Morality Without God—Introducing Pactualism: A New Ethical Framework (Part 3/3)

Without God, morality doesn’t exist.

And it doesn’t need to.

Have you ever had someone try to convince you that you ought to do something? Having failed to convince you, do they resort, in exasperation, to the phrase “it is the right thing to do”?

The right-wrong moral construct is a tool whereby people seek to impose their will on others when persuasion fails. If they can’t convince you, they simply appeal to morality. For theists, this moral authority is God. And while atheists are fond of dismissing God, they essentially declare themselves to be God in their assertion of what is “clearly” right and wrong.

The fact is, unless you have God to tell you otherwise, there is no such thing as right and wrong. Theists have successfully nailed atheists to the wall on this point.


If we set aside this hopeless question of “what is right and what is wrong?” we can get to the nub of what the atheist ethicist pursues. Human behavior can be either awful or wonderful; we want a set of rules that will inhibit the former while promoting and maximizing the latter.

We can have such a set of rules even without moral authority.

(If this sounds like crazy talk, I highly suggest reading Part 1 and Part 2 before proceeding).

Theists would say that we need morality to maximize humanity’s benefits.  But we don’t.  We just need to determine what those things are that we agree that we expect of each other, and then we need to hold ourselves to those expectations. We do this by building an ethical framework based on pacts rather than on morality.

A morality is a set of rules dictating the rightness and wrongness of behavior that is thought to be intrinsic, natural, and objective. It is a real thing to discover, not unlike the physical laws of the universe. Morality intrinsically possesses authority, because it is believed to be true.  This concept, despite its baselessness, is so ingrained in our culture and thinking that even atheists hesitate to dismiss it.

In contrast with morality, a pact has no authority other than that which its adherents—or pactors—grant it. You are not intrinsically bound to any particular pact. In adopting a pact you play the role of lawmaker and subject simultaneously. You grant the pact authority, and then you subject yourself to it.

For the atheist to amputate from his thinking the vestigial organ left over from religion—that is morality—and to maintain a clear distinction between pactualism and morality, a new set of terminology is required.

Consider a familiar real-life example of a working pact: a hot dog stand.  New terminology is italicized.

The Hot Dog Stand

Pacts are all around us, and many of them are tacit and informal. Consider the line to a hot dog stand. The people waiting in line constitute a pactorate. Implicit with this scene is a pact that targets this pactorate. Stepping into line triggers the applicability of the pact to you and implies your adoption of it. This adoption of the pact makes you a pactor.  This pact consists of multiple rules—or pactums—that define the essence of the pact; the essence is the set of expectations the pactors have for one another. We may refer to these as essential pactums. Consider the following pactums:

  1. You are to get in line directly behind the last person who entered the line.
  2. When the person in front of you steps forward, you are to step forward as well to minimize the space between the two of you.
  3. If you are close enough to read the menu, you should decide what you will order in advance.
  4. Once you reach the front of the line, you should place your order as quickly as possible, speak in clear unambiguous language, and present payment for your order promptly.
  5. Once your order is fulfilled, you should step away from the stand and allow the person behind you to approach the stand to place his order.

Often these essential pactums are all that are necessary for a pact to maintain its structure and efficacy. But sometimes remedial pactums are called for. Remedial pactums specify acceptable, or even expected, responses to dispactal behavior. Consider the following remedial pactums:

  1. If a pactor is discovered to be in violation of pactum #1 (say he cuts in line), it is acceptable and encouraged to calmly indicate to the malpactor where the end of the line is and direct him to take his place there.
  2. If a pactor arrives at the stand and takes more than 20 seconds to place an order, the pactor behind him in line may ask the malpactor to temporarily step out of line while he makes up his mind as to what to order.

The above pactums, both essential and remedial, may be referred to as intrapactums because they dictate expectations pactors have of each other within their pactorate. But what about expectations pactors have with regard to their interaction with apactors—those outside the pactorate? We may refer to these pactums as extrapactums. Consider the following extrapactum:

If the line crosses a sidewalk, pactors are not to stand in the sidewalk. If they find themselves on the far side of the sidewalk, they will remain on that side until the line advances and produces sufficient standing space on the close side of the sidewalk.

This dictates responsibility the pactorate has toward apactors. It dictates that the sidewalk be left clear in consideration of apactors. Extrapactums are typically enacted to promote peace with—or perhaps to attract—apactors.  Extrapactums may also address acceptable response to apactor hostility.

Morality vs. Pact

So we see that a pactorate emerges when a community of individuals adopt a pact.  When an individual pactor adopts a pact, he does so expecting to impose it on the pactorate and he expects the pactorate to impose it on him.  At first glance this seems very similar to morality. The difference is that a morality is a description of something that is thought to be true, while a pact is a prescription that is adopted. In fact, we see that very often morality segues into particular pacts. For example, what a Christian may describe as “moral truth” often leads to prescribed laws or customs that people opt to embrace. In fact, a pact is not necessarily incompatible with a morality. It is just that a pact does not depend on a morality.

Disregard for morality is labeled immoral, evil, sinful or wrong. In contrast, we wouldn’t say that behavior that disregards a given pact is wrong; it is merely dispactal with regard to that particular pact. Conversely, behavior aligned with a given pact is not necessarily “good” or “virtuous” or “right”, it is simply pactal with regard to the given pact.

The terms pactal and dispactal have no meaning outside the context of a given pact. Nothing is pactal or dispactal in an absolute sense. Pactal and dispactal are strictly relative terms.

This language renders the theist objection “by what authority do you declare a thing right or wrong?” irrelevant. Atheists need not label behaviors with the morally charged terms “right” and “wrong”, thereby appealing to moral authority. Rather, the atheist may simply define a pact and persuade others to embrace it.  He will persuade others by arguing that the adoption of his pact is in their best interest (i.e., it will make them happier or it will advance their personal values).  I need no more authority to define a pact and persuade others to adopt it than I need to define a chili recipe and persuade people that following my recipe will make them happy.

From within this framework, our task is no longer to deliberate on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of individual actions. Rather, the task is to draft a pact that is sufficiently compelling to persuade people to adopt it. To make it compelling it will have to accommodate the desires and expectations people have for each other. Having persuaded people to embrace our pact, we may label individual actions as pactal or dispactal. Now, rather than hold people accountable to a moral standard, we hold people accountable to the pact they embrace.

Explicit Pacts

The hot dog stand pact is an example of an implicit pact. You trigger the pact merely by stepping into line. Your action implies, to the pactorate, that you understand and adopt this pact, and they will assume that you do until you indicate otherwise. Implicit pacts are typically a cultural phenomenon. We are culturally conditioned to recognize the setting in which a particular pact is triggered, and when multiple people acquiesce to that pact, it comes into being spontaneously. When applicability of the pact expires—say the hot dog stand closes for the night—the pact, and pactorate, dissolve. There is no code or law written on paper. The whole arrangement is informal and implicit.

These implicit pacts rule virtually every aspect of social interaction and they play an important role in keeping civilization pleasant and operating efficiently and smoothly—in a word, civilized. But sometimes we have expectations of each other that are too important to leave to informal implicit pacts. If apactors—or malpactors—disrupt the smooth operation of the line of a hot dog stand, we may find ourselves inconvenienced and highly annoyed, but our well-being will not be significantly harmed. But what about expectations we have of others that relate to the protection of our lives, or the lives of those we care about? What about expectations that relate to the protection of property? What of expectations that relate to shared resources, such as the water, land, wilderness, and the atmosphere? You know, the big stuff.

It seems like these big concerns demand that we lay down a hard protocol to prevent dire consequences. So we draft an explicit pact; we put words to a page. Examples of explicit pacts: a company policy manual, swimming pool safety rules, a club charter, or a homeowner’s association covenant. Notably, governmental law—the most consequential of all protocols—may not constitute a pact.

Pact, Government, and Democracy

It bears repeating that a pact has no authority apart from the authority that its pactors willingly grant. This is in stark contrast to government as it is typically enacted and practiced.  At best, government is a pact for the majority of citizens.  At worst, government is a pact of the oligarchy with pactums targeting, and benefitting, the privileged few.  The majority “democratically” settle on a pact and impose it on themselves; so far so good. But then they seek to impose their pact on everybody else whether they like it or not. By what authority does one impose rules and protocol on others against their will?

One might argue that a government nonetheless constitutes a pact due to the existence of a “social contract” in which people agree to subject themselves to the will of the majority—whatever that will may be. But this begs a question: in what sense have people truly agreed to this arrangement? Is it reasonable to assume that all native-born individuals of a given territory have implicitly adopted the “rule of the land” simply because they haven’t fled the country?  Consider the ubiquity of all forms of illegal behavior: draft dodging, income tax evasion, speeding, marijuana usage, copyright infringement, discriminatory hiring practices, litter, underage drinking, and every imaginable form of “obscene” and illegal sexual behavior. By their own behavior most people demonstrate their disdain and disregard for government edict. If any such social contract actually exists, most people demonstrate by their own behavior that they do not take it very seriously.

Calling government a “pact” between the ruler and the ruled seems to be quite a stretch.

In fact, people feel such contempt for measures passed by “the majority” that they form political parties. These political parties exist to direct hostility toward the opposition party, and to attempt to persuade the majority to join them in order to impose their views on the minority.

In contrast, a pact derives its authority from the people who embrace it. So government, as we know it, and pactualism seem to be very different animals.

The philosophy of democratic government is that 51% of the population may forcefully, and legitimately, impose their will on the 49%. We have been taught that this is the best way to implement and enforce a set of rules. In contrast, a pact is a set of rules adopted by the individuals of a given pactorate. So by definition, a pact has unanimous consent. If people do not adopt a pact, there is no pact. If individuals opt to not adopt the pact, they are not pactors and the pact does not apply to them.

A pact has no authority other than that which its pactors willingly grant. Doesn’t this create a problem? Isn’t it unreasonable to expect all people—or even most people—to accept my pact? It seems like we would need to achieve something of a “critical mass” before a pact would have any useful effect. If I can’t get people on board with my plan, what good is it?

Narcissism—A Strategy

One approach for drafting a pact is to make sure it covers everything we want from other people. For whatever it is that we don’t like others doing, and for whatever it is we believe others ought to be doing, we will define some pactums.

I don’t really like heavy metal music, so we will have a pactum that requires that heavy metal music may only be played indoors, or through headphones. I don’t really like farts in public, so we’re going to need for everyone to agree to just hold those in. I speak English, and it kind of creeps me out when people speak anything but that—they might be talking about me. So let’s just get everyone to agree that we will only speak English in public. Also, I don’t believe any car should ever be painted pink; it is an atrocious color. Pink cars make my eyes burn.

Also, I believe that Joss Whedon’s Firefly was the finest television program ever created. The world will be a better place with more Firefly episodes. We need everyone to agree to contribute 1% of their income toward Firefly production. That will keep the show going forever.

Also, I have a lot of causes that I think people ought to contribute their time and money toward.  Against all evidence to the contrary, maybe I even believe in perpetual motion technology.  Once we build one, energy scarcity will be eradicated. We just need to invest in the research. I need everyone to agree to contribute 5% of their income toward R&D for my perpetual motion machine.

You get the idea. I would be so much more satisfied if people would stop doing the stuff that bugs me and start doing the stuff that is important to me. So why not draft a pact that covers all of that stuff? Why not maximize the scope of my pact? Who says I can’t?

The fact is that there is nobody and nothing that says I can’t. But there is a real practical downside to this approach: I will be the only person on Earth who adopts such a pact. If it is only me, my pact is not going to be very effective.

Another approach is to define a pact that others might actually adopt.

Common Expectations

As mentioned in the last part, the atheist ethicist’s task is to curtail humanity’s unpleasant aspects while promoting and maximizing its pleasing aspects. In order to have this desired effect, we need people to adopt our pact so that they will align their behavior with it. And to maximize this effect we need as many people as possible to adopt our pact.

We can’t make people adopt our pact; this defeats the purpose. We have to persuade them; it is the only way for our pact to have any sense of authority. One way to persuade them is to base our pact on the expectations we all already have for each other.  Christopher Hitchens offers a good starting point in this illustration:

You see a woman thrown to the ground in the street by a man, or two men, and kicked hard in the stomach—a kick to the uterus. What is your instant reaction? Is it one of revulsion, or not? Who is going to say they are indifferent? You are perfectly welcome to do so if you like. Do you need divine permission for this? I would say not. Add another question. The woman is visibly pregnant. Does that make it seem more revolting to you? Is your revulsion thereby increased? Who would not say “yes” to that? … Where do you think you got that knowledge? Did you get it from Sunday School? I believe this is our common moral property; without it, we’re lost. ~ Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens poignantly illustrates what he calls our “common moral property”. Now his notion that there is something objectively “moral” behind our indignant reaction—and that it demonstrates the possession of some sort of “knowledge”—is baseless, given his atheism. But he still makes an important point: we all have basically the same horrified reaction to the given scenario and we all want rules in place to prevent it from happening. The violent treatment of this woman is an example of the potential unpleasantness with which other people threaten us—that dark side of humanity we want to curtail. Should we have some rules in place to prevent this? As Hitchens says, “Who would not say yes to that?”

So if we agree in the abstract, why not agree explicitly and formally?

The Root Antecedent Pact

We first need to focus on defining a pact that virtually everyone will agree to adopt. We are focusing on the lowest common denominator here. The point is not to maximize our pact’s scope, but rather to maximize adoption. It is true that there will be many things important to us that this pact will not address. Setting those things aside for now will be tough, but we will have the opportunity to deal with those matters in subsequent pacts (we should expect to be bound by multiple pacts—more about that later).

We need to define our root antecedent pact.

Keep in mind that our adoption of a pact that is silent on an issue does not indicate that we are silent on—or indifferent toward—that issue; it just means that the pact doesn’t address it and is therefore neutral toward it. We can all pretty much agree that we do not want adult humans to physically attack or violate other adult humans in the absence of provocation. A pactum prohibiting such behavior would be a good candidate for inclusion in our root pact because virtually everybody agrees with it. But what about pactums prohibiting commission of unprovoked violence against a human fetus? Or against a dog? Or against a bald eagle? What about spanking a child? These are controversial scenarios about which virtually everybody has strong feelings, and yet those feelings are radically divergent. We should consider leaving out any mention of these items in our root pact. It isn’t that we are indifferent with regard to these issues, but in the pursuit of near universal adoption of our root pact, we have to set them aside.

A maximally persuasive root pact will promote peace and security. If virtually everybody adopts the pact, then virtually everybody can be held accountable to that pact. We accept those pactums we can persuade most people to embrace right now, and we go from there. It’s a start.

A root pact is not the final ethical word—far from it. It is just the beginning.

Subsequent Pacts

Our root antecedent pact is just a foundation. It only speaks to basic ethical concepts.  But we don’t have to stop there. We may augment this foundational layer with subsequent pacts.  Subsequent pacts encompass antecedent pacts—including the root—by reference.

We all personally maintain values desperately precious to us and we would like to persuade everybody to embrace those values.  But realistically, we do not all share precisely the same values.

Consider the treatment of animals.

Animals aren’t really capable of entering into a pact with us. But that doesn’t mean people are indifferent toward their treatment. And it doesn’t mean that people can’t form pacts with each other regarding their treatment. The idea of a world where puppies and kittens are tortured in the open for amusement horrifies most people. Some are horrified by the idea of eating meat. Some people believe in eating some meat, but not dogs, cats, or horses. Some feel OK eating any animal, as long as it was raised and put down in a manner that minimized suffering.

How the hell do we deal with such radically conflicting views on the treatment of animals? Again, we draft a pact that may not encompass all of our feelings on the matter, but one that will maximize adoption. For subsequent pacts that target specific controversial issues, we may not be able to expect the same level of adoption as a more generally targeted pact—such as the root antecedent—but if we focus on some basic expectations that rule out abject cruelty, we may find that we can get many people on board. And isn’t that what we want to do—maximize the advancement of our values?

What Good is It?

Why adopt a pact that doesn’t forcefully bind everybody?

Because there is power in numbers.

If you can persuade enough people to adopt your pact, all kinds of opportunity exists to peacefully—yet meaningfully—further your cause. Once adoption of your pact achieves critical mass, you may implement embargoes. Your pact may incentivize trade and association with other individuals and organizations that also adopt your pact. Limitation on trade is a powerful motivator. Limitation on hiring is another powerful motivator. A pactorate may opt to socially ostracize apactors.

Consider a retailer that requires its suppliers to adopt a pact that requires compassionate treatment of their employees. Consider a grocer that will only source meat from suppliers who treat their animals nicely. And then consider the customers who pledge to only patronize such businesses. A mutually satisfactory interdependency is formed by a pact.

Here is a bonus: you do not have to wait for the “democratic” majority to advance your values. Your impact is directly correlated to your ability to persuade. It isn’t a matter of 51% and everything, or nothing at all. Your pact is as powerful as the number of people you persuade to adopt it.

The Task

Our first task is to draft a root antecedent pact that is near universally persuasive. Yes, this is a lot harder than simply telling someone that an act “is the right thing to do”.  But it is intellectually honest. It makes sense.

When you think about it you realize that so many of the problems we see in our  world are the result of people’s failure to consistently apply the standards they themselves informally profess. And many of those standards we share. We just need to make them official. We need to make them more official than “that is right” or “that is wrong”. We need to make them official by getting people to make them official for themselves.

    • Matt
    • November 8th, 2013 4:20pm


    There are many moral frameworks that can define “right and wrong” without resorting to believe in a deity such as utilitarianism.

    Furthermore, since believing in “god” is equivalent to saying, I “choose” (more likely you are not choosing, you were simply brainwashed as a child) to agree with the definition of “right and wrong” as defined in a 2000 year old collection of writings by a few crazy dudes, it is no different than choosing to believe in the definition as espoused by John Stuart Mill.

    • Matt
    • November 8th, 2013 5:55pm


    Matt, I am confused. Your response suggests that you are countering my assertions, and yet I am in 100% agreement with you. There are indeed many frameworks that define “right and wrong”, and not one of them (utilitarianism or otherwise) has more of a claim to authority or legitimacy than any other.

    Mill states:

    The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”

    But Mill has no authority to define Right and Wrong for the rest of us.

    If you reread my essays you’ll see that I do not merely reject particular subjective definitions of “right” and “wrong” in favor of my own preferred brand of “right” and “wrong” ; I reject the very concepts of “right” and “wrong”. Nowhere do I invoke utilitarianism; I invoke moral nihilism, recognize the practical problem that this creates for most of us, and then propose an approach that allows us to pursue the practical benefits of morality without actually having to believe in morality.

    You are correct: If there is no God, utilitarianism and the “rightness” of the Greatest Happiness Principle are no more legitimate than The Bible. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the desire to assert some measure of control, or at least pressure, on society to align it with our values, and no authority with which to do that. But that doesn’t stop people with similar values from coming together, shaking hands on a pact, and then working together to enforce it in order to advance their values.

    It is reasonable to suspect that many people WOULD shake hands on a pact aligned with the values Mill espouses. But that is not necessarily true.

    Utilitarianism is generally associated with “practical”, and I am definitely proposing a practical approach. I feel like this is where the confusion lies. But in contrast to utilitarianism, I am not making any claim to have discovered objective morality.

    Where do we disagree, Matt?

    • Matt Winiarz
    • December 4th, 2014 10:46am

    Fellow Matt, I am very happy that you took the time to write this article. These Usually aren’t seen in the regular media (these types of articles). It seems you Care about what you are talking about in regards to God and morality, touching on Key points about right and wrong.

    Glancing at these comments, I just don’t see much real discussion. It seems that Other than one or two people actually take time to plan out responses, which is Disheartening because there is such a good chance for great discussions here.

    Hopefully this comment is better than the usual stuff.

    • Matt Rock
    • March 2nd, 2015 11:45am

    The argument that morality can’t exist without God “nails atheists to the wall?” Seriously? That’s the weakest argument a theist can possibly make, actually. It’s so easy to disprove by anyone with any sort of experience in the real world that it’s almost sad you’ve used up precious internet space to make that argument.

    There are countless millions of atheists in the world, and there always have been, despite organized religion’s endless historical attempts to root out and destroy them. Is there any hard statistical data whatsoever that proves that atheists are more likely or willing to commit crimes? No. Research that shows conclusively that an atheist has psychological tendencies leaning toward causing any sort of risk toward those around them? Absolutely not.

    Here’s another question for you: how many people throughout history have died in the name of religion? And how many people have died in the name of atheism? How many wars were fought? How many anti-religious terrorist attacks have been carried out? How many atheists have bombed abortion clinics, or fired rockets on civilians in Israel or Gaza, or ruled a country or a region with an iron fist, stripping liberties from its people?

    Having faith is a good thing. But one could easily argue that organized religion is one of the most dangerous creations mankind has developed to date. It’s killed more people than atomic bombs, and has already caused an apocalypse by playing the primary role in leading us into the Dark Ages. Believing in one or more Gods doesn’t make you more moral. And it can be argued that following an organized religion can lead some, if not many, to be *less* moral. So please, theists everywhere… stop making this argument. Because everyone that doesn’t subscribe to your religion thinks you sound ridiculous when you make it.

  1. @Matt Rock

    Matt, this isn’t the essay in which I defend my assertion that morality can’t exist without God. I address that in part one:

    In it I make the argument that the atheist is not in a position to declare behavior “right” or “wrong” in the way those terms are traditionally used. When someone says, “That is just wrong!” they are making a proclamation of universal, objective truth with regard to a platform of universal objective morality. Put another way, if someone tells me, “What you are doing is wrong,” she is not merely saying that she personally highly despises my behavior. She is not merely stating her opinion. She is making a statement that she believes to be an actual truth; she believes it is a real objective truth that what I am doing is wrong, and she believes it will remain a truth long after she is gone, because she believes there actually IS a thing called right and there actually IS a thing called wrong, and she believes our behavior may be objectively assigned to one bucket or the other.

    My entire point is that she is in no position to make this assertion, but that ultimately it doesn’t matter; atheists are getting held up in a game they can’t win, but they ultimately don’t need to play.

    With regard to your comments on war and violence stemming from religion, I would agree with your opinion that these things have happened and I find them highly distasteful. But they are in no sense “wrong”. They’re bad for me. They make me feel disgusted, but that’s just my opinion. Fortunately, there are a lot of people like you and me who DO find this behavior abhorrent and who want to curtail it. Many many people share our feelings about these actions. But it is not correct to say that they are “wrong”. It IS correct for ME to say that I hate the violence, as I’m sure it is for you as well.

    I think we’re talking about two different things, Matt. My series of essays do not address your assertion that religion drives violence. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m only challenging the idea that “right” and “wrong” are real actual things in a world without God. And if we recognize that “right” and “wrong” do not actually exist in a godless universe, then we can move on to the pertinent task of determining what human behavior we want to encourage, and what human behavior we want to curtail, and then go about figuring out the best way of doing that.

    • matt gilliam
    • February 20th, 2016 5:01am

    Sorry, but imposing without a God, is simply letting a man or men become a defacto God. Somebody else you mindlessly obey even though it’s not in your own best interest. If there’s no God, I mow down everybody in the hot dog line with a submachine gun. Then I blast the guy selling the hot dogs and eat as many as I want. I pick my nose and flick the boogers at little girls while I do it.

    The people who decided that these behaviors are unethical eventually come get me and kill me dead after I blow away a few more in a hailstorm of bullets. I am put death, and those putting me to death became my God.

    Atheism doesn’t offer my anything other than what Theism offers me. In the end some being is in charge of passing an ultimate judgement on me. In one case its an omnipotent God. In the other case it’s a human with more guns than I have.

    • Matt
    • February 20th, 2016 6:22pm

    Everything you say is absolutely correct. But my essay doesn’t address you; it addresses those who see subjecting themselves to a set of rules everyone else adheres to as being in their self interest. And there are plenty of them.

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