How are Morals Objectively Grounded in God?
Conversation with William Lane Craig
How are Morals Objectively Grounded in God?
Kevin Harris: We are looking at some great questions at the website ReasonableFaith.org, Dr. William Lane Craig’s website. There are questions that people submit that Dr. Craig chooses from time to time to answer. There is a good one here, Dr. Craig, on how God can be the ground of morality or moral values. Let’s talk about this question. We’ve dealt with this a lot, your articles deal with this, it comes out in your debates quite often. It asks how God can be the ground of morality, can somehow ground moral values?
Dr. Craig: I think of God as the embodiment of the moral good. He is the paradigm of goodness. He defines what goodness is. Think by way of analogy of judging music in terms of being hi-fidelity. We used to hear the term that a recording was hi-fidelity, which meant that it approximated to the sound of a live orchestra. But a live orchestra wouldn’t itself be hi-fidelity because it doesn’t have anything to approximate to – it is the standard. In the same way, moral values are defined by God. He is the standard of goodness. His character is the paradigm of goodness. Whether or not our actions are good or bad will be based upon how faithful they are to the standard. Whether they are morally hi-fidelity or not or whether they fall away from the standard and are therefore evil.
So God, in his moral nature, is the paradigm of goodness. He is by nature essentially good, loving, kind, faithful, just, loyal, truthful, and so forth. So I see moral values as defined paradigmatically in God; that is to say, God is the standard. Then that moral nature issues in divine commandments to us. It is out of that nature that God commands us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves; that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind and so forth. These moral commandments then constitute our moral duties. This is the source of moral obligation for us that we are commanded by God, the paradigm of goodness, to do certain things.
We can distinguish between values and duties in this way. Values concern the moral worth of something – whether it is good or bad. Duties concern whether something is obligatory for us – whether it is right or wrong. I see moral duties as rooted in the commandments, moral values is rooted in the nature of God.
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, the critic will often say that morals are subjective and even if they are somehow grounded in God they are still subjective because they are subject to him and what he thinks is moral. How does what you just said escape that subjectivity of moral values within God?
Dr. Craig: Great question. If moral values were simply rooted in the divine will, if God just made up what is right and wrong arbitrarily, then I would agree with you. That would be the ultimate in subjectivity. Moral values would just be arbitrary declarations of God. That position has a name – it is called voluntarism. Voluntarism would be the view that moral values are rooted in the will of God, and the will of God just decides what is good and evil, right and wrong. The view that I’ve laid out is quite different than that.
Kevin Harris: People would say God has his opinion and I have mine.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, right. The view I’ve laid out is quite different from that because it says that moral values are not rooted in the divine will. His commands to us are expressions of his will, but these are rooted in the divine nature – in his essential moral properties like justice, kindness, compassion, truthfulness, and so forth. Those aren’t arbitrary. Those can’t be changed. Those are logically necessary and therefore exist in all possible worlds. There is no possible world in which God lacks these properties and does not exist.
Kevin Harris: So for further study, we could contrast voluntarism and essentialism?
Dr. Craig: You know, it is interesting. I don’t know if this view that I’ve laid out has a name. It is a form of divine command morality but I suppose you could call it essentialism as opposed to voluntarism. I think this is interesting, Kevin, because the very charge that you made is made in the recent atheist handbook called The Cambridge Companion to Atheism that has an article in there by David Brink attacking the moral argument for God’s existence. Brink is an eminent ethicist and yet when you read his critique of theistic ethics the only version he knows is voluntarism. That is all he knows and he attacks that. He knows nothing of the work of people like Robert Adams, William Alston, Philip Quinn, and others defending this sort of divine command essentialism that I’ve just laid out to you. So in effect he is attacking a straw man. I don’t know any contemporary Christian philosopher who defends voluntarism.
Kevin Harris: So there are various divine command theories and voluntarism would be one divine command theory that is pretty vulnerable to attack?
Dr. Craig: Yeah, I think it is unacceptable because, as you say, it is ultimately subjectivism really because God just makes these things up.
Kevin Harris: Since God is ultimate, since he is ontologically ultimate, it means his very being is ultimate. He is the standard. You wouldn’t want to say that God is subject to his own nature because God isn’t subject to anything. What could you say? That he is just consistent with it or in keeping with it?
Dr. Craig: Yes, right. He is consistent with his own nature. Remember, it is his nature. It is not as though there is something outside God that compels him to act in a certain way. Rather, this is just the way God is. It is who he is.
Kevin Harris: Does this split what’s commonly known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma? I run into it on websites a lot. That is an ancient dilemma from Plato.
Dr. Craig: William Alston, a great Christian philosopher who was at Syracuse University, wrote an article in which he laid out this version of divine command theory. The title of the article was “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.”
Kevin Harris: [laughter] There you go.
Dr. Craig: So when Socrates asked him, “Is something good because the gods will it or do the gods will it because it is good?” what Euthyphro should have said is that the gods will it because they are good, or he is good if you put it in the context of monotheism. So that is the correct answer. It is a third alternative that splits the horns of the dilemma. God wills it because he is good. He is the paradigm of moral value.
Kevin Harris: What you are saying seems to account for why moral values are objective.
Dr. Craig: Yes, I think this is a form of moral objectivism just as much as Platonism is. What Christian theologians did when they read Plato was they took what Plato called “The Good” – which was a sort of abstract ideal that was the determinant or the standard of moral value – and they said there isn’t any such abstract entity as “The Good.” What Plato is really talking about is God’s nature. So they took “The Good” and in essence made it the nature of God and thereby have the same sort of objectivism that Platonic ethics did.
Kevin Harris: What can we learn from that? They took Plato’s insights and applied them to the truth of Christianity.
Dr. Craig: Exactly. They baptized Plato! This is the common pattern of the early church fathers. They did not just reject Greek philosophy wholesale. But wherever they could they appropriated its insights in the service of Christian theology. So in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, the attributes of God, Christianity owes a tremendous debt to Greek philosophy in terms of the concepts that are employed in formulating those doctrines.
Kevin Harris: I’ll tell you what is hard and keeps me up at night sometimes, Bill, and that is moral values are real and objective but they are not like a gas that you run into. They are not hanging suspended somehow but yet how do they exist then?
Dr. Craig: I think that you are right – they don’t exist on their own. That was Plato’s view – that they exist as sort of abstract objects. There is such a thing as Justice or Greed or Vice or Self-Sacrifice. Even if there were no people there would be these sort of values that just sort of exist out there.
Kevin Harris: That was the Platonic view.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, that was the Platonic view. But on the Christian view, moral goods exist as properties of God. So they would exist in the same sense that the length of a meter bar exists. There isn’t some sort of abstract thing called “The Length” that exists on its own. But it is a property of the meter bar that is there in Paris in the Bureau of Measures and Weights and the length of the bar is the property of the bar itself. The meter was the paradigm for what a meter was. The meter was the length of that bar.
Kevin Harris: Obviously, when I said they are not hanging around like some kind of gas and then you run into them and know what to do, a gas would be a material thing. These are immaterial.
Dr. Craig: Right. On Plato’s view these would be what are called abstract objects which means that they are causally impotent. They don’t impact anything causally. I think for Plato they would exist beyond space and time rather than in the spacetime universe. Many philosophers think that mathematical entities exist in this way – numbers and sets and so forth. But, again, Christians typically took these abstract entities and they internalized them into God and made them divine ideas. They made them the ideas of God.
Kevin Harris: OK. So in a sense they are Platonic. They are forms that just exist. But they are anchored in God rather than just brute facts or parts of the universe.
Dr. Craig: I would resist the idea of saying they are abstract objects because it is not as though God creates these things and that they exist external to him. They are just his ideas or in the case of moral values they are just his moral properties. They are just the way he is. He is good. He is loving. He is just. He is kind.
Kevin Harris: And they get to us simply by reflecting on them, it seems.
Dr. Craig: You are talking now about how do we know them?
Kevin Harris: Yeah, how do we know them? How do we discover them? Since we don’t determine them how then do we discover them?
Dr. Craig: Well, the Bible says in Romans 1 and 2 that God has written his moral law on the hearts of all men so even those who do not have the Bible do by nature the things that the law requires. So there is a kind of innate moral sense, I think, that we have in virtue of being created in God’s image.
Kevin Harris: Would we call it intuitive awareness? We know them intuitively?
Dr. Craig: That would be one way I think that you could call it. Other values that are not so intuitively obvious would be communicated to us by divine revelation.
Kevin Harris: OK. I am pursuing this because a guy really tried to trip me up on all this the other day. He was really trying to ask me how these objective moral values exist even if they are grounded in God. It takes a while of dialogue to talk about Platonic forms and abstract and things like that.
Dr. Craig: When you think about it, why is it any more difficult to think that the compassion of God exists than to think that the omnipotence of God exists or the timelessness of God exists? I don’t see the difference. They are just properties of God but the one is a moral property and the others are non-moral properties. Things like omnipotence and timelessness aren’t moral properties but that is how they exist in the same way that any of the properties of God exist. They are just ways God is.
Kevin Harris: Morals are properties of persons. I mean, a rock doesn’t contain moral properties, or a star or cosmic dust or even a parakeet. So they are personal.
Dr. Craig: Right, they are person-dependent. I think it is in virtue of being persons as God is personal that we have intrinsic moral value, too. That is why a single person is more valuable than the entire material universe put together, which is an awesome thought. Because only persons have intrinsic moral value. Things have extrinsic value in that they can serve the purposes of persons. A hammer can help me to build a house. Money can help me to buy food. These things are extrinsically valuable in that they serve as means to ends. But persons are ends in themselves. They are intrinsically valuable, not just extrinsically valuable as means to be used for some end. So as Augustine said, we should love people and use things, but so often we do just the opposite.
Kevin Harris: That is an indictment on us all. It really is. The skeptic will say if moral values are objective then why doesn’t everybody recognize them and agree on moral values? Why are there such conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice and things like that.
Dr. Craig: I think to say that moral values are objective is not to say that they are always clear. Certainly there can be areas of gray. Some things are clearly right or clearly wrong but in between there can certainly be difficult moral questions that are hard to discern what is right and wrong. To say that there are objective values and duties is to say that in any moral situation that you find yourself in there is a right thing to do and there is a bad thing or a wrong thing to do. But it is not to say that that is always easy to discern. So we must not confuse epistemology (which is how you know moral values and duties) with ontology (which is the reality of the moral values and duties). I am not making a claim that because these things objectively exist that they are always easy to discern.
Kevin Harris: We can misapply them even though they are objective. We can do the wrong thing. Perhaps, even though moral values are objective, we sometimes subjectively apply them?
Dr. Craig: Yeah, that is absolutely right. This is what sin is. Sin says that we are fallen in our nature and therefore we love wickedness and unrighteousness rather than righteousness. We are bent in upon ourselves and pursue our own selfish interests. So it is not surprising that when you look out at the world you find cultures that are deeply warped and evil. One thinks of Apartheid in South Africa or of Nazi Germany or in dictatorial societies and cultures like Marxist or Communist nations or even in materialistic consumer-driven Western nations. It is not surprising in virtue of people’s sinfulness that we would see entire cultures infected with evil and existing in a morally fallen way. So the objectivity of moral values doesn’t mean that everybody follows them.
Kevin Harris: Does it, however, account for why people who don’t even believe in God or claim not to believe in God can be good or do the good thing or recognize right and wrong?
Dr. Craig: Exactly. If there were no God, I think there would be no objective moral values. Everything would then be simply subjective. Moral values would be the by-product of socio-biological pressures upon humanity. Just as a troop of baboons will exhibit cooperative behavior because it helps them to survive, so human beings have evolved a kind of herd morality that helps them to get along in the struggle for survival. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. That sort of thing. So if there is no God it seems to me that there really is no objective right and wrong, good and evil. Everything is morally indifferent. But if there is a God then even the atheist’s life is characterized by good and evil, right and wrong, whether he believes it or not because these things are not dependent upon human opinion.
Kevin Harris: A skeptic once accused me of saying, when I tried to show that morals are objective and that they are grounded in God and in his nature and so on, that if I didn’t believe in God or that I somehow tomorrow came to believe that God did not exist, would that mean that I would go out and begin raping and pillaging. And he said if you answered no that means that you don’t need God to keep you from doing those things. Would you suddenly transform into a barbarian if you came to think that God didn’t exist tomorrow?
Dr. Craig: That is to misunderstand the argument. The argument isn’t that because of the existence of God we are constrained in our moral behavior. The argument is that in the absence of God the moral behavior that we exhibit is not really good. It is just illusory. So, if one came to believe that God does not exist as many apostate Christians have, they don’t immediately become barbarians and so forth. But it would mean that the moral behavior that they continue to pursue isn’t really right or wrong if there is no God, if they were right. Now, I think there is a God so it is still good and right. But if God doesn’t exist and one came to the realization that he doesn’t exist, you might still, as a result of societal pressures, continue to live the way you always have. But there wouldn’t be any right or wrong about it any more than there was when you were under the illusion that God did exist. In other words, it is not about belief in God. It is about whether or not there is a God.
Kevin Harris: Does it erode morality for society to move toward disbelief in God?
Dr. Craig: That is a really, really good question that I think only a sociologist and not a philosopher could answer. Certainly, Kevin, when you look at nations that have been atheistic – like Albania and the Soviet Union and Communist China – their moral record is absolutely appalling. It really is frightening. You can’t help but wonder if atheism isn’t contributory to a decline in moral cohesion. Now someone might say what about Chinese society, classical Confucianism. They don’t have a concept of a personal God and yet that wasn’t a corrupt and degenerate society the way society was under Soviet Marxism. But it is important to understand that in Confucianism you do have a thing called The Heaven or Tian which is a kind of moral absolute that I think serves in a sense as a God substitute. It is a kind of confused apprehension of the moral nature of God. So it does have a strong sense of transcendent moral absolutes. It is not an example of atheism per se. So I would like to see someone do some really serious sociological study on this and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see that societies that were dominated by a kind of strict atheism – kind of materialism, physicalism – would not in fact be morally degenerate.
Kevin Harris: In summation, Dr. Craig, moral values are objective and the best explanation for that is God.
Dr. Craig: Exactly. God in his moral nature is the standard of good and evil, constitutes our moral values. His commands to use are constitutive of our moral duties of right and wrong.
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, our question of the day: what is the difference between concrete and abstract objects?
Dr. Craig: Boy, this is a great question. I am working on this currently in my present research. I think that what defines the difference between an abstract object and a concrete object is that an abstract object is causally impotent. It cannot produce any effects. It is causally effete, as we might say. So take your typical abstract object like the number 7 or the set of natural numbers. If these things really exist, they have no impact upon anything whatsoever. The number 7 can’t cause anything. That is the difference I think between abstract objects and concrete objects. Concrete objects can have causal effects even if they are isolated in space so that they never do effect anything. At least they have the power to effect things if they were to come into contact or proximity with other things. But with an abstract object they are utterly causally effete and impotent. There is no potential there for having an effect upon anything at all. So I think that would be the defining characteristic of what an abstract object is.
 Total Running Time: 24:35 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)