Atheism is often criticized for not being able to provide an “objective foundation for morality”. One form of this criticism is a relentless repetition of David Hume’s Is/Ought Problem. This is the idea that descriptive statements and normative statements are categorically different and incommensurable.

From David Hume’s 1739 work A Treatise of Human Nature:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence.

Hume is remarking that every moral system he has seen surreptitiously transitions from making descriptive claims to making moral claims, a transition that doesn’t seem justified. Hume’s point, in plain English, is that no statement about how the world is can tell you how the world ought to be.

In my experience this is one of the most prolific arguments against secular morality, in one form or another. Atheists are often asked to ground their moral system, only to be lambasted for trying to make an ought from an is, as in “I ought to help this homeless man because he is suffering”.

Whether Hume is right—whether there is a genuine and universal impasse between all descriptive claims and all moral claims—is not what I intend to discuss here, mostly because I haven’t fully developed my thoughts on it. Instead, I’d like to point out that Hume’s claim hits equally hard against theistic moral theories as it does against secular moral theories. Simply observe that the justifications given for moral prescriptions in theistic moral theories are purely descriptive.

When asked “Why is X morally right/wrong?”, how may a religious person reply? Here are a few examples I’ve heard from Christians:

…because God has revealed to us what is right and wrong.

because we love God and desire to please him.

because God loves us and we reciprocate.

because God commands us (to/not to)

…because God’s nature is good.

because God is the ultimate.

Notice that all of the above either describe God or describe our relationship to God. They are all statements about how things are, so they tell us nothing about how things ought to be, under Hume’s argument. Indeed, in the very paragraph from which the Is/Ought problem originates, Hume hinted that explanations of religious moral theories are no exception; he lists [establishing] “the being of a God” as an example of the sort of descriptive statement from which a prescriptive claim mysteriously follows.

The examples I gave are, of course, not an exhaustive list of every justification a religious person may give for their moral claims, but I do think that every justification I’ve heard is a variation on one of the above. If there is a way in which theistic accounts of morality uniquely solve Hume’s Is/Ought problem, I would love to know about it.

I’m a bit perplexed as to why the Is/Ought problem is still successfully employed  in apologetics to help argue that theism has a kind of ‘moral superiority’ over atheism—that theism provides better explanations of morality than atheism. Why hasn’t the vulnerability of theistic morality to the same problem been pointed out en masse by atheists in ethics debates?

Perhaps we find ourselves so often on the defensive in moral arguments that we tend to forget to go on the offensive.

 

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