RonMaimon I certainly agree, and might suggest further that religion in the 20th century was in many instances a site for resistance against racism, sexism, classism, etc. The civil rights movement in the United States was rooted largely in African-American churches who found in the gospels a powerful message about social justice and the urgency of political recognition of the equal dignity and worth of all human beings.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 20:02

In order to define a notion of "good" and "evil" which is not personal or cultural, one which is transferable and agreed upon by different people, one finds that one needs to introduce a concept which is sufficiently close to the notion of God that it might as well be identified with it. In order for the decisions which comprise the absolutely good actions to be self-consistent in all possible circumstances, and to be consistent with mutual pre-recognition of the existence of an ethical universal, the strategy in the game must be that which maximize a utility function. God can be defined as the entity whose utility is this function.

This conclusion follows from the assumption that the absolute morality is complete--- so that every circumstance has a best-action associated to it, that it is transitive, so that if outcome A is preferable to outcome B in game 1, and B is prefered to C in game 2, then A is always preferred to C, and that the morality is continuous--- so that mediocre is a probabilistic mixture of better and worse. These axioms guarantee that there is a consistent rational utility associated to all games, which means that one might as well imagine that the preferences of the absolute ethics reflect the desire of a perfectly rational being.

the point here is that rational entities with a consistent aximoatic utilitarian ethics (imagine a planet Vulcan populated with Spocks), free of empathy for others, emotional instincts regarding ethics, or ability for transcendence or revelation, can still formulate a notion of God just from their own personal utilities and the superrational strategies they devise to maximize their utility. This needs a long argument, because the notion of utility plus the notion of self-interest (as maximized through superrationality) is not at all intuitive, and conflicts with other notions of rationality which do not make decisions which can be consistently intepreted as the desires of a consistent super-entity. The appropriate super-entity defined in this way is, excluding miracles, meddling, and universe-creation, identical in the logical positivistic sense to the God that religious people identify.

This definition makes God a meta-entity, a construction belonging to mathematical ethics, which has as much power to influence the world as the number π. The number π can't smite you for mis-measuring the circumference of a circle, but in some abstract way, it ensures that this circumference is consistent with the diameter, and if you don't use the right value, you will be in trouble.

The definition above means that God's utility is maximized when humans act absolutely goodly. It is minimized when humans act absolutely badly. The existence of a consistent utility is the sign of a rational entity, and the perfection of this entity, the omniscience, is due to the self-consistency requirement of rationality. This notion lives outside of space and time, it is in the same Platonic realm in which the number π lives. Whether you choose to believe in the existence of this realm or not is logically positivistically meaningless, the consistency of the absolute ethics is either there or not, and the property of "existence", either of God of of Pi, does not change the outcome of the reasoning which uses these concepts.

Once you understand the divine ethics, you can choose to live by these ethics, or you can choose not to. Nothing is compelling you. But I think it is very silly, and inhumanly evil, to consistently choose not to.


I don't want to use loaded words here, so I will distinguish between different conceptions of God.

  • Supernatural God: This is an entity which performs miracles, violates the laws of nature. For example, "I prayed to Supernatural God, and my cancer went away!".
  • A Demiurge: will be an entity which is given responsibility for creating the universe.
  • Ethical God: will refer to a decision making entity whose utility function is absolute good.

The traditional monotheistic religions identify the last two concepts with one all-powerful supernatural God. This makes faith a tough pill to swallow, because the notion of supernatural events is not compatible with scientific rationalism, and the idea of a creator is not compatible with logical positivism.

I will ignore the notion of Demiurge, because I cannot give any logical positivistic meaning to the statement "X createdthe universe". I cannot see how to reduce it to sense perception, or to mathematics, or to anything at all, so it just sounds like a gibberish statement which you are free to believe or disbelieve, since it doesn't change anything about anything.

Regarding Supernatural God, I will follow scientific convention and take it for granted that there are no supernatural events. It is not reasonable to rationally accept supernatural events, since a simple probabilistic evidence should convince one that any evidence for supernatural events, including evidence of one's own eyes, is practically infinitely more likely explained through misperception or deception, rather than by any deviations from natural law. If you have ever seen a magic show, you will know what I mean.

But neither the Demiurge nor the Supernatural God as particularly important when discussing the practical implications of religion. So I will try to focus on the ethical God, to see to what extent this concept is meaningful in light of logical positivism, and to what extent it is a correct conception of an ethical absolute.

To not hide the conclusions, I believe that the ethical notion of God is meaningful positivistically, and one can be reasonably certain that it exists, in the same way one is certain of the existence of π, and that it is essential in guiding ethical actions to make use of this concept.

Without this notion, or something equivalent, one cannot give meaning to right and wrong, beyond the meaning of aesthetic quality or of pleasure and pain, which are the philosophies found in nietzsche, or earlier expounded by Sadian villains.

Symmetric superrationality

It is impossible to study physics without the idealized frictionless plane, nor to study mathematics without counting. Likewise, to analyze ethics, one must start with idealized simplified situations which are maximally enlightening.

Consider a prisoner's dilemma with payoffs as follows: if the two players cooperate, they get a large reward ($1,000,000 dollars). If one player cooperates and the other defects, the cooperating player gets nothing, and the defecting player gets a miniscule addition reward for defecting (d gets $1,000,001, c gets nothing). If both defect, both get a miniscule reward (both get $5).

Under these circumstances, as in any prisoner's dillema, there is a unique Nash equilibrium, which is to defect. Each player is better off defecting holding fixed what the other player does. Assuming neither player cares about the other (so that the other person's reward does not affect your utility), the economic solution is defection.

That this solution is not reasonable is obvious. It is manifestly ridiculous to assume that anyone would want to press the button in this circumstance, rather, they would not press in the hope that the other person would not too. This type of behavior is consistent with magical thinking--- it suggests that the player who does not press thinks that this will lead the other to not press too. This means that using magical thinking, you can argue that one should not push the button, and two magical thinkers will outperform two cold rational economists in this situation. This shows that there are situations where it is advantageous for both parties to be magical thinking.

But the action does not require magical thinking to be sensible, and this is important, because magical thinking is incompatible with scientific rationalism.

The prisoner's dilemma is fundamentally ill-posed. One cannot know the "right" answer to maximize your payoff without knowing something more about the situation and your hypothetical opponent, because your actions can be correlated with your opponent's, without any causation, just from their mutual rationality. You can't know the answer in this case without knowing the extent that rational decisions can be correlated without causation, and to what extent one is supposed to take this into account in the decision.

Rational decisions regarding a specific mathematical problem are usually 100% correlated. If you perform a multiplication, say 18*96 and another person in another room performs the multiplication too, you can know that your two answers are very likely to be the same without knowing what the answer is. If you extend this to a symmetric game situation, you can know that the result of your mental calculation regarding the prisoner's dilemma above is going to be the same as your opponent's, even without knowing what the answer is.

But knowing that the two answers are the same, you can then ask: which of the two answers maximizes my utility, assuming that it is known in advance that the two answers are going to be the same? The answer is to cooperate. The assumption that one should maximize the utility after first assuming that the answer will be the same in a symmetric situation is called "superrationality" by Hofstadter, and it defines a second self-consistent mode of behavior in a symmetric game.

I will call the standard Nash-equilibrium rationality used by economists "Nash rationality".

In order to determine the superrational strategy in a prisoner's dilemma, one must know something about your opponent. If the opponent is Nash-rational, the superrational strategy is to defect (since this maximizes your payoff, assuming all superrational players play it--- which tells you nothing about your Nash-rational opponent). A superrational player playing against an irrational button avoider (a really stupid person who just miscalculates the payoffs, or something like that) will also defect. But a superrational player playing against a superrational opponent will cooperate.

If the opponent has probability p of being superrational, and you are superrational, and further, you know that you had a probability 1-p of being replaced by a Nash-rational person, then as long as p>.000001, the superrational strategy is to not push the button.

Probabilistic outcomes

Suppose that you play a symmetric game which is not a prisoner's dilemma. There is a button in two rooms, if you both push the button, you both get $5. If you both don't push, you both get $10. If one of you doesn't push and the other does, the button-pusher gets $1,000,000, the other gets nothing. What is the superrational strategy?

In this case, the superrational strategy is to flip a coin and push the button with probability 50%. This maximizes your payoff assuming the strategy is correct.

When there are N players, and the huge reward goes to the one who pushes the button only under the condition that this person is alone in doing so, the superrational strategy is to push with probability 1/N. Again, the solution is probabilistic, even when the game is determined.

I will assume for the remainder of the discussion that the superrational strategy is the absolute ethical one for a perfect symmetric game, and that there is no other mode of behavior which is acceptable, not even Nash rationality.

Different forms of superrationality

suppose that one considers a community of players that know the concept of "superrationality", but call it by a different name. Say they call it "holy-righteousness". They will not defect in a prisoner's dilemma when playing against another holy-righteous player, because they are confident in the shared superrationality of the super-righteous.

Suppose that there is a second community of players, the divine-action players, who also cooperate against each other. However, the two communities are not sure that the two strategies are actually the same between the two communities, because the two have different metaphysics for their ethics.

Under these circumstances, it is possible for players in communities to cooperate with each other, but not with other players in other communities, whose rationality mode is not compatible in certain ways. This is a breaking of symmetry, and when the symmetry is broken, even the existence of the superrational strategy is not so clear.

Simple asymmetric superrationality.

In order to generalize the concept to asymmetric games, I will define a religion.

  • A religion will be defined as an algorithm which gives you an consistent set of instructions regarding the correct play in all possible games, given the utility and payoff outcomes for the players. I will assume that the utilities come from the individual, and so are not influenced back by the religion, and this makes the definition somewhat different from the traditional colloquial idea. In the colloquial sense, a religion doesn't only tell you how to play, but what to want while you are playing.

  • A supperational religion is one which dictates cooperation in a symmetric prisoner's dillemma against other players of the same religion. The predictions of a superrational religion are those of superrationality regarding all symmetric games.

The first example of a religion is Nashism:

  • Nashianism: play at the Nash equilibrium, and expect all other players to do so.

Nashism is not a superrational religion.

The strategies of a superrational religion R will be assumed to obey some consistency axioms, which are parallel to those of the Von-Neuman Morgenstern utility theorem. If there is a game G with N players, each with M options apiece, the outcomes of MN possible plays can be rank ordered by R, by asking what is the preferred strategy when (an arbitrary) one the players can choose between two of the outcomes. Since R is the universal strategy for all the R-players, the outcome should be the same no matter which player has the choice. The order of preferences of the outcomes defines the utility order of R.

Further, you introduce the Von-Neumann Morgenstern axioms for the utility of R, so that R can order two probabilistic options consistently, and you find that any consistent superrational religion R associates a real-valued utility with each decision, so that it makes sense to say R prefers outcome A twice as much as outcome B.

So this is the ethical gods proposition, a trivial corollary of Von-Neumann Morgenstern utility theorem.

If the preferences of R satisfy:

  • Completeness: any two outcomes A and B either A is preffered to B, B is preferred to A, or A and B are equally preferred.
  • Transitivity: if A is preferred to B and B is preferred to C, A is preferred to C.
  • Probabilistic balance/Continuity: if A is preffered over B, which is preferred over C, then there exists a unique probability p such that A with probability p and C with probability 1-p is equally preferred to B.

Proposition: Any religion R has a utility function for all circumstances which is maximized when all players play according to this religion.

The entity whose utility is maximized by R will be called the R-god. The R-god has wants and desires, the same as a person does. It is important to note that while humans can behave irrationally, the gods of superrational religion can be perfectly rational, as they are Platonic idealizations.

Natural R-gods are utilitarian strategies, defined by a Rawlsian symmetrization of any given game, so that the players are equally likely to play in any position. This strategy will maximize the strict sum of the utility of the players, normalized by some measure, which defines how you make the Rawlsianism precise. The identity of superrational Rawlsianism and sum-utilitarianism is not obvious, and leads to many fascinating questions.

Nashian strategies are not superrational, and do not need to maximize the utility of anything.

Gods and God

The gods now have interactions with each other, in that there are games which involve gods playing games. These circumstances arise when a class of players of religion R play against a class of players of religion S. In these circumstances, one can argue that the Gods themselves, if acting superrationally, should play in accordance with higher Gods.

The definition of God is the ultimate limit of all the Gods, the entity whose utility is maximized when all the players in every game play ethically. This idea is not completely precise as stated, because the notion of God also feeds back to demand the utility of the players themselves should be modified, to take into account the utility of God.

But the basic idea is that rational ethics is religious ethics, at least in the logical positive way, excluding miracles.

I have left out Rawlsian considerations for symmetrizing asymmetric games (by altering your role), and many counterintuitive examples, but this is the basic idea.

  • 6
    This answer seems like "Good can be defined as utility", followed by a very long non-sequitur. Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 12:32
  • @MichaelDorfman: Not at all. THere is no non-sequitor, and this is a completely new idea. The utility I am defining is not utility of individuals, it is utility of God ! I am showing that every superrational strategy has a god. None of the individuals using a supersymmetric strategy maximize their own utility, only their god's utility. How can you miss this? I need more examples. The good of individuals in this answer is defined as utility without any second thought, but this is not necessarily well defined for individuals, only for an omniscient abstract perfectly rational god.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 12:49
  • 1
    It doesn't matter-- if the goal of ethics is to maximize utility (for one's self, or one's God, whatever), then you are defining "the good" as "utility." Every superrational strategy has a goal; that's what is going unquestioned here. You even use the term "reward"-- which already assumes that we can establish an unalloyed good by which we can measure what a "reward" might actually be. Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 13:10
  • 2
    I'm not accusing anybody of rule-breaking; in fact, I was trying to perform a friendly gesture by showing you how your answers could be more germane (and better appreciated.) There are many definitions of a universal ethics; yours, however, takes the answer to the question "What is an ethical good?" as axiomatic, which doesn't much help the OP. Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 16:10
  • 1
    @commando: Thank you for the feedback, I'll incorporate it.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 1:57

Mathematicians who work on category theory sometimes use the word "evil" to denote any definition which makes use of the concept of equality to distinguish between objects which have identical properties with respect to their larger context (more technically: to distinguish isomorphic objects).

This may seem like a rather extreme word to make use of in mathematics, but they do this in order to emphasize to others (and to themselves) that they are not interested in any sort of theory which makes use of any properties aside from relationships between objects. In the context of their discipline, they have drawn some lines of "morality" with respect to how they pursue the study of their discipline.

This may seem a little ridiculous. And in a way, it is; the category theorists themselves aren't very serious about this notion of "evil" — they don't shun anyone who makes an 'evil' definition, they have no system of justice, punishment, or atonement founded on this concept. There are no religious wars over this concept, nor any demagoguery. It's basically a very geeky joke. And yet it gets at the heart of what "evil" is: it's a way of doing things which is shunned because it is seen to be counter to the values of the community, and at the very least unproductive; and on some level, in their quest for their particular refined notion of truth and righteous practice, the category theorists reached for this word to designate those practices which they feel that it is important to avoid.

Evil, in religion and elsewhere, is a label applied by a society to describe practices or goals which are more or less taboo.

  • 1
    This is just not true, and anyone who believes this has never been around any genuine honest to goodness evil.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 2, 2012 at 6:14
  • @RonMaimon: I'm not saying that the practices aren't taboo for good reason. I am coming from a mindset of thoroughgoing metaphysical materialism: I propose that if "evil" has any meaning, then to the best of our current state of knowledge, it must be a socially constructed one. The general theme for its meaning has to do with suffering and destruction with an emphasis on social impact; this is more or less what one ought to expect from the priorities of a tool-using social animal. Things which lead to suffering and destruction are therefore shunned. Do you have a counterargument? Commented Apr 2, 2012 at 12:49
  • 1
    This is not true. It just is not socially constructed. You haven't been around enough evil. You would know it if you saw it, but I hope you never see it, and I am glad someone can be sheltered from it. See my answer here for the absolute source of ethics: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/6338/… . Whether you want to call it God or not is up to you. I would put it here, but I don't have enough rep.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 2, 2012 at 13:03
  • @RonMaimon: In that argument, you propose that morality is founded on co-operative super-rational behaviour, in which one must have confidence in the co-operativeness of other members, and which maximizes the pay-off from a super-entity composed of individuals. You even reference arbitrary symbolic genuflections, codes of speech and dress. In what sense is this not basically socially reinforced behavioural codes, established as best practises for the benefit of the society? Commented Apr 2, 2012 at 13:28
  • @RonMaimon: I would recognise evil if I saw it, as with pornography. Someone who has lived their entire life in rural Alabama would as well; but they and I may disagree strongly for events whose evil might be hypothetically measured in nano-holocausts. I think the basis is concern for personal safety, and stability of society. In extreme cases, deciding that behaviour is "evil" is easy, because it's keyed into knee-jerk behaviours evolved to preserve self and society. But society honed that evolution for megayears; and subtler cases are certainly decided by social practice. Commented Apr 2, 2012 at 13:42

Another way to look at this which I feel is upheld somewhat by the variety of answers given here. Good and Evil are concepts that are defined culturally, and yes I would even consider religion to be included as applying a "cultural" bias to an individual's thinking when it comes to good and evil.

In years past, people might beat their children or their spouses, duel and kill another human being as a matter of honour, take others into slavery, and engage in all manner of behaviour that would be seen today as bad or even evil behavour, yet at the time these behaviours were accepted and even encouraged, and within their own cultures, those engaging in such behaviours might still be considered good people, while today they might regarded as evil.

In reference to the OP's question, this would suggest that concepts of good and evil cannot be considered entirely objectively, but must necessarily be entirely subjective and rooted in the cultural mindset of those who would define the concepts of good or evil. Your average suicide bomber (brainwashed or otherwise) might believe that to blow up a crowd of people to "send a message" will be good and result in a just reward in an afterlife. You and I on the other had would view the resulting pain, suffering, fear and death as being a terrible and perhaps even evil thing. Who is right? We'd all like to think that our own moral point of view is right, and anything else is wrong. Regardless, that is a subjective assessment based on our own cultural upbringing and personal circumstances.

So either the concepts of Good/Evil cannot be objectively defined, or perhaps an objective definition might be that 'Good/Evil is subjectively dependent on the cultural bias present in the individual'.

  • 2
    +1 This is a simple, yet effective answer that really highlights the absurdity in suggesting that there is one consistent (objective) moral standard. Put most simply, while religions are supposed to be unchanging and the bible as the unwavering word of God, morals clearly do change, and they have; so somewhere, something's not quite matching up.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Mar 30, 2012 at 17:55

In addition to Stoic Fury's answer I would also like to add that I don't even think there are divine objective standards, so it's impossible to answer your question without pointing out that while you assume there is an absolute morality, your assumption cannot be universally shared.

There are very serious flaws in assuming there are absolute goods and evils:

1 - The trolley problem

The trolley problem is a thought experiment that shows that there is a whole range of situations on which a moral decision is called upon, however there is not clear good or evil answer.


2 - Morality changes with time

It changes because new ideas are discovered or evolve from older ideas, it changes because things are tried and fail. It changes because new discoveries and new problem pose different and new moral problems. It changes because of evolution.


3 - There is no such thing as an absolute source of morality

There are innumerable religions. As such there are innumerable different sources of morality which are in contrast on many things. As such there is no evidence that there is a common morality beyond the obvious "don't kill/steal/etc".

  • 2
    Your three points merely show that we can't all agree on a set of objective standards. That's important in dealing with people who use different moral frameworks, but it can hardly be an answer to to the question of whether objective standards exist. Consider the metric standards: they exist and are perfectly objective. And yet no true meter sticks exists that meet the standard. (See the is-ought problem.) Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 22:38
  • @JonEricson you are providing a good example of my point. There's a standard length, a meter, which is only useful as an element of comparison, but bears no special significance. There is no "absolute" measurement of length. There are only relative lengths - in fact, that's exactly why me measure in meters and not pure numbers.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 22:42
  • 1
    I don't see how your point 3 has anything to do with my question. I want to know if people try to forward any standards as being objective apart from religion. Your point 3 almost indicates that religion is the only source of morality. Not what you were going for I'd guess. Also is stating that "none except the obvious" helpful here? In what way are those things "obvious" and would the fact that they are "obvious" make them an objective standard apart from a religion based decree?
    – Caleb
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 22:48
  • @Caleb I should probably be more clear but... I was answering your non-sequitur that "humanists use the words" therefore there must be some form of absolute definition of morality, by showing with evidence that there is no agreement on morality and thus no abolute standard of it.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 23:35

I would say that without a divine moral law giver there really is no objective basis for morality. You can ascribe morality to the type of behavior your government demands of you. That ultimately is moral relativism in the guise of objectivity. We can all agree that what was considered moral under the Nazis was not moral by any other standard of the word.

You can also go the Sam Harris root and try to ascribe moral goodness to physical well being. That has its own problems — let's take a root canal, for example; It is quite painful and does not fit the standard of things that cause physical well being. Yet it has a purpose that makes the pain worth it.

You also get it with Richard Dawkins a lot. He often wants to make moral judgments on acts, but on the naturalistic world view he finds no basis for it. It seems like with that world view you are left with the cold deterministic view of the world.

It is epitomized by the following quote.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. — Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995), quoted from Victor J Stenger, Has Science Found God? (2001)

  • 2
    The root canal example is not a counter-example; it is based on the premise that by undergoing pain in the present for a limited period of time, one will reduce future pain by a larger amount. That's the purpose that makes the pain worth it. If you wish to refute utilitarianism, you'll have to try again. Commented Nov 28, 2011 at 8:22
  • If you ask me, the very idea of an "objective moral law" is illogical, because even an all-powerful God would be limited by subjectivity. He dictates what he thinks is right and wrong. Also, people would still be able to choose to obey it or not (i.e. there will still be criminals and nice people and mean people, etc.). So if God existed and started giving us divine moral law, what would change from what already exists now? The whole concept is nonsensical. This also applies to the last quote you provided - if that's true, why is that bad? Nothing changes whether it's God or indifference.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Mar 30, 2012 at 18:04
  • @stoicfury: The point is that God is defined from absolute goodness, so that asking questions of God is equivalent to sorting out the best course of action--- the two methods are synonymous (in a reasonable religious framework). The methods of interrogating God within religion includes a lot of metaphysical nonsense, but if one takes a positivist point of view, the metaphysics is inessential. If you understand that God's will is just the good will (except constrained by consistency, which demands that it must be an agent's will) you will see that there is no logical problem.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 4:31

I would highly suggest reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. He argues that morality only makes sense within teleology, whereby all inhabitants or citizens buy into the same purpose/story for life, making that a public good that all can seek cooperatively. Contrast this to the individualist idea of private goods, where my obtaining them may well damage your ability to obtain them. MacIntyre argues that anything other than a shared teleology will ultimately result in a Nietzschean struggle of will, with the strong imposing their will on the weak, whether under the guise of morality or otherwise.



A good intention is tautologically "Good". What you intend to do however can not be ascertained to be either good or evil in any categorical sense without a divine source.

This is broadly covered by



There has certainly been work done on this question. In addition to labreuer's good (!) reference to Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue", I would point to the work of Robert Pirsig in "Lila". He extends the concept of morality far beyond its usual (social) connotation, into e.g. biology (sex) and also the material world ("atoms").


It is often noted that Moore thought intrinsic good could not be defined. But this is intrinsic (+ve) value:

Moore defined the virtues instrumentally, as traits that cause goods and prevent evils, and said that as such they lack intrinsic worth (Principia Ethica 220–26).

You may want to read this on defining "morality", though it doesn't seem to ask whether it can or cannot be, but looks for a robust definition.

I'm skeptical that it makes any sense to say "you can't define X", but apologise if this is not helpful


Morality is about how to make decisions. If morality is objective, then there are better and worse ways to make decisions that are independent of whether people accept them or not.

Some ways of life are objectively very different from other ways of life. For most of human history, people were not able to do very much to change the world around them. People would grow up, age and die without being able to notice much in the way of progress. This is no longer the case. As recently as 20 years ago if you wanted to read a book, you had to go to a shop or order by mail and the seller would send you a large wad of paper. But that is no longer the case. You can buy and read a new book without getting out of your chair and without using any paper at all. That is an enormous difference in how we can do stuff that happened within living memory, and it is not an isolated example.

What explains this difference? There are lots of different kinds of behaviour and ideas that have resulted in more rapid progress. One difference is that people are now allowed to question tradition, and try to create new traditions. Another difference is that people are now interested in looking for explanations about how the world works to a far greater extent than in the past. These traditions and many others have changed how people deal with one another, and have increased our capacity to control the world.

Some people, both now and in the past, have seen this increased ability to control the world, and have wanted to destroy the traditions that made it possible. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the various rulers of North Korea, Iran and many other tyrants are all notable examples. Those people are evil.

You might say that Hitler just has different preferences than you. But there is an objective difference between what Hitler wanted and what the West currently stands for, albeit very imperfectly. It is possible to make an unbounded improvement in our ability to understand and control the world, but it is not possible to make unbounded improvement in being a murderer and tyrant.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .