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I am an atheist and I hold a physicalist view of the world, that the world is made but of one kind of stuff (call it "physical", if you want) and the universe is composed only of one kind of interactions.

But recently I was bumped up against the problem of morality in atheism and I found it harder to reconcile with the context of my beliefs, even harder than the hard problem of consciousness.

Before now, if anybody asked me what my morality was, I used an opposite of the Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what you don't want done to you". But this was just for show. What I really did when I evaluated a moral decision, was hold on to Ideals like my idea of justice, truth, quality, meaning and purpose. I feel these emotions and I place morality in the context of my emotions rather than rational thought.

What I want to ask is: There seems to be a complex relationship between morality, rationalism, atheism and physicalism. Can somebody tell me whether these are contradictory philosophical positions, or not?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – user2953 Apr 7 '18 at 11:29
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I am an atheist and I hold a physicalist view of the world, that the world is made but of one kind of stuff (call it "physical", if you want) and the universe is composed only of one kind of interactions.

So you don't think that f.e. there are abstract facts?

But recently I was bumped up against the problem of morality in atheism and I found it harder to reconcile with the context of my beliefs, even harder than the hard problem of consciousness.

There are multiple ideas that permit "objective" (in a vague sense) ethical ideas with atheism.

1) Moral realism. There exist moral facts in some sense. There are a bunch of possibilites here:

  • 1a) Non-naturalist moral realism: the view that there are abstract moral facts or properties. Kind of like we might think of mathematics of a system of abstract facts.
  • 1b) Naturalist moral realism: the view that moral facts come from certain natural facts. This can be either reductive or non-reductive.

2) Constructivism. Morality comes from our reasoning.

  • 2a) Kantian constructivism: the stance that rational agency leads to a morality. Those moral features are "universally binding".
  • 2b) Aristotelian constructivism: rational agency leads to a morality that aims at eudaimonia. The difference to 2a is that there are no set moral principles.

1a also doesn't work when we think that there are no abstract facts. So with physicalism in the strict sense it doesn't work. 1b does work but depending on our sort of physicalism some approaches might be excluded. "Cornell realism" f.e. sort of requires non-reductive physicalism. Both kinds of 2 listed here could work with physicalism.

What I really did when I evaluated a moral decision, was hold on to Ideals like my idea of justice, truth, quality, meaning and purpose.

From the metaethical views listed above some might apply here depending on what reasoning you follow. Take for example an utilitarianism following a moral naturalism. Here we could see something like "justice" useful for judgment, just not instrinsically so.

(Also note that with physicalism you'll have to believe that there's no abstract concept of justice.)

I feel these emotions

What do you mean by "these emotions"? Justice doesn't have to be a concept from emotion.

and I place morality in the context of my emotions rather than rational thought.

Generally if we think that emotions in the strict sense are important for moral judgment then we get into trouble for most of the projects listed above. I suppose it could fit with Aristotelian constructivism in some sense.

That being said you don't necessarily have to land at a stance that thinks that morality is "objective" (or at absolute or something). With other ideas you can land at relativism. This would f.e. be Humean constructivism. We could think of it like this: we have certain basic moral principles. Those don't have to follow reason and might conflict. However, to act against them would be immoral behaviour.

You could also think that relativism is incorrect as well. Other metaethical possibilities consistent with atheism and physicalism are:

  • Error theory (all ethical propositions are wrong because it's unclear how there are any truth conditions... this doesn't have to imply that talk about morality is useless, or so error theorists think).
  • Moral non-cognitivism (moral propositions aren't even truth apt: When we say "Doing X is morally wrong." we are instead prescribing something or voicing emotions. Generally this is a set of stances that comes from a view on semantics of moral talk. It has a huge problem called the Frege-Geach-Problem. But there are some new approaches that try getting around it.

For more overview, here's a flowchart from Miller's Contemporary Metaethics, I believe.

  • Justice is not an emotion. But the need to be just is, ryt? – BlowMaMind Apr 5 '18 at 11:57
  • Is all kind of abstraction a contradiction of physicalism? Physicalism states that everything that exists, is ontologically the same, ryt? But do abstract ideas about the universe "exist" in the universe? – BlowMaMind Apr 5 '18 at 13:54
  • On 1: well, it's not really clear what you mean. We might f.e. differentiate between emotions about certain behaviours and moral intuitions. With the former we might say, "Even if it's morally better: when we're treated unjustly then we're jealous etc.", and with the latter it might be, "We generally think just behaviour is good.". Depending on our moral epistemology, we will treat moral intuitions differently. – Marc H. Apr 5 '18 at 14:27
  • On 2: yes, yes. I only wanted to point out the option of Platonism - the view that there are abstract facts/entities - because it's not a fringe view. I suppose most platonists would reject the question because they think of abstract facts as independent from time and space. For example: the fact that 2+2=4 (with fitting axioms etc.) doesn't change over time. – Marc H. Apr 5 '18 at 14:33
  • Even in Platonism, the ideas/abstractions don't exist in our universe, ryt? (distinct from space and time, as you put it) – BlowMaMind Apr 5 '18 at 14:57
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Nomenclature:

  1. Morality = The sum of norms uphold by a person or a group. Moraliy is expressed in a set of values, principles, and rules, which control our actions. In general different kinds of morality coexist in a society.
  2. Rationalism = An epistemic position which emphasizes the power of reason to obtain knowledge prior or even independently from experience.
  3. Atheism = An ontological position which negates the existence of any god.
  4. Physicalism = An ontological position which tries to reduce all entities to physical entities. Physicalism is an example of a monistic position, because it accepts only one kind of entities.

This short explanation of the terminology already shows the compatibility of the philosophical positions 2-4. The first term, morality, is descriptive. It refers to observed traits within a society. It does not relate to any other of the terms.

ad 1) When classifying different kinds of morality a standard method is to distinguish according to the different types of justification of a given morality. These considerations belong to the field of ethics. Analytical ethics discriminates between deontological (which rules to follow?), consequentialistic (what are the result of the actions?) and virtue ethics (which personal traits should we develop?). Representatives of these three types are respectively Kant, Bentham, Aristotle.

Well-known representatives of the philosophical positions are: Leibniz (2), Russell (3). I do not know if there are representatives of the monistic position of physicalism. Sometimes Democritus counts as materialist (= physicalist).

For further online information about all four issues I recommend https://plato.stanford.edu/

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Jonathan Haidt suggests there is a problem with how we view rationalism and morality today. Our reasoning is always motivated even when we are not countering cognitive dissonance. We are always trying to justify positions we have accepted from our emotions. Furthermore, if moral foundation theory is correct then morality comes in multiple foundations with at least five conflicting poles sometimes favoring individuals and sometimes favoring the group. These multiple moral foundations are not socially constructed nor are they rationally derived by individuals.

Having morality not being socially constructed nor the result of individual reasoning suggests that it might come from our bodies, somehow, and this might support physicalism and atheism if one could figure out how to reduce morality to our bodies besides simply saying it is not socially nor rationally constructed and so it must be physical by default. Having more than one moral foundation also undermines determinism. Moral foundation theory provides many opportunities for individual choices suggesting that we do have free will. Having free will implies we exercise agency. If physicalism or atheism depends on determinism, this offers a challenge. Ideally an atheistic physicalism would have one moral foundation that can be linked to our genes.

The innateness and agency fit a theistic perspective as well. Our detection of agency is documented in child development studies as also coming prior to social construction. That means both morality and religious belief are innate where innate is a vague way of saying not socially or rationally constructed.

References: See Jonathan Haidt, “The Righteous Mind” for moral foundation theory. http://moralfoundations.org/ See Justin L. Barrett, “Born Believers” for a view of agent-based theistic belief as also innate.

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