3 Explanations of the Groundings of Naturalistic, Non-Theistic Ethics

In a previous post about Cultural Relativism I proposed 4 arguments for relativism and then argued that none of them really work.  It’s not that I had any arguments for better alternatives, but simply that none of the arguments relativists propose really work toward or, at times, even make much sense.

In this post I hope to just outline my own favorite theories of non-relativistic and naturalistic (and godless, though not anti-god – see my other post on that) grounding for morality.

What Do I Mean by ‘Grounding’ a Theory of Ethics?

In short, I’m not outlining a particular moral theory, much less what we should do in any given debate like abortion, cloning, or even the ‘easy ones’ like killing the innocent and defenseless.  I’m just hoping to provide a brief outline on how an atheist and materialist might explain what ethics is, is about, how we can fundamentally know anything about ethics, etc.  Think of it like an origin story for morality.  And once we have this foundation we’ll have better tools to address particular questions, like abortion.

1. Ethics is About Universals and Reasoning as a Group


Chimpanzees and many other animals have what Frans de Waal calls the ‘building blocks of morality’, however, without language and reasoning these animals don’t justify their actions within their group.

There are different kinds of reasons.  Here I am interested in reasons that justify one’s own ends or reasoning as a group.  For the first, we might ask: what reasons do I have to do this or that?  Regardless of anyone else’s needs or interests (although I might certainly factor such in) I have certain ‘self-interests’ unique to me.  Self-interested reasons can be described in terms of our own ends, i.e. interests or well being.  I did X because I wanted/needed Z.  Or in other words, I can justify doing such and such because it gets me what I want/end.

But then there are ‘ethical’ reasons.  These, in comparison, are reasons in terms of our collective ends.  In other words, I can justify my doing X or Y if it promotes the group’s interest or well being.  Here you are just one among many and you can’t arbitrarily privilege your own idiosyncratic wants/needs over those of others. We all count the same.  Think of this for a second.  If you’re part of a group and you need to explain and justify your actions, then giving reasons that only make reference to your own ends means that you are de facto excluding yourself from the group as you single yourself out.  To be part of a group means you operate – and reason – as a part of the group.

Ethical reasoning, then, looks for universals so that you can use to justify your actions within a group in which your interests don’t take any special privilege.  They are reasons that anyone switching into your position (who’s being reasonable)  would agree to, regardless of their idiosyncrasy (think of a “view from nowhere”).  Immanuel Kant was famous for developing a coherent theory of ethics just on universalizing our maxims, or reasons and intentions for acting. And John Rawls  took the basic notion I’m trying to get at in another direction with contractarianism.  In addition to generalizing our non-egoistic reasons, to put it another way, ethical reasoning is also pro-social, or for the well being of the group.

So what are ethical reasons?  They’re the universalized and pro-social ones.

To get a more concrete grasp of this just think about justice, harmony, fairness, altruism, compassion, tolerance, mercy, rights, and so on.  The whole idea of justice, freedom, rights, fairness, and so on is that no one gets special privileges.  Compassion, harmony, tolerance, mercy, etc treats everyone’s well being and happiness as no more or less important than anyone else’s.  Now sometimes people ought to get special privileges or positions, for instance becoming a leader in the group.  But in such cases it’s only because they have special traits – like intelligence or the ability to make decisions under pressure.  Their interests and happiness are still treated as no more important than others and selecting such people as leaders is certainly good for the group.

Passion w'in Reason by Robert Frank

Amazing book on the evolution and purpose of emotions in human social interactions and morality. It turns out that sometimes it’s rational to be irrational.

What I really like about this story is that it works so beautifully with naturalism and the theory of evolution.  We need to live together as a group for both personal gains in the non-zero sum game of life and because, at least now in our evolutionary history, humans can’t live well without friends, lovers, and general social relationship. To live together in any way, shape, or form we have to cooperate and justify our actions to others as for the group and not our own interests.  Therefore, we can reasonably expect natural selection to put pressure on and select for those individuals that can effortless reason morally, as well as, importantly, really mean it given the evo arms race of detecting cheaters within the group (see Frank’s beautiful book Passions Within Reason).

A great book that heavily brings in evolution and psychology, and also tries to avoid the over formalized Kantian and Rawlsian directions, is Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project.

2. Ethics is About Flourishing (Whatever That Is)

Ethics is about living the best possible life – whether in terms of yourself alone, the community altogether, or both. But what makes a flourishing life?  Well that’s a personal discussion you have to have honestly with yourself.  And what makes a flourishing society?  Well, again, that’s a discussion that we all need to have together.  However, as mentioned above, there is a lot more we have in common than different.  Dishonest people have a tough time making loyal friends.  Societies that systematically oppress portions of their population preclude the fruits of cooperation and replace it with constant tension and fighting.  Optimists are happier.  Democracies flourish.


Aristotle 384-322 BCE. Generally a bad ass at whatever he does.

Here I want to actually shift the discussion a little bit and focus more narrowly on what’s known as Virtue Ethics.  VE is the idea that what matters is having certain kinds of habits or character traits that reliably lead to a flourishing life, such as courage, gentleness, patience, honesty, etc.  For those coming from a strong Christian tradition you might be reminded of St Paul’s Fruits of the Spirit.  But the official father of VE is actually Aristotle, from around ~400 years earlier, with his Nicomachean Ethics.

The basic idea goes that people can’t decide what to do in every particular circumstance; we just don’t have the time or capacity to pound through every possibility open to us for every action we might make.  Further, people are ultimately emotional creatures of habits and heuristics.  Both of these, especially the latter, are being born out more and more by modern psychology (make sure to read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (seriously, read it! now!)).

Again, here ethics flows freely into modern science.  Positive Psychology is, without any exaggeration at all, producing textbooks on which virtues or character traits for individuals and on which institutions for societies regularly and reliably lead to fulfilled, meaningful, and happy lives.  And over and over again, those that put others ahead of themselves, nurture close relationships, balance most of the classic virtues in their lives, etc ‘make it’ in the only sense that really matters.

This theory also works beautifully with the discussion of cultural relativism earlier.  The same general rule about ‘heuristics for individual/social flourishing’ applies to every culture across space and time.  Also, every human society has members with a psychology vastly more the same than not.  However, the content or specific variables these people find themselves in changes place to place.  Some cultures have different needs, face different challenges, and so on.  So the exact same mix of virtues won’t work for all.  So how do we explain difference between cultures?  Well sometimes cultures get it wrong and another rule would provide more flourishing for them (think of racism or slavery) but other times it’s just a matter of which side of the road people choose to drive on (e.g. conventions like politeness) or different needs based on their specific context (e.g. emphasis on courage for those facing war and gentleness for those not).

Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness has another interesting framework for Virtue Ethics and what it means to ‘flourish’ defined in terms of the ‘free floating’ ends of evolution instead of a more utility/desires based theory of flourishing which I’ve more or less implicitly alluded to.

3. Ethics is About Maximizing Goods and Utility is a Good

This last theory focuses on the consequences of our actions, instead of the habits/norms we need to build or the reasons we can give for our actions.  Here we start by simply observing that our actions have effects.  Ethics then asks “what kinds of effects should we aim to ultimately bring about?”  The most common answer is utility, or the experience of happiness in the broadest possible terms.  So not only the pleasure of tasting good food or sex, but also knowing your family is safe, viewing a beautiful painting, or learning something new and fascinating.  Other common ‘goods’ proposed include knowledge and beauty, though here I’ll just focus utility to keep it simple.

The first philosophers to propose ‘utilitarianism’ were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but we might also go back all the way to Epicurus in Ancient Greece. But right now I’m less concerned with the structure of utilitarianism than the question of “why care about utility, or happiness?”  Why give it a special place in ethics?  Am I just pulling it randomly out of a hat?  Or is the choice merely about taking a poll, after which everyone happens to agree utility is good intrinsically, i.e. in and of itself or for its own sake?

think about 'Coherentism' like a spider's web.  While Foundationalism is more like an inverted pyramid.

think about ‘Coherentism’ like a spider’s web. While Foundationalism is more like an inverted pyramid.

To argue that utility has a more basic root in ethics I need to explain something about ‘basic beliefs’.  Here we start by asking about the structure of justification, introduced nicely by Paul Jones in an earlier Applied Sentience piece.  The gist of it is that when we ask “Why do we believe something?” we give reasons based on another thing we believe, some kind of evidence, belief, or reason.  But then we can just ask again why again.  Maybe we give more beliefs.  But after we keep doing this, what happens?  Some think our beliefs all form a coherent web of justification, others that they go on infinitely.  But many epistemologists argue that they ultimately rest on what some foundation, or basic beliefs, like a priori knowledge of logic, math, and semantics as well as our sense perceptions.  Basic beliefs are beliefs that, to define them loosely, we can’t logically imagine being false.  Not that it’s super difficult, but that it’s logically impossible.  For instance, try to imagine, using the normal use of the terms or number systems, that “all bachelors are unmarried” or that “1+1=2”.  Now try to imagine that these statements are false.  You logically can’t.

Is the statement “utility is intrinsically good” a basic belief?  Well, ask yourself if its logically possible to imagine happiness being a bad thing?  But be very careful!  You have to isolate happiness in your thought experiments.  So if you’re imagining a bad person or sadist being happy after their bad deed and escaping punishment, then you need to ignore the rest of all of the details of the story.  Is the happiness alone and by itself, excluding the lack of justice and the bad things they did, good?  Of course it is.  Under no circumstances can utility itself be bad.

So it isn’t merely that we all happen to agree that utility is good.  It’s that it’s impossible not to think that utility is good.  To think the experience of happiness in and of itself can be bad is to not understand what happiness is.

Here again, I think this story meshes well with what we know from evolution.  Evolution has used the experience of happiness in animals with minds and psychologies to motivate them towards (and with pain, away) something that is in the end beneficial.  The experience of utility is a motivator for behavior or certain ends and that’s its only function.  Utility, happiness, joy, positive affect, or whatever you might call it (and it’s opposite) is then necessarily ‘positive’ by definition, just in terms of the kind of thing it is and the purpose for which it has evolved in the first place.

In Conclusion

I hope this article has started you off on some of your own further research.  A lot of points above are, to be honest, simplified and may be a little misleading.  Certainly almost everything requires more explanation if it’s the first time you’ve read something like it.  But the gist, I think, is right on the mark.  And though each of these perspectives doesn’t perfectly mesh with the others, I think they all explain quite a good chunk of the initial grounding of ethics as well as provide a solid foundation for ethics in a naturalistic, materialistic, and atheistic worldview.

Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University)
DSC_0484Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology and has been running around the world ever since. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philosophy Curriculum for Camp Quest, Inc.  Paul has a MSc in Comparative Education from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on ethno-religious identity and conflict, and has spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship.  He has also worked with research organizations at the UN and in DC, as well as schools abroad in Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.

6 responses to “3 Explanations of the Groundings of Naturalistic, Non-Theistic Ethics

  1. Isn’t the real question where do these universal irises come from. In a purely physical universe where to universal metaphysical concepts come from. Not a problem for desists like Kant but surely a problem for atheist ethics scholars.


    • Universals meaning generalized reasons the whole group can use and that don’t make any reference to any individual’s idiosyncrasies. They ‘come from’ the group.

      Personally I see no problem for atheists, even for Kant’s version of it. In fact many of the Kantian Philosophy professors I know that focus on universals are atheists.


  2. Not at all. Cultural Relativism focuses on the actual beliefs of the group about ethics. I don’t give a hoot about anyone’s beliefs in ethics when thinking about the truth, the same as when thinking about truth in physics. The reasons are not any good or bad ones that would convince silly people, but the best ones that would convince ideally informed and reasonable people.

    This theory focuses on the group’s well being, interests, whatever else. Talk to a 5 year old about how 5lbs of chocolate will spoil their dinner and you’ll see what I mean. Combine this with the ‘group’ being all of humanity and our basically the same human nature and you get where I’m trying to go.


  3. Pingback: Cultural Relativism: 4 Arguments For & Against | Applied Sentience·

  4. Pingback: 3 Reasons Why God is a Nihilist; Or, Showing Sympathy for God | Applied Sentience·

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