I’ll try to be as concise as I can - it seems to me that the argument central to all of this debate over morality can equally be applied to the theist’s position, or any other ethical position, too. In fact, I reckon it could be applied to absolutely anything we hold to be “objective”, so under the classic theist’s line of reasoning, nothing is objective! I’d be interested in what you think. My reasoning:
For simplicity, suppose our atheistic moral system consists of one rule only: “Harming others is morally wrong”.
The theist’s objection seems to me to be the following:
1) Why should anyone follow this rule? People are free to disagree with this proposed system of ethics (psychopaths, say) - one may regard harming others as “morally good”.
2) “Harm” is an ambiguous term - what one person considers harm may not be so for another.
Therefore, atheistic morality is subjective.
But surely this can be said of the theist’s position too? Under theism, morality would be something akin to: “adherence to the wishes/nature of god is morally good”. Let us apply the same line of reasoning to it:
1) Why should anyone adhere to god? People are free to disagree with this proposed system of ethics (satanists, say) - one may regard adherence to the wishes/nature of god as “morally wrong”.
2) “Adherence to god” is ambiguous - what one person considers as being in accordance with god’s wishes/nature might not be so for another - look at the thousands of discrepant denominations.
Therefore, theistic morality is subjective.
It seems to me that any rebuttals the theist might muster to the above would equally apply to the atheist’s case also.
If the theist were to say, in response:
“Well it is in god’s very nature to be morally perfect and good, therefore whether one chooses to adhere to his will or not makes no difference: his will would still be morally good objectively…”
But how is this different to the atheist just asserting:
“Well the very nature of harm is wrong and morally bad, therefore whether one chooses to adhere to this rule makes no difference…”
No-one would even need to consider rebuttals to the 2nd point because we would have, with the theist’s line of reasoning, undermined any prospect of an objective moral system to begin with.
Put simply, I see this entire argument as a waste of time: it’s the perpetual “why” that can forever be asked. The Christian/consequentialist/desire-utilitarian (I’m looking at you commonsenseatheism.com ) etc. will propose his or her meaning of “morality” only for every other person in the room to supposedly call into question its objectivity by asking “why should we accept that definition?” Notice that this objection could be made no matter what ethical system is proposed, now or in the future. We are essentially arguing over definitions: who gets to define “moral good”? If we allow this argument to pass, then essentially we are saying that everything with a challengeable definition is thereby subjective… which would be everything in existence, in ethics or otherwise!
So in essence, I’m agreeing with Sam in saying that this whole branch of philosophy seems to me to be a waste of time. And that theists and atheists alike are being mislead onto this incredibly dreary and ultimately fruitless debate, with its own vast palette of technical terms and positions which if you just use common sense, is actually pointless. Maybe I’m wrong, which if is in fact the case, please enlighten me. But as Sam proposes, morality is reducible to the suffering of conscious creatures - if you disagree, you disagree, but if you say that by disagreeing that this makes it subjective, then by your own line of reasoning you will never arrive at an “objective morality”. The same objection can be made to anything we define.
I do reckon there is an “objective morality”, and I believe in it in the same way I believe there are those of us reading this now who are objectively “sitting down” - that is, that contrary to anyone’s mere assertion or opinion, that the fact is, we are sitting down. And the mere fact that anyone can come to us and say it is only “according to our subjective definition” of sitting-down, neither endangers our whole enterprise on the subject to the point of meaningless relativism nor does it make my chair any less comfy—and comfy it is.
Thoughts and counter-points welcome,