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Disagreements between atheists and theists in the realm of morality occur across the three major divisions of moral philosophy: descriptive ethics, normative ethics, and meta-ethics. Each is important and must be approached in differently, but most debates return to a meta-ethical question: what is the basis or grounding for ethics in the first place? Atheists and theists may find broad agreement in the other categories, but there is far less agreement or common ground here. This mirrors the debate between atheists and theists over the proper grounding for beliefs generally and the conflict between faith and reason.
Descriptive ethics involves describing how people behave and/or the moral standards they claim to follow. Descriptive ethics incorporates research from anthropology, psychology, sociology and history to understand beliefs about moral norms. Atheists who compare what religious theists say about moral behavior or the basis for morality against how they actually behave need to understand how to properly describe both their ethical beliefs and their actions. To defend their own moral philosophy, atheists need to know how to accurately explain the nature of their moral standards as well as the moral choices they make.
Normative ethics involves creating or evaluating moral standards, so is an attempt to figure out what people should do or whether current moral behavior is reasonable. Traditionally, most moral philosophy has involved normative ethics — few philosophers haven’t tried their hand at explaining what they think people should do and why. Religious, theistic normative ethics often rely on the commands of an alleged god; for atheists, normative ethics can have a variety of sources. Debates between the two thus frequently revolve around what the best basis for morality is as much as what the proper moral behavior should be.
Analytic ethics, also called meta-ethics, is disputed by some philosophers who disagree that it should be considered an independent pursuit, arguing that it should instead be included under Normative Ethics. In principle, meta-ethics is the study of assumptions people make when engaging in normative ethics. Such assumptions may include the existence of gods, the usefulness of ethical propositions, the nature of reality, whether moral statements convey information about the world, etc. Debates between atheists and theists over whether morality requires the existence of a god can be classified as meta-ethical debates.
Sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between genuine moral statements and propositions which convey no moral content or claims. If you are going to debate the nature of morality, however, you need to be able to tell the difference. Here are some examples of statements which express moral judgments:
An important feature of morality is that it serves as a guide for people’s actions. Because of this, it is necessary to point out that moral judgments are made about those actions which involve choice. It is only when people have possible alternatives to their actions that we conclude those actions are either morally good or morally bad. This has important implications in debates between atheists and theists because if the existence of a god is incompatible with the existence of free will, then none of us have any real choice in what we do and, therefore, cannot be held morally accountable for our actions.
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