A Debate on the Moral Argument

A Debate on the Moral Argument

Conversation with William Lane Craig


Transcript A Debate on the Moral Argument

Kevin Harris: Bill, there’s an organization called The Veritas Forum[1] that puts on a lot of events on college campuses. We are going to discuss a debate that was organized by The Veritas Forum. What kind of work do they do – Veritas?

Dr. Craig: The Veritas Forum started a number of years ago at Harvard University and was funded by a man in Ohio who had a burden for seeing Christian scholars come to a major secular university for a week and do workshops and lectures showing how Christian faith integrates with their area of specialization. So they would typically bring in a variety of speakers – some from the sciences, some from the arts and humanities. Each one would address, for example, what it means to be a Christian working in the field of literature or chemistry or sociology or anthropology. It was designed to be a help to, especially Christian students, but students in general to see how Christianity has a place in the contemporary American university. It is changing. It is starting to go international now. Very recently, The Veritas Forum has started to expand to Europe and holding sessions on other campuses there. It has also moved from being at top-tier universities only to also being at smaller universities as well in the United States. So it continues to grow and to flex and to have a variety of formats to be a presence of Christian academics on campuses in the United States and now abroad.

Kevin Harris: This debate took place at the University of Massachusetts that we are going to discuss. I wouldn’t imagine that would be a very conservative university.

Dr. Craig: [laughter] No. In fact, this is a bastion of New England liberalism. In Amherst, where the university is, the city flies the UN flag on the flagpole in Amherst.

Kevin Harris: Wow.

Dr. Craig: Yeah. So that kind of gives you an indication of where they are politically.

Kevin Harris: The title of the debate was “Is God Necessary for Morality?” and it was with Dr. Louise Antony.[2] Atheist, agnostic?

Dr. Craig: I think it would be fair to say she’s an atheist. She was a Catholic student and in college lost her faith sadly through the study of philosophy. She came along, I think, really before the great revolution in Christian philosophy had taken place or had just begun to take place. But through her study of philosophy she lost her faith in God and now takes an atheist line and has become a fairly aggressive critic of theism.

Kevin Harris: This was a second encounter of sorts with her in that the book “God and Ethics” she is a respondent to your debate with the humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz.

Dr. Craig: That’s right. In this debate “God and Ethics” which Robert Garcia and Nathan King are editing, they have the debate with Paul Kurtz on “Goodness Without God is Good Enough” – that was the topic – reprinted.[3] Then they solicited comments from philosophers around the country from a variety of perspectives.[4] They got Professor Antony to be one of those representing the atheist perspective defending the view that we can be good without God; that you don’t need God in order to have objective moral goodness. So that is the line that she takes in her essay in response to the book. I had not known her prior to this book and reading her response. This was my first acquaintance with her. So when they said, “How would you like to debate her at Amherst? This is her home turf,” I thought, “Wow, a great opportunity.” So I jumped at the chance and was able to finally meet her in person when I arrived in Amherst.

Kevin Harris: One of the things that she did – and those of us interested in debate, I see this from time to time – she requested that the two of you exchange your opening speeches so that you can better prepare rebuttals. Is this a good tact?

Dr. Craig: You know, it is one that normally wouldn’t be good debate strategy if you were strictly talking debate strategy. Because the element of surprise can be important. If your opponent has your case all laid out, your opening speech, he can prepare to the nines to be ready to refute it. So he’s going to be a lot better, it’s going to be a lot tougher for you to respond. So in one sense, if you are just concerned with winning, this wouldn’t be good strategy to give away your game plan. But what I found is that with many philosophers, they don’t know about good debate techniques. They are not necessarily good communicators. Really, it helps the debate to be much better if they can have my opening speech in advance so that they know what to say. So I have actually found that this makes for a better debate. It actually helps me because I also get their opening speech in advance and therefore am able to prepare.

I think the first time I did this was with Edwin Curley at the University of Michigan when he requested that in order to have a debate we have an exchange of our opening statements in advance.[5] I agreed to do that. I found it very helpful to have Dr. Curley’s statement in advance. Because he made so many points, in order for me to cover them all I had to write and re-write and cut my second speech down in order to be able to get through all of his points. I thought, boy, if I hadn’t had this speech in advance I wouldn’t have been able to get through all of these points because there were just so many of them. But by having it in advance, I could practice my second speech in advance, time it out, have it all written out, and be ready to go. I think that Louise got the idea from Edwin Curly because she mentioned to me before the debate that she was a friend of his and had talked to him about debating me. She had done her homework and talked to Curly. She also talked to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Dartmouth who had debated me. So she knows these folks and had sought debate advice from them about how to deal with me. So she requested we exchange speeches. Again, I was glad in the end that we did so because I thought it really helped me to have her opening comments in advance so that I could be prepared to respond to them.

Kevin Harris: Since truth is the goal ultimately, it shouldn’t be that worrisome about exchanging those. But the fighter in me says, no, you are going to find out soon enough when I mop the floor with you. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Right! You know, in fact, when you think about it, if truth is the goal and we are not trying to surprise each other, I think it would be very interesting to engage in a debate in which the entire debate is done in advance as scripted and we just get up and give the prepared speeches. In other words, right from opening speech through closing statement and rebuttals, have it all done in advance so that in effect what we are doing is getting up there and giving a performance in a way; it is not extemporaneous at all. That would be a very, very good debate. Then have it followed by Q&A.

Kevin Harris: You presented three challenges to any atheist who, like Professor Antony, wants to cling to objective morality and the absence of God. Often, this is exactly the case. They want their objective morality but God is not allowed as an explanation for objective morality.

Dr. Craig: That’s right. In fact, I think probably listeners to Reasonable Faith would be surprised to hear that most atheistic professors are not relativists or pluralists. They believe in absolute moral values and objective moral values.[6] They are realists when it comes to morality. The idea that everybody is relativistic and doesn’t hold to moral values is really quite mistaken. Most atheist philosophers are moral realists who believe in objective moral values and duties. This is what she holds to. She gave up her Catholic faith but she continues to hold to the humanistic values that Christianity believes in.

Kevin Harris: One thing I want to clear up from the outset. Often it sounds like we say, “If there is no God, there is no basis for objective morality, therefore, even if there is no God, we must pretend as if there is.” That is not what we are arguing.

Dr. Craig: Oh, not at all.

Kevin Harris: What are we arguing then?

Dr. Craig: I think we are arguing that if there is no God then everything is permitted, basically. Now that doesn’t mean that atheists are immoral people or that they don’t live good and decent lives. Quite the contrary, I think they do typically try to live fairly decent lives. So one isn’t indicting them as being immoral people. That is not the argument. The argument is that if there isn’t any God then neither they nor we have lives that are of any ultimate moral significance, everything is permitted, and morality is just an expression of personal taste or social convention.

Kevin Harris: There seems to be an aspect of it that says since you and I both seem to recognize, in fact we do recognize, that there are some things that are really wrong and some things that are really right, what best accounts for that? That seems to be it.

Dr. Craig: I think that is the issue.

Kevin Harris: We’ve already got a moral foot in the door.

Dr. Craig: Right!

Kevin Harris: We already kind of know. OK, what’s the explanation of that?

Dr. Craig: Yeah. That is right. I think for most atheist philosophers, that is correct. Now that wouldn’t be true for the relativist or the nihilist who denies there are any values, but for a person like Antony and most of the other philosophers that I have debated, you would be correct. We both agree that there are objective moral values and duties – things that we ought to do and things we ought not to do and that this is objective and real, not just illusory. And the question is: what best explains these moral oughts and the difference between right and wrong?

Kevin Harris: Reading an account of this – by the way, you can find it at ReasonableFaith.org, just go to the May newsletter at ReasonableFaith.org – in her opening speech, she didn’t really address these issues that we are talking about here. Instead, she tended to go on the offensive and say that moral values cannot depend on God.

Dr. Craig: Right. Hers was a clever strategy I thought, as a debater. I had claimed in my opening speech that as an atheist who believes in objective morality, she needs to give us an explanation of objective moral values, objective moral duties, and moral accountability. All of these are part of an adequate ethic or morality – values, duties, accountability. So my challenge to her was: show us, as an atheist, how you can give an account for objective moral values, duties, and accountability. Well, she didn’t really want to do that. I don’t think she is confident that she has an account of those things on an atheist view. She believes in objective moral values and duties but she doesn’t really have, as you say, an explanation for this. So, her strategy instead was to go on the offense and say moral values cannot depend on God. They have to be independent of God. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if I, as an atheist, can give a positive account of them. We know that they cannot depend upon God even if I can’t give any explanation. So what that meant was her whole case hinged on this argument that moral values cannot depend on God. Because if that argument goes, then you see she is obligated to give a positive explanation of value, duty, accountability on an atheistic view.

Kevin Harris: Was this a classic move toward Euthyphro’s Dilemma?

Dr. Craig: It was.

Kevin Harris: What you did, as you’ve done so often, is just address the alternative – the third alternative – that splits the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. She was claiming that moral values have to be independent of God because otherwise you face this dilemma: is something good because God wills it, or does God will something because it is good?[7] If you say that something is good just because God wills it, then it is arbitrary. He could have willed that we eat our children. Then we would have been morally obligated to cannibalize our children. That seems crazy.

Kevin Harris: She actually used that example.

Dr. Craig: I think she did, yes. She said on the other hand if you say that God wills something because it is good then the good is independent of God which contradicts my position and shows her position is right. Therefore, she said you face this dilemma that either the good is independent of God or the good becomes arbitrary. And either one is incompatible with moral values being dependent upon God.

Kevin Harris: If the good is independent of God, you can bypass God and just try to discover The Good.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, exactly. So what I tried to explain to the students is the difference between a real dilemma and a false dilemma. In a real dilemma, you have only two choices – A or not-A. There isn’t any third alternative. A or not-A. Because they are contradictories to each other. That is a real dilemma. In a false dilemma, you are given two choices A or B. The immediately question arises, why A or B? Why not C? Or D? Or some other alternative? So I said what the Euthyphro’s Dilemma presents us is a false dilemma because these are not in fact contradictories – they are not A or not-A. I said there is a third alternative – namely, God wills something because he is good. That is to say, God’s own nature determines what is good and evil. His own nature is the paradigm of moral goodness. This nature then expresses itself toward us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties. You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you shall not steal, you shall not murder, and so forth. Therefore, the dilemma is a false one, and moral values and duties can be grounded in God. So she would have to show that this is impossible. That the theory that I offer is somehow incoherent or impossible, and she really wasn’t able to do that.

Kevin Harris: She got a kind of a personal zinger in on you when she said, “I wonder Dr. Craig if you have any friends.”

[Start of audio clip]

I am worried for Dr. Craig. I wonder if he has any friends.

[End of audio clip]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that remark came in the context of my claim that if there is no God then there really are no objective moral values, and therefore there is nothing wrong with causing suffering to other people. She said it is wrong to cause other people to suffer and I said I agree with that, certainly that is wrong. But I can’t see why that would be wrong on atheism. On naturalism, we are just animals and animals cause suffering to one another all the time. I can’t see any reason to think on atheism why it would be wrong for people to cause suffering to other people. It was at that point she shot back, “I wonder if you have any friends!” I just smiled in response. It got quite a rouse out of the audience. I think some of the audience felt sorry for me because later in the Q&A time, some of the people in the question line got up and assured me, “Dr. Craig, you do have some friends. I want you to know.” [laughter] But it was interesting. She couldn’t really respond to the argument. She just kind of gave this ad hominem zinger back instead.

Kevin Harris: Something happened at the end of the debate. She honestly kind of confessed that there are some drawbacks to atheism.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, this was a remarkable closing statement that I would love for people to listen to because it is so poignant. She said, “I want to confess honestly that there are costs of giving up belief in God as I did and that there are some heavy prices that atheists have to pay.” One of them was that there is no confidence that goodness will win out in the end. She said, “If you are a theist, you believe that the story has a happy ending.” But she says, “If you are an atheist, there is no reason at all to believe that the ending will be happy and that humanity will not ultimately just destroy itself and that evil will win out.”

Kevin Harris: There is no redemption.

Dr. Craig: That is the second point. The second price the atheist has to pay is that there is no redemption. She said if you’ve done something terribly wrong that you deeply regret and that you know was bad, there is nothing that can ever erase that or make it right again because there is no redemption on atheism.[8] It is there forever. You can apologize, you can say you are sorry, but nothing can ever remove that stain.

Kevin Harris: You live with it until you die.

Dr. Craig: Yeah. It hit me powerfully about the blessings of a clear conscience, Kevin. I don’t know if you have ever – like I do – wake up in the night sometimes and can’t sleep and you just think. And how wonderful it is in moments like that to have a conscience that is clear instead of being plagued by something you’ve done wrong and for which there is no redemption of which you are guilty. It is that that the atheist has to face and live with. So that was a very poignant moment. It doesn’t prove atheism is false by any means, but I think it certainly does show that unless we have some kind of compelling reasons to become atheists why in the world would anybody find such a worldview attractive. It would seem to me that if the playing field were level, theism would be the much more attractive option to base your morality on and your view of the good on.[9]



[1] http://www.veritas.org

[2] For a video of this debate, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/craig-vs-antony-university-of-massachusetts (accessed December 16, 2013).

[3] See Nathan L. King and Robert Garcia (eds.), Is Goodness without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

[4] 5:11

[5] For a transcript of this Craig-Curley debate, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-existence-of-the-christian-god-the-craig-curley-debate (accessed December 16, 2013).

[6] 10:03

[7] 15:02

[8] 19:56

[9] Total Running Time: 21:52 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)