Problems with Matt Dillahunty’s Secular Morality

Matt Dillahunty

In the most recent Atheist Experience, they had a very long call from a theist who claimed he could prove that God is necessary for human morality.  He started off essentially challenging Matt Dillahunty’s workhorse lecture, “The Superiority of Secular Morality”.  I’ll link to one of his talks below, in case you haven’t seen it.  While I think this caller is completely out of his gourd,  both on his claim for the necessity of God and his eventual admission that he’d do what he believed was the will of God, no matter how heinous the command actually was, it reminded me of some of the problems I’ve had with Matt’s position on secular morality over the years.  This gives me a perfect place to take a closer look.

Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think that secular morality is infinitely better than religious morality, simply because it comes from reality.  It may not have the feel-good, emotionally-comforting, lie-to-yourself quality of religious morality, the sense that you don’t have to think for yourself because some imaginary father figure in the sky is doing all of the hard work for you, you just have to mindlessly accept it, no matter how absurd it might be.  No, secular morality, like all of secular thinking, is much more difficult, much less emotionally-pleasing, but it is superior because it actually makes rational sense.  I think that’s the problem though, we shouldn’t expect secular morality to be presented in a nice, neat package, bottled and sanitized for your protection.  In fact, secular morality is messy, just like virtually all human thought processes.

Matt defines morality as the “evaluating an action with respect to some standard or value”.  Then he goes on to say that once you have your  standard, regardless of where you get that standard, “the assessment with regard to that standard becomes objective”.  That’s where we come into disagreement.  He says that once you agree with a standard, that standard becomes objective, yet that assumes that you have a single standard upon which people agree.  I think it’s clear, that’s simply untrue.  How do you achieve that standard objectively?  You simply cannot, any conditions you wish to apply to it, any goals you wish it to accomplish, those are all subjective, they come from people.  Even religious standards are subjective.  It was largely the religious who, through their reading of the Bible, decided that slavery was a wholly moral practice.  It was also largely the religious who, through their entirely different reading of the Bible, decided that slavery was evil and needed to be abolished.  Which one is correct?  The answer is both.  Or neither.  What makes one potentially true also makes the other the same.  What invalidates one invalidates the other.  The idea that someone reads a book and adopts a set of standards from it is invalidated by the fact that someone else can read the same book and draw an entirely different set of rules from it’s pages.  This is equally true of someone who chooses to apply a particular political ideology.  Just because you like those ideas doesn’t make them objectively better than any other ideology out there.

The problem is, he says there is an objectively best moral course, I have to ask how he comes to that conclusion?  Objectivity is defined as “judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.”  I’m sorry, but everything Matt points to is wholly influenced by emotion and personal prejudice.  There is a serious difference between subjective and objective measures.  When you are driving, your car is moving at a particular rate, this is entirely removed from your feelings about your speed.  When the cop pulls you over and asks you how fast you think you were going, he doesn’t tear up the ticket if you happen to pick the speed limit.  No matter how fast you think you were going, you were actually going a specific speed.  Matt has chosen a series of values which appeal to himself and to the audience most likely to hear his talk.  If he gave the same speech in an area where liberal atheism was not the norm, it certainly would not be as well received.  Imagine him giving the talk in the deep religious south or on the streets of Tehran.  He’d certainly be booed, he might be lynched.  He espouses typically Western values, like freedom of expression and equality that simply would not fly for a second in places in the East.  If we’re going to start talking about objective moral standards, standards that are simply true and correct and beyond emotions and personal prejudices, then we need to have them recognized as true everywhere.  Exactly how likely do you think that will be?

Then he starts talking about modification and alteration of the secular system, however, he states that it encourages change and that it’s primary purpose is in the improvement of the participants of the system.  However, this again can vary from person to person and group to group.  He brings up the idea that if one’s value that men are better than women or whites are better than blacks conflicts with people within the group, then the rule ought to change.  So what’s stopping them from changing the rules against, say, pedophiles?  After all, there are certainly groups out there like NAMBLA who insist that they deserve equal footing with non-pedophiles.  Why isn’t the rule changing?  I would assume that Matt would say something about harm caused to others by allowing NAMBLA to be accepted in society, but earlier in the talk, he said he supports legalizing marijuana.  What if I assert that such results in harm to society?  I pointed out my views in a previous post that drug use, even drug use that doesn’t cause serious physical harm to the user, still causes harm to the individual and to society as a whole.  As it was pointed out in the Q&A, Matt is somewhat overweight, something he freely admits, that’s certainly harmful to the individual and to society, through an increase in obesity-related disease, etc., why shouldn’t that be banned?  How do you balance freedom with responsibility?  I’ve given my views on that, I don’t see his spelled out in any detail.

He criticizes non-secular morals as being non-changing, yet he insists that they’re welcome to come on over to the secular side, assuming they’re willing to change, and adopt an entirely different set of moral standards.  Funny, isn’t that what the non-secular people have been saying all along?  Come over here, change your worldview and you’ll be accepted!  Further, Matt has gone on record quite clearly in the past saying that slavery was always immoral, even when the majority of the nation thought otherwise, based on his beliefs today.  That’s the definition of subjective.  Certainly, I think you can make a case today, based on some of the subjective assumptions and beliefs we have today, but you certainly  can’t turn around and apply that to another point in history when none of that was true.

In his section on constructing secular morality, he immediately starts to show his biases.  Remember, earlier on, he said that secular morality was generated from within, yet now he’s saying that there are some people whose ideas, generated from within, are clearly not worth listening to.  He says that they can be safely ignored because it’s “our” moral system.  Guess what?  It’s “their” moral system too!  Who are you to decide, based on your own personal biases, which parts ought to be listened to and which parts should not?  Shouldn’t that be left to the group?  Maybe your views are in the minority?  Apparently yes.  Groups like NAMBLA or the KKK, that do not share a widespread popularity, would be shoved out the metaphorical airlock.  What Matt’s really talking about here isn’t morality, it’s group-think and majority rule.  Those things that fall outside of majority approval have no voice, those things that do get preferential treatment.  We do what we want to do because we want to do it and we stamp a “morality” label on it to make it look positive to people who disagree.

Matt talks about being able to reject the views of the KKK out of hand.  Why?  Because what they say doesn’t create a society that “we” want.  Who is “we”?  Clearly, the members of the KKK want that kind of society, so “we” is just another betrayal of Matt’s personal subjective values.

He starts talking about “core values”.  Life is preferable to death.  Pleasure is preferable to pain.  Says who?  Again, this is catering to his own personal biases.  Certainly there are many cases that I, and I know Matt, could come up with where life is not preferable to death.  How about living in agony with untreatable, terminal cancer?  Pleasure isn’t always preferable to pain, in fact, the whole reason the pain response exists is to warn us that something bad is happening.  If we never felt pain, we’d be like the poor kids that have anhidrosis and often injure themselves seriously because they cannot tell they’re being harmed.

So what kind of a world do you want to live in?  Who cares?  I thought we were talking about objectivity here, not subjectivity.  That’s where this entire argument falls down.  He says that secular morality is clearly superior because WE say so.  We who?  It’s not hard to point to all kinds of cases through history where really awful things happen because WE say so.  Why was there slavery?  Because the majority of people in power supported it.  He’s not talking about objective valuations here, he’s talking about mob rule.  We who?  We, the secular?  We, the religious?  We, the slave-owners?  We, the clergy?  We, the liberals?  We, the neo-conservatives?  Who is this we?  Why do they get to decide what everyone does?  The answer is obvious, because his audience are largely liberal atheists who are unhappy with the way the nation is running under a religious majority and who want a chance at running things their way.  Not at all objective, sorry.

In the Q&A section, he gives it all away when he says that people agree to follow the rules when they choose to live within a society, but why doesn’t that apply to atheists when they agree to live within a largely religious society?  We get to change the world, we fight for it every  day, but nobody else has the right to fight against us?  We are in the minority.  Why do we get to decide what the majority have to do?

See, I’m a skeptic.  I’m not a skeptical atheist, I apply skepticism to everything no matter who says it.  Matt gets the same critical treatment as anyone else and, in this case, he just doesn’t live up to the hype.  Yes, I agree that secular morality, in general, is better than religious morality, but I don’t think for a second that we can make a case for a single, worldwide, time-insensitive moral code, based solely on objective precepts.  Not everyone wants the same things out of life and therefore, the idea that we can all collectively agree on a single set of standards is absurd.  We need to allow people to live the lives they want to live, not the lives we want them to live.  If freedom and self-determination is a criteria that we value, then how can we demand that people in other cultures who choose to live a particular way are wrong?  Are they not free to pursue their own ways?  Who says our standards are right?

Before people start declaring that one way is the right way, they need to discard their personal subjective biases from the mix and examine the proposition on it’s own merits, not how the proposition makes them feel.  Like it or not, just throwing out religion isn’t going to make this world a better place to be.  Getting rid of faith isn’t going to make a person rational or moral.  Religious morality is only as good as the people who believe it, secular morality is only as superior as the people who practice it.

That’s a fact of life we all need to live with.

39 thoughts on “Problems with Matt Dillahunty’s Secular Morality”

  1. Yes, morality is subjective. I find it frustrating that people often confuse subjectivity with objectivity.I've been saying the same thing for years. There's a difference between ethics (an objective approach) and morality. Morality is societal/culturally defined. I could go on and on about it, but I won't in the comment section.

  2. It's been quite a while since I watched matt's talk on that subject and I don't remember the details terribly well, but I do recall being quite disappointed. Have you read the moral landscape? It's also been quite a while since I read that, but I remember thinking that Harris' thoughts on morality were much more to my liking.
    My recent post Revelation 1: Jesus Vomits Swords

    1. I rewatched it for this article and I will have to say, I was even more disappointed than I remember having been in the past. Now it might have been this particular taped version, I don't know. I respect and like Matt for the most part but this line of argument just doesn't do a thing for me, especially since it's so absurdly easy to poke holes in his statements.

  3. Well done Cephus. I am not familiar with Matt's lecture, so don't want to comment too much on that. I do think that you are correct in pointing out the confusing nature of subject/objective morality. Morality cannot be solely objective, it must change as humans change. As you point out, we cannot apply a moral standard of today to centuries past. That past age must be judged on its own.

    The issue is further complicated from society to society.

    All of that being said, I am not sure there are not some objective moral ideas that are a product of evolution. As a species are we not evolved in some way that informs us that doing "harm" to others is not beneficial to our success as a species. I know that there is some academic work regarding that idea, but am not well versed in it enough to offer any serious commentary. It is similar to what Harris wrote in the book Hausdorff mentioned. If I recall correctly, he doesn't advocate for objective morality in the sense we normally think of it, but rather alludes to the idea that we may be hard-wired to "not do harm" or to "promote the well being" of other humans, even if those terms themselves are redefined over time. (I may be wrong on attributing that to Harris).

    Either way, I think this is an interesting topic and well worth discussing.
    My recent post Atheism Plus, Drama, and The Atheist Community

    1. That's exactly why I gave a link to it at the bottom, so anyone who wasn't familiar could see it. Ah, the wonders of the Internet. 🙂

      I think Harris has some good ideas but I don't really remember a lot of details. Personally, I think that since humans are an evolved social species with the ability to be empathetic toward others, our morality largely arises from those two elements. We do live together in groups, thus we will do things to better the groups in which we live, we also understand enlightened self-interest, thus we understand that if we want to be treated a certain way, we must also treat others that way. Those two, taken together, can produce most, if not all of our modern moral precepts.

        1. Actually, I'm glad you mentioned it because the link I had put at the bottom vanished between the time I wrote the article and the time I published it. Damn WordPress. Wouldn't have realized it without you, pal. 🙂

  4. My apologies, I just realized that the talk I had linked to somehow vanished from my final posted version so I have replaced it as well as providing a direct link at the top of the page.

    1. Or more properly, they don't understand where the Bible came from. It's just a primitive book of mythology, the moral precepts in it came from people who were just putting down their concepts for morality, as they saw them. Anyone who adopts those precepts today is just operating off of an ancient moral ideology that most people have moved on from today.

  5. My only problem with Matt is that he loves to lead complete morons into losing arguments and play power control games with them via their crappy phone system. "What's that? Oh, you didn't hear me tell you to shut up because the phone lines suck. Good Bye!". All with the smile of that says, "I'm the biggest jerk on the planet and I love it." He seems to have fun picking on people who are intellectually inferior to him. Some of them deserve it because they are just as big of an ass as he is, but you can tell the other hosts are annoyed by it. However, because of him being an asshole draws lots of viewers they allow him to continue with his antics. I like him, but I don't think he is right for THIS show.

    1. While I'll be the first to say he hangs up on some people too fast, I think he doesn't hang up on others fast enough. I know I wouldn't have as much patience as he has with some of the idiot callers who just rant on and on and on about the same things even after being proven wrong.

  6. i have to admit that i haven't extensively read / listened to matt's morality lectures, i've vaguely heard him talk about it before. i tend to lean more towards an objective view of morality: here in the states we typically believe that men and women should be treated equal. in the middle east, they typically do not. we can objectively (through statistics, physiological study, economic analysis, quality of life) determine that western morality is superior to eastern morality in this way.

    in the case of christians and slavery, we can objectively determine the 'wrongness' of slavery, so it doesn't matter which christians were accurately interpreting their religious beliefs, it matters which christians were being immoral by owning other humans as property. i can agree with you in that matt's definition of morality is flawed (i didn't think that was his actual definition of it, but i didn't read his lecture) but if you define morality as what is best for quality of life and human progress, it becomes quite objective.

    p.s. smoking / using marijuana is not bad for society. in weighing the cost and benefit, you'd be VERY hard pressed to prove that with any kind of certainty, and given the medical and therapeutic benefits, it'd be pretty easy to prove the opposite. marijuana and most "drugs" are two completely different things and it is a huge mistake not to make a distinction between the two.

    all that being said, i think you're a great writer and your subject matter is of utmost importance. awesome

    1. The problem is, you're not talking about objective morality there, but your own personal opinion. If you asked the people in the Middle East if their morality is superior to our morality, they'd say yes. You start talking about morality and end up trying to justify morality by talking about economy and culture, which are two different things. The fact is, we cannot objectively determine which morality is better because it's an inherently subjective topic, everyone will assert that the moral structure they personally favor is better than all other moral structures. How do you determine who is right and who is wrong?

      Once again, you are simply stating that we can objectively determine that slavery is wrong, yet you have not proven it to be the case. *WHY* is slavery wrong? You're just saying it, you're not proving it. You are applying your opinion and claiming that it's fact. That's not objectivity.

      As for drugs, there really is only a single medical benefit to marijuana and I've already said that for people who specifically have a condition that is helped by prescriptive marijuana use, I'm fine with it. Marijuana doesn't cause any health benefits, it simply alleviates symptoms caused by some diseases and treatments. It does not, in and of itself, cure any disease. There's a wide gulf between people who have medically-demonstrated conditions getting specific prescriptions for marijuana and saying "what the hell, everyone do it!" The same is true of wine. We know that drinking a little wine every day in moderation has health benefits, it contains a chemical that has anti-aging properties. It only works in moderation though, it would be foolish to tell people "wine is good for you so everyone go out and get drunk!" Marijuana has a very narrowly defined medicinal use, just like all the other drugs that doctors can prescribe, that's why it ought to remain a controlled substance. We don't just put out Vicodin and Percocet on store shelves for everyone to enjoy, just because they have a medicinal use.

      Thank you for the compliment, I do my best. Thanks for reading!

      1. First congratulations for generating debate. That in itself is civilisation. The issue is in principle simple.

        1. The moral standards are subjectively set by a process of vote
        2. The standards are applied objectively by the legal and political systems.

        Both secular AND religious systems do this BUT religious doctrines are based on fundamental beliefs in infallibility and eternalism ie this is true now and for all time (God said so and we'll enforce it). Democracies change over time and place checks and balances to both protect the laws and the process of review FOR the population who ultimately and collectively determine standards. Religions leave that bit out and then the fun begins. Hello Dark Ages.

        Now does it make sense? In effect what is happening here is exactly what matt says we should do. Well done! Don't you hate it when he's right?

        1. The problem is, all moral standards change over time, even the religious. The religious morals of today are not the same as the religious morals of 20 years ago or 50 years ago or 100 years ago. The religious are simply unwilling to acknowledge that their moral views change, they pretend that what they believe today is what their religious forefathers have always believed, no matter how demonstrably ridiculous that may be.

  7. Hi,

    One thing I'd like to point out is that the abolition of slavery had nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with the British government.


  8. Regarding Matts call in show. Its the reason why people call in. Matt is not calling these "intellectually inferior" people. They call in, the majority of Christians that call claim they know everything just because of what they been told to believe in / its in the bible therefore it must be true. Matt cannot control the amount of stupid people that call in.

    A common trend with most Christians is that they disregard OT but concentrate on NT. Fact! OT and NT are the same God. You'll find that a lot of Christians have not read the entire bible…no matter how much immoral/questionable things in there.

    The saying goes "the faster way to be an Athiest is to read the bible cover to cover."

    1. I agree with what you say, that doesn't change the fact that Matt uses a lot of the same tactics and practices that theists use when it comes to his take on secular morality. Theists claim that God is the source of all morality without being able to demonstrate it, Matt claims that "harm" is the source of all morality without being able to demonstrate it. Certainly I find more in common with Matt than with theists, but I take it one step further and recognize that there simply is no objective source of morality and don't pretend that there is.

      1. The way I understood Matt’s premise was that the objective standard was set up in the beginning to make each subjective evaluation. While it’s initially subjective, once agreed upon, it becomes the objective standard. His argument against theistic morality is that it doesn’t present a true objective standard either.

        1. The problem is, there are no objective standards. Matt's is subjective, so is religion's. Just agreeing on a particular standard doesn't make that standard objectively true, just subjectively agreeable.

  9. "We need to allow people to live the lives they want to live, not the lives we want them to live."

    Even if the life they want to live is destructive of the lives of others?

    1. I am utterly certain that if you researched the numbers, the majority of people whose lives are destructive of others are in fact religious people.

      That being said, would it be moral to exterminate all people whose lives are destructive of others? Would it be possible to do this without actually becoming in fact the people whose lives are the most destructive of others?

  10. Matt believe in an OBJECTIVE morality that is applied SUBJECTIVELY. The moral position is always (for example) that which causes most happiness and least harm. That will be a different action in each circumstance and therefore it is subjective in its application but it will always remain objective in its definition. He also states that there is always a correct action by that above definition (Which there is but we wont be able to measure it) which demonstrates its objectivity.
    Pain is not preferable to non-pain almost by definition. in fact "highly unpleasant physical sensation caused by illness or injury".

    1. But the definition is, in and of itself, subjective. It is chosen because it appeals to him. I'm not saying that's not a bad thing but it does put everything that comes after solidly on the subjective side. It depends on who you ask as to what is preferable, there are plenty of people who like pain. Further, I'd argue that people do not learn lessons in life if they never experience pain, be it physical or emotional. If there are no downs, how can you work for the ups?

  11. I like listening to TAE and Matt's discussions most of the time, but often-times it's clear that he's so wrapped up in his particular beliefs about things that he won't even consider another viewpoint. The slavery topic is one. I'm pretty sure the moral standards of the Hebrew God are quite different and would astonish most Humanists (eg. Matt D.), which is one of the reasons he's unable to accept the existence of such a God. What makes him so certain that humanism is the correct world view?

    1. As I keep saying, and I hope I don't come off as a broken record, but people's ability to see beyond their basic ideologies is difficult in many cases unless they are cognizant of the problem. Some people hold beliefs to the exclusion of all else, whether those beliefs can be rationally justified or not. It's why I keep telling people to put aside emotion and reason their way through issues. No one is necessarily immune to the problem, unfortunately.

  12. When you start you counterargument by nitpicking that "life is preferable to death" or "pleasure is preferable to pain" then your argument is clearly off-base. It's like saying "Slavery is bad? Then what about all the subs in sub-dom relationships? They like slavery!" The weakness of your nitpick becomes evidence for the original assertion.

    1. No, it doesn't. Asserting that a proposition is true requires that someone demonstrate, with evidence, that the proposition is true. Matt is just asserting it without evidence on a wholly emotional basis. He is making moral pronouncements, not moral arguments. All he's doing is saying "this is what I prefer", not "this is what I can show to be true". It isn't a nitpick to point this out.

  13. Matt doesn’t say that everyone agrees on a standard. He says that once you decide on what standard you’re gonna use, the assessments become objective as they relate to that standard. For example, if you say morality is minimizing harm (just for example’s sake), then certain actions objectively minimize harm more than others. Once you have a standard you can make objective statements about morality in relation to the standard. Matt openly admits that the foundation for morality (the standard) is subjective. You misrepresented matt’s position very badly.

    In fact, matt tried to guard against the kinds of misrepresentations you raised in this blog. Kinda frustrating.

    1. Which is irrelevant because if you have to decide on a standard, then that standard cannot be objective, it is subjective by definition. Now I don't disagree that minimizing harm is a fine standard to have, but it is still one that some people have chosen that not everyone is going to agree with, that relies entirely on personal opinion. Because even once you have that standard, it asserts that every decision made in support of that standard is automatically objective, when I have no doubt that there would be a lot of disagreement between people whether individual actions were actually moral or not.

      My point is that trying for objectivity at all is a recipe for failure. His ideas are fine, they are just framed in a very poor way.

  14. I know this is a really old post but…
    You make one glaring misrepresentation in your post. You wrote:

    “the assessment with regard to that standard becomes objective”. That’s where we come into disagreement. He says that once you agree with a standard, that standard becomes objective

    He didn't say the standard becomes objective. He's specifically saying the standard is subjective. He's saying once a standard is selected, you can then make objective determinations about actions as they relate to that standard.

    1. Yes, but I don't think you can find an objective standard, which really means that unless everyone agrees, you've still got nothing to show for it. And in his case, his standard is harm. Okay, now define harm. Now get everyone to agree on what constitutes harm. Because I think you're going to have a hard time doing that. And it goes on and on and on and nowhere does any of it actually get to be objective. It's just a string of subjective assessments.

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