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Atheist Ethics :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

We have looked at how to better define atheism and the rational case for atheism.  In this post I will summarize Julian Baggini’s own summary of atheist ethics, presented in chapter 3 of his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  Where does morality come from?  How can people who don’t believe in God believe there are moral codes everyone should obey?  Does morality automatically make perfect sense in a theistic framework?  He answers these types of questions in this chapter.

What is Atheism?

Chapter 3: Atheist Ethics

Many people believe that in order for morality to be possible, one must have a lawgiver and a judge who either punishes or rewards, but Baggini says this confuses law and morality—laws can be either moral or immoral.  The big question is this: Where does morality come from?  The author makes his case against the theist view of morality by breathing fresh air into the Euthypryo dilemma from the Socratic dialogues: Does God (or the gods) choose what is good because it is good, or is the good good because God (or the gods) choose it?  If we answer this question by arguing that God just is goodness (God and good are the same thing), the Euthypryo dilemma only needs to be restated differently:

Is God good because to be good just is to be whatever God is; or is God good because God has all the properties of goodness?  If we choose the former answer we again find that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be, even if God were a sadist.  So we must choose the second option … this means the properties of goodness can be specified independently of God and so the idea of goodness does not in any way depend upon the existence of God. (39)

In other words, “God cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary” (39).  Furthermore, being moral due to fear of punishment or self-interest in reward only taints (if not ruins) the concept of morality, giving the atheist “more moral merit” than the theist (40).  But doesn’t this leave us all with our own “privatized moralities”?  Yes, answers Baggini, but to ask the question this way (as an objection) misses the point that we all inevitably have our own privatized moralities anyway because “individual choice is an inescapable part of morality whether one believes in God or not” (41).  There is no way to avoid making private decisions about what is morally right or wrong even in the theistic framework for morality, for two reasons: 1) one must make the privatized decision in the first place to follow the moral law of a religion—a decision which could later be changed or abandoned, 2) even while one has adopted a moral code of a particular religion, one still is forced to either accept these laws or reject them.  More to the point: since “listening to the advice of their holy men (it is usually men)” religious persons have been led to “suicide bombing, bigotry, and other moral wrongs, it should be obvious that” adopting a religious morality “does not absolve one of moral responsibility” (43).  In the end, we must all “in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves” even if we are religious and have decided to follow the moral path laid out by that religion (46).

No Easy Answers for Grounding Morality 

Baggini finds the whole question “Why should I be moral?” strange.  There are no easy answers.  A non-moral answer to the question only undermines morality—for example, that we should be moral because we will be happier if we do or punished if we don’t.  Again, if we act moral out of self-interest, Baggini thinks we undermine morality because “morality is about acting in the best interest of others and oneself” (44).  If we give a moral answer “because we ought to do what is right” our reason becomes circular.  We shouldn’t expect an easy answer or source for morality that every rational person should recognize because no such answer exists.

At the root of morality is empathy and concern for the welfare of others that is, for most, a part of human instinct.  It’s not a logical impulse that leads us to morality, but a psychological one.  Yet if we accept it, we have a foundation for morality and the richness of Western philosophy provides a diversity of approaches for working this out.

Building a Godless Ethic

Aristotelian ethics helps us think about morality in terms of our desire for happiness and helps us see strategies for instilling virtues (although Baggini criticizes this model because he thinks any morality based on self-interest is problematic).  Nevertheless when we simply think of what we need in order for life to go well, morality comes into play.  Living well, however, and self-interest do not always coincide, so we need to draw from other sources of philosophy.

Utilitarianism can be another source: we think in terms of what causes pleasure and pain, then we evaluate our actions based on their consequences (both for ourselves and others).  So long as we agree that pain is bad, morality comes into play.  “Bad consequences thus provide reasons not to do certain actions and good consequences provide reasons to do others” (52).  This adds another “pillar upon which to build a godless morality” (52).

Another pillar is Kant’s categorical imperative: asking “what would happen if everyone behaved that way?”  This helps us think about the moral merit of an action apart from self-interest, which helps us avoid being hypocritical.  It’s obvious that Baggini favors this pillar above the others, for he already has shown his hand that he believes it is essential to morality to avoid self-interest.  “Some form of universalizability is both an essential feature of moral rules and a natural part of moral reasoning” (54).  What is good or bad for us should be considered good or bad also for all others in similar circumstances.

In the end, Baggini admits he has not provided any sort of logical proof that atheists ought to behave morally, but he is not bothered by this because he thinks theists have no such logical proof either.  It’s a myth, he argues, that morality just comes along with the package if you are a theist.  “Being good is a challenge for everyone, atheist or non-atheist” (56).

Can an Atheist Believe in Meaning or Purpose? 

In our next post, we will explore meaning and purpose within an atheist worldview.  Once I have summarized all of the major points in each chapter, I will offer my own personal assessment of Julian Baggini’s account of atheism.



  1. […] to better define atheism, explored his summary of the case for atheism, and even examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can both be integrated into an atheist […]

  2. […] to better define atheism, explored his summary of the case for atheism, examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can be integrated into an atheist […]

  3. […] to better define atheism, explored his summary of the case for atheism, examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can be integrated into an atheist […]

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