Atheism is generally taken to entail that there is no afterlife. More specifically, it is taken to entail that there is no afterlife in which people are rewarded or punished for their behaviour here on earth. (I say “generally” because it is conceptually possible for an a-theist to embrace some sort of afterlife, provided it does not involve the existence of a God). Some theists think this is problematic, that it suggests something deeply implausible/unwelcome about morality in an atheistic world.
One such theist is William Lane Craig. In several of his papers and public debates, he has railed against atheistic moralists on the grounds that their conception of morality has no place for “ultimate accountability”. In this post, I want to look at Craig’s arguments and suggest that they are deficient. In doing so, I draw once more on Louise Antony’s excellent contribution to the book Debating Christian Theism, as well as some other sources (particularly Oppy’s Arguing about Gods).
I’ll divide my discussion into three parts. The first part tries to clarify the nature of the accountability argument. The second part looks at one interpretation of the argument — the justice interpretation — and suggests that it may lead to a corrupted view of moral behaviour. The third part considers another interpretation — the bindingness interpretation — and argues that it fails to make a significant case against atheistic morality.
1. Arguing about Accountability and Atheistic Metaethics
Metaethics is the branch of moral philosophy that is concerned with the ontology and epistemology of morality. In other words, with explaining the nature/grounding of moral values and duties, and with the epistemic route to knowledge of those values and duties. For our purposes, the most relevant of these inquiries is the former: the ontological inquiry. What exactly is it that best explains (accounts for, grounds) the existence of moral values and duties (if anything)?
Atheistic metaethics maintains that moral values and duties can exist in a Godless universe, that we do not need to ground or explain those values and duties by reference to God. Theistic metaethics maintains the exact opposite: that God is needed to ground/explain the existence of moral values/duties. How do we decide which theory to accept?
One popular strategy in metaethics is the following. Write down a list of abstract properties that you think are shared by moral claims — for example bindingness, motivational salience, impartiality, other-regardingness, and so on — and then try to see which theory or worldview can account for those properties. In other words, argue like this:
- (1) Moral values and duties exist.
- (2) Moral values and duties share properties P1…Pn.
- (3) Theory X (or worldview X) can best account for all these properties.
- (4) Therefore, theory X (or worldview X) is likely to be true.
There is a logical gap in this argument that I will ignore for present purposes. Also, as you can see, the argument supposes that moral values and duties exist (premise 1). That is certainly a supposition that Craig works with in his discussions, and one that I am happy to work with for the purposes of this blog post. Nevertheless, it should be noted that there are many metaethicists who would reject it. Oftentimes, they do this by challenging premise (3) and arguing that no true theory or worldview can account for the properties we think moral values and duties ought to have.
Anyway, one of the most common debates in metaethics has to do with the precise list of properties in premise (2). Some people are quite minimalistic in what they demand from morality, including only a handful of properties (e.g. impartiality and other-regardingness); others are much more demanding, including long lists of properties that must be accounted for lest we all become moral nihilists. There can be fruitful debate about which properties are truly necessary for morality to exist.
Craig’s accountability argument can be interpreted as a claim about one of the properties that must be included in any satisfactory metaethical theory. Specifically it can be interpreted as the claim that any satisfactory metaethical theory must allow for “ultimate accountability”, where this is understood viewed as some final reward/punishment for good/bad behaviour. And since the theistic worldview allows for this, it is more likely to be true than the atheistic. As follows:
- (5) Objective moral values and duties exist.
- (6) In order for objective moral values and duties to exist there must be ultimate accountability.
- (7) The theistic worldview allows for ultimate accountability; the atheistic worldview does not.
- (8) Therefore, the theistic worldview is more likely to be true.
Antony challenges premise (6) of this argument by looking at two different interpretations of the word “accountability” and arguing that neither is essential to a successful metaethics. We turn to those two different interpretations now. As we do so, we’ll see how it may also be possible to challenge premise (7).
(Note: There is another way to understand Craig’s argument, which is arguably more in keeping with his aims. This is to view it not as an argument about what is necessary for a successful metaethical theory, but rather as an argument about what is necessary for a meaningful and worthwhile life. I’m not going to discuss that interpretation in this post. I have, however, discussed Craig’s take on the meaning of life before and interested readers should consult those posts for more on this possible interpretation.)
2. The Need for Ultimate Justice
The first way we can interpret Craig’s plea for ultimate accountability is as a plea for ultimate justice. Justice requires that everybody be given their due, either in the form of rewards for good behaviour or punishments for bad behaviour. The problem with the atheistic worldview, on this interpretation, is that it relies solely on the human ability to dish out rewards and punishments, which is imperfect and incomplete. The theistic worldview has the advantage because at its root is an ultimate justice giver (God) who can ensure, with perfect success, that evil is punished and good is rewarded.
The Justice Interpretation: What is required for moral value to exist is that “evil and wrongdoing will be punished; righteousness will be vindicated. Despite the inequities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced.” (Craig 2009, 31).
There are several problems with this interpretation. First, as Oppy points out, it assumes that justice can only be satisfied if good and bad behaviours are met by some corresponding reward or punishment. This is questionable insofar as bad behaviour could be “punished” simply through the absence of reward for other good behaviour, and vice versa. Hence, the argument must be reformulated so that it talks about net levels of reward and punishment. Furthermore, there are non-theistic metaphysical schemas in which there is some sense of ultimate justice (e.g. karma).
But that’s a relatively minor point. The more important one is that the demand seems obtuse. To say that moral value can only exist if there is some ultimate justice looks to be patently false. If I give 50% of my income to charitable causes, and thereby relieve a great deal of suffering in this world, are we really going to say that my actions are valueless simply because I couldn’t address all the suffering in the world, or because the impact of my actions was finite? Surely, the alleviation of suffering would bear some moral value, irrespective of these deeper temporal and metaphysical concerns. Imperfect justice does not imply a lack of justice, or of moral value more broadly.
More troublingly, there is the risk that the demand for some ultimate reward/punishment would actually corrupt our sense of moral value. If everything we do is ultimately going to be rewarded or punished in the end, then it’s hard to see why moral value doesn’t simply reduce to prudential value. Indeed, Donald Hubin makes a great case for this effect in the book Is Goodness without God Good Enough? when he argues that genuine self-sacrifice is impossible on the theistic worldview since you ultimately get rewarded for it in the end (i.e. you’re not really sacrificing yourself). This is an ironic turn of events since Craig often objects to atheistic morality on the basis that it is guilty of reducing moral value to prudential value. If you’re interested, there is nice exchange on this very point in the Craig-Kagan debate.
Kagan also makes another objection to ultimate accountability in his debate with Craig. He argues that one problem with the traditional Christian conception of the afterlife is that ultimate reward comes pretty cheap. All you need to do is to accept Christ as your saviour (or confess to your sins if you’re a Catholic) and you get it. Or so it seems. Christians can, of course, respond to this by rejecting this take on the conditions for salvation, or by rejecting the sacrament of confession, but it’s worth thinking about nonetheless.
3. The Need for Bindingness
A second way to interpret Craig’s demand for accountability is to view it as a sub-condition that must be satisfied in order for moral claims to be genuinely binding on human agents. Although there is disagreement on this point, many metaethicists accept that moral norms need to be motivationally salient, i.e. that when people know what the moral reasons for action are they ought then to be motivated to follow them. But how can this be if there is no ultimate reward or punishment? If the fate of our eternal soul is not at stake in our moral decision-making, then how can moral norms bind us in any meaningful way?
The Bindingness Interpretation: What is required for genuinely binding moral norms is some ultimate reward/punishment for our moral actions.
There are two problems with this approach to the argument. The first is that there are other, non-moral norms, that seem to be perfectly binding without the presence of a sanction of reward. For example, logical norms. It is perfectly straightforward to say that we are bound not to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent, or to obey the law of the excluded middle, without also needing to identify some ultimate reward or punishment for these behaviours.
Some people might object to this on the grounds that obedience to logical norms can be re-described so that there is always some reward or punishment. So, for example, one must obey the law of the excluded middle on pain of having false beliefs, or being irrational. But moral norms can be re-described in these terms too. Thus, we can say that one must obey moral norms on pain of being wicked/evil (h/t Arif Ahmed for this point). Such redescription is easy; it doesn’t mean there is anything more or less real about the reward/punishment, or anything more or less “ultimate” about it.
The second problem with the bindingness interpretation has to do with the analogy to human laws that is often used in its defence. Theists sometimes argue that there cannot be binding moral laws without there being some moral law-giver who attaches sanctions to certain behaviours. The claim being that this is also needed for binding human laws. But this is false. Human laws do not derive their normative force from the mere presence or absence of sanctions. Rather, they derive their force from collective beliefs in the authority of the law-givers.
So in order for theism to be needed to generate binding norms, one would first need to accept that God’s law has the necessary authority. And whether one accepts that or not will depend on one’s analysis of the Euthyphro dilemma, as Antony nicely points out (i.e. it will depend on whether one accepts that God’s laws could have a content-independent bindingness). Fortunately, I’ve analysed this before.
In summary, the accountability objection to atheistic morality holds that the atheistic worldview cannot account for one key property of morality, viz. accountability. This property can be interpreted in different ways, but whichever way you look at it, it seems like one of two things is true: (i) it is not actually necessary for morality; and (ii) atheism can account for it just as well (if not better) as theism. Consequently, the accountability objection would seem to fail.