XFiles: Objective moral values

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 6: “Can We Be Good Without God?”)

We’re up to Chapter 6 already? Cool! And it looks like Dr. Craig is all fired up and ready to serve us a heaping helping of his Argument from Morality. Here it is, as a syllogism.

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

As we’ve seen before, Dr. Craig is hopelessly confused about what objective values are. By failing to recognize that moral values are a combination of subjective preferences and real-world constraints, he convinces himself that there exists, in some spiritual dimension, a Platonic absolute ideal morality from which all human moral values are derived. No doubt you’ll be shocked to discover that—by total coincidence—this absolute moral standard just happens to be identical to traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on morality.

That, however, is not Dr. Craig’s main point in this chapter. As summarized by the syllogism above, the point he’s trying to make is that because we say that some things are good and other things are bad, therefore God exists. Hoo boy.

He starts off by highlighting the difference between “values” and “duties.” As he defines things, values are about good vs. bad, whereas duties are about right vs. wrong. He illustrates this by pointing out that it would be good for you to become a doctor, but it would not be wrong for you not to do so (i.e. you have no duty to become a doctor even though it’s not a bad thing to do).

That’s good as far as it goes, but notice that word objective in there. That’s the kicker, and that’s where the fundamental flaw in his thinking leaks through. He’s talking about “values” as they exist “objectively” without anyone holding them, and “duties” as they likewise exist without anyone to whom they are owed. In fact, I doubt that he himself believes in the genuinely objective existence of inherently subjective things like value and duty; I strongly suspect that a bit of questioning would discover that he believes “objective” values are really God’s values, and that “objective” duties are those we owe to God. Otherwise such terms are nonsense. There is no “value” apart from values that are held subjectively, nor is there any contradiction between two different people ascribing conflicting values to the same thing. Values are subjective.

Duty likewise is something that cannot exist objectively: duty must be owed to some individual or group. Trying to make duty “objective,” without anyone to whom duty is owed, is like getting married without any spouse. Dr. Craig is referring to values and duties as being “objective” in order to try and divorce them from people, so that he can claim people are not the source for moral values, so that he can then superstitiously attribute moral values to God. Right from the very first premise, he’s planting nonsensical falsehoods into his argument, to prepare for the predetermined conclusion he wants to arrive at.

He further confuses the issue by re-defining subjective and objective in order to make it easier to refer to moral values as “objective.”

By objective I mean “independent of people’s opinions.” By subjective I mean “dependent on people’s opinions.” So to say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or bad no matter what people thing about it. Similarly, to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong for us regardless of what people think.

As equivocations go, this is a waffle the size of Manhattan. All values and duties are dependent on people’s perceptions of them. But wait, he didn’t define “objective” and “subjective” in terms of perceptions, he defined them in terms of “opinions.” That means he can take the fact that different people have different opinions, and use it to say that morality is not subjective, because here’s somebody whose opinion seems immoral. Take the Holocaust for example:

So, for example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that it was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right, and it would still have been wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them, so that everyone believed the Holocaust was right.

What’s he doing? He’s appealing to our opinion about the Holocaust, in order to establish that genocide is wrong. That’s subjective, even by his own definition. But because our opinion is different from the Nazis’ opinion, he says that the immorality of genocide is is “objective”—that it does not depend on people’s opinions. But it does, because without our opinion that genocide is wrong, he has no basis for claiming that there’s any problem with genocide. And if you disagree, try Dr. Craig’s example with the following substitutions:

  • World War II -> I Samuel 15
  • Jews -> Amalekites (including women and children)
  • Nazis -> Obedient servants of Jehovah

In this case, Dr. Craig himself would be of the opinion that genocide was not wrong. It’s entirely subjective, you see. To the extent that it does not seem wrong to him, there ceases to be any “objective moral duty” to refrain from genocide—in his opinion. And yet just a moment ago he was telling us that the Holocaust was a violation of an objective moral duty. He’s calling his own moral opinions “objective,” but he does so in an entirely subjective manner.

This ploy, by the way, is a particularly insidious form of flattery. By taking our opinions about morality, and elevating them to the status of Absolute Universal Objective Morality, he’s flattering us with the notion that our values are the right values. That’s what makes the morality argument so popular. People love to hear that their own personal preferences and biases have been right all along. Homophobes love to be told that gay sex really is wrong. Racists love to be told that other races really are inferior. Christians love to hear that atheists really are evil. It’s elementary demagoguery.

Let’s move on. Dr. Craig’s first defense of Premise #1 is an attempt to completely screw up our understanding of science.

[I]f God does not exist, what is the basis of moral values? In particular, why think that human beings have moral worth? The most popular form of atheism is naturalism, which holds that the only things that exist are the things described by our best scientific theories. But science is morally neutral; you can’t find moral values in a test tube. It follows immediately that moral values don’t really exist; they’re just illusions of human beings.

Bad philosopher, no biscuit. How many people here really believe that lightning did not exist before there was a scientific theory about it? That’s silly. Nobody goes around believing that nothing exists except things we have scientific theories for. Nor does anyone seriously believe that science can only know what it can find in a test tube. Well, ok, creationists do, but still, that’s an extremely incorrect view of science. Nor is it true that atheists/naturalists believe that there is nothing real outside of what science can study, even when correctly defined. I happen to like German chocolate cake; it’s a real (subjective) preference of mine. I did not arrive at it scientifically because it’s not scientific, it’s just a subjective personal preference. Nor, may I point out, is it in any way supernatural or magical or miraculous just because it is not a scientific conclusion.

Dr. Craig’s next attempt exposes once again his failure to understand the inherently subjective nature of values.

Even if the atheist is willing to go beyond the bounds of science, why think, given an atheistic worldview, that human beings are morally valuable?

Gosh, Dr. Craig, I don’t know, do you think it might perhaps have something to do with the fact that we ARE human beings? Duh.

The part of the question that he’s leaving out is “morally valuable to whom?” Let’s leave those human beings out of the picture, as far as holding values are concerned, and ask ourselves, “What is there about humans that make them morally valuable to, say, Hurricane Katrina?” If you’ve seen the pictures, you know the answer is “nothing.” Human beings are morally valuable to human beings, not to other things. We value ourselves because we are ourselves. And being material creatures who have evolved by virtue of an instinctive preference for self-preservation, we have an entirely natural and materialistic motivation for our values.

Sadly, Dr. Craig almost seems capable of recognizing this.

Just as a troop of baboons exhibit cooperative and even self-sacrificial behavior because natural selection has determined it to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so their primate cousins Homo sapiens exhibit similar behavior for the same reason. As a result of sociobiological pressures there has evolved among Homo sapiens a sort of “herd morality,” which functions well in the perpetuation of our species.

So far so good, but then he blows it by falling back into the same old error of “objective morality.”

But on the atheistic view there doesn’t seem to be anything about Homo sapiens that makes this morality objectively true.

If you think about it, what he’s saying is complete nonsense. If it weren’t “objectively true” that our evolved/emergent morality “functions well in the perpetuation of our species,” then natural selection would not caused it to evolve. The “objective” part of morality is simply the materialistic, real-world constraints that govern which actions produce the consequences that do the best job of satisfying our natural desires for survival, safety, companionship, comfort, and so on. But the reason this constitutes a value is because we subjectively prefer these things.

There are things in science that are hard. There are mysteries science cannot unravel. This, however, is not one of them. There are no missing pieces for which we must invoke divine intervention as the only remaining option. As soon as you take the time to consider “valuable to whom?” the answers are immediately apparent. We perceive ourselves as having moral worth out of sheer self-centeredness. The only way Dr. Craig can be at all mystified about this is by deliberately befuddling himself (which is probably why he insists on using ambiguous and arbitrary definitions for “subjective” vs “objective”).

Craig himself gives us a good dose of the inherent self-centeredness of human morals in his summary of this particular defense:

So if there is no God, any basis for regarding the herd morality evolved by Homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. Take God out of the picture, and all you’re left with is an apelike creature on a speck of solar dust beset with delusions of moral grandeur.

How a speck of solar dust can be beset with delusions of moral grandeur, I’ll never know. But that’s beside the point. The real question here is, Who cares? Suppose man is an ape-like creature with an evolved morality that fails to correspond to some “objective” set of moral values “out there” where there’s nobody to hold them. And? What’s wrong with that? Who cares if the moral values that matter to us, and the moral values we actually hold, happen to be the same morals?

Obviously, Dr. Craig does. He wants his moral values to be special some how. He feels a need for his values to correspond to some set of values that’s somehow bigger, better, grander. And he expects the rest of us to be just as selfish and conceited about our values as well, so that we’ll feel somehow let down if the only values that exist are the ones people actually hold.

I have to admit, even despite my Christian background, I simply do not grasp this kind of conceit. It seems too obviously self-deceptive to function effectively even as a delusion.

But maybe that’s part of the reason I’m no longer a Christian.

14 Responses to “XFiles: Objective moral values”

  1. Ash Bowie Says:

    Yet another elegant take down of Craig’s nonsense. I admit that I would like to have seen a more detailed discussion here of genuine objectiveness as regards morality and the difference between subjective and relative. For myself, I am a fan of Harris’ basic construct of well-being as the objective standard for morality. I think that model allows for the best defense of claiming events like the Holocaust are objectively wrong without appealing to some moral absolute (which, as you pointed out, even Craig can’t do). I can understand how a Christian could read your post above and think “So you think the Holocaust is wrong just because it’s your opinion? That’s just moral relativism!” Even if you disagree with Harris, how would you answer this charge? Can you explain how the Holocaust was objectively wrong other than “that’s my subjective opinion, which is only different in scale from my preference about ice cream flavor”?

    • Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM Says:

      The difference between preference for ice cream flavor and opinion about the Holocaust is that the first preference does not affect other people in any way while what happened in the Holocaust most definately does. The first is a personal opinion, the second is social opinion. I think this is simply further expanded by Harris’s claim that human well-being is the basis of determining the “goodness” or “badness” of behavior that affects other humans.

  2. Wanderin' Weeta Says:

    Ash Bowie: “Can you explain how the Holocaust was objectively wrong other than “that’s my subjective opinion, which is only different in scale from my preference about ice cream flavor”?”

    Craig explains it nicely. Ice cream flavours don’t really increase our chances of survival; not committing genocide does.

    “Just as a troop of baboons exhibit cooperative and even self-sacrificial behavior because natural selection has determined it to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so their primate cousins Homo sapiens exhibit similar behavior for the same reason. As a result of sociobiological pressures there has evolved among Homo sapiens a sort of “herd morality,” which functions well in the perpetuation of our species.”

    “Deacon”: “He wants his moral values to be special some how. He feels a need for his values to correspond to some set of values that’s somehow bigger, better, grander.”

    I think it is more than this. Craig devalues people. The accusation he levels against atheists, “all you’re left with is an apelike creature on a speck of solar dust beset with delusions of moral grandeur”, comes straight out of his own heart.* He doesn’t think it is enough to be important to his parents, his colleagues, and presumably his wife and children; he needs to be important to something bigger, bigger than all humanity. It’s an ego trip.

    Other people? Well, they’re important only if God wants them around. Those Canaanite women and children didn’t matter. The Jews did; they’re God’s chosen people. Therefore, the Holocaust was wrong, the Canaanite massacre was good and just.

    *Isn’t that the classic description of a sociopath?

  3. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Ash Bowie, it seems fairly straightforward to use a moral calculus that asks, “What moral rules do you think should be in place for a society before you know what your role in that society will be?” This would, I think, lead to a set of moral values that would be objective, at least in the sense that it would generate moral values that transcend individual opinion. Also, well it has numerous problems, Desire Utilitarianism proposes an objective basis for morality in a different way that also generates objective moral values. Both of these proposed moral systems may be impractical to implement, but they both offer a kind of moral objectivity without a God — at least the only kind of objective morality that I believe could ever be available.

    I think part of the cleverness of Craig’s approach isn’t just that Craig does flatter his audience, etc., all as DD has pointed out above. I suspect the real reason Craig likes this argument in his debates (and it is so fabulously weak and philosophically inept that it sticks out from the others, which I think says a certain something right there) is that it puts the non-theist in the uncomfortable position of having to tell the audience the truth: there are no objective moral values (the way that you want there to be). That’s true, but it makes Craig’s opponent a villain in the eyes of a large portion of the audience.

    The fact that Craig uses this argument in his debates makes him genuinely creepy to me.

    • Len Says:

      That’s an interesting point: Stating things this way means that it’s the atheist who must tell the audience that there’s no objective morality, so we’re the bad guys. And then we must say that morality is actually subjective, based on what has evolved in society – which makes it sound like we’re saying that our morality is the correct one, because we base our morality on what’s OK in society. So we’re not just the bad guys, we’re also conceited enough to think that our moral values are the correct ones.

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    That’s something I hadn’t thought of. It’s not that they don’t know there isn’t objective morality, they phrase it, “If there is no God there is no objective morality.”, which completes the circle back to hope and faith.

    The difference in morals between us now and the characters in Bible stories is too obvious for them to not see it. But it’s a wedge, another magic spell between us and them.

    In the ‘good old days, the hight of morality was heading up the mountain to sacrifice your son to your God, then not having to.(I guess, I dunno, help me out here.)

  5. Joel Wheeler Says:

    It doesn’t ever occur to WLC that he’s defining and discussing righteousness, not morality.

  6. Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM Says:

    A truly excellent treatment of one of Craig’s standard arguments.

    If this were presented during a formal debate with this guy it would result in Craig declaring “victory”, as always. The reason? Because Craig’s rhetorical ploy is to litter his presentation with dozens of equally absurd arguments in quick succession. Since they all require much more time to debunk than they take for Craig to deliver his opponent must choose between them. Craig then claims “victory” on the basis that his opponent has not responded to all his points. It is a scenario that is virtually impossible to “win” for anyone but Craig. If science and academic investigation were conducted in this manner we would not learn much. That is why they are not.

  7. pboyfloyd Says:

    If you change ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Nazis’ to an OT equivalent, Thomists will declare the writings hyperbole. “Why, at that time every God-king or religious leader was declaring the horrible consequences of defying them.”

    This accidentally opens the door to religious writings being hyperbolic and metaphorical when it comes to God ‘speaking’ too.

    Who is going to write, “Since I felt that God promised my people that land, I went ahead and eliminated any opposition.”, when they can be hyperbolic ( as was custom, we hear) and say, “Then God said, “Go ahead and utterly destroy them!”?
    Hyperbole, according to Thomist apologists, only works when it’s smoothing out God’s involvement in genocide, but it’s morally reprensible to even imagine that the writers weren’t telling the absolute truth when it comes to the priests personal communication with God, at the time.

    I pointed out that many modern Christians can be quite hyperbolic when it comes to communicating personally with God and received a scathing reply about now not being even slightly comparable to then.

    Right! They spoke Shakespearean English back then and everything.

  8. John Says:

    I saw this website referenced in the comments page of The Guardian as a good refutation of Craig’s arguments, and I came here to check it out. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have passed muster. Instead, I find mischaracterizations of Craig’s arguments and a lot of backslapping in the comments threads.

    First, you completely undermine your own argument at the end, and end up arguing both sides. Are you arguing that objective morality is possible in the absence of God, or that objective morality doesn’t exist? Pick a side.

    On the first topic, I think it’s worth noting that just because something is objectively evolutionarily advantageous doesn’t make it objectively moral. Something can be objectively morally advantageous and yet be completely subjective in the sense that it is completely conditional on the organism’s environment. A classic example is that if humans evolved in similar situations to scorpions, it would be evolutionarily advantageous to occasionally eat our young. And yet we wouldn’t call such an action objectively morally “right.”

    Of course, you could respond that whatever is objectively evolutionarily advantageous is, by definition, objectively morally right. A sort of evolutionary pragmatism, if you will. However, such a position runs into several fundamental flaws. First, objective morality, by definition, applies in all situations. It is not dependent on perspective. Therefore, it would be hard to justify a “human objective morality” and a “zebra objective morality” both being co-existent and at times contradictory (Is a human killing a zebra murder, and thus morally wrong? Depends on if you ask the human or the zebra.). Whenever objective morality is defined as a glorified version of “whatever’s best for me,” you run into severe problems in this regard.

    Thus you have to limit objective morality to humans. On the subject of Harris, he defines objective morality as “maximum human flourishing.” But under the atheistic view, why is human flourishing objectively more valuable than the flourishing of rabbits or ants? The only possible reply inevitably boils down to “we’re human, and therefore we prefer an ethical system that privileges humans.” But how is this not the height of moral relativism?

    On the second option, that under atheism there is no objective morality, I would agree with you. That’s why pretty much everybody besides Harris (including Smith, Dawkins, Russell, etc.) would argue that there is no such thing as objective morality and that existence is utterly meaningless. In the words of Dawkins, “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    Honestly, I’m really not sure why atheists keep on defending Harris when Harris’ position isn’t even the position of their own worldview.

    • rlwemm Says:

      John said: ” I’m really not sure why atheists keep on defending Harris when Harris’ position isn’t even the position of their own worldview.”

      The myth of the “atheist world view” is presented as fact once again. When will theists ever get it into their heads that atheist have exactly one thing in common: they disbelieve that a god exists, or is likely to exist. That is ALL they have in common. The existence of non-existence of “objective” moral values is not dependent on god-belief or non-belief in the existence of gods. It is true that more atheists than theists believe that objective morality is a myth, but is not a necessary corollary of a non-belief in the existence of gods. Nor is belief in the existence of “objective” moral values a necessary component of god belief. The only thing that can be said is that a belief in the existence of objective moral absolutes is essential to the type of Christianity that William Lane Craig supports. Perhaps this includes you.

      Craig’s apologetic strength has been damaged by his recent rantings about the morality of the god depicted in the canonical books of the Christian Bible and his insistence that animals cannot truly feel pain because they lack the theory of mind that is unique to humans. People who argue that the real victims of genocidal slaughter are the ones doing the slaughtering cannot be taken seriously as defenders of what well socialized humans consider to be “morality”. Instead, it seems clear that this type of belief in moral absolutes causes horrific distortions of social conscience. I want not want Craig to teach my children morality. He might teach them that any biblical example of god’s expressed morality is the epitome of morality and, as such, should be emulated by humans. Shudder!

  9. John Says:

    I wanted to amend my previous post. I see now that you’re not, in fact, arguing that objective morality exists, although at first it seemed like you were. Instead, you seem to have endorsed the position that there is no objective morality and morality is just a human delusion. Which is fine–it’s the logical atheist conclusion.

    The only problem I see with this is that I’m really not sure where you and Craig really disagree on this particular topic. You both agree that under atheism, objective morality doesn’t exist. Your entire essay is just an argument that under atheism, morality is really just subjective, that we just think humans are more valuable than cows because we happen to be humans, and you make it sound like Craig is disagreeing with you when he’s not.

    The point Craig is trying to make is that Harris has no business calling the arbitrary illusion where humans delude themselves into thinking that a human killing another human is any more “really” wrong than a dog killing another dog “objective morality.” Humanity’s subjective delusion of moral grandeur cannot, by definition, be objective morality.

    In short, both of you guys agree that under atheism, objective morality doesn’t exist. You simply think that atheism is true and he thinks it’s false, which is a subject for a completely different logical argument.

    P.S. For part of your essay you seem to be confusing objective morality with moral absolutism. Here, Craig isn’t arguing that certain actions are always wrong, as in the case of your genocide example (although he may very well believe that certain actions are always wrong), he’s just arguing that for a given situation there does exist an objectively right choice and an objectively wrong choice, regardless of what people happen to think is right or wrong.

  10. Tony Hoffman Says:

    John, you seem to have rushed in. There are large number of points I could criticize in your comment (too many). Maybe you could focus on a single point or argument concerning exactly why you think the criticism of Craig here is invalid.

    Also, are you suggesting that for Christians genocide (or any other crime) is never absolutely wrong, only wrong based on God’s whim?


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