(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 6: “Can We Be Good Without God?”)
Remember those “objective” moral values that are the foundation of Craig’s moral argument for God? Turns out he does not actually believe they exist either.
What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists? It’s hard to make sense of this. It’s easy to understand what it means to say that some person is just, but it’s bewildering when someone says that in the absence of any people justice itself exists. Moral values seem to be properties of persons, and it’s hard to understand how justice can exist as an abstraction.
Nor do objective moral duties exist either.
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that moral values like justice, loyalty, mercy, forbearance, and the like just exist. How does that result in any moral obligations for me? Why would I have a moral duty to be, say, merciful? Who or what lays such an obligation on me?
Exactly. Moral duties, like moral values, exist in the minds of those to whom they apply. They are subjective, not objective. Craig is refuting his own argument.
To be fair, Craig thinks he’s refuting what he calls “atheistic moral platonism,” but as you can see above, he’s actually talking about moral values that exist objectively, i.e. moral values whose existence does not depend on and/or consist of someone’s perception of them. As I’ve been pointing out all along, this idea is literally nonsense, and now I think we can fairly say that Craig knows it. And yet the first premise of his argument is, “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist,” followed by the second premise, “Objective moral values and duties do exist.” But if that’s all nonsense, then where does that leave Craig’s argument from morality?
The real problem here is that Craig is not being consistent in what he means by “objective” morality. He shifts back and forth between several different meanings of “objective” depending on the need of the moment. If he would lay out one consistent definition, then at any given point we could tell what he was talking about. Such clarity of terms, however, would undermine his ability to make morality into an argument for God.
For example, let’s suppose that “objective morality” means merely that it’s not up to any one individual to define right and wrong. You can build a decent understanding of objective morality based on that definition, but it won’t lead to the conclusion “therefore God exists” (at least not without tampering). It’s fairly easy to show, for example, that morality is like the price of gold: it’s a property that emerges over time as the result of interactions between different people competing for advantage under real-world conditions. This explains why no one person can dictate right and wrong, and also why moral values, like the price of gold, are subject to change over time within certain constraints.
Or suppose that we define “objective morality” as meaning some external standard of moral values that exists independently of what people think of as right and wrong. This opens up a can of worms, in terms of failing to explain the improvement of morals over time, not to mention begging the question of whether or not such a standard could be meaningfully described as “good.” But at least the definition would be consistent enough that we could point out those flaws and discuss the discrepancies between what Craig calls “objective morality” and what we actually find in the real world.
Craig is too crafty a debater to let himself be pinned down to a consistent definition of what “objective morality” means. Let’s skip ahead just a bit to his (surprisingly short) defense of Premise 2, “Objective moral values and duties do exist.”
I initially thought that this would be the most controversial premise in the argument. In my debates with atheist philosophers, however, I find that almost nobody denies it… [P]rofessors are more apt to believe in objective moral values than students, and… philosophy professors are more apt to believe in objective moral values than professors in general!
That’s the advantage of keeping your definitions vague and equivocal. If Craig were clear and up-front in declaring, “I’m assuming that moral values are dictated by a supernatural, inherently good lawgiver, and this is what I mean by ‘objective’ moral values,” then he’d probably have a more lively (and less successful) debate. He avoids that problem, though, and simply declares that if his opponents have anything that might somehow be described as “objective moral values,” then they’re conceding that his superstitious assumptions are correct.
At times, what Craig accepts as “objective moral values” turns out to be nothing more than modern consensus, which you can trick people into misinterpreting.
I’ve found that although people give lip service to relativism, 95 percent can be very quickly convinced that objective moral values do exist after all. All you have to do is produce a few illustrations and let them decide for themselves. Ask what they think of the Hindu practice of suttee (burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands) or the ancient Chinese custom of crippling women for life by tightly binding their feet from childhood to resemble lotus blossoms. You can make the point especially effectively by using moral atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion. Ask them what they thing of the Crusades or the Inquisition. Ask them if they think it’s all right for Catholic priests to sexually abuse little boys and for the church to try and cover it up. If you’re dealing with someone who’s an honest inquirer, I can guarantee that almost every time that person will agree that there are objective moral values and duties.
Notice he does not suggest asking them what they think about morality of killing every man, woman, child, infant, and animal by means of a global Flood. Or any of the Old Testament genocides, polygamy, slavery, etc. Because then you’d have to explain why their so-called “objective morality” was actually wrong, and why relativism was the correct standard for those particular cases. And that would make it harder to trick them into exchanging their reality-based morality for your superstition-based one.
As we’ve discussed before, there is an objective component to morality, and this component comes from simple materialism. The custom of suttee would not have negative moral implications if widows were immaterial (and thus non-flammable). We are material creatures, with material instincts and neurophysiology, living in a material environment governed by material constraints. The immediate consequence of all this materialism is that our moral perceptions have a lot in common because they’re based on a common, material experience.
Because we share a common material experience, we can appeal to that common basis as objective grounds for a moral consensus. And we do. Most of us don’t take the time to work out the reasoning to this degree of detail, but that’s what we’re doing. What Craig is teaching here is how to deceive people by mentioning values you both hold on the basis of materialistic consensus (while carefully avoiding subjects where you disagree), and calling this “objective morality” in some kind of superstitious metaphysical sense.
When he’s trying to trick people into thinking they believe in his type of “objective morality,” he uses modern consensus as the working definition for what it means for morality to be “objective.” On the other hand, when Craig is trying to dismiss alternative definitions of objective morality, he’s fine with using a Platonic-style morality that just exists in and of itself, without anybody holding it. Here he is trying to refute the humanistic idea that “good” merely means whatever contributes to human flourishing.
Given atheism, why think that what is conducive to human flourishing is any more valuable than what is conducive to the flourishing of ants or mice? Why think that inflicting harm on another member of our species is wrong?
Notice the platonic usage of “value” here. It’s not a question of human flourishing being more valuable to us humans, it simply “moral value” existing in and of itself, the notion he ridiculed as being “unintelligible” on the previous page. Yet he rejects humanistic moral values for failing to be “objective” in the platonic sense. It’s not enough that flourishing is good to the humans that flourish, he insists on some kind of additional moral value that’s independent of the values people actually hold. It’s nonsense, but hey, it gives him an excuse to reject a fairly obvious secular morality, so why not, eh?
He rejects a more organic understanding of morality on a similar basis.
Atheists will sometimes say that moral properties like goodness and badness necessarily attach to certain natural states of affairs. For example, the property of badness necessarily attaches to a man’s beating his wife. The property of goodness necessarily attaches to a mother’s nursing her infant. Atheists will say that once all the purely natural properties are in place, then the moral properties necessarily come along with them. Now given atheism this seems extraordinarily implausible. Why think that these strange, nonnatural moral properties like “goodness” and “badness” even exist, much less somehow get necessarily attached to various natural states of affairs?
Here again, we have these “strange, nonnatural moral properties” just floating out in some kind of metaphysical aether, waiting for a Divine Lawgiver to come along and magically (and arbitrarily) attach them to certain states of affairs. It’s not that we naturally attach “goodness” and “badness” to things on the objective basis of how they affect people physically, it’s that “objective moral values” exist out there somewhere, unattached, and therefore it’s implausible that they could have spontaneously attached themselves to the, um, “right” things. Or something.
Craig’s lack of a coherent and consistent definition of “objective morality” causes him a great deal of confusion when attempting to address real-world morality. For instance, see if you can figure out what he means by moral values being “true” in the discussion below.
[The sociobiological] objection is that if our moral beliefs have been shaped by evolution, then we can’t have any confidence in them because evolution aims, not at the truth, but at survival. Our moral beliefs will be selected for their survival value, not for their truth. So we can’t trust our moral experience and therefore don’t know if premise 2 [“objective moral values and duties exist”] is true.
Note that this is Craig’s rendition of what he understands his opponents’ argument to be, not his own objection. It’s possible that his opponents are just as confused as he is. But still, what a bloody hash! We have a material world in which certain courses of action have certain consequences that either benefit us or harm us. We also have moral beliefs that categorize the benefits as “good,” and the damage as “bad”—but (says Craig) that’s not “the truth” about good and bad. So if “the truth” is not derived from the actual material benefit or harm of the consequences, then it must be some kind of artificial, arbitrary “truth”—some moral value of “good” and “bad” with no inherent connection to the fact that “the good” benefits us and “the bad” harms us.
If we try and separate “the good” from the material benefit it brings, however, then hasn’t it lost that essential quality that makes it good? In what sense is it “the true good” if it is no longer a reflection of the beneficial consequences we expect it to produce? “True objective morality” has become something that not only is platonic (i.e. values existing independently of anybody holding them), it’s also completely irrelevant to the benefits and damages that distinguish good from evil! This is “true” morality?
What makes moral values “true” or “false” is their correspondence to the actual real-world consequences they describe. If you say, “Stealing is good,” but the real-world consequences are that your behavior isolates you and turns society against you so that you suffer, then your moral values are false: they promised to benefit you, but they harmed you instead. That aspect of morality is pretty straightforward, unless you’ve got a philosopher with a confused definition of “objective morality” screwing things up.
Craig closes this chapter by declaring that the moral argument is often more successful than the cosmological argument, in terms of converting people. He’s probably right, and given the dishonest and misbegotten arguments being used to promote it, that’s a very bad sign for Christianity. My reality-based secular morals tell me that when deception, confusion, ignorance, and superstition are the best ways to make more Christians, something’s wrong.
Next week, Craig is going to tackle the difficult issue of suffering. And by “tackle” I mean he’s going to hide the goalpost, repaint the lines on the field, and then hop on a plane to some distant land where they don’t play football. Stay tuned.