(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.
- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist.
- 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.