The Theoretical Problem and the Real Problem
You still encounter people who doubt that atheists can be moral even though one would think that a debate that began back in the late 17th Century with a famous entry in Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary would be pretty much played out by now. I actually had a thought about it the other day, which, though not really new, is at least one I haven’t heard recently. It occurred to me that the real reason it’s hard for traditionalists to imagine non-theological justifications for morality is not that they or anybody else has much trouble figuring out what’s problematic about lying or homicide and most of the rest. It is only very specific elements of their moral stance that are difficult to justify without divine help. It isn’t that there can’t be rational arguments for moral principles; it’s just that there can’t be rational arguments for irrational principles. As one can verify by perusing any reasonable sample of three hundred years of anti-atheistic polemic, what the traditionalists overwhelmingly care about is defending hierarchy, the privileges of kings and priests in the old days or the wealthy and powerful in ours. It really is hard to come up with something that will convince non-elites that they should be obedient servants willing to suffer and die for their betters. That’s what God and the angels do for a living. The much discussed abyss between the ought and the is has very little to do with it. The problem isn’t meta-ethical, but ethical. There just aren’t any good arguments for immoral conclusions.