by David Geelan  |  4 August 2020  |  

Why do we make the choices we do, and how do we know that they are morally right ones? Moral reasoning is the process by which we arrive at answers to these questions. It is less about the specific solutions we arrive it, and more about the thinking processes we use to make these decisions.

Moral dilemmas are one way to explore our own moral reasoning processes:

  • If there is no other way to obtain it, is it morally justifiable to steal medicine to save a life?
  • Is it morally justifiable to lie to the Gestapo when they ask whether there are Jews hiding in my house?

The first of these pits our beliefs and values about private property against our beliefs about human life, and the second our beliefs about truth-telling against our beliefs about the value of others’ lives. Both are complicated by a belief in a God who will provide a way, or by a belief in personal sin and salvation (i.e. that lying or stealing will damn us), and different people are likely to come to different conclusions, based on different beliefs, different underlying values and different moral reasoning processes.

Is God Necessary for Morality?

A belief I often encounter in discussions with religious believers is that God acts as the external source and guarantor of morality. (I will confine myself to Christian religion for the purposes of this discussion, while recognising that other monotheistic and polytheistic religions also ascribe roles to God or the gods in moral reasoning.) It is possible to imagine a deistic God who created the universe but has played no further part, but most believers hold that God is actively involved and engaged in this life.

This belief may be linked to the idea of cosmic justice. Simple observation shows that this world is not fair or just. Evildoers are often rewarded and the good punished in our life on earth. A belief in God, and particularly in an afterlife, is a belief that the scales of justice can be corrected, that vice unpunished and virtue unrewarded in this life will be balanced in the next. Without such belief in an afterlife, we have to come to some accommodation with the idea that the world simply is unfair.

A related claim I often hear from believers is that in the absence of such a divine external guarantor of morality, life is meaningless, good and evil are meaningless, and we may as well be absolute nihilists and hedonists who abuse others for our own pleasure. The notion that abusing others is pleasurable is a bit worrying in itself, and perhaps we can be grateful that their beliefs keep them from seeking that pleasure—OK, I’m being a little facetious.

The moral reasoning that underlies this position, though, seems to me to come from the “gaining reward/avoiding punishment” level of moral reasoning. There is the related issue of absolute versus relative morality, but the key thing seems to be the claim that, without the promise of reward for virtue and punishment for vice, morality has no other meaning.


I’m not sure that’s the case, and a framework for understanding forms of moral reasoning developed by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg is a tool I use to help me think about this.

He initially developed it as a stage theory, and suggested that people move through the stages sequentially and eventually ‘top out’ at a certain level. That is, everyone attains Level 1, but some reach Level 6 while others only ever reach Level 4, for example. I’m not so convinced by the stage concept—I suspect that it might be possible to skip a stage, for example—but as a scheme for naming, talking about, and thinking about different kinds of moral reasoning, I think it has a lot of value.

(The question of whether morality is absolute or relative is quite complex philosophically, and this piece will already be quite long, so I might save that for my next Adventist Today discussion. It will, in some ways, bring me back around to my more usual philosophy of science territory.)

Believers sometimes claim that all morality in the world has its source in Judeo-Christian influences in law and society—that when atheists act morally it’s through social pressure or a social code, but that it was Christianity that created that kind of society in the first place. That argument might be sustainable in Western countries such as the UK and Europe and their colonies that grew out of a Christian tradition, but it’s pretty hard to sustain with a broader view of the world that includes countries such as China and India, that are not at all founded in that tradition.

What I’ll attempt to do, for the remainder of this piece, is to simply describe both a theistic and an atheistic approach to moral reasoning, using Kohlberg’s framework. By “atheistic” what I specifically mean here is an approach to moral reasoning that does not call on God as the divine guarantor of morality. Someone might believe that God exists but still take this kind of “atheistic” approach to moral reasoning. I’d note also that it is not an “anti-theistic” position, one hostile to religious faith; it is just an attempt to outline how a moral framework might arise in the absence of divine involvement.

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

  1. Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
  2. Self-interest orientation (What’s in it for me?)

This is pretty easy to explain from a theist orientation: God, the judgement and afterlife punish the wicked and reward the virtuous, so “you’d better be good for goodness sake.”

From an atheist’s perspective, it is about the here-and-now consequences, both positive and negative, of our actions: doing bad things can lead to arrest or fines from the authorities, divorce from our partners, ostracism from our friends and so on. Doing good things can lead to opportunities, positive rewards, esteem and so on. The punishments and rewards are on a different scale, but they’re definitely there.

Level 2 (Conventional)

  1. Interpersonal accord and conformity (social norms) (the good boy/good girl attitude)
  2. Authority and social-order-maintaining orientation (law and order morality)

From a theistic perspective, Stage 3, interpersonal conformity, is redefined somewhat. It’s not society’s approval (“good boy,” “good girl”) that is being sought, but God’s. What is praiseworthy is largely defined by the Bible, and may even be in conflict with what the rest of society thinks. Society is usually seen as corrupt anyway. Stage 4 is where many Christians, particularly those of a more fundamentalist (I’m using that term descriptively, not pejoratively) stripe, tend to focus. The Ten Commandments is one very clear set of rules by which to live life, and of course the Bible also has other rules, or rules can be created based on it.

A rule-keeping morality is characterised by statements about whether particular conduct is within the rules, and also with obsessive consideration of the letter and spirit of the law. In Adventist circles, for example, the fourth commandment, keeping the Sabbath holy, is emphasised. When I grew up in Australia in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was not appropriate to go swimming on the Sabbath, which was “doing one’s own pleasure” (Isaiah 58:13) but if you went on a nature walk along the beach, it was okay to take off your shoes and wade in the water—and so on.

For an atheist, Stage 3 is about approval from the rest of society, or from a subgroup of it. Outlaw bikers might like to think they are the ultimate rebels and need no one’s approval—sometimes actively seeking the disapproval of mainstream society—yet of course they do seek the approval of others within their own subculture. Everyone likes to be liked and seen as a “good bloke” or “good woman,” and seeking this kind of approval tends to reinforce moral behaviour at the “what will people think?” level of reasoning.

Stage 4 from an atheistic perspective tends to get transferred to other kinds of laws, particularly the laws of the land. This is the level of moral reasoning of the people who get very offended if someone exceeds the speed limit—not at all because of the threat of danger to that person or others, but specifically because the person is breaking the law. The same applies to all other laws: moral behaviour is seen as being defined by legal behaviour. The notion that a law can be immoral (slavery and discrimination were legal, for example) might be accepted in theory, but the response from those operating at Level 4 will usually be “But it’s the law!”

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)

  1. Social contract orientation
  2. Universal ethical principles (principled conscience)

Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not sure Stage 5 is understandable at all from a theistic perspective. A social contract takes the form “I won’t steal from you and you won’t steal from me: and if we both abide by the contract then both of us will be able to keep our stuff safe”. Perhaps a theist could argue that God’s laws encode the same kinds of principles as a social contract: the Ten Commandments do a decent job of encoding most of the common social contract principles. But that’s not quite the same level of moral reasoning, since the reason for keeping the Ten Commandments is not the social contract, it’s “because God said so.” Which boils down to either Stage 4 law-keeping or Stage 1 punishment avoidance/reward seeking.

For an atheist, Stage 5 is kind of the default for someone who has developed in their moral reasoning beyond the earlier stages: we do things and avoid doing things largely on the basis of the Golden Rule—“would I want it to be done to me?”. (You don’t need necessarily to ascribe that to Jesus, since it appears in almost every wisdom tradition globally.) This reason to do things, or not do them, resides in empathy and an ability to imagine consequences. At Stage 5 a person avoids drinking and driving, for example, not because it’s illegal, but because they can imagine what it would feel like to kill someone in an accident that was their fault.

Stage 6 is in many ways the defining point of difference. Theists ask, “How can moral principles be universal without a divine guarantee?” Any scheme that is human is on a human scale—and, of course, one of the hidden assumptions in this discussion is that Christian doctrine says all humans are fallen, sinful, corrupt. Anything that arises wholly from human sources, therefore, is flawed by definition. Without God to offer a “God’s eye view” of morality from a position above and beyond the human, all sets of moral principles are merely social constructions—social constructions founded in sinful human self-love and selfishness. Without a divine guarantee, they claim, moral principles are meaningless, fleeting and foundationless. As I noted earlier, proper consideration of this dilemma is a topic for next time.

Atheists, on the other hand, believe that humanity is all we have available when it comes to developing moral principles. Humanists (there’s a large overlap between atheists and humanists) tend to believe that humans are inherently good, inherently likely to seek to do right and to enhance others’ lives and experiences. Humanists would see humans as almost inevitably generating moral codes based on social contracts and avoidance of harm, and then generalising those beyond the local context and the “in-group.”

And for atheists, all they’ve got is all they’ve got. If humanity does not create a morality, then there will be no morality. Since there clearly exist moral codes in the world, they must have arisen through human processes. Our moral reasoning becomes a matter of applying these principles, and seeking to sieve out our own self-interest from our considerations so as to do the moral thing. Someone at Stage 4 will really struggle with the “steal medicine to save dying person” dilemma, since it involves law-breaking, but someone at Stage 6 will recognise that values, while universal, are also relative, and saving a life outweighs protecting private property. And so on.

My goal in this piece is not to support one or the other of these perspectives; it’s to try to help people from each perspective see how it looks from the other side. A big problem in the debates I’ve been reading is blanket statements about what theists and atheists “can’t possibly do” within their own moral reasoning, or that “in the absence of God there can be no universal moral principles,” and so on.

I guess my point is really that Kohlberg’s useful scheme—and the very real and easily observed categories of moral reasoning that it describes—doesn’t actually distinguish well between theistic and atheistic moral reasoning. Each level and stage (with the possible exception of 5) can be understood from within either perspective. Irrespective of whether we think people with a different perspective from us do tend to use all available levels of moral reasoning, it seems fairly clear that they can—that the opportunity exists.

Neither theism nor atheism rules out the ability to think and act in moral ways.

David Geelan is Sue’s husband and Cassie and Alexandra’s dad. He started out at Avondale College and has ended up (so far) as an Associate Professor of Science Education at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia.

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