It began with my assertion that in the absence of God, there can be no objective source of morality/ethics/legal justice. These things will devolve into a more or less subjective determination of what is right for “me.” That might result in people trying to get along, but it will also result in people acting out of pure self-interest and being a law unto themselves with their own advantage as the goal. My main point leads to the conclusion that atheists who act ethically in the common sense of the word – abiding by what most people would call right or wrong – do so for the same basic reasons as those who act out of pure self-interest, and whatever can be said of those who act in an unethical manner (in the same common sense meaning of ethical), it cannot be said with authority that what they do is unethical. We can only disagree with it, but not call it “wrong” or “evil.”
Ray holds that objectively knowable ethics does emerge in the absence of God from human beings acting in the real world for particular goals. He begins his explanation with an analogy to chess. Here’s Ray:
Given the rules of chess, and a desire to win a chess game, then sacrificing your queen at the start of the game is an *objectively* bad strategy. In other words, "ought" doesn't arise from "is" - but "ought" does arise from "is" *and goals*. We have fixed 'rules of the game' in the laws of physics - we are not free to violate those conditions. Gravity and thermodynamics and conservation of energy can't be cheated. Humans also have goals, and - just as in chess - given fixed conditions and goals, *objectively* effective and ineffective strategies arise of necessity.Yes that’s fair.
So far, all we've got are 'effective' and 'ineffective' - which is not the same as 'good' and 'bad' in the sense you're looking for. As you put it, "Wise strategies are employed by the evil and the good alike, and perhaps even more effectively by evil people than by the good." But if you have reservations over terminology - which I'm conceding for the nonce - then I do, too. I'd suggest swapping out "wise" in your sentence above for "shrewd" - since the word 'wise', in my experience, has a certain moral component or connotation to it as well.
I think your counterpoint can be summed up as, "different goals make for different strategies". Is that fair?
But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the beginning. Your analogy to chess actually conforms very well to a traditional understanding of the elements of human acts. In traditional terms of, for instance, Aristotle or Aquinas, all acts occur in a set of given circumstances and involve a particular end. Deliberation about the end under those circumstances yields a determination of the means to attain the end. Some means are well suited to the end, and others not. I have to agree with you so far, Ray, and say, Yes, sacrificing your queen early does not seem like a means well suited to winning at chess, given the circumstances of the rules and the desire to win.
The same could be said of any goal. If you needed to buy milk (goal) and the supermarket was 5 miles away, using a unicycle as a mode of transportation does not seem like a good strategy, objectively speaking. A car would make much more sense.
But circumstances and goals are seldom so simple. Not only do different goals make for different strategies, which is surely true, but so do different circumstances.
In terms of goals, it has to be considered that all things we do, we do for reasons beyond the activity at hand. We play chess to win, but we may play for other reasons at the same time. We buy milk to drink for enjoyment or nutrition, or to use in a recipe for cake. These further goals might render the act ethically evil: In chess, we might choose to play and win to humiliate our opponent, say, or to gain the glory of victory and the acclaim of chess fans; we might want to buy milk to make an enemy who is allergic to milk sick.
In terms of circumstances, wanting to win at chess may be unethical if one is a grand master and one’s opponent is a novice, where teaching the principles of the game might be a better goal. Now, one can want to win against a novice at the same time as wanting to teach the game, and it becomes a matter of which goal takes precedence.
Also, whether or not God exists is a circumstance that is sure to have an effect on most of our moral actions. If God does not exist, then it is difficult to say that it is wrong to beat the heck out of a novice just for fun, or to slip milk to someone allergic to it to make him sick. If the individual determines he has a good reason to do such things, how is it that someone else can call them objectively wrong?
To push your analogy a little further, you might say that acting in such a way is sure to be a bad strategy, objectively speaking, for making other people like you and want you around. Perhaps. However, what if that’s not one’s goal, at least with respect to those people who think such things are wrong? If God exists, then it would stand to reason that “pleasing God” (understood properly, which we haven’t gotten to yet) would be something that all reasonable people would want to do. Wrongness would come from the objective fact that treating other people badly would be a bad strategy for pleasing God. In the absence of God, the main person I need to please is myself, and would strategize accordingly.
But I think perhaps I went a little far, so let’s backtrack a bit. For now, I agree with the basic notion that in the reality of the world and with a particular goal, some strategies are objectively well suited to attain the goal, and others not.