Atheism and Moral Accountability

Many atheists, dedicated to doing what is good, are offended by arguments that the atheistic worldview has problems with morality. It is frustrating for an atheist who genuinely loves doing kind actions to be told that, philosophically speaking, their lifestyle doesn’t fit with their worldview. After all, for that person, it does fit together. On the one hand, they don’t believe in an invisible fairy god who magically grants wishes, on the other hand, they love science, reason and the people in their lives. (Please notice how I define atheism).

Therefore, when an argument from moral accountability is made, it can strike some atheists as bizarre. Why is this? First, we need to explain the argument from moral accountability, and then we’ll respond to the perception that this is a “bizarre” argument.

What is the argument from moral accountability?

The argument begins by granting that both atheism and certain trans-cultural moral statements are true. (In other words, for the sake of argument, not bringing up the naturalistic fallacy). So, perhaps moral statements like “love thy neighbor,” “don’t murder,” and “be honest” are the morally right principles in every culture.

Next, the argument from moral accountability asks, “Well, so what? If a person flagrantly violates all of the moral principles, what happens?” The best answer is to say, “society will punish that person and their choices will be reduced by a fine, jail time, or even by capital punishment.”

The important point to notice is that this response leads us to the following rational maxim: do what you want, but don’t get caught. Or, for those with more power and wealth: do what you want, but be ready to defend yourself. Or, in nicer terms: do what makes you happy and that your society says is ok.

The argument focuses on the fact that, in atheism, there is no authority figure, besides other humans, who can secure justice for everyone. Therefore, if you are both powerful and evil, then there are no real consequences for your immoral behavior. In those cases, there is no justice. You can benefit yourself at the expense of others, thereby reaping a higher quality of life for yourself, and at death it is completely over.

This is a necessary implication of atheism: because there is no authority figure powerful and good enough to secure justice for everyone, there is a lack of ultimate moral accountability for those who do evil. If you can get away with it in this life, there are no consequences for harmful actions. By the same token, for those who make sacrifices to do what is good and right, there is no recompense for what they lost in the pursuit of virtue.

This is where the “Bizarre!” reply comes in. The primary atheistic response here is to say, “This argument is so weird! What good is it if you’re motivated to do good just so you don’t get punished? That is so childish! You should be inspired to do what is good just because it is good.” I’m happy to agree with anyone who says this. Being motivated by goodness itself is better than being motivated by fear of punishment.

However, life is more complex and challenging than pure idealism allows for. It simply is the case that the more motivations we have to be moral, the better off we are. There very well may be thousands of moments throughout one’s life where the conviction, “I will be accountable for my choices” leads one to make the right choice. But if atheism is true, this conviction is rationally replaced with, “If I can get away with it, it won’t matter.”

In addition, the lack of moral accountability erodes our sense of fairness and our desire for justice. There is no hope that, in the end, everyone will get their due. Instead, a clear-eyed, rational perspective is that, in the end, the powerful will get what they want, and too bad for everyone else.

Ultimately, the lack of moral accountability is a significant practical challenge for atheism. If atheists wish to remain moral and defend the importance of being moral, they have to do so with this hand tied behind their back. In addition, they have to continue believing in doing what is moral even though they know there is no ultimate justice in the universe. They know that whatever sacrifices they make to do the right thing cannot be repaid and also, that whatever gains they make from uncaught immorality are theirs to keep.

In this particular way, atheism is a morally discouraging worldview. Furthermore, it requires atheists to make a leap of faith if they wish to believe that living a moral life really matters in some cosmic sense.

My thanks to William Lane Craig for outlining this approach in his books and public debates.