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Without God there is no objective basis for morality.

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 6/13/2013 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 5 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 2,827 times Debate No: 34741
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (36)
Votes (1)




Nontheists should feel free to argue that, although God is irrelavent, morality is relative.

First round is for acceptance last round for rebuttals only.

Good luck.


I accept, and would like to propose the following definitions.

Morality: A system of rules attempting to govern human behaviour for the purpose of advancing some measure of goodness in society.

Basis: Set of fundamental principles from which a system of rules is derived.

Objective: Existing in such a way so as to be independent of the individual human's judgement. In order for the question to make sense we have to assume that God's judgment is objective by His nature.

I am not a theist but neither am I an atheist (I'm not sure of your definition of non-theism). My argument will be based not on the existence of God but rather the conditionality of the objectivity of a moral system on that existence.

The burden of proof is on my opponent who is required to show that there is an objective basis for morality.
If my opponent so desires I will attempt to provide an argument showing that no such basis can exist, though as a constructivist and functionalist I find non-existence proofs to be thoroughly unrewarding.

I will accept any reasonable alterations my opponent wishes to offer to these terms in the next round.
Debate Round No. 1


I think this issue has been inflated to mean more than it does. The claim is only that morality exists and can be judged based its ability to promote and achieve the stated goals and typical definitions support me. I’m content to let any voters to decide who has the burden of proof.


  1. Having actual existence or reality.

  2. Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices: an objective critic.

  3. Independent of individual opinion and cultural norms.


  1. descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,

    1. some other group, such as a religion, or

    2. accepted by an individual for her own behavior or

  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons. [1]

In practice we accept that morality is part of a life strategy that can be defended and defined objectively

A good morality is effective to achieve the stated goals, usually to promote general well being etc. In any other area of life a good strategy will have objective reasons to support adopting that strategy and morality is not an exception. We define and defend differing moral codes based on merit all the time it is the field of ethics. “The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense [3].”

Moral claims are in practice defended based on their objective relative merit as a life strategy. Take proponents of Abstinence for example [2]. To support this idea they argue that abstinence prevents teen pregnancy, STDs and psychological problems. Opponents argue that the strategy is impossible to utilize by hormonal teens and that there are more effective ways to mitigate the risks.

Saying morality is not objective is the same as saying that moral claims are not objective.

If I were to approach you and say, “hey I have a great idea to advance goodness in society. Lets just kill all convicted criminals!” Would you be trapped arguing from your emotions, personal prejudices and cultural norms until when backed into a corner you just blurt out, “well god says it’s wrong even though your idea is flawless.”

Of course not, we could agree on a goal, say to benefit society, and then discuss the facts. To argue this case you can bring up ideas about human rights, uncertainty with respect to legal convictions, a distinction between violent crime and misdemeanors etc, all objective arguments in support of the moral superiority of our current legal system vs. the murder of all criminals.

Objective morality need not be universal, personal and cultural differences are facts to be considered.

Saying that morality is based mainly on the facts of reality and not personal prejudice or emotions does not mean there is one right way to live. People are different and so are our goals and preferences.

Your goal may be to achieve happiness without negatively impacting those around you or to work tirelessly for the greater good. Either goal will have several strategies that work well and many that don’t. Frequent charity is arguably a good strategy to support the greater good while rampant cold-blooded murder clearly is not.

Morality in this respect in analogous to chess, there are many effective strategies. My terrible chess ‘strategy’ is objectively bad when compared the various strategies a chess master would utilize. There are many good strategies for baking, golf, leadership etc and others that are clearly good and bad. Why is morality an exception?

Morality exists independent of personal prejudice, emotions and cultural norms

Say there is a culture that supports regularly beating children to promote discipline. I don’t mean this as an emotional ploy just a clear-cut case of a bad moral rule. This culture universally accepts beating children and has an emotional/cultural prejudice to support behavior since it has been the custom for many generations.

Lets say that like most cultures they want to raise healthy productive children. The claim that it is wrong to beat children is independent of prejudice and cultural norms. Beating children negatively affects emotional health, lowers self-esteem and causes psychological problems etc. and there are objectively much better moral strategies to promote discipline given their goal.

“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” –Hitchens

If morality does not exist independent preference, if there are no arguments in favor of an issue that are not heavily dependent on personal prejudice and cultural norms then what are we even talking about? Think of all the clearly moral issues that are discussed on this site: gay marriage, abortion, pre-marital sex, adultery, stealing etc. Are views on these topics just brazen assertions not based on objective arguments?






I thank my opponent for his considered response but find it lacking in hard evidence of his claimed objective basis. He wishes you to accept that morality exists and is objective based solely on the fact that some moral claims appear absolute and that the truth of moral statements appears to be influenced by objective facts about reality.

I would begin by conceding that morality exists as a phenomena. The decisions that individuals make are influenced in a way that is best explained by the existence of some kind of internal judgement of what actions are good and what actions are bad. What is disputed, is that this internal decision making process can be explained in a way which is universal, and applies to all peoples in the same fashion.

I draw your attention to my opponent's stated definition of objectivity, particularly the third part. I ignore the first because this is not really the sense in which the question was asked and as I have stated, I do not question the existence of a phenomenon called morality. The second part refers to both emotions and prejudices. I posit that for the purposes of this argument, personal prejudices are a subset of opinions, which is covered by the third part. Part 3 of the definition of objectivity is the following:

Objective - Independent of individual opinion and cultural norms.

This is the definition of objectivity that I intend to refute.

I also adopt my opponent's second definition of morality.

Morality - Normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

The reason I choose this second part of the definition is that the first is descriptive in nature and thus could only be objective if every person agreed on every moral question, which is quite clearly not the case.

Now, let us investigate this definition. I note firstly that it is ambiguous as to whether the 'specified conditions' make the code of conduct conditional, or if they merely assert that one must provide conditions for an action in order to make a moral judgement. i.e. is it saying that for a given moral theory X, moral theory X is valid given conditions Z, or moral theory X predicts action A is moral under condition Z. The first interpretation is unfavourable to my opponent's stated position since it automatically makes the validity of a given moral theory relative. I shall therefore take the second interpretation. That these conditions simply serve as the context in which we ask the moral question.
We also need to restrict these conditions to be non-relative if we are to support my opponent's claim. This means that the conditions cannot include such statements as "I am a child" or "I am a philosopher", since otherwise we still have a mechanism by which relativism can creep in (I do not presume that there is any good reason for doing this, other than that it would not serve my opponent if we did not).

I will now present an argument against the objectivity of this conception of morality.

Definitions of words are either descriptive or normative in nature. The only word I need to draw your attention to here is 'rational'. We must take the normative definition of rational, for if we take the descriptive then clearly rational is not objectively defined and hence morality cannot be objectively defined (if we accept the proposed definition).
What consequences does a normative definition of the word rational have? Recalling that the definition of objective requires the concept to be independent of cultural norms, then if the definition of rational is a cultural norm in and of itself, then how can morality be independent of cultural norms?
My own definition, and the one that appears sensible given my opponent's arguments would be

Rational - Acting in such a way as could be reasonably assumed to lead to the stated goals or achieve the purpose of a thing.

Since we are discussing actions it may be useful to consider the definition on wikipedia of one's actions conforming to one's reasons for action.

I ask where these reasons/goals/purposes come from, and posit that perhaps an individual could have different reasons for action from another individual. If morality is the reason for action (do what is right) as appears to be required by the prior definition of morality then we reach a circular definition. To be rational is to do what is moral, to be moral is to do what is rational.

If my opponent can demonstrate an objective measure of rationality, a criterion on which to judge if a person is rational that does not depend on their personal opinions on a subject, then I will yield this line of argument.

As I am almost out of space, I ask my opponent to forgive me for leaving my rebuttals to the next round.;
Debate Round No. 2


Morality need not apply to everyone

I have conceded that I believe that morality can be individual and need not apply to everyone and submit that a universal moral code is not necessary for an objective morality. Morality is not considered universal under definition one or under many other definitions including my opponents. If you want to argue that morality must be universal to be considered objective then I would definitely disagree.

I included the second definition of morality to point out that rational arguments are used to compare moral codes and to acknowledge it is a commonly held belief that morality may be universal. I agree with definition two in that perfectly rational individuals with omniscient knowledge of a situation would likely arrive at the same or similar moral decisions. A general very loose universal framework for moral behavior is likely even with our limited knowledge and fallible rationality.

Rational people are not arguing that murder, sexual assault, slavery, child abuse and theft are good for society. Universal human rights have worked very well to promote general well being in Western society. I think this basic framework can be accepted by rational people and represents an existing universal moral code.

Again, morality need not be universal to be objective. I don’t want to spend any more time on this unless my opponent can make the case that an objective morality is necessarily universal.

Morality is independent of individual opinion and cultural norms

I agree this is central to the issue of objectivity and a point of disagreement. Personal opinion and cultural norms are often important in forming moral codes. The moral code is still good or bad, it works well or it doesn’t. I am arguing that the quality of these moral codes is independent of bias.

I would argue for instance that honor killings are not beneficial to a society and should be abandoned. Even if I am wrong personal/cultural opinions are not relevant. Honor killings occur when you kill a family member for bringing dishonor to a family often because they are a victim of sexual assault [4]. Some cultures agree this is beneficial but this does not make it so.

More difficult problems are also defended using facts about reality with respect to accomplishing a goal. Was it mainly cultural bias that decided the Supreme Court Roe vs. wade case or court cases concerning same sex marriage? These issues can clearly be resolved independent of opinion and cultural norms.

There are relative elements related to morality but moral codes are still objective

The goal of your personal code is relative to your personal strengths and preferences. The information available to you to decide on a goal is heavily dependent on your culture and so are the preformed moral codes from which you will borrow ideas. There may be exceptions to certain rules under certain situations such as a life or death emergency. This is an attempt to make the code more closely relevant to the facts of reality not our personal bias. This does not affect the claim that your code is objectively affective, ineffective or indistinguishable from the alternatives.

Morality need not be absolute to be objective

You can demonstrate that one strategy works better than an alternative but not that your strategy is the ‘best.’ I have brought up universal human rights as a great idea to support a mutually beneficial moral code. It works better with respect to the alternatives and this can be supported without appealing to bias but there may be better options and there are likely many ways to improve and expand the idea.

Special pleading is pivotal to the argument that morality is not objective

There are objectively good and bad strategies to find a job, bake a cake, run a marathon, raise children, manage an office or even for hailing a cab. There are likely personal and cultural reasons that this assertion that morality is not objective is so pervasive but again, this does not make the claim true. Is there another similar issue where people deny that a strategy to accomplish a goal is not objectively good or bad? Why is morality a special case?

Morality is not the reason for taking an action

Morality does not provide the motivation for acting. The motivation is from the desire to achieve a goal and this is why a moral code is objective. The moral code can be judged independent of bias to determine if it is effective to achieve the goal.

Rationality is a method for identifying truth to the best of our ability

Rationality is often muddled by personal and cultural bias. This is why the scientific method depends so heavily on consensus to identify truth. Reason is a method that is often used explicitly to avoid cultural bias. Truth claims should be judged by as many people and utilizing as many methods of evaluation as possible. The greater the consensus that an idea is rational the greater our confidence should be that it approaches objective truth.




I will now address my opponents points.

"In practice we accept that morality is part of a life strategy that can be defended and defined objectively"
This is common practice amongst everyday people. I would argue that the merits of this strategy come from our natural gravitation towards people who have similar opinions to our own, and so we don't come into regular conflict with people with significantly different moral standards from our own. That the assumption is practical does nothing to assure me that it is true.

"Moral claims are defended based on their objective relative merit as a life strategy"
My opponent appears to have claimed both objectivity and relativity for his morality. I will attempt to address this later. The best I can do for now is that we both accept that some moral claims are relative.

"Saying morality is not objective is the same as saying that moral claims are not objective."
Indeed this is my opponent's contention. I would have argued that saying morality is objective is equivalent to the strictly weaker claim that some moral claims are not objective but I will accept my opponents definition in good faith and attempt to prove that all moral claims are objective since he does not appear willing to do as I have challenged him to and provide such an objective system.

"Morality exists independent of personal prejudice, emotions and cultural norms"
The example my opponent provides asserts that a culture which universally accepts the beating of children (the action) as moral (the judgement), is fallacious in its moral reasoning. I.e. it has come to the incorrect moral conclusion that beating children is moral since it does not achieve the objective he has provided me with for this society (to discipline children). Since the strategy does not lead to the goal, the reasoning is fallacious. On the surface this appears reasonable.

However, what is a goal but a cultural norm?
If this society's intention was to discipline children then they would be incorrect, and I do not doubt this.
However, they could just as easily have asserted a different intention.
Let us presume that the intention is the following: To build the character of the strong and weed out the weak. Perhaps they have a survivalist mentality.
Now on investigation of their actions, the society responds to why they beat their children with "Learning to deal with pain builds character, those who cannot deal with pain are weak and not worthy of our society" Their goal is to develop a tolerance for pain in their children or at the very least determine which children do have tolerance and which do not.

In this sense, their moral decision is rational. It leads to their stated goal. Many people would agree that it is barbaric, but only because our goals are different from theirs.

Any attempt to justify this judgement must use some other measure of morality beyond reasoning about a stated goal, we have to be able to demonstrate that their goal is wrong in some way.

Taken to the extreme, an individual could claim any outcome as their stated goal. 'It is my goal to murder my wife' and as long as they rationally pursue this line of thought, they are behaving morally? This is not what we normally mean by morality.

"Morality in this respect in analogous to chess, there are many effective strategies."
Moral strategies are fundamentally different from chess strategies in that there is no objectively defined victory condition. Again, if my opponent can provide me with an objective definition of 'victory' that could concievably apply to any conscious agent (not just humans) then I will yield to his position. Any such victory definition will be essentially arbitrary.

I make the analogy to Galilean relativity.

Imagine you are floating in space, and I am travelling towards you at 50km/h. You can reasonably assert that I am travelling at 50km/h if we make the assumption that all bare assertions are to be interpreted in the reference frame of the asserter at the time of assertion. I however, would disagree, stating that I am stationary and it is you who is moving at 50km/h. We can choose any particular reference frame as an objective reference, but this would only ever be an arbitrary system.

Now, in this case there is a transformation that always guarantees that we agree on every relativistic question (under a suitable translation). However, the same does not necessarily apply to morality.

We each have rather vague conceptions of what morality is. Perhaps we come up with two separate objective tools to discuss it. Someone then discovers a set of questions such that no matter what translation is used, one of us comes up with a different answer. If morality was objective, one of these objective tools (theories) must be wrong.

I ask, how you would decide?

We both started with similar intuitions, attempted to provide an explanation, and ended up with something with different results and no translation can make them the same. Who is right?
Debate Round No. 3


"In practice we accept that morality is part of a life strategy that can be defended and defined objectively"

I am well aware, and have conceded, that morality varies with respect to culture. For instance the human rights violations in the Arab world and China. This does not mean that violating objective rights is good for society in these cultures. Respecting human rights is demonstrably better for a society and these cultures are simply wrong.

"Moral claims are defended based on their objective relative merit as a life strategy"

I have not conceded that morality is relative. I have conceded that there are many demonstrably good goals and strategies to support them. Varying with respect to culture is not the same as dependent on culture. Moral codes vary in there effectiveness independent of the culture or opinion.

"Saying morality is not objective is the same as saying that moral claims are not objective.”

I have repeated this several times; I do not believe there is one moral system that works for everyone. I have suggested there may be a loose moral framework that works for the majority. Individual claims about a moral action are judged within the context of the goal and the preference of the actor.

"Morality exists independent of personal prejudice, emotions and cultural norms"

Yes the Spartans treated their children much worse to achieve a similar goal. I am well aware that there are primitive cultures that have demonstrably poor goals and ineffective strategies, which is what I have been saying.

I’ll look at two scenarios:

Scenario one: cultures look very different but the vast majority have a primary goal to achieve a better life and encourage or allow the same in others (in fact, I am not aware of any without a similar goal but ignorance can create some poor definitions of ‘better life’ that can be corrected). If this child abusing culture agrees we can work with them. We can demonstrate that, although mental and physical toughness are good, there are more important goals to focus on to improve their family and collective lives.

Since this culture has a strong value on toughness we can show them more effective humane ways to increase resilience without causing extreme harm to their society by damaging their children. We can argue that weaker children could be made stronger to benefit the society rather than, “weeding them out.” We can demonstrate that there are many forms of toughness beyond the physical: emotional, intellectual, social etc. that they should value as well. The facts are on our side.

Scenario two: We find that the culture doesn’t care about a better life or well being and believe that to suffer and cause pain and suffering is the best goal to pursue. The goal of human suffering is demonstrably a poor life strategy. The culture is flat wrong. In a sane culture an individual like this should appropriately be treated for mental illness.

"Morality in this respect in analogous to chess, there are many effective strategies."

Again, I have conceded many times that there are many objectively positive goals of morality. When I said, “in this respect,” in context I was saying that there are many effective strategies in chess.

“If morality was objective, one of these objective tools (theories) must be wrong.” Again insisting on one goal and strategy is special pleading

I agree that two objects move relative to each other and that morality is not arbitrary but not that this is relevant.

If we have two objective ‘tools to discuss’ morality and we are arriving at different answers then there may be multiple effective answers or interpretations of the issue that are satisfactory. Throughout the debate you have insisted on one goal and strategy but this is in no way demanded in other areas of life.

Is anyone saying, “There is no objectively good management style because this varies with (but is not dependent on) culture and personal preference!”? Think again of any other aspect of human life. Are there no objectively good soccer, communication or public speaking strategies because they vary across cultures and are related to preference in a similar way? Varying between cultures is not the same as being dependent on culture. Like any other strategy, morality works better, worse or is comparable to others.

I may have a unique perspective on this issue but I would ask anyone who bothers to read to consider it and the quality of my arguments. It is also relevant that my challenge was for my opponent to present one of two pro cases, which I was prepared to refute. An objective morality would allow us to affectively borrow ideas across cultural lines and to criticize a culture that is committing moral atrocities even if the practice is intimately linked to culture or personal opinion. There are many moral strategies that are demonstrably beneficial and many others that are inferior or even cause harm to those who have accepted them simply because it is encouraged by their culture.



I'll make this one short and sweet since we have been over the points a couple of times now

My opponent argues that moral values can vary with culture without depending on it.

I shall leave it to you to decide whether this proposal has merit and simply ask the following question.

In what sense can dependency exist if variation is not enough to demonstrate it?

Correlation is not causation of course, but we are not arguing what 'causes' morals but merely what they are.

An objective morality would have to have an objective toolset with which to analyse it. Any moral principle can of course be proposed, but my opponent appears to reserve the right to question any given moral principle based on his idea of 'wrongness'. I challenged him to provide me with a definition of this wrongness which he was unable to do.

If I were to ask you to play a game with me, to which I will not tell you the rules (but inform you that they are there and give you some examples of things which are against said rules), then you could concievably form a strategy with which to play this game. However, since the rules are not well defined, there is not a well defined way to 'compare' these strategies. And my opponent concedes that there might even be rules that disagree no matter how we interpret the question. If this is not dependency, I do not know what is.

I provide the following assessment of my opponents position. There is an objective basis of morality. The Null Set. This amounts to Nihilism, in which case there are no moral truths. He can simply push any particular moral decision into the 'relative' portion of his theory hoping that eventually he will yield a set that everyone agrees on by virtue of exluding as 'up to circumstance' everything that is not clear cut. Well, I imagine he will eventually end up with nothing. There will be nothing that everyone agrees on. Thus he has proven his resolution by rejecting the utility of the very thing he sought to defend, an objective moral code.

Thank you for your attention and happy voting.
Debate Round No. 4
36 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by the_croftmeister 5 years ago
I have now posted a second thread under the title 'moral objectivism vs subjectivism' Hope that better suits what you had in mind.
Posted by the_croftmeister 5 years ago
Posting a forum topic called 'Moral Relativism vs Absolutism'
Posted by 2-D 5 years ago
Great comment debate. Individuals are all slightly different so it is no surprise that they have slightly different solutions to similar problems. Difficult to define in now way implies that there is not a useful definition.

There is a lot of debate over what diet or exercise program is right/the best but that does not mean that concepts like better health are arbitrary. A Cheeto diet combined with 16 hours of sitting a day is a bad health strategy even though when fine tuning the idea of health experts often disagree.
Posted by the_croftmeister 5 years ago
The very fact that it is such a difficult question and everybody comes to a slightly different answer suggests subjectivity to me. Also, 'better' and 'well-being' are subjective in and of themselves. So you are just moving the subjectivity around.
Posted by 2-D 5 years ago
"How do we decide which areas to intervene on?" This is an important point and a difficult question. I intervene whenever anyone asks my opinion as to what they should do or how they should live. When I am appalled by a behavior and intervening is worth the consequences then stand by your convictions. Best case scenario both sides learn something and adopt a slightly better way to live.
Posted by 2-D 5 years ago
Yes, since they would likely be very different from humans there may be moral actions that we can demonstrate are harmful for us that may be beneficial for them. Again neither code is 'right' but one code may work better than another to achieve demonstrably positive goals. We could study this new being and form a code of conduct that would be more beneficial to them even though their culture and opinions support their current code.

Personally I define morality as something like, "a code of conduct that supports the well being of conscious creatures." Next time I'll probably just present that upfront rather than trying to support typical definitions I'll just defend my definition.
Posted by the_croftmeister 5 years ago
And if they came to significantly different conclusions?
I don't see any reason why they wouldn't. In which case how would you compare our separate moral system? You could compare them against your own objective system sure, you could invent a middle ground system, you could adopt their system. How do we tell which one is right? Would you say that their system is right for them and our system is right for us? I don't see how this is different from a collective relativism where the 'right' simply depends on which group of individuals you select and what questions you ask.
For example, a goodly portion of our morality comes from emotional imperatives, things we learnt as part of our evolution. In a different environment and with different social structures, the emotional development of a different species could be quite different. Are you going to be happy to say what's right for them is right for them, what's right for us is right for us? If so, how is that different from relativism. If not, then how do we decide which areas to intervene on. Do we create a collaborative group of scientists to come up with rules? What if our goals are mutually incompatible?
Posted by 2-D 5 years ago
Yes, reason and evidence would apply to any other self-aware life, morality is not unique.
Posted by the_croftmeister 5 years ago
Regarding the vote, The question in fact presumes that we can argue 'without god' i.e. Assume the non-existence of god and then show that the objectivity of morality follows anyway. The question says nothing about whether god's existence would in fact entail an objective morality, as this would not demonstrate that it is a necessary condition, only that it is sufficient. As such, I dispute the reasoning behind your voting RationalThinkingMachine (not the votes themselves)
Posted by the_croftmeister 5 years ago
I'm not talking about other species of Earth based animals, but alien creatures with similar rational thinking ability. Of course these are hypotheticals now, I'm just trying to understand the consequences of your perspective.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by CriticalThinkingMachine 5 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: The resolution reads "Without God, there is no objective basis for morality". This means that Con must argue that there can be an objective morality without God and Pro must argue that God is necessary for objective morality. Neither debater argued about that. They just argued about the objectivity of morality.