The question is often asked: If God exists, how do we explain all the evil in this world? Did God allow the Holocaust? Etc. But one could also ask the reverse: If God does not exist, how do we explain all the good in the world? All the charities that operate of the goodwill of the public? All the doctors working in Somalia for doctors without borders?

If we are just the most evolved animal doomed to return to the primordial soup from whence we came, how does the human animal explain its willingness to do good? How does naturalism explains ethics?

  • And many other languages. The etymology may be under dispute but there's enough to sustain either side
    – Rushi
    Apr 3, 2019 at 7:02
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    You are questioning existence of empathy & goodness in human society. There are tons of explanation, from something like Buddhism self enlightenment, to neuro-science on body chemical reactions.
    – mootmoot
    Apr 4, 2019 at 15:08
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    While this question might be rephrased to make it more specific and technical, it seems like an important philosophical question - without God, what is the reason for goodness among humans? Is it because it's proved useful (utilitarianism)? Is it because we feeled compelled out of duty? Is it just an innate aspect and we don't really have much choice in the matter? Apr 4, 2019 at 22:54
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    I fear this question has been downvoted simply because it has struck a nerve among unbelievers. I dont think this question is deserving of a minus two score.
    – Neil Meyer
    Apr 5, 2019 at 8:08
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    @NeilMeyer It's a very good question, and there are quite a few interesting answers out there.
    – Olivier5
    Sep 12, 2023 at 11:31

6 Answers 6


The question the OP presents

If we are just the most evolved animal doomed to return to the primordial soup from whence we came, how does the human animal explain its willingness to do good?

suggests it might be related to the evolutionary argument against naturalism:

The evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is a philosophical argument asserting a problem with believing both evolution and philosophical naturalism simultaneously. The argument was first proposed by Alvin Plantinga in 1993 and "raises issues of interest to epistemologists, philosophers of mind, evolutionary biologists, and philosophers of religion". The EAAN argues that the combined belief in both evolutionary theory and naturalism is epistemically self-defeating. The argument for this is that if both evolution and naturalism are true, then the probability of having reliable cognitive faculties are low. (Wikipedia)

Plantinga argues it is self-defeating to accept both naturalism and evolution.

The main difference between this and the OP's question is that instead of naturalism, a kind of atheism, the OP uses atheism in general.

Although a theist, Plantinga doesn't raise the argument against atheism in general, but only against naturalism which he describes as follows:

One the one hand, therefore, we have the scientific theory, and on the other, there is the claim that the course of evolution is not directed or guided or orchestrated by anyone; it displays no teleology; it is blind and unforeseeing; as Dawkins says, it has no aim or goal in its mind's eye, mainly because it has no mind's eye. (Where the Conflict Really Lies, page 308)

Not all atheists agree with Dawkins or naturalism. For example, consider the subtitle of the non-theist Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos:

Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

For neo-Darwinism read naturalism.

Also simply being a theist is not a way out. If one is a theist who accepts theological determinism, that may also be epistemically defeated by a similar argument asking how one can be credited or debited with having any willingness to do anything, good or bad.

To return to the first part of the OP's question:

If God does not exist how do we explain all the good in the world? All the charities that operate of the goodwill of the public? All the doctors working in Somalia for doctors without borders?

Panpsychism may be one way to do this if the panpsychism chooses to stop short of also accepting a transcendent Mind.

Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and has been ascribed to philosophers like Thales, Parmenides, Plato, Averroes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and William James. Panpsychism can also be seen in ancient philosophies such as Stoicism, Taoism, Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. During the 19th century, panpsychism was the default theory in philosophy of mind, but it saw a decline during the middle years of the 20th century with the rise of logical positivism. The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has revived interest in panpsychism. (Wikipedia)

Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism. OUP USA.

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, February 4). Evolutionary argument against naturalism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:32, April 2, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Evolutionary_argument_against_naturalism&oldid=881797899

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, April 2). Panpsychism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:02, April 2, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Panpsychism&oldid=890585278

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    @FrankHubeny. I think this answer can be significantly improved. I think it's fair to say that the parts about EANN do not answer the OP's question. The part that does answer his question is panpsychism, but it is not explained as to why it might provide an explanation for human benevolence. Therefore, I would recommend replacing the EANN part with an expanded section on why panpsychism might make people do good things.
    – Chelonian
    Apr 5, 2019 at 16:17
  • @Chelonian As I understand Plantinga's EAAN we have better cognitive abilities than we should have given naturalism and evolution. Consider the choice to do something good as a cognitive ability. Why are we able to make these choices given naturalism and evolution? We shouldn't be able to do as well as we do. The OP starts with atheism rather than naturalism and this is the problem with the question. That is what I wanted to focus on in the first part. Panpsychism replaces the randomness of naturalism with mind at least within the universe to account for our behavior. Apr 6, 2019 at 0:27
  • @FrankHubeny The problem is that the part about EAAN you've included is rejecting the question's premise. The question begins, "If God does not exist..." and the EANN is essentially a refutation of that (if one accepts evolutionary theory). But the OP wasn't asking to refute atheism or naturalism, he asked if there is no god how can it be possible people would ever be good. The extensive EANN treatment in your answer does not address that question at all. Further discussion of your response could be made in chat if you'd like.
    – Chelonian
    Apr 6, 2019 at 12:43
  • @Chelonian Here is a chat room that I often use where we can discuss this. chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/76868/… Apr 6, 2019 at 13:25

There are non-divine hypotheses for why people would be benevolent:

  • The evolutionary advantage for social animals to protect each other's well-being (already discussed in other answers). In short, species of social animals that had benevolence toward each other would outcompete species that lacked this trait and, over long time periods, would displace them.

  • Increasing others' perception of your own assets. When you can demonstrate significant (Doctors Without Borders level) kindness to other people, it may be perceived by others that you have "surplus assets" (whether that's in terms of money, health, social status, psychological well being, etc.), and are able to spend some of them on helping others.

  • Shrewd social policy. Being kind tends to ingratiate others to the person demonstrating kindness, and that can be a smart way to get favors or advancement in one's life and career.

  • Superstition. People may feel that if they are not kind to others, something bad may happen to them, either due to punishment by an imagined god, spirit, karma, etc. This superstition may have developed in culture because of the previous reason, in that often treating others badly does cause bad consequences (revenge, etc.), and it's just one more step to jump to magical repercussions.

  • Other than for ideological reasons, this non-argument shouldn't be receiving upvotes, especially not when you distatefully mention "superstition" as the contrary of atheistic morality. Your argumentation was also refuted in my answer before you answered. Atheism too often gets a free pass when it's on the receiving end of logic. Apr 3, 2019 at 11:25
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    @user3776022 But I'm not making any argument. All I wrote was a list of hypotheses. There is no argument here. And superstition isn't put forth as in contrast to atheistic morality, it's just a term used to describe overly credulous belief supernatural entities, such as, as I wrote, "an imagined god", among other things I listed. The OP asked for reasons why people might be benevolent if there were no god(s), and I simply gave four possible ones.
    – Chelonian
    Apr 3, 2019 at 15:29
  • I know we aren't philosophers, but as a religious person this seems to be the a good list of some of the best arguments for a goodness from an atheistic perspective. The one thing I would add is distinguish in the "evoluationary advantage" whether it is a free choice made out of utility (i.e., we've observed that such-and-such is better, so we choose it), or we are evolutionary hard-wired, as I think those are two different cases. Apr 4, 2019 at 22:56
  • @JamesKingsbery I think your choices correspond to my third and first bullets, respectively.
    – Chelonian
    Apr 5, 2019 at 16:28

As you've correctly noticed, just as "problem of evil" is one of the core challenges to a theistic worldview, "problem of good" is a core challenge to an atheistic worldview. As such, it has a rich and ancient pedigree in philosophy. In particular, it's the core argument undergirding the Platonic/neo-Platonic worldview.

The basic idea is that it's easy to understand the evil in the world: People are selfish, it takes work to be good, things degrade and fall apart, etc. Evil can be considered a deficiency, a shadow, a degeneration. But it's very difficult to explain real good ("Good"), and all its variations. Why are things beautiful? What is love? Does the moral arc of the universe really curve towards justice? The standard metaphor is light. There are some secondary sources of light on Earth, but ultimately you need the existence of the sun in order to explain the world as we experience it. That doesn't however, necessitate a conventional theology. In Plato's original conception, Goodness is an abstract, non-personified force--it's only in the later, neo-Platonist interpretation that this becomes closely associated with traditional conceptions of God. Philosophical Buddhism is similar, in as much as it has a non-theistic conception of transcendent good.

A more modern argument, and one more in line with modern conceptions of atheism, is the idea of emergent goodness--that things like altruism can naturally evolve because they are good for the group as a whole. This has some vulnerabilities however:

  • Many models of evolution don't allow for "group selection."
  • At a more metaphysical level, this arguably just displaces the question to one of why we live in a universe where it's "good to be good."

IMO, the premise is wrong. This topic is predicated on the Why. It should be predicated on the What. Why good and evil exist is a valid argument. Although, the fact that moral attributes exist (What), is an argument against evolution. If evolution is true, we should have no sense that an action is good or evil. A benign animalistic and physical urge for nourishment and defecation should be the norm. The introduction of morality is premised on an objective and transcendent value of humans. If evolution is the basis for our existence, value cannot be objective. If value is subjective, then so is morality. Evolution is think-less and brainless. It is a name giving to a theory. It has no purpose and it is not a force that can be measured (like gravity). To continue this argument by stating a cause and effect or a purpose and reason is to admit a transcendent and objective purpose: design.


Before answering: this is one of those questions where, even here on stackexchange, the answerers throw logic out the window, and where the upvotes/downvotes are reflections of ideological desires.

The (current) top two comments are examples of bad answers: one of them contains a logical fallacy called the appeal to hypocrisy, which is irrelevant to the question, and the other distastefully defines belief in God as "imaginative" and any non-naturalistic explanation for morality as "superstition." Such claims are obvously without justification, and no attempt to justify such claims is made either. These two answers have (currently) received the most upvotes because they're favorable to atheism.

As you see in my answer below, an exploration of atheistic beliefs yields that atheists can't morally condemn anything. Such a conclusion is very undesirable to atheists, so I expected that my answer would be downvoted despite being correct and unchallenged.

The answer: answering is difficult because of cakeism, the desire to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. Under atheism, there can be no such thing as objective moral good or evil, but only moral neutrality, moral absence, or subjective moral good and evil. The reason for this is that atheists themselves, in the attempt to adhere to the law of non-contradiction, are logically compelled to claim that morality is subjective instead of objective. So, atheists argue that morality is subjective, but as you've probably experienced, they also argue as if morality is objective (like when they ask why objective evil exists in the world), which is why I drew attention to cakeism.

When someone claims that X or Y is good/evil, they're asserting that moral good and evil transcend human opinion (i.e., they imply that standards of good and evil are out there somewhere written into the universe as absolutes, so to speak, and those standards are supposedly universal). A person who says that X or Y is good/evil is thus asserting that the world is providential, that humankind has a special and recognized place in reality, and that standards of good and evil were set with intent.

As you can gather from the above as well as from the link I've shared, atheism requires the denial of a transcendental foundation for morality, which is probably why atheists, when asked whence their moral standards originate, are logically compelled to ground their morality in the following two mundane concepts instead: evolution or society. Both of these concepts, however, don't justify morality in the objective sense. Evolution doesn't justify the appeal to moral absolutes because it's meant to be a chance-based explanation for (a part of) reality, and absolutes can't exist in a chance-based reality. In addition, evolution-based thinking implies that there's neither good nor evil but only nature as it is (in which "evil" is only everyday animal behavior that thus doesn't warrant the classification of evil), so this too imposes moral neutrality, or moral absence, at least in the objective sense. And the appeal to society is likewise unable to justify moral absolutes: society's moral standards aren't static but they differ in different geographical locations and have differed at different times in the same geographical locations, which raises the question of whose moral standards are "correct." Are the standards of "evil" societies from the past or present correct? Or are the standards of "good" societies of the past or present correct? And who defines (again objectively) which society deserves to be placed in which category? People who point out this problem will often provide something like the following example: modern moral standards could have been radically different if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War. Societal morality is ever-changing and thus it can't serve as a foundation against which to weigh moral actions in terms of correctness (i.e., whats wrong in society today might be right in society in the future, and vice versa).

So, before answering the problem of goodness (or raising the "problem" of evilness that is assumed to have been laid to rest), atheists must wonder whether they can discuss and define good or evil, and they must ponder on whether it's possible to believe in moral absolutes while rejecting moral absolutism.

The "you too" accusation: people often misinterpret the above ramifications as a theistic claim for moral superiority, which is understandable but it only serves to point out that atheistic moral judgments lack persuasive power, and it does so without making any assertions about theistic moral judgments. Many people unfortunately interpret it as follows: theistic morality is objective, whereas atheistic morality is merely subjective. For this reason, they often respond like the first two people that have responded to this answer--I've presented relevant parts of their responses below:

  1. "When I’m talking about theists I’m saying their morality is based on their subjective interpretation of what they believe to be objective."
  2. "as soon as you group more than one theist together - there is no 'objective morality' (as rigorously defined as implied here) for them either. ... you have to suppose the ... 'subjective view of objective X is objective', which, to put it succinctly, is BS."

Both of the persons who responded are asserting the same thing with different words: they're asserting that not just atheistic morality is subjective, but that theistic morality is subjective as well, hence the "you too" accusation.

It appears that people often respond in this manner because of their belief that the argument against subjective moral judgments hinges on whether other moral frameworks (particularly that of the person raising this argument) are objective or subjective, but that's not the case. The argument is valid regardless of the moral foundation of the person who raises it because the subject isn't whence morality originates but rather the ramifications of personally believing that it isn't transcendent and universal, which is what atheists tend to believe about morality. The atheistic moral framework suffers from an internal contradiction, so the argument would be valid even if the atheistic moral framework had been the only moral framework in existence.

The argument is a response to atheists who judge on moral grounds (e.g., by criticizing theistic beliefs as immoral, or by raising the problem of evil). It only serves to point out that the mere rejection of objective morality (which atheists tend to do) has ramifications that are incompatible with moral judgments (which atheists tend to make). If morality is merely subjective, then it's no more than a collection of opinions, so if subjective morality is normalized, then it's no more than a collection of opinions that shouldn't have been normalized. The argument serves to point out that people shouldn't participate in discussions that presuppose objective morality if they believe that morality isn't objective enough to be universally imposable, so atheists, who tend to reject objective morality, can't participate in discussions that presuppose objective morality.

The argument against subjective moral judgments doesn't serve to establish moral superiority, but it serves to point out that whoever rejects objective morality (regardless of whether or not that rejection is justified) has to suffer the consequence that their moral judgments are mere opinions that can't justifiably be imposed upon other people's preferences, and by which nothing can justifiably be judged. This is the primary thing that the argument serves to point out. It's not about whose morality is superior, but it's about the fact that atheists can't judge anything on moral grounds because they logically contradict themselves whenever they assert that X or Y is moral or immoral. It's more of a defense of theistic morality than it is an attack on atheistic morality, although it effectively presents atheistic morality as no more than a collection of opinions. Even if an atheist assumes that theistic morality is also a collection of opinions, it won't change the fact that atheistic morality is a collection of opinions. This is why the "you too" accusation is considered a fallacy, and it's why, in a response to one critic, I stated the following:

If morality is subjective under both theism and atheism, as you claim, then you haven't objectivized morality under atheism so my ... argumentation still stands.

To conclude, objective morality is required to claim that an action by another person is morally wrong, or that a religious practice or a part of its history is morally wrong. If morality is subjective (as atheists tend to claim), then moral judgments are the impositions of opinions onto others, as if those opinions are objective moral facts instead. This isn't an issue of whose morality is subjective and whose morality is objective; rather, the issue is that there's a contradiction in thinking that one's moral judgments are worth something in the objective sense if objective morality is simultaneously being rejected. I'm pointing out that it's contradictory to judge on moral grounds if objective morality is rejected at the same time. I hope this is understood, and I believe that this additional information is necessary because this argument is difficult to understand and perhaps more often misunderstood than understood.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 2, 2019 at 9:12
  • You base your answer on a very fundamental - indeed realist - premise that objectivity can only be understood in absolute terms of transcendental, indubitable "moral facts". It is at the heart of modern science and philosophy (starting ~1850, with a renaissance since the 1950s-60s) that this static understanding of objectivity cannot be justified without contradiction. In other words: The absolute-particular dichotomy itself is fallacious and the basis of all "rational belief" systems in philosophy. Thus, your "information" is imposing an (outdated) opinion if written without references.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 3, 2019 at 13:17
  • @Philip, that doesn't challenge my answer which merely points out that it's contradictory to take a realist stance on morality when rejecting realism at the same time. The argument doesn't depend on the actual validity of realism but perhaps the simultaneous appeal to and rejection of realism. My use of the objective-subjective dichotomy isn't problematic, and it's meant make the argument anderstandable to the reader. Language is a problematic way of transferring knowledge between people, but it can't be avoided and we just have to make the best of it. Apr 4, 2019 at 12:44
  • This answer rests entirely on the supposition that good/evil are absolute in some way, which is just an opinion. Sep 13, 2023 at 5:37

It is nonsense to argue that 'god' must be invoked to justify the existence of good. Society determines what is good and evil, which explains why what is considered to be good or evil is not fixed- as one might naturally suppose it would be if 'god' had pre-ordained it- but varies by culture and evolves over time, just like any other fashion or trend. You might like to reflect upon the fact that in the last millennium it was considered 'good' by the Catholic Church to subject heretics to the most sickening and cruel tortures. It was considered 'good' by many cultures to enslave people. It was considered 'good' to sentence people to death for homosexual acts. It was considered 'good' to slaughter people of other races in the name of colonialism. Indeed, many activities condemned as evil in some societies are still widely accepted in others.

There is no scientific reason whatsoever to suppose that good and evil are somehow baked into the design of the Universe. There is no need to assume absolute morality in order to judge right or wrong. There are standards of behaviour which are expected and accepted by society, and those are the basis against which moral judgements can be made.

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