The world-renowned atheistic ethicist, Peter Singer, sometimes sounds like a Christian:
"If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing." (Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, Christina and Fred Sommers, 836)
This bit of Scriptural wisdom (James 4:17) shouldn’t surprise us. We are made in the image of God, and He has written His law upon our hearts (Romans 2:15). However, we are left to wonder how an atheist makes this leap from following our moral impulses to something we all “ought” to do for ethical reasons. An impulse is just an impulse. We don’t follow all our impulses. Most of us don’t murder and steal. Why does Singer obey certain impulses and not others? Why are certain impulses more morally binding than others? This question is highlighted by the fact that elsewhere Singer writes,
When we reject belief in a god we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning. Life began, as the best available theories tell us, in a chance combination of gases; it then evolved through random mutations and natural selection.(500)
If life came about by chance, without any intention or purpose, then it can’t contain meaning or values, and Singer is correct. How can an explosion in a godless universe have meaning and value if there is no one to value it? How can music be pleasurable if there is no one to listen to it?
How then can Singer conclude that there are certain acts that we “ought” to do when there is no intrinsic meaning to determine what should and shouldn’t be? In Singer’s world, we’re no more than specks on the broad expanse of existence, left to ourselves to create our own meaning and moral truth. A speck can no more guilty than can a tree for falling on someone’s head.
Why then the necessity to act morally? Specks and other products of chance aren’t moral agents. We can’t expect a moral response “from a chance combination of gases” anymore than we can from the dust on my bookshelf. Where then does Singer find justification for his moral “ought?”
I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. I think most people will agree about this. (836)
What is the basis for his “assumption that suffering and death…are bad” if “life has no meaning”? What authority or standard can determine that these things are bad? Indeed, our feelings tell us that they’re bad, but why should we regard our feelings as standards for moral truths if none exist? Some people feel that suffering and death are worth pursuing, at least in respect to others. If there is no higher, objective standard of moral truth, how can we object or discredit psychopathy? Singer seems to base his assumption on the fact that “most people will agree about this.”
Although he is correct that most people do agree, does majority opinion establish truth and moral obligation? Should our assessment of what is moral change once the majority changes its tastes and adopts a trendy moral novelty?
For the Christian, the sentiments of the majority do carry some weight. This is because Scripture declares that God infused us all with a common and uncompromising truth so that we can agree about right and wrong. It is because we all do have access to a transcendent truth that we can find wisdom in the perspectives of others. But is majority agreement, by itself, a sufficient basis for moral absolutes and judgments? Even if every Nazi agreed that it’s right to murder Jews, this wouldn’t make it right. Likewise, if every scientist deemed that leeches cured cancer, this wouldn’t make it true. Truth isn’t established by the majority; the majority can only bear witness to it.
Majority opinion doesn’t establish reality, or even moral obligation. It’s like saying that the earth revolves around the sun because most scientists agree that it does. Indeed, if most scientists agree, wisdom requires us to pay some attention to their claims. However, the fact that they agree cannot be the basis or reason why the earth revolves. Their opinions do not effect the earth’s rotation, however prestigious they might be.
Likewise, popular agreement may be a good indicator about what is ethical, but it fails to provide a basis or rationale for what is ethical. Even if every ethicist agreed that torturing babies was right, this wouldn’t make it so. (Interestingly, when we make such judgments, we consult our moral feelings, as if these revealed an authoritative judgment—and they do!)
Also, Science can’t establish moral “oughts”. Although science can help us determine how to deal with parasites, it can’t tell us why we should! The philosopher David Hume famously asserted that there is no way that we can get from an “is” to an “ought.” Science can tell us about what a parasite is and does, but it can’t tell us what we “ought” to do about it.
Transcendent values and morals do that job! These can only come from above. If there is moral truth, it must transcend us. Without a transcendent and independent truth, which stands in judgment of us, Bob’s feelings and inclinations are no less valid than Betty’s even if Bob is a serial killer. We may feel that Bob is acting inappropriately, but Bob feels he’s not! What makes our feelings any more authoritative than Bob’s? There has to be a higher court of last resort where this type of thing can be conclusively adjudicated.
The atheist has to get off the philosophical fence. Either there is a moral truth above what we feel, will or think and to which we must conform, or there isn’t. In this last case, our conscience is no more than a mad clatter of changing chemical-electrical impulses. The atheist can’t have it both ways.
Elsewhere, Singer attempts to base morality on what works for us individually (pragmatism):
Most of us would not be able to find happiness by deliberately setting out to enjoy ourselves without caring about anyone or anything else…Our own happiness, therefore, is a by-product of aiming at something else, and not to be obtained by setting our sights on happiness alone…normal lives have meaning because they are lived to some larger purpose. (500-501)
It is quite true that fulfillment is often a by-product of ethical, self-sacrificial living, and it should be this way. God commands what He blesses. Consequently, it’s a joy to serve Him, as Psalm 1 affirms:
“But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Verses 2-3; also John 4:34)
We perceive that there is a divine harmony between moral truth, following this truth, and the blessings we derive. But the atheist can provide no explanation for this glorious harmony, but can only acknowledge “Most of us would not be able to find happiness by deliberately setting out to enjoy ourselves.” Although this is true, it doesn’t explain anything.
As a painting says a lot about the painter, life preaches a continuous sermon about its author. We continually marvel at the design and harmony surrounding us, whether physical or moral, and its glorious Designer. Consistent with this, C.S. Lewis pitied the poor atheist in his desperate attempt dodge God: "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere -- 'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,' as Herbert says, 'fine nets and stratagems.' God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous." We can close our eyes to His things, but eventually, we’ll stumble.
There’s an additional problem with pragmatism or, as some call it, “enlightened selfishness.” There is something grotesque about it. It declares, “The only reason I’m doing good to you is because I’m profiting from it.” It also acknowledges, “As soon as I don’t profit from loving you or helping you, I no longer have any reason to do so.” So much for marriage!
Similarly, Singer acknowledges that his moral system, based upon “enlightened selfishness,” has its limitations. It is sometimes “prudent” and “rational” to not act in highly ethical ways:
'Why act morally?' cannot be given an answer that will provide everyone with overwhelming reasons for acting morally. Ethically indefensible behavior is not always irrational. We will probably always need the sanctions of the law and social pressure to provide additional reasons against serious violations of ethical standards.(503)
Singer admits something we already understand— if all we have is this life, it’s not always rational to act morally. Hiding Jews from the Nazis put one’s entire family in jeopardy of a bullet to the head. Self-interest is sometimes ill-served by truly moral behavior, unless we broaden our vision to include an eternal afterlife, where God will right all wrongs and comfort all hurts.
Singer would therefore legislate against what, in his opinion, is rational, thereby admitting that rational self-interest doesn’t always equate with morality, and that pragmatism sometimes produces selfishness. Well, what’s the matter with selfishness? Wasn’t it selfishness that empowered the survival of the fittest? Why then would Singer disdain selfishness in favor of something higher? This suggests that he recognizes that there is higher ideal than his this-worldly rational constructs. But what is the source of such an ideal?
To find an enduring meaning in our lives it is not enough to go beyond [the behavior] of psychopaths who have no long-term commitments or life-plans; we must also go beyond prudent egoists who have long-term plans concerned only with their own interests. The prudent egoists may find meaning in their lives for a time, for they have the purpose of furthering their own interests; but what, in the end, does that amount to. (501)
I think it’s impossible for an atheist to live in a consistent manner. Not only does Singer admit that he cannot formulate a coherent and comprehensive ethical system, he also admits that having a meaningful life requires that we go beyond a strictly materialistic worldview and adopt transcendent values.
Even Singer’s language is God-breathed. He writes about finding “enduring meaning,” not creating it! How can he find something that, according to him, doesn’t exist? He also rhetorically asks what it is all worth “in the end.” A consistent atheist shouldn’t be unduly concerned about the end as long as the ride was fun. However, Singer seems to recognize that life is more than just the ride. Clearly, Singer needs a broader worldview, one that can only come from God!