Julian Baggini




Atheist ethics

Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov may have said, Without God, anything is permitted', but I bet he never tried parking in central London on a Saturday afternoon.

This chapter is all about the truths that lie behind this joke, concerning the authority of moral law and the idea that divine authority is required to uphold it. I will argue that Ivan Karamazov was either wrong or not talking about ethics. Morality is more than possible without God, it is entirely independent of him. That means atheists are not only more than capable of leading moral lives, they may even be able to lead more moral lives than religious believers who confuse divine law and punishment with right and wrong. These conclusions run counter to much received wisdom, but the arguments that lead to them are reasonably clear and straightforward.

To begin with we need to consider why so many people think God is necessary for morality. One way in which this supposed necessity is expressed is that in order for there to be moral law there has to be some kind of lawgiver, and, ultimately, a judge. An analogy can be made with human law, which requires a legislature to make law - usually a parliament - and a judiciary to uphold it. Without these two institutions - both embodied in the moral case in God - law is impossible.

The problem with this argument is that it confuses two separate things - law and morality. Law certainly does require a legislature and judiciary. But the existence of both does not guarantee that the laws enacted and enforced will be just and good laws. One can have immoral laws as well as moral ones. What is required for just laws is for the legislature and judiciary to act within the confines of morality. Morality is thus separate from law. It is the basis upon which just laws are enacted and enforced; it is not constituted by the laws themselves.

Where then does this morality come from? It is tempting to say that moral law has its own lawgiver and judiciary. But the same questions that were asked about the law can be asked about the moral law: what is it that guarantees moral laws are indeed moral? It must be because the moral law-enactors and enforcers are acting within the confines of morality. But this then makes morality prior to any moral legislature or judiciary. To put it another way, the only thing that can show a lawgiver is moral is that their laws conform to a moral standard which is independent of the moral lawgiver. So if the lawgiver is God, God's laws will only be moral if they conform to moral principles which are independent of God.

Plato made this point extremely clearly in a dialogue called Euthypryo, after which the following dilemma was named. Plato's protagonist Socrates posed the question, do the gods choose what is good because it is good, or is the good good because the gods choose it? If the first option is true, that shows that the good is independent of the gods (or in a monotheistic faith, God). Good just is good and that is precisely why a good God will always choose it. But if the second option is true, then that makes the very idea of what is good arbitrary. If it is God's choosing something alone that makes it good, then what is there to stop God choosing torture, for instance, and thus making it good? This is of course absurd, but the reason why it is absurd is that we believe that torture is wrong and that is why God would never choose it. To recognize this, however, is to recognize that we do not need God to determine right and wrong. Torture is not wrong just because God does not choose it.

To my mind, the Euthypryo dilemma is a very powerful argument against the idea that God is required for morality. Indeed, it goes further and shows that God cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary. There are attempts to wiggle off the prongs of the dilemma's forks, but like a trapped air bubble, pushing the problem down at one point only makes it resurface at another. For instance, some think the way out of the dilemma is to say that God just is good, so the question the dilemma poses is ill-formed. If God and good are the same thing then we cannot ask whether God chooses good because it is good - the very question separates what must come together.

But the Euthypryo dilemma can be restated in another way to challenge this reply. We can ask, 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: God is good because he has all the properties of goodness. But 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. Hence there is no reason why a denial of God's existence would necessarily entail a denial of the existence of goodness.

Right and wrong, goodness and badness, thus do not depend on the existence of God. Indeed, in order for the idea that God is good to carry any moral force, ideas of goodness need to be independent of God. Otherwise, the distinction between right and wrong becomes arbitrary.

How then do we account for the widespread belief that 'without God, anything is permitted'? I think we can trace this back to a misplaced view of morality which follows the legalistic model I outlined earlier. Our religious heritage has left us with a view of morality as a set of rules which we follow in order to be rewarded (eventually) and do not transgress in order to avoid punishment. No matter what is taught in Sunday schools about virtue's own rewards, the threats of punishment, more than promises of rewards even, have been most psychologically effective in getting people to rein in their baser instincts. To believe that God is always watching you and will punish you for any wrongdoing is a very good way of avoiding doing anything contrary to the Church's teachings.

Take away these threats, however, and what is to stop you doing something wrong? Without God, anything is permitted only in the sense that there is no divine authority who will make sure you are punished for any wrongdoing. But that is neither the end of morality nor the end of civilized behaviour. The joke about parking at the start of this chapter illustrates the point that human beings are just as able to make and enforce prohibitions as gods. Everything will be permitted only if we abandon ourselves to anarchy, and there is no reason why someone would want to do that just because they do not believe in God.

More profoundly, it is an odd morality that thinks that one can only behave ethically if one does so out of fear of punishment or promise of reward. The person who doesn't steal only because they fear they will be caught is not a moral person, merely a prudent one. The truly moral person is the one who has the opportunity to steal without being caught but still does not do so.

I have argued that morality and religious belief are separate. If I am right, then the average ethical atheist actually appears to have more moral merit than the average ethical religious believer. The reason for this is that religion, with its threat of punishment and promise of reward, introduces a non-moral incentive to be moral that is absent in atheism.

One perceived problem with a godless morality is the degree of personal choice it seems to leave the individual. If there is no single moral authority, then do we all become sovereigns of our own privatized moralities? Many find this worrying, but in fact individual choice is an inescapable part of morality whether one believes in God or not.

Morality and choice

I have already mentioned Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling as a study of faith, but it is also a deep study in the inescapability of personal choice. It is this aspect of the work that is most responsible for Kierkegaard's reputation as the 'father of existentialism'. Existentialist thinkers are a pretty disparate bunch, comprising Christians, atheists, communists, fascists, free spirits, and pretty much everything in between. What unites them is a belief in the inescapability and centrality of individual choice and freedom in human life. Their message is that you are always making choices, even when you try and pretend that you have not chosen, and that these choices carry with them responsibility. For instance, I might try and avoid making a choice by asking someone else to choose for me. But this does not mean I haven't chosen, it just means my choice has moved from being directly about my final action to being about the means of making the selection. I cannot avoid my responsibility for what I go on to do: having chosen to follow the advice of someone else, I am as responsible for so doing as if I had chosen without that advice. After all, I could always choose to accept or reject the choice made for me.

Kierkegaard's retelling of the story of Abraham illustrates this point. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. On the divine command model of morality - that moral law comes directly from God - it seems that Abraham has no choice: he has to obey. But it would not be a great display of Abraham's faith and goodness if he just went ahead and killed his son without any thought at all. There are at least two choices he needs to make. The first is a kind of epistemological choice: he has to decide whether the command he has received is authentic. How can anyone know that what they seem to have been told by God is really an instruction from God and not one from an inner voice or an evil demon? The problem is that no evidence or logic can settle this question conclusively. At the end of the day Abraham has to decide whether he personally is convinced or not. That is his choice.

The second choice is a moral one: does he follow the command? In a wonderful Woody Allen short story, Abraham thinks the answer to this is obvious: To question the Lord's word is one of the worst things a person can do.' However, when he goes ahead and takes his son to sacrifice, God is outraged that Abraham took his joke suggestion seriously. Abraham protests that at least his willingness to sacrifice his son shows he loves God. God replies that all it really proves is 'that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice'.

The Allen story is a comic retelling of Kierkegaard's philosophical retelling of the Bible story, and both make many of the same points. The most striking idea is that Abraham cannot evade his moral responsibility by simply following orders. We should be alert to this since the terrible human propensity to do awful things just as long as they are commanded by someone in authority was particularly evident in the 20th century. Abraham's choice to obey the order is not just a choice to accept or reject God's authority. It is a moral choice to decide whether what he is being asked to do is right or wrong. After all, surely it would not be right to do what God commanded (assuming you were satisfied that God really had commanded it) no matter what it was. If God asked you to lower an innocent person into acid inch by inch, killing them slowly in terrible pain, would that be okay? Of course it wouldn't. Religious believers are sure that God would never ask such a thing (although the Old Testament God does ask for some pretty bloodthirsty deeds to be carried out). But the point is not that God might ask people to do such a thing, it is that the hypothetical example shows that following or rejecting a command given to you by another, even God, is a matter of personal choice which carries moral responsibility.

The atheist and the believer are therefore in the same boat. Neither can avoid choosing which moral values to follow and taking responsibility for them. The atheist has the advantage, however, of being much more aware of this fact. It is easy for the religious believer to think that they can avoid choice just by listening to the advice of their holy men (it is usually men) and sacred texts. But since adopting this attitude can lead to suicide bombing, bigotry, and other moral wrongs, it should be obvious that it does not absolve one of moral responsibility. So although the idea of individuals making moral choices for themselves may sound unpalatable to those used to thinking about morality deriving from a single authority, none of us can avoid making such choices.

Sources of morality

So far I have argued that religion and morality are separate, and that even if you still think God is the main source of moral guidance, that does not mean you can avoid making choices about which moral principles to adopt for yourself. We need to go further, however, if we are to make a persuasive case that atheist morality is possible. It is not enough to show that religion cannot be the source of morality: we need to show what can be. It is not enough to show that we have to make moral choices for ourselves: we need to show that such choices carry moral weight.

When it comes to saying what the source of morality is, however, there are no easy answers. The difficulty can be seen by considering the strangeness of the question, "Why should I be moral?' This question can have two kinds of answer. One could provide a non-moral answer. For instance, one might say you ought to be moral because you will happier if you are or God will punish you if you are not. These are what we can call prudential reasons to be moral. The trouble is that sincerely believing in these reasons appears to undermine morality rather than support it. Acting morally, because it is one's own best interest to do so does not seem to be acting morally at all. Morality is about acting in the best interests of others and oneself.

However, if we give a moral answer to the question, such as "be moral because that's what you ought to do', we encounter the problem of circularity in our justification. Since the question is about why we ought to be moral at all, we cannot help ourselves to a moral reason as part of the answer, since that would beg the question. We can only offer a moral reason for action if we are already persuaded of the merits of morality.

So we face a dilemma. If we want to know why we should be moral, our answer will either beg the question (if it offers a moral reason) or will undermine the morality of morality (if it offers a non-moral one). This is not just a problem for atheists. The same logic holds for everyone. The reasons to obey a God-given morality will either themselves be moral or non-moral, and thus the same problem is faced by the religious believer.

The existence of this problem is not an argument against morality, however. It is merely a caution against the expectation that one can hope to find a simple source for morality, a reason to be moral that every rational person should recognize. I would argue that such a source cannot be found. The best attempt to find such a source is the Kantian endeavour to show that acting morally is required by rationality, which we will look at shortly. But despite their inventiveness and ingenuity, such attempts do not, I think, ultimately succeed.

What then can we put in place of such a source? I believe that at the very root of morality is a kind of empathy or concern for the welfare of others, a recognition that their welfare also counts. This is, for most of us, a basic human instinct Total indifference to the welfare of others is not normal human behaviour, it is symptomatic of what we would normally call mental illness. Its most extreme form is that of the psychopath, who has no sense of the inner life of others at all. This recognition of the value of others is not a logical premise but a psychological one. If we accept it, then we have the starting point for all the thinking and reasoning about ethics that helps us to make better decisions and become better people. But the truth of the premise, the fundamental conviction that others do count, is not something that can be demonstrated by logic. This is part of what Hume was getting at when he said 'reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions'. Moral reasoning can only get going if we have a basic altruistic impulse to begin with.

I should briefly mention an alternative view, which is that we should just accept that the reasons to be moral are themselves non-moral. Morality, on this view, is a kind of enlightened self-interest. Recognizing this does undermine the romantic view that morality is about a lack of self-interest, but some argue it need not completely undermine morality. Giving money to charity, for example, is no less moral because it is done out of enlightened self-interest. What matters is that we act well. It need not matter that the ultimate justifications for so doing are selfish.

I am not persuaded by this because it does seem to me to be an indispensable part of ethics that self-interest is not sovereign. At best, the view of morality as enlightened self-interest gives us reasons not to engage in antisocial behaviour or to do things that benefit us in the short run but have greater long-term costs. But that is not morality. Morality always contains the possibility of requiring one to act against one's own interests. If I am never prepared to sacrifice some self-interest, then I do not think I can ever be truly moral.

We can now return to the problems posed at the start of this section. If God isn't the source of morality, what is? I would suggest it is a basic concern for the welfare of others, a concern that is not based on rational argument but empathy and, for want of a better phrase, our shared humanity. The second problem was, if it is up to us to make our own moral choices, do these choices carry any moral weight? I would argue that they do, because if we recognize the need to think about the moral dimension to our actions, then morality has to matter. The fact that we are left with choices to make cannot make it matter any less. The seriousness of morality derives from the seriousness with which we take the need to account for the interests of others and ourselves. It does not derive from the system we use to help us take these interests into account. Morality's seriousness is not diminished if moral decisions are freely chosen by us rather than dictated to us by laws laid down in heaven.

Moral thinking

The overall framework of my discussion in this chapter has been the existentialist insight that we cannot avoid responsibility for the choices we make and that therefore we have to in some sense 'create' values for ourselves. The discussion has largely been about meta-ethics - the general nature, basis, and structure of morality. If we are to move on from here, however, and think about the specific content of morality - what we should actually do - we need to do some further thinking. What I am going to do next is simply sketch three broad approaches to moral reasoning that have been dominant in the history of Western philosophy. All of these demonstrate how rich secular discussions of ethics can be. They show how the resources of good moral reasoning are equally available to the atheist and the religious believer.

Rather than view these as rival theories, I suggest we should see them all as resources we can draw upon to help in our moral reasoning. Of course, a 'pick and mix' approach has severe limitations. Most notably, adopting one way of thinking about a moral problem might lead to a conclusion that is diametrically opposed to the conclusion reached by using another method. Nevertheless, all these approaches offer ways into moral thinking that can at least help us to think a little more about what is at stake. What we should not do is think that they are like little moral calculi that can be called into action to generate an appropriate response to any moral dilemma.

Most introductory ethics classes in philosophy would distinguish between Aristotelian, Kantian, and Utilitarian ethics. However, since it is my claim that we can draw on all three and that we should not see them as hermetically sealed rival theories, I am going to focus on the distinctive features of each rather than consider them as complete theories. This will make it much easier to see how it is possible to draw on all three without loss of intellectual integrity. These three characteristics are the emphases on human flourishing, consequences, and the universal form of moral law.

Human flourishing

If you flick through Aristotle's great work of moral philosophy, the Nichomachean Ethics, you might notice something that looks strange to modern eyes. At one point, Aristotle asks what the right number of friends to have is and whether or not it is possible to be friends with bad people. But how can the number of friends we have be a concern of ethics?

Understand this and you have understood what is very different about the Ancient Greek conception of ethics compared to some popular modern conceptions of morality. We tend to think of morality in terms of prohibitions and obligations. There are things we ought to do and things we ought not to do, and living a moral life consists in following these rules. Our broader life goals, such as success, happiness, or finding the perfect pizza, are then pursued within these constraints.

This modern conception separates out the idea of a life going well for a given individual and that person following moral rules. This distinction did not exist in Aristotle's ethics, nor in many of the ethics of other Ancient Greek thinkers. For them, ethics just was about what is required for a human life to go well or to 'flourish'. What we would now recognize as moral rules were based on the idea that following such maxims was required if one's life was to go well.

Because ethics was approached in this way, the list of recommendations Aristotle made included some things we would think were obviously about ethics and some things which we would not. So the good person - one whose life is going well - will be prudent, have a close circle of not too many friends, show courage, be just, spend money wisely, and be amiable and witty.

A central insight of Aristotle's was that in order to live such a life one has to cultivate certain dispositions of character. He recognized that we are creatures of habit and that the best way of ensuring we act well is for us to practise doing good things, so that we then do them without having to think about it. So moral education is about instilling virtuous habits, while moral theorizing can be undertaken only once we are mature and developed.

One important question is whether Aristotle's ethics ignores the distinction between morality and self-interest or shows that the division is illusory. It would be nice to think that just as long as we do what is genuinely required for our lives to flourish then we will always do the right thing by others. But this may be too optimistic a view. After all, it has to be remembered that Aristotle was writing for a male, slave-owning class who did not take into account the interests of those lower down the social ladder. There is no hand wringing in Aristotle about the slave's ability to lead a flourishing life: slaves are just ignored. So there are at least grounds for concern that Aristotle's approach only meets the interest of some and not all, and that therefore it fails to provide a true morality.

Nevertheless, it is heartening to see just how far one can go with Aristotle's approach. Just by thinking about what is required for a life to go well, we end up with a picture of a virtuous life which is in almost all respects an extremely moral one. Greed, anger, maliciousness, petty self-interest, and so forth do not enter into the life of Aristotle's flourishing person. For your life to go well for you, you cannot afford to be in the grip of these destructive forces.

So here is a first step in moral thinking. Forget any transcendental lawgiver or divine source of morality. Just think about what is needed for a human life to go well and you will soon find that most of what we recognize as morality comes into play.

If that were all we could say about morality, however, we might be a little concerned. After all, it does seem that the wicked can flourish too. Many have tried to argue that this is not so, and that, despite appearances, no one who is wicked is truly happy or content. I personally wish this were true but find it hard to believe. Life would be very easy if self-interest and living well always coincided. But I don't think they do, and that is why we need to draw upon other ways of thinking about ethics if we are to construct a credible morality.


It is an obvious fact about actions that they have consequences. What is more, these consequences can be good or bad: they can make things better or worse. Arguably, the mere fact that we recognize this to be true is enough to get some form of morality going.

To give a simple example, if I kick someone for no reason then that causes them pain. That pain is a bad thing which cannot in any way be outweighed by any better, good thing, because there is no reason for the kicking. Recognizing that the causing of this pain is a bad thing thus gives me a reason not to kick them.

It should be obvious that if we start thinking in this way we have the basis for a kind of morality, one that is usually termed consequentialist. We have reasons for not doing things that have bad consequences and we have reasons to do things that have good consequences, just because we recognize that it is better that good things happen than bad ones.

As soon as we try and build on this banal-sounding truism to construct a complete moral theory we head into difficulties. But it does not seem to me that these subsequent difficulties in any way cast doubt upon the simple observations that set us off in this direction. For instance, consider one difficulty, which concerns the status of these reasons for action.

If we start to think about why a thing having bad consequences is a reason for not doing it we can soon see a puzzle. What kinds of reasons are they? Are they reasons that express simple facts? Is 'pain is bad thing' a kind of factual truth on a par with lead is heavier than water'? Many philosophers have thought not. 'Lead is heavier than water' is a simple, incontrovertible truth which is demonstrated by the physical sciences. In saying that it is true we are doing no more than describing the world. But when we say 'pain is a bad thing' it seems we are not just describing the world, we are evaluating it. If we were simply describing the world we could say things like 'pain is found to be unpleasant' or 'pain is something living creatures seek to avoid', but the moment we say it is bad we move beyond the facts to making value judgements.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then any moral argument that is based on a claim that 'pain is a bad thing' is not just expressing truths about the world but is making a judgement about it. And that means that moral claims are not true or false in the same way as factual claims are. Because moral claims are judgements, it is always possible for someone to disagree with them without saving something that is factually false. So if I say pain is not bad, you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error.

There are various philosophical reasons why this question is important. But in practice I am not sure it matters one bit. All we need to get going on a broadly consequentialist way of thinking about ethics is to accept that pain is a bad thing. Now it is an interesting question whether or not 'pain is a bad thing' is a fact or a judgement, but as long as we agree that pain is a bad thing, for practical purposes the question does not require an answer.

But what about the person who does not accept that pain is a bad thing? Let us assume this disagreement is not on technical grounds (in other words that they refuse to assert that it is a bad thing because they believe to do so entails some philosophical commitment they do not want to sign up to). In such a circumstance I don't think we need to be concerned by the fact that our moral view does not command 100% agreement. As I have already argued, morality in the end requires a personal commitment and the acceptance of responsibility. In some unusual circumstances we may be confronted with a situation where rational argument can take us no further and we are confronted with a stark disagreement: I think (unnecessary) pain is bad, you do not. In such a situation we can only stand up for our values. And since our most basic values are shared with the vast majority of other human beings, such resolution in the face of dissent is hardly fascistic.

I would not want to suggest that there aren't real problems with consequentialist thinking. Indeed, I think there are a great many and that a purely consequentialist moral system is deeply flawed. However, that does not diminish the fact that in simply accepting that bad consequences provide reasons not to do certain actions and good consequences provide reasons to do others we have one pillar upon which to build a godless morality.


There is something else we could say about why it is bad to cause unnecessary pain which opens the door to another powerful way of thinking about ethics. In each of our own cases we would have no problem in seeing that it is bad for us to suffer unnecessary pain. But if it is bad for us, surely it is also bad for any other creature that could suffer pain in a similar way? If that is true, we have another reason not to cause suffering to others.

This is a very natural line of thought, and versions of the principle that stands behind it have been formulated in various different ways throughout history, from Confucius's golden rule 'Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself, through Kant's categorical imperative, to the parent who asks their child to consider what would happen if everyone behaved like that.

What reasons do we have to accept something like the golden rule? One reason is that we are in danger of acting inconsistently - or to put it more crudely, hypocritically - if we don't. We can see why by thinking about Kant's distinction between what he called hypothetical and categorical imperatives. An imperative is any kind of command such as `you must do X' or `you ought to do X'. Some imperatives hold only with regard to some desired outcome or purpose. For example, if I'm trying to gain weight, then it might be said that I ought to have another cream cake. This 'ought' carries some force only because of my desired goal of gaining weight: I ought to eat the cake only if I want to gain weight. Such an imperative is `hypothetical' in Kant's terminology, meaning that we always need to give some goal or aim to explain why we really ought to do what the imperative commands.

In contrast to these, Kant argued that moral 'oughts' are categorical. I ought not to murder regardless of my aims or objectives. The prohibition is categorical, meaning that we do not need to give some goal or aim to explain why we really ought to follow it.

One of the points Kant is making is that this just is the structure of a moral rule. It is the nature of moral rules that they have the form of categorical imperatives. If this is true, then whenever we recognize that we ought to do something or ought not to do something else, we are endorsing a principle that is not relative to the particular interests, desires, or objectives of specific individuals, but universal and applicable to all. So, for example, to recognize that I ought not to be cheated is to recognize that no one ought to be cheated. To be indignant about being cheated while not worrying about cheating others is thus an example of hypocrisy: the arbitrary changing of rules to suit oneself.

We need not go as far with Kant to embrace the idea of the categorical imperative to see that some form of universalizability is both an essential feature of moral rules and a natural part of moral reasoning. All we need to get the general principle of universalizability is first to accept that certain things are good or bad if they happen to us, and second to accept that there is no rational reason why, if they are good or bad for us, then they are not also good or bad for other people in similar circumstances. If we accept these two propositions then we have some kind of rational grounding for the principle that we ought not to do unto others what we would object to them doing unto us.

As with all the moral principles I have sketched, we do not have to go too far into the details for things to get difficult and controversial. In this instance, one of the major debates is whether or not universal, categorical imperatives are somehow demanded by reason, as Kant thought, or whether or not the sense in which universalizing moral rules is rational is much weaker. For what it's worth, I think the second response is correct But as with so many details of moral philosophy, for practical purposes these debates may not matter very much. The very basic principle of universalizability, that if we think something ought to be done in one instance then it ought to be done in other relevantly similar circumstances, commands sufficient agreement and can be used in such a wide range of moral arguments, that technical problems with its formulation and justification are no obstacle to its employment in everyday moral reasoning.


It should now be obvious that the idea that the atheist must be an amoralist is groundless. The religious believer and the atheist share an important common ground. For both it cannot be that what is right and wrong, good or bad, is defined in terms of God or simply follows from divine command. For both, moral choices ultimately have to be made by individuals, and we cannot get others to make our moral choices for us. So whether we have religious faith or not, we have to make up our own minds about what is right and wrong.

To provide a source for morality we need to do no more than sign up to the belief that certain things have a value and that the existence of this value provides us with reasons to behave in certain ways. This very broad commitment does not entail any specific philosophical or even religious position. It is arguably no more than the basic commitment of someone who has human feeling.

Once we have undertaken this basic commitment we have several resources to help us think about what the right thing to do is. We can think about what is required to help our own lives and the lives of others flourish. We can think about what the consequences of our actions are and avoid those that harm things we think are of value and try to do those things which benefit them. And we can recognize that to say something is good or bad in one circumstance is to say it is good or bad in any other relevantly similar circumstance, and so can strive to be consistent in our actions, or to put it another way, strive to avoid hypocrisy.

Of course, it can still be said that we can provide no logical proof that atheists ought to behave morally, but neither can we provide such a proof for theists. The mistake that is often made is to suppose that if one has religious belief, moral principles just come along with the package and there is no need to think about or justify them. Once we see through that myth, we can see why being good is a challenge for everyone, atheist or non-atheist.

© Julian Baggini, 2003
The moral rights of the author have been asserted
Published in the United States by Oxford University Press Inc., New York
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ISBN 0-19-280424-3