Via exapologist, a paper by philosopher Erik J. Wielenberg which is essentially a response to various theistic criticisms of atheistic moral realism (or, more precisely, “non-natural non-theistic moral realism.”) His view is that there are ethical brute facts, which are metaphysically necessary and require no grounding or justification.

I read the paper quickly, mostly because I could tell that the objections which Wielenberg addressed were not at all the sorts of objections that I would raise to atheistic moral realism. (My impression was that Wielenberg handled most of them adequately.) The sort of objection that I would raise to atheistic moral realism is essentially Mackie’s argument from queerness, which Wielenberg briefly discusses in his paper. It has been a while since I read Mackie’s paper, so I won’t attempt to reproduce his arguments. Instead, I will simply raise my own objection, which I think Wielenberg should address if he has not already.

Professor Wielenberg has written an entire book defending his atheistic moral realism, and probably appreciates my free advertisement.

Suppose there are such things as ethical brute facts even if God exists, as Wielenberg maintains there are. Wielenberg believes, that “pain is intrinsically bad.” In fact, Wielenberg believes that it is necessarily true that pain is intrinsically bad, even in possible worlds in which no beings capable of experiencing pain exist. (He makes this claim explicitly about another ethical brute fact: “The state of affairs that it is just to give people what they deserve obtains whether or not any people actually exist.”)

The claim, in other words, is that there are necessary ethical brute facts about the psychological states of contingent sentient beings like humans (pain, after all, is a psychological state).

The problem with this claim, to me, is that it is extremely bizarre. As far as I can tell, Wielenberg must believe that the entirety of human existence can be explained by science except for our moral beliefs, which concern an utterly different, non-scientific kind of brute fact (namely, the ethical kind). In an age when scientists fantasize about a Theory of Everything – a complete theory – a theory with no exceptions – such an exception for ethical brute facts is glaring.

Of course, atheistic moral realism could be true – but I see no reason, apart from a fear of moral nihilism, for it to be true. In my opinion, it would be much, much more ontologically elegant (and thus plausible) for the naturalist to reduce morality to psychology, rather than positing ethical brute facts that are not empirically discoverable.

(Let me put this another way. As far as I can tell, most scientifically oriented atheists would agree with the following principle: If something can be reduced, it should be reduced. There are, in fact, many scientists currently seeking to demonstrate that our moral beliefs can be explained purely in evolutionary terms. If Wielenberg accepts the general principle I just mentioned, he needs to explain why morality is not susceptible to the same sort of reduction that all sorts of other things have been. If he does not accept the general principle, however, he needs to explain why he is in disagreement with other atheists – especially when he believes that pretty much everything else about humanity can be reduced by evolution.)

If ethical brute facts are not empirically discoverable, how are they discoverable? How does Wielenberg know that his ethical beliefs are any better than anyone else’s? How did humanity as a species evolve to apprehend ethical truths at all? After all, if naturalism is true, human evolution was not affected at all by ethics. Thus, if E is an ethical brute fact, it is perfectly conceivable to me that humanity could have evolved such that most humans (including Wielenberg) strongly believe that not-E obtains. In other words, even if Wielenberg’s thesis is true, I do not see how he can escape a radical skepticism about his ability to discern ethical truths.

What advantage does theism give us with respect to these concerns? I think the existence of ethical brute facts becomes much less spooky if God exists – if our origins (and the origins of the universe) are transcendent and personal rather than (solely) natural and impersonal. And I am far from alone in having this intuition.

There is, admittedly, a lot more to be said (and a lot that could be done to organize my thoughts). But, if naturalism is true, I think the burden of proof lies on the naturalistic moral realist, not the naturalistic nihilist.