November 22, 2015

Are We Justified in Believing in Objective Moral Values and Duties?

Hello Dr. Craig,

Wanted to thank you for all of your work! I recently became a sustaining partner of Reasonable Faith because I feel so strongly in your ministry. Thank you! To my question, I wanted to ask about the moral argument's second premise. I've been trying to hash this out in my mind and I feel like I might be missing something. I read your QOW on the grounding of the second premise of the moral argument and I understand that we are not appealing to God as the foundation for moral values in that premise. Rather, we are appealing to moral experience. Now, the atheist might give a defeater for our experience because he says that evolution ingrained us with this "herd morality". But, of course this is the genetic fallacy. So, he might then say that our moral values have no justification even if they are true because evolution aims at survival and not truth. Here I get a little fuzzy. I understand that under naturalism, all of our beliefs aim toward survival and therefore, you cannot believe the naturalistic paradigm. But, another argument against them in your published work is that it is very likely that God would want us to have correct apprehensions of morality. Doesn't this second objection to the atheist imply that the only way to reach the conclusion "objective moral values and duties do exist" is ultimately believe that God exists? And isn't this circular? It seems like it would be much better just to tell the atheist that the objection is self-defeating and leave it at that. With this objection, are you simply saying that there is a "possibility" that God exists, and therefore, that it is possible that he would want us to have correct beliefs if he does exist?

Otherwise the reasoning for believing premise #2 seems to go like this:

1) If God does exist, then he wants us to have correct moral apprehensions

2) If he wants us to have correct moral apprehensions, then my moral apprehensions (from whatever source derived) are plausibly correct

3) God does exist

4) Therefore, my apprehensions are plausibly correct

5) Therefore, objective moral values and duties exist

This is obviously circular because we already believe God exists in order to come to the conclusion that objective values and duties exist. So, I was wondering how you would respond to an atheist who said that we were justifying premise #2 by believing that God exists? The second objection to the socio-biological account seems to be circular unless you say for instance that:

1) It is possible that God exists

2) If it is possible that God exists, then it is possible that God would want us to have correct moral apprehensions

3) Therefore, it is possible that my moral apprehensions are correct.

This is a more conservative argument, but at least leaves open the possibility of our moral apprehensions being correct. So, am I understanding this correctly so that we are merely trying to leave open the possibility that our moral beliefs could be right in order to overcome the atheist's objection that we can't believe them under naturalism? I hope that makes sense!

Thank you for your work again!


United States

Thank you, Austin, for your commitment to Reasonable Faith! Let me pick up your question where you begin to “get a little fuzzy.” The question before us concerns not the truth of the premise

2. Objective moral values and duties exist.

but our justification for believing it.

My claim is that we are justified in believing (2) on the ground of our moral experience unless and until we have a defeater of that experience, just as we are justified in believing that there is a world of physical objects around us on the ground of our sense experience unless and until we have a defeater of that experience. Such a defeater would have to show not merely that our moral experience is fallible or defeasible but that it is utterly unreliable, that we may apprehend no objective moral values or duties whatsoever. Our moral experience is so powerful, however, that such a defeater would have to be incredibly powerful in order to overcome our experience, just as our sense experience is so powerful that a defeater of my belief in the world of physical objects I perceive would have to be incredibly powerful in order for me to believe that I have no good reason to think that I am not a brain in a vat of chemicals or a body lying in the Matrix. As Louise Antony put it in our debate, any argument for moral scepticism will be based on premises which are less obvious than the existence of objective moral values and duties themselves, that is, than (2) itself.

So what is this allegedly powerful defeater of (2) that shows my moral experience to be utterly untrustworthy? Just that our moral beliefs are the result of evolutionary development and are therefore aimed at survival, not truth? Is that it? Well, what evidence is there for that?

In fact, there is no compelling evidence that our moral beliefs are the product of biological evolution. In a complex survey of contemporary work on evolutionary theories of morality, biologist Jeff Schloss reports, “not only do we currently lack a fully adequate evolutionary account of morality, but the manifold accounts we do have are also disparate and are often represented by prominent exegetes as having resolved issues that are still in dispute.”[1] In personal correspondence Schloss wrote,

the evolutionary debunking argument . . . assumes that moral beliefs are in fact adequately explained by natural selection. . . . there is little question that they are not. Dispositions toward certain behaviors . . . (reciprocity, parental care, etc.) do have fairly compelling evolutionary explanations. But . . . we don’t actually have a plausible evolutionary proposal for the moral beliefs associated with these behaviors. I’ve done a fairly recent review of the literature. . . , and I can’t find any coherent account for moral beliefs or even normative intuitions.[2]

And yet, how easily we allow debunkers to get away with mere hand-waving and vague generalizations as purported defeaters of our moral experience! The powerful defeater just does not exist.

Moreover,— and this is the point you ask about—the assertion that because our moral beliefs have evolved, they are aimed at survival, not at truth, presupposes atheism. For if God exists, then plausibly our moral beliefs, though evolved, will be generally reliable. So the defeater presupposes that naturalism is true, which begs the question. It is the debunker of our moral experience who has the burden of proof here to supply a defeater of our moral experience. So he needs to prove that our beliefs are not aimed at truth if they evolved. But that’s obviously not true, unless one presupposes atheism.

So your question, “Doesn't this second objection to the atheist imply that the only way to reach the conclusion ‘objective moral values and duties do exist’ is ultimately believe that God exists? And isn't this circular?” shows that you haven’t understood the dialectic here. The theist offers a theologically neutral defense of (2), which is, in fact, shared by the majority of ethicists today. The debunker then offers a defeater of that moral experience by asserting that because our beliefs have evolved, they are aimed at survival, not truth, and are therefore untrustworthy. The theist now undercuts that defeater by saying, “What justification do you have for your defeater? What is the evidence that because our beliefs have evolved, they are aimed at survival, not truth?” It is futile at this point for the debunker to say that his inference is a consequence of naturalism, for the theist agrees with that! Indeed, he said exactly that in defending premise (1), that if God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist. So it’s not the theist but the debunker who is arguing in a circle here.

Your reconstruction of my argument shows that you mistakenly think that the theist is offering another argument for (2), when in fact he’s offering a defeater of the debunker’s defeater.

Finally, the theist offers an additional defeater of the debunker’s defeater by showing that the defeater defeats itself, or that naturalism is self-defeating, a point you don’t dispute.

Once you get the dialectic right, you can see that there’s no problem.


[1] Jeffrey P. Schloss, “Darwinian Explanations of Morality: Accounting for the Normal but not the Normative,” in Hilary Putnam, Susan Nieman, and Jeffrey Schloss, eds., Understanding Moral Sentiments: Darwinian Perspectives? (Piscataway, N. J.: Transaction Publishers, 2014), p. 83.

[2] Jeffrey Schloss to WmLC, Sept 17, 22, 2015.