XFiles: WL Craig on “Objective Moral Duties”

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

Last week, Dr. Craig ended on an exceptionally misanthropic note, declaring that if we take away God, humanity is nothing more than “an apelike creature on a speck of solar dust beset with delusions of moral grandeur.” Our intrinsic moral value—the value we have in and of ourselves, with or without 3rd parties like God—simply does not exist, in Dr. Craig’s view. (Wow.) Having settled that question, he moves on to moral duties.

Traditionally our moral duties were thought to spring from God’s commandments, such as the Ten Commandments. But if there is no God, what basis remains for objective moral duties? On the atheistic view, human beings are just animals, and animals have no moral obligations to one another.

Already he has “forgotten” what he himself wrote on the preceding page of his book:

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.

He originally conceded this point only because he thought it would be useful to him in dehumanizing mankind so that he could claim we have no “moral grandeur” without God. Now that he wants to talk about duty, however, he forgets all about this fact, even though it applies much more directly to moral behavior (i.e. “duties”) than it does to moral values. There’s a very clear sociobiological basis for the kinds of behavior we perceive as “duties,” and even though Dr. Craig himself alluded to it just one page ago, he now claims that no such thing exists.

Looks like we’re off to a good start, eh?

Since primates do exhibit behaviors that seem to reflect a primitive sense of moral duty, Dr. Craig is careful to stick with non-hominid species.

When a lion kills a zebra…it does not murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female…it does not rape her—for there is no moral dimension to these actions. They are neither prohibited nor obligatory.

Once again, Dr. Craig confuses his own reasoning by failing to recognize the inherently subjective nature of the topics he’s discussing. Prohibited by whom? Obligatory to whom? He assumes that because we have no prohibitions against lions killing zebras, or against non-consensual shark sex, therefore no such prohibition exists. That’s a subjective prohibition: a prohibition that does not exist unless we perceive it.

What about the victim’s point of view though? Can we really be sure that the female shark sees nothing wrong with being forced to mate against her will? Is it even possible that the zebra sees nothing wrong with being killed and eaten by lions? From the victim’s point of view, these things would still be wrong. But since we are not the victims, Dr. Craig assumes no actual “wrong” has been done. Purely a subjective conclusion.

You might object that zebras and sharks do not have brains that are sufficiently developed to entertain complex concepts like right and wrong, and you would probably be correct. Even that, however, only demonstrates the subjective nature of morality. It’s a subjective, mental concept, the product of a particular type of thought requiring a particular type of brain. If there were such a thing as “objective duty” (i.e. duty that exists without being owed to anyone, bizarre as that sounds), then Dr. Craig would not be able to make this argument. Just because we do not know of any prohibitions or obligations that apply to animal behavior, that would not mean that no such duties existed.

Dr. Craig himself keeps bumping into the subjective nature of moral duty, and each time he seems to be at a loss for what to do with it.

So if God does not exist, why think that we have any moral obligation to do anything? Who or what imposes these moral duties upon us? Where do they come from?

Those would be good questions, except that his reason for asking them is to try and prevent us from discovering the answer. He doesn’t want an answer, he wants to claim, “Therefore God exists.” But these aren’t even hard questions. If you want to know who imposes these moral duties, all you need to do is to ask, “Who will object and/or retaliate if we disobey them?” If the answer is “No one,” then you have good reason to question whether it’s really a moral duty at all.

Here’s where Dr. Craig tries to have his cake and eat it too. See if you can spot the self-contradiction below:

Certain actions such as incest and rape may not be biologically and socially advantageous and so in the course of human development have become taboo. But that does absolutely nothing to show that rape or incest is really wrong… If there is no moral lawgiver, then there is no objective moral law that we must obey.

Oops. Did you catch it? He’s saying that we need a moral lawgiver in order to know whether a particular behavior is right or wrong. But how do we know that the lawgiver is actually prohibiting things that are really wrong, and commanding things that are really right? We’ve got all kinds of examples of tyrants giving laws whose prohibitions and commandments had nothing to do with what’s right and what’s wrong (Jehovah Himself being one of them). Dr. Craig is saying we can’t just judge the wrongness of rape and incest by their consequences, we can only know a thing is “really wrong” if we have a list of objective moral duties to measure it against. And we can’t have such a list unless a moral lawgiver gives it. But we can’t know whether any of the items on that list are “really right” or “really wrong” unless we have an objective list of moral duties, which we can’t have because it can only come from a lawgiver who gives us a list of duties that are known to be really right. We can’t use the Lawgiver’s list, of course, because that would be circular reasoning. So how would we know it was really right? Catch-22.

The problem is that Dr. Craig’s notion of “objective duty” is inherently self-contradictory. He’s applying the qualifier “objective” to a concept that is inherently and inescapably subjective. He tries to dismiss secular morals by claiming that they are subjective and arbitrary, with no objective basis for calling them “really right” and “really wrong,”  but from this he then concludes that there must be a Lawgiver who gives us a list that is subjective and arbitrary, with no objective basis for calling His choices “really right” and “really wrong.” That’s why He gets to say that genocide is wrong for us, but ok for Himself.

Moving on, Dr. Craig takes a page and a half to clarify that he is not saying that you have to believe in God to be good. He’s saying that good, itself, cannot exist unless there is a God. The latter argument is the one we’re addressing, so we won’t belabor this point.

His next point is to make a rather inadequate attempt to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma, which goes something like this: “Is something good because God wills it? Then ‘goodness’ is arbitrary. Or does God will it because it is good? Then God is not the source of moral values, but must Himself submit to a higher power.” Obviously this is a huge problem for Dr. Craig, because if the first branch is true, then there is no “really right” or “really wrong.” God could just as easily endorse lying and rape (and even genocide, as mentioned before), and call them all “good.” He could even—without sinning—deceive the entire human race via the Gospel, and end up by throwing all the Christians into eternal torment in Hell, while elevating all the unrepentant sinners to eternal glory in Heaven.

On the other hand, if he admits the second branch, where morality exists with or without God, then he’s wasted this entire chapter, since his whole argument is that the existence of morality depends on the existence of God. His answer (not original with him) is to move the goalposts just a teensy bit by making up a new dogma (i.e. unsupported assertion).

There’s a third alternative: namely, God wills something because He is good. What do I mean by that? I mean that God’s own nature is the standard of goodness, and His commandments to us are expressions of His nature…

So moral values are not independent of God because God’s own character defines what is good.

There are several problems with this dodge. First of all, it reduces to the first horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma by making the meaning of “good” essentially arbitrary. Worse than that, it makes the definition of “good” a tautology, no more meaningful than saying “the definition of good is that it is good to be good.” Granted, God conceivably be what we would call “good,” but there’s no reason to assume He would be. In fact, if it were God’s nature to be the Arch Deceiver, and to fool all Christians into going to Hell, meh *shrug*—by definition that would be “good.” Certainly, what believers refer to as “God’s Will” often consists of things we would not call “good.” That’s why you hear “It’s God’s will” being offered as a kind of consolation during misfortune and suffering. But if such “wrongs” are consistent with God’s nature (and thus with the definition of Good), is there any particular reason they shouldn’t continue to happen to us for all eternity, according to the Gospel?

Secondly, if Good is defined by God’s nature, then it’s a category error to apply this standard of goodness to anything else but God. We’re not gods. Our natures are not divine. Why, then, should we be judged as being “wrong” just because our natures are different from His?

Thirdly, if Good is defined by God’s unchanging nature, then slavery cannot be tolerable in one generation and immoral in another. Either it’s wrong for as long as God is really God, or it’s permissible for as long as God is really God. Likewise genocide, and polygamy, and the death penalty for working on Saturday. By making right and wrong dependent on God’s unchanging nature, Dr. Craig is implicitly denying the possibility of situational moral duties. Thus, moral duty must be equally binding on everybody, in every era and culture, regardless of their role. Use of lethal force, for example, must be either right for everyone or wrong for everyone; it can’t be right for the policeman and wrong for the kindegarten teacher. And contrariwise, if genuine moral duty does vary on a case-by-case basis, then it is not defined by God’s unchanging nature.

I could keep going, but one last example: if moral duty is defined by God’s unchanging nature, then God cannot assign to us any moral duty which would be inconsistent with His own nature. He cannot, for instance, require us to submit to a higher authority if there is no higher authority to which He, by nature, is subject.

The “third horn” argument is not a moral principle anyone would arrive at through a study of what really drives real-world morality. It is a dogmatic rationalization, an attempt to invent a speculative scenario that sounds plausible enough to prevent us from reasoning our way to the conclusion that God is not the source of morality. In other words, it’s a red herring. In the real world, God does not show up to impose His demands and prohibitions upon us. The only genuine duties that are incumbent upon us are those that are imposed on us by real-world constraints (the objective component of morality) and by real people (the subjective component of morality).

These real-world elements of morality are entirely sufficient to account for our experience of moral duty, and Dr. Craig’s discussion of morality contributes nothing to our understanding of it. The basic framework of moral duty is the same either way: we obey someone in authority who demands obedience and promises consequences contingent on how we obey. All Dr. Craig is adding to the scenario is a purported Bigger, Badder Boss, with Bigger, Badder consequences. But with or without the superstition, moral duty works the same, and thus the superstition is irrelevant.

Next week, Dr. Craig will set up a couple straw men to serve as the “atheistic alternative” to superstitious morality. Think he’ll have any trouble knocking them down? Stay tuned.

10 Responses to “XFiles: WL Craig on “Objective Moral Duties””

  1. unbound Says:


    God -> therefore, God

    Read the whole thing. You seem to be missing anything related to reasoning or realism in this blog posting.

  2. 'Tis Himself Says:

    One problem with Lane’s god’s list of “thou shalt nots” is they’re quite arbitrary. Who is hurt by eating shellfish (besides the shrimp and oysters)? Why shouldn’t one wear a cotton/wool blend suit? Why are trout acceptable to eat but catfish aren’t (besides the point that catfish have an unpleasant taste)? The reason for these prohibitions isn’t to protect society or individuals. The reason boils down to “I’m the guy in charge and I say so, if you disobey then I’ll do some smiting.”*

    Lane claims that moral laws (it is wrong to kill, rape, steal, etc.) cannot be true unless there’s a moral lawgiver. I have a couple of objections to this premise:

    There’s at least one explanation of the validity of moral laws which doesn’t involve the existence of anything supernatural. Humans are social animals and have determined that various behaviors are beneficial for society and other behaviors are detrimental. Killing members of the society, except under quite specific circumstances, is detrimental to society and is therefore forbidden. These forbidden behaviors are commonly described as immoral.

    Maybe moral laws aren’t objective after all. In Carol Eron’s book The Virus That Ate Cannibals there’s a New Guinea tribe who honored their dead relatives by having them for supper. Cannibalism for this tribe was morally good. However munching on Granddad’s brain infested the diners with kuru, a severely debilitating neurological disease. One major problem health officials had was trying to convince the tribe not to have Granddad for dinner. The tribe thought that was dishonoring Granddad and was immoral!

    Sorry, Lane, but morality is quite subjective, even many of the moral laws your favorite pet deity inflicts on his followers.

    *I’m reminded of the scene in Woody Allen’s movie Bananas when the revolution succeeds and the new dictator goes mad with power: “From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now 16 years old!”

  3. adam.b Says:

    There’s another problem and I’m surprised I never hear anyone bring this up beyond what was in your first point, the third horn argument still doesn’t avoid Euthyphro’s Dilemma. If we assume a God that embodies prefect moral law you still have the same problems, is it good only because it’s God’s nature then how is it “good?” if God’s morals are good for there own sake then God is still just the middle man.

  4. Tony Hoffman Says:

    I remember the first time I heard the “third horn” argument at a Christian blog. I remember hearing it, and thinking that it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard (I could only think of the first reason you describe off the top of my head, that in the third horn “good” is still arbitrary, and that there’s still no way to measure whether or not God’s nature is in fact “good), but that’s more than enough to make the third horn “solution” a laughing stock. The others just make it all that much funnier. But what most struck me on discovering this “third horn” solution is that it seemed impossible to get those who clutched it to see how it failed (along the lines of the first horn).

    There’s an inherent problem in pointing out the flaws in the third horn to those who subscribe to it, and that’s that the third hornists are inherently Divine Command Theory advocates who, I think, desire to be told what is good rather than reason there way to it. I wonder, truly, if those who embrace the first horn are uncomfortable with their own moral intuitions (the way a psychopath tries to fake remorse or empathy — I heard an interview once where you could hear the psychopath’s confidence just fall away as he tried to explain how he felt about having injured someone — he could tell it sounded odder and odder to the interviewer, but he didn’t know where else to go), and the fear that they might be cast in a world they don’t understand is so frightening to them they struggle to rationally consider the 2nd horn as even a possibility.

    Anyway, love the piece. It’s another brick in the wall. I would hope that in a few years or possibly a decade that efforts like this one will help to make the third horn argument the acknowledged laughingstock it ought to be.

  5. Wanderin' Weeta Says:

    This “God is good because it’s His nature to be good,” or, essentially, “God is good because He is good,” falls to the same objections as the “God is love” excuse. How do we know love? By the lover’s actions. How do we know goodness? The same way; by the good person’s behaviour.

    But the supposed actions of God are far from what we would call “loving” if they were done by humans. Sending people to hell for eternity for never having heard of Jesus is not a loving action. Nor is giving a child cancer to “teach him to trust” (this from my family).

    And wiping out most of humanity in a fit of pique is not the action of a good being. Nor is commanding the death of a man for picking up sticks on the wrong day.

    What I see is that the apologists are using two definitions of each word, “love” and “good”. There’s one definition for people, and an opposite one for God. To use the words without making that clear is deceptive; it is a lie to say, “God is good,” without adding, “using the alternate meaning of the word, ‘good’.”

  6. NAL Says:

    Another problem with this dodge is, it leads to definitional morality. God is good, by definition. Hence, morality is devoid of any rational basis.

  7. Philosophers’ Blog Carnival #133 | Camels With Hammers Says:

    [...] selective uses of the Bible in his rationalizations of genocide and Deacon Duncan’s examination of the problems with Craig’s notions of objective moral [...]

  8. Frances Janusz Says:

    Unlike you & most of the people on here, I DO believe morality to be objective, although i don’t believe in God. I think it is objective because the words we use to describe the concepts are part of a shared language & to be used meaningfully must be used consistently & with same under-pinning rationale applied to all of them. Cultural differences & increased human knowledge may bring about alterations in how we decide what fits with the correct use of the terms “good” & “bad” (eg eating grandad may turn out not to be such a good idea once you know the facts, but respecting him, which was the under-pinning idea, is still morally sound).

    Craig’s Euthyphro dodge is feeble. When he says God is good by definition – who defined him that way? Definition is a human activity & I don’t see how God (if he existed) could be limited by the human activity of talking about him.

  9. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Frances, I agree that in the way you define morality it achieves a certain kind of objectivity. Ironically, this was argued in a debate I heard with a woman philosopher (who’se name I forget) in a debate with Craig. I found her explanation entirely reasonable and persuasive.

    I also think that Deacon Duncan argued persuasively in an earlier post that divine morality is not objective, as Craig implies that all philosophers agree, but subjective — as it is subject to that god’s definition of morality. It doesn’t get much more subjective than that.

    • Frances Janusz Says:

      Tony, thanks. I’ll look out for that debate by the female philosopher (even if for no other reason than that I’ve never heard a woman debate WLC yet).

      “I will call no being ‘good’ who is not what I mean when i apply that epithet to my fellow humans…” as John Stuart Mill said. Now, that’s what I call moral objectivity & singularly lacking in someone who says that infanticide is just fine & dandy as long as God told you to do it……

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