December 08, 2013

“Objective” or “Absolute” Moral Values?

Hello Dr. Craig,

As always, I want to thank you for your continued commitment to defending the faith and equipping the church to meet the challenges of this increasingly secular age that we live in. I myself have been deeply influenced by your work and am in the final stages of completing my requirements to be a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director in West Texas.

My question to you today is about the difference between absolute vs. objective when speaking about morality.

I have heard you address this question in one of your Q&A sessions while doing your tour through Europe. You stated that you were very committed to stating the moral argument in terms of "objective" morality, rather than "absolute" morality. However, I do not believe there was further explanation on the subject.

In your debate with Sam Harris, you refuted the notion that you were advocating for a position that asserted a "universal" system of morality, but maintained that objective moral values and duties are what you were declaring to be evidence for God's existence. In both Reasonable Faith and On Guard, I've noticed you define "Objective" by stating that something is objective if it does not depend on human opinion or knowledge. It is simply valid and binding, regardless of human opinion.

While chaperoning an Apologetics mission trip to a local college campus, the moral argument was addressed and one of the atheists made the statement that went something like this:

"When you say absolute, I don't know what that means. What I hear most Christians say when they speak of 'Absolute Truth' or 'Absolute Morality' is really the same thing as speaking in terms of Objectivity. Most of the time the words 'Absolute' and 'Objective' are used interchangeable with no meaningful distinction".

Since you've spoken extensively about the moral argument, and given your educational background, I'm sure that this is a question that you have thought about and resolved yourself. My hope is that you can shed some light on this subject for myself and the rest of us. Thank you very much, once again, for all that you do in the name of Jesus. God Bless!


United States

Thanks for your work with Reasonable Faith, Joshua! I hope your local chapter flourishes!

The reason I think it preferable to talk about objective moral values and duties rather than absolute moral values and duties can best be seen by considering their opposites. The opposite of “objective” is “subjective.” The opposite of “absolute” is “relative.” Now very little reflection is needed to see that “relative” does not mean “subjective.” Just because one’s moral duties are relative to one’s circumstances doesn’t in any way imply that they are subjective, that there is not an objectively right or wrong thing to do in such a situation. So the distinction objective/subjective is not the same as absolute/relative.

“Absolute” means “regardless of the circumstances.” “Relative” means “varying with the circumstances.” We can agree, for example, that it is not absolutely wrong to kill another person. In some circumstances killing another person may be morally justified and even obligatory. To affirm that one’s moral duty varies with the circumstances is not to say that we have no objective moral duties to fulfill.

“Objective” means “independent of people’s (including one’s own) opinion.” “Subjective” means “just a matter of personal opinion.” If we do have objective moral duties, then in the various circumstances in which we find ourselves we are obligated or forbidden to do various actions, regardless of what we think.

Similarly, I trust you can see that the issue is not universality either. Universality does not imply objectivity. Universality of a moral code could just be evidence of unanimity of opinion (maybe ingrained into us by evolution). By the same token objectivity doesn’t imply universality either. In certain times and places some action (e.g., dressing in a certain way) may be objectively wrong and in other times and places morally permissible.

Drawing these distinctions carefully is vital to the moral argument because the claim that “Absolute moral values and duties exist” will quite properly arouse more opposition than the claim that “Objective moral values and duties exist.” People will take you to be saying that certain things are always right or always wrong, regardless of the circumstances, which you are most definitely not affirming. The point is that if God exists, there are objective moral values and we have objective moral duties to fulfill in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. But the objectivity of those values and duties doesn’t imply that they do not vary with the circumstances. They are objective, whether or not they are also absolute and universal.

Keeping these distinctions straight will avoid a host of confusions!