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The Best Moral Argument

April 06, 2021


Kevin previews some upcoming podcasts and plays excerpts from Dr. Craig and Dr. David Baggett on the best Moral Argument for God.

KEVIN HARRIS: Hey, there! It’s Kevin Harris. Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. We wanted to give you a sneak preview of what’s coming up. As always, some very compelling topics are on the way, including a podcast on a 12-year old young man who is a powerful apologist for the Christian faith. Already his knowledge is impressive. He is a real inspiration. He lists Dr. Craig as a major influence on his life, and he even disagrees with Dr. Craig on some things. So stay tuned to find out what he disagrees about. Dr. Craig is really impressed with this young man. So we got that coming up. Also a podcast is on the way on the hiddenness of God featuring an atheist blogger that we interact with quite often. Why doesn’t God make his existence more obvious? We’ve talked about this topic a lot, but this podcast has a couple of new twists. That’s on the way as well. Not a lot of time goes by before someone asks about Dr. Craig’s view on the inner-witness of the Holy Spirit. While he has addressed it many times, we keep an eye on any new aspects of this question, and it's the difference between knowing that Christianity is true and showing that Christianity is true. Today I want you to hear a portion of an interview with Dr. Craig on the Capturing Christianity channel on YouTube hosted by Cameron Bertuzzi.[1] Cameron does a great job. You should check out his videos. Dr. Craig is a frequent guest. Recently he was on to talk about the best moral argument for God. We can never get enough of the moral argument in all its forms. So here you go. Check out some of these excerpts from this interview.

CAMERON BERTUZZI: Dr. Craig and Dr. David Baggett are teaching a class together at Houston Baptist University. It is a class where they are studying the moral argument. It's a two-week intensive course. They meet Mondays through Fridays, 3-5pm. This is May 17 through 28, 2021. So the course will meet on campus in Houston, but it will also meet remotely via Zoom. So anyone in the world can sign up and attend this class if you want to learn more about the moral argument and go really in depth. David, is there anything that you would like to add about the course or anything else?

DR. BAGGETT: Just that I think it's going to be a really neat opportunity for folks to study the moral argument in depth, and study with Dr. Craig. Oh, my goodness! I'm excited about it for that reason myself. I think it's going to be a great time. The first week Dr. Craig will be in charge; the second week I'll take over. So that’s how it is going to go.

CAMERON BERTUZZI: All right. With that, let's get into the topic for today's video which is: we're going to survey some of the different moral arguments that have been offered over centuries. So why don't we start? David, because you just finished your book in 2019 on the history of the moral argument, maybe you'd be the person to go to here. When was the first one offered that you found in your research?

DR. BAGGETT: Dr. Craig himself says something like the essential idea of the moral argument you can trace all the way back to someone like Plato, actually. But in the Western world we typically tend to look at someone like Immanuel Kant as the first really major moral apologist, but there were some precursors to him like Reed and Locke and others. But Kant is often thought of as the most significant first major explicit moral apologist. And then it goes on from there.

CAMERON BERTUZZI: Excellent. Why don't we talk about some of the different versions of the moral argument that have come up, and then we'll talk about some of the drawbacks and the benefits of each of them. How should we begin here? I'm okay with either one of you guys taking the lead at this point.

DR. CRAIG: Well, let me say that in my work I have defended two versions of the argument. The first is the deductive argument that I present in my debate with the humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz at Franklin & Marshall College on the topic “Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?” That's the traditional way that I give the argument. Premise (1) would be: “If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.” And here I appeal to the atheistic tradition of thinkers like Nietzsche, Russell, and Sartre. And then the second premise is that “Objective moral values and duties do exist,” appealing to our moral experience of values and moral obligations. From which it then follows logically that, “God exists.” I like this deductive formulation of the argument because it's so simple. It's so clear that it's easy for audiences to grasp when they hear it orally. The other version of the argument that I've presented is the one inspired by Dave Baggett's work which is an inference to the best explanation. I used this version of the argument in my more recent debate with Erik Wielenberg at North Carolina State on “Is the Foundation of Moral Values Supernatural or Natural?” And in this version of the argument one takes it for granted that objective moral values and duties do exist. This is a given. This version was particularly appropriate with Erik Wielenberg because even though Wielenberg is a naturalist he is firmly committed to the objectivity of moral values and duties. So the question that faced us was not, “Are moral values and duties objective?” but rather, “What's the best explanation?” I argued for the superiority of a theistic grounding for values and duties as opposed to Wielenberg's theory called normative atheistic realism. Those would be two versions of the argument that I have myself defended. But Dave knows vastly more about this subject than I do! It's a privilege to be on this podcast with someone who I think probably knows more about the moral argument than anybody else alive. So I’ll hand it over to him.

CAMERON BERTUZZI: Well, Dr. Craig, I didn't want to make you feel bad. I was going to say David is probably the world's foremost expert on the moral argument. He's shaking his head here because he's so humble.

DR. CRAIG: I can't believe, Dave, that you've written a tetralogy on this! That's a monumental achievement.

DR. BAGGETT: Well, I appreciate it. Jerry and I had a lot of fun with the project, and there's just so much richness to explore with this stuff. It really is just such a wonderful topic. Thanks for all those compliments, and thanks of course for inordinately elevating expectations so that I can make them all come crashing down! [laughter] It's a privilege for me to be here with you guys. If I could continue on then with what Dr. Craig was talking about. I think Dr. Craig has done more than just about anybody drawing attention to moral apologetics and the moral argument. I know it's not necessarily your favorite argument, Dr. Craig. I think that's the cosmological argument probably – that's the one that you've really devoted so much to. But you have said, interestingly, that when you've gone to college campuses it's the moral argument often that's the most effective at persuasion. I find that fascinating.

DR. CRAIG: That’s exactly right, David. It's the one that students really connect with because, as I've said, you can get away with denying that the universe began to exist. This isn't going to affect your life. But every day you get up, you answer the question, “Do other people have intrinsic moral worth?” by how you behave and how you treat others. So this is an argument that is existentially unavoidable and therefore very powerful.

DR. BAGGETT: That's exactly how I see it, and I think it's one of the reasons why it's particularly well suited to serve as a prelude for proclamation of the Christian Gospel. It gets you right there – that there is this standard of which we all fall short and that something has to be put into place to address that. We need forgiveness. We need transformation. And ultimately if there's anything like hope for complete transformation we need the worldview resources to make sense of those things. So, yeah, I love the moral argument. And, by the way, it's a big reason why I'm here at Houston Baptist. Some years ago I wrote the president here, Dr. Robert Sloan, about the possibility of starting the Center for Moral Apologetics that Cameron mentioned. The idea was to have a place carved out at a university like this one that could become sort of a hub of cutting edge work and research on various aspects of the moral argument. It really is a job for a community and not just a single person or two. There's so much great work to be done, and we thought this would be an ideal place to do it. Very exciting things were already happening here with apologetics, and Dr. Sloan was excited when he heard about the Center and said he'd really like to do it here as soon as it became practicable. And then this last summer it finally happened. So I’m very, very happy to be here. Also, by the way, in conjunction with the Center that we're starting here, there's going to be a certificate in moral apologetics offered starting the summer after this one. It'll be two courses one summer and then two courses the next summer. Then we'll really have an opportunity to delve into the intricacies and various facets of moral apologetics. We're really looking forward to that.

CAMERON BERTUZZI: Why don't we build out the case, or look at some of the other . . . I think in what you do – Dr. Craig, you've already kind of talked about it – there's the deductive form of the argument where you've got the conditional premise “If God does not exist then moral values and duties don't exist” but they do exist so therefore God exists. That's the deductive form of the argument. But then David – he's very, very fond of the abductive version which says that God is the best explanation of various moral phenomena. Is that the term that you would use?

DR. BAGGETT: Yes. That second version of the moral argument that Dr. Craig has advanced – the abductive version – I loved how you used that with Dr. Wielenberg, Dr. Craig. I thought that was marvelous. It was brilliant. Just a really, really neat thing to see. So the deductive version is – I agree, it's powerful, it's succinct, it's pithy. You can commit it to memory. You can have it good to go, and in a debate setting oftentimes is the best way to go probably because of time constraints and all of that. And you have a deductively valid argument so there's nothing questionable about that. Then it just becomes a matter of defending the premises. It's brilliant. Like I say, I think it's done as much as anything or anyone to really draw people's attention to the moral arguments. I have just such great respect for you and appreciation for you along those lines. The abductive approach is just another way to kind of counterformulate the argument. And this is one way in which, by the way, I think we can point to diversity among moral arguments. There'll be another way I'll get to in a moment. But this is in terms of the logical structure. You can use a deductive version like Dr. Craig's. You could also twirl it around and put it into a modus ponens form if you want, too, and that would be a rather similar logical kind of approach that would have a lot of potential. But then there's an abductive approach. I'm going to tell you something, Dr. Craig, I've never told you before. Do you know who got me excited about abduction years ago? It was you! Yes, you. You gave a podcast on the resurrection and you laid it out using abductive terms. And it was a thing of beauty. I was mesmerized. And after that I, myself, started to think about the moral argument in those terms. It's always funny to me because some of my students think that . . . they'll say, “Well, you like the abductive version. But I like Dr. Craig, and he likes the deductive version, so I like the deductive version better.” Which I completely respect, but of course these things aren't in competition at all. A lot depends on the right context that you find yourself in and the particular people with whom you're having the conversation and so forth. But, yeah, in an abductive approach, Cameron, you start, say, with the objective moral values and duties. That's a great place to start. And you might just choose one or the other – objective moral values or objective moral duties, or both. And there are other possibilities, too, and that gets to that second point that I said I'll bring up in another second. So let me hold off on that. But then you start with that as sort of axiomatic. So if you're having a conversation with someone with whom those sorts of notions resonate and come alive and speak to those people then you can initiate a conversation about, “What is it that we need to really explain these things in a robust sort of way?” And ultimately you want to answer the question, “What's the best explanation?” But you can even just start with what is needed for a good explanation, a decent explanation, a robust explanation in the first place. And then kind of inch your way toward that ultimate conclusion, but you don't have to be in any rush. And, by the way, I think with respect to the evidence being considered, say, objective moral values and duties, it does great good in these conversations with our interlocutors to spend time talking about exactly what it is that we mean by these things. If you don't do that, one of the dangers that you're susceptible to is reinforcing the idea with whoever it is you're talking with that they can just think about it for a second, get a bead on it, and then start talking about it authoritatively without really having come to terms with the nature of the evidence. One of the things that I saw when I did the history of the moral argument was that these were folks for the most part – W. R. Sorely and A. E. Taylor and John Henry Newman and all these various guys – they spent a lifetime considering the moral evidence in great detail. They really lived with these arguments and these ideas. There really is a lifetime, if not an eternity, for us to ponder these ideas. They're very rich concepts. Ultimately, it's nothing less than the very character of God. So get people to be attentive to the evidence, I always suggest. That will at least help them perhaps shy away from the knee-jerk kind of deflationary analyses that explains away these concepts as well as it explains them. So you start with something like objective moral values and duties, and then you have principled reasons to identify what constitutes a good explanation. How many of these phenomena are explained? How well are they explained? How well did the explanations cohere with our background assumptions? How ad hoc are the explanations? Of course the less ad hoc the better. And so forth and so on. You know, the standard criteria for assessing the quality of these sorts of arguments. And then you argue that a theistic explanation in various respects can better explain, more deeply explain, the existence and the nature of such things as objective moral values and duties. So, for example, with duties – there's a kind of authority that most of us are inclined to think that moral obligations possess. Where does that authority come from? We can adduce, say, instrumental reasons to perform a particular behavior or to refrain from performing a particular behavior. We can do that all day long. We haven't yet accounted for any kind of deep sense of authority. So if authority is indeed a salient feature of moral duties then we need to spend time laying that out making it clear that's what's in need of explanation. Not slapping the word “duty” on something and saying, “There you go! I've just explained it. I use it in that way. Other people agree with me. What's the challenge?” You're only going to feel the force of the argument if you spend enough time really with the evidence and allowing it to work on you. By the way, one last image I'll share. My friend Jonathan Pruitt – he's my managing editor at and a great guy – he says sometimes, “Yeah, the moral argument that you give. It was kind of like a snake. At first it kind of gradually wound its way around me, and then it started to tighten, over more and more time it tightened some more, and some more.” But he lived with the argument, you see. He did exactly the kind of thing that we're hoping to do at the Center at Houston Baptist – inviting people in to work together and collaboratively; to live with these arguments and really probe in depth the richness of these topics.

CAMERON BERTUZZI: What really opened my mind to the abductive form of the argument and the value of it – I was listening to . . . it was a podcast that you've got (speaking of You guys have a podcast that's excellent. You had this podcast – I forget what the name of it was – but I think it was something like “Four” . . . I don't know. “Four things that” . . . I don't know. There's different aspects of morality beyond just moral values and duties which is the formulation that I think most people are familiar with or the moral data that most people are familiar with when we're thinking of a moral argument – moral values and duties. But in this talk – in this podcast – you referenced other things like moral transformation. There's other moral phenomena that is in need of explanation, not just moral duties or moral values. And that to me just kind of blew my mind. It opened me up to really appreciating the fact that there's other things about morality that could potentially point to the existence of God.

DR. CRAIG: I liked his appeal to the Kantian argument that in order to proportion happiness to morality you need God as a guarantor of immortality and life beyond the grave. Because if life ends at the grave (as it does on atheism) then happiness and morality are not proportioned to each other. The righteous often die young and miserably. So that argument, I think, is really worth emphasizing. And then Dave also mentioned an argument from moral knowledge. This is the argument that Mark Linville presses in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. When I invited Mark to contribute a moral argument for God's existence, I was expecting something more along the lines of the argument that I was familiar with. But instead he offered a kind of evolutionary argument in favor of theistic ethics, namely that if our cognitive faculties are simply the product of blind naturalistic causes then they have been selected for their survival value. Our beliefs have been selected for their survival value and not for their truth. And that makes it very, very improbable that our moral beliefs in particular would be reliable. Even if moral values exist, they would be some sort of causally unconnected abstract objects not in time and space and they would have no influence upon us. So how extraordinary it would be if just that sort of creature emerged from the blind evolutionary process who had access accurately to this moral realm including what duties and prohibitions he should have. So I think that is a really powerful argument in favor of theism which says that our cognitive faculties have been crafted by God in such a way that we can access these moral truths.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK, that’s all we have time for today, but stay close. Some great content is coming up on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.[2]


[2] Total Running Time: 23:04 (Copyright © 2021 William Lane Craig)