Moral Argument (part 2)

October 21, 2007     Time: 00:36:33

We have been looking at the moral argument for the existence of God. The first premise that we looked at last time was that if God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist, where “objective” values means values that are valid and binding independently of whether any human person believes in them or not.

I suggested that this is a premise that really resonates with a lot of people today, particularly young people, because it is this sort of moral relativism that has been inculcated into them at the primary and secondary level in our public school system. I think George Wright was reflecting on this kind of relativism in the morning sermon today. The sort of relativism that says that there is no moral absolute. What is true for you may not be true for me, and in the absence of God and a transcendent ground of moral value there isn’t really any objective morality. Rather, moral values are just the byproducts of sociological and biological development. We saw that on the atheistic or naturalistic worldview, human beings are just animals – relatively advanced primates – and animals are not moral agents. So if there is no God it seems very plausible that in fact objective moral values do not exist.

Some philosophers are unwilling to embrace the sort of moral chaos that would result from affirming that there are no objective moral values and duties. That leads immediately to moral anarchy where everybody does what is right in his own eyes. It would mean that rape and murder and torture and so forth could not be morally condemned. So these philosophers will try to maintain the existence of objective moral values even in the absence of God. They will typically pick something like, say, human beings to be the locus or the foundation of moral values. They will say that whatever contributes to, say, the flourishing of human beings or to the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people, or to human prosperity. That is what is morally good. So there are objective moral values in the absence of God.

That would be an example of, say, a humanistic point of view. Humanists are not moral relativists. Humanists believe that human beings are the foundation of absolute moral value, and man is the measure of all things rather than God. But the problem with these attempts to salvage objective morality in the absence of God is that these thinkers are typically at a loss to justify their starting point if you ask them, “Why think that human beings are the foundation of moral values?” After all, on an atheistic view, they are just animals. They are just relatively advanced primates. Why think that human beings are the basis of moral values? Or why should human flourishing be the absolute good rather than the flourishing of some other animal species? To say that human flourishing is the absolute good is to be guilty of speciesism, sort of like racism – being in favor of your own species as somehow standing out as special and peculiar. In the absence of God it is hard to see any reason to think that the herd morality that has evolved among Homo sapiens is objective and valid. So these thinkers, though they try to preserve an objective morality in the absence of God, are typically speechless when it comes to justifying their starting point. That is where we need to press them on this. In the absence of God, why think that whatever their starting point is for objective morality is in fact the true basis.

Just as an illustration of this sort of response, I wanted to read the response of Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from this book God?: Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, which is the transcript of the debate that I had with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong at Dartmouth College.[1] You need to understand that Sinnott-Armstrong is himself a professor of ethics. So it is not as though this man is speaking outside of his area of specialization. On the contrary, he is a specialist on ethical and moral theory. This is what he has to say in response to this premise that if God does not exist objective moral values do not exist.[2] He says,

Craig next asks, “If God did not forbid rape, what makes rape immoral objectively?” This question is supposed to be hard for atheists to answer, because Craig seems to assume that on “the atheistic view” . . . what makes rape wrong is some cost to the rapist or society.

I don’t think I made that assumption at all, but that’s what he thinks. He says,

But atheists can give a better answer: What makes rape immoral is that rape harms the victim in terrible ways. The victim feels pain, loses freedom, is subordinated, and so on. These harms are not justified by any benefits to anyone. Craig still might ask, “What’s immoral about causing serious harms to other people without justification?”

Animals do this all the time, right? If you look at the animal kingdom, forcible sexual copulation goes on all the time in the animal kingdom.

But now it seems natural to answer, “It simply is. Objectively. Don’t you agree?”

And that is his answer! So you see that when it comes to justifying his own starting point, all he can just say “It is just wrong. It just is.” There isn’t any explanation why it is wrong on the atheistic worldview. There isn’t any foundation for the moral values. It just is objectively wrong, and he says, “Don’t you agree?” Of course, yes I agree. I do agree that rape is objectively morally wrong, but as a theist I have a basis for that in my Christian worldview, in the existence of God who transcends society and culture and biological evolution. But the question is if that God does not exist then on the atheistic view why would rape be morally objectively wrong? I don’t think he has an answer, frankly.

What we need to ask ourselves about this first premise is: is there some sort of foundation for moral values that could be given if God does not exist. Some atheists have suggested that maybe there could be some kind of a non-divine transcendent ground for moral values. I am going to call this point of view Atheistic Moral Realism. On Atheistic Moral Realism, moral values are not grounded in God. Rather, they just exist as sort of abstract entities. Moral values don’t have any further foundation. They are not really grounded in anything. They just exist. They are just real. So moral values like Mercy, Justice, Loyalty, Compassion – these somehow just exist without any foundation in God.

What might we say by way of response to Atheistic Moral Realism? In the first place, I have to confess quite sincerely that I find it difficult even to comprehend this view. I really don’t understand what it means to say that the value Justice exists.[3] I understand what it means to say “a person is just.” I understand what it means to say some action “is just.” But I draw a complete blank when somebody says that, in the absence of any persons or actions, Justice just exists as a sort of abstract moral value. To my mind at least, I don’t even understand really what Atheistic Moral Realism is asserting here. To me it is incomprehensible. I don’t know what it means to say that a moral value just exists in the absence of any persons or actions that would have the property in question.

But secondly, I also think that the nature of moral duty or moral obligation is incompatible with Atheistic Moral Realism. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that moral values like Mercy, Justice, Love, Forbearance, and so on just exist. How does that result in any moral obligation for me? Who or what imposes upon me the duty to be loving, compassionate, forbearing, merciful, and so forth? How does just the existence of these abstract values result in any sort of moral duty or obligation for me to live in a certain way. After all, on this view, there are presumably other sorts of abstract objects that exist like Greed, Rapacity, Cruelty, Selfishness. Those would also exist, too, as abstract values. What obligates me to align my life with one set of these abstractions rather than with a different set of abstractions? Why am I morally obligated to align my lifestyle with Loyalty, Compassion, Fairness, and so forth rather than with Greed, Selfishness, Cruelty, and so forth? It seems to me that there isn’t any basis for moral duty or moral obligation on this point of view. In contrast with this, the person who believes in God can make sense of moral obligations because we believe that our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. You shall not murder. You shall not steal. In virtue of these divine commandments, we have moral duties and obligations to live in a certain way. But in the absence of any divine commandment, in the absence of any divine lawgiver, I just don’t see any grounds at all for moral obligation or moral duty even given the existence of these abstractions called moral values.

The third point by way of critique that I want to make of Atheistic Moral Realism is that it is fantastically improbable that just that sort of creatures would emerge from the blind evolutionary process that would correspond to these abstractly existing moral values and principles. When you think about this, this is absolutely incredible that this blind naturalistic evolutionary process should produce just that type of creature that is in line with this system of objectively existing abstract moral values, like Fairness, Love, Goodness, Kindness, and so forth. This is really totally, totally improbable. It is almost as though the moral realm knew that these creatures were coming. But of course it cannot know on an atheistic view. But by contrast on the view that God exists, both the moral realm and the natural realm are under the sovereignty of God. So God can develop just those sorts of creatures which will correspond to objectively existing moral values and duties and so forth. The moral realm and the natural realm are both under the sovereignty and control of God. Whereas on atheism, the natural realm and the moral realm fall apart. They are independent of each other. Therefore, it would be utterly improbable that these two realms by accident would just happen to mesh in producing by the blind evolutionary process that type of creature to whom these moral values and duties would correspond and be applicable.[4]

For these three reasons, I am quite persuaded that Atheistic Moral Realism just doesn’t make sense. Therefore, in the absence of God it really is the case that objective moral values would not exist. Everything would be socio-cultural relative.


Question: [Tells a story about a woman who was against circumcision, but wasn’t a theist.]

Answer: Did she believe that there are objective moral values like no circumcision – that that is objectively wrong?What you have got to do here with respect to this first premise is just to keep asking why. If they say it is wrong to hurt people, ask why? This doesn’t need to be an antagonist question, but just “Why on an atheistic view is it wrong for members of the Homo sapiens species to inflict pain on each other?” Animals do this all the time. On this view we are just animals. They will say, “No, human beings are special in some way.” Well, why does that invest them with moral value. Just keep asking the why question. There is no stopping point for atheism. Ultimately they just run out of reasons, and you finally get this sort of answer like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong – “It just is. Don’t you agree?” And that is it.

Question: [off-mic – talks about how women had less freedoms as men in past history.][5]

Answer: I think it is very important here that we not get distracted from the issue that is before us. The issue here is “If God does not exist, do objective moral values exist?” What you said doesn’t in any way challenge the truth of that premise. What you are asking about are questions about biblical morality and the kinds of moral commandments that God gave in the Old Testament. Even for the atheist to condemn those – for the atheist to say the biblical God is chauvinistic or things of that sort – he is still presupposing an absolute standard of moral value in order to make those kind of judgments. So those kind of objections don’t cut any mustard against this argument. I think they are still important questions to raise and to talk about. I would really disagree very strongly that in the Hebrew religion women are regarded as non-persons – I think that is quite wrong. But in any case, even if that were true, it just doesn’t do anything to undercut the truth of this premise. What that would lead you to deny is maybe the Christian God is the true God. You might say I guess it is some other God that is the foundation for moral value rather than the Christian God. But that wouldn’t deny the first premise that if there isn’t a God of some sort, that everything becomes relative. You can say nothing to condemn the enslavement of women or the brutalization of people down through history because there isn’t any sort of standard by which you can do that.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Wait a minute. You are missing my point. Again, what I am saying is, as interesting and important a point as this is, it doesn’t say anything that is relevant to the issue that is on the table before us. Even if you are right, all that would show us is that the God that is the basis for moral values must not be the God of the Bible. But it doesn’t challenge the premise that in the absence of God there are no objective moral values. You need to have some kind of transcendent basis for the morality that you assume. You don’t see that?

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: To me, that actually supports the first premise then. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. It is a result of human conditioning and back in 0 BC this wasn’t thought to be so serious as it is today. So that would support the first premise – that moral values in the absence of God is the result of sociological factors. Right? So unless you have some kind of transcendent foundation to saying, for example, rape is wrong then it is just going to differ from society to society and from culture to culture.

The other question is (that is not relevant to this but is a different question) that is interesting is: does the Bible have something to say about rape? I think if you do a Bible study on this you will find the Bible condemns rape unequivocally. It by no means treats this lightly. It says that it is sin and that people who do it will be punished. It lays out the punishments for rapists. Indeed, any kind of sexual intercourse outside of the marriage relationship is regarded as sinful, both in the Old and New Testament.[6] Whether it is consensual or not. Clearly, in the Bible this is regarded as sinful. But that is not the issue that we are talking about now. What we are talking about now is if there isn’t a God to condemn, say, rape then is rape objectively morally wrong? My argument is: I can’t see why it would be on atheism because on atheism we are just animals and this kind of thing is done by animals all the time and animals are not moral agents. Animals don’t do things for which they are guilty or for which they are to be morally praised because animals are not moral agents.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I think this argument is one of the best ones for confronting an apathetic person because it is very easy to be apathetic about, say, the scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe or the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, but it is impossible to be apathetic about whether objective moral values exist. Because every day you live you make moral decisions which will reveal whether or not you believe that God exists by how you behave. If you live as though God does not exist then you will live a life of moral anarchy and chaos and just doing anything that you want. But if you believe that certain things really are right and wrong then by your behavior you are admitting that God exists even if you deny it with your lips. So this argument really touches people where they live. If you are going to say, “I am an atheist and therefore I do not believe there are any moral values” you are agreeing with the first premise. The question will be when we get to the second premise, can you really live as though there are no objective moral values. Can you really live as though it would be all right for someone to break into your house and steal your stereo and run off with your automobile, and you say that is just fine, there is nothing wrong with that. That will be the real question. I don’t think people can live that way. But that is the second point that we haven’t gotten to yet.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Right! That supports my first premise. Don’t be sidetracked by these side issues. What you just expressed is supportive of the first premise. If God does not exist then, as you put it, moral values are just the result of social pressures and the need to get along in society. Remember what Bertrand Russell said about the herd morality – the herd imposes its values on the individual to get the individual to conform to the mores of the herd. That is exactly what moral values are. As I say, this is what people have been taught in school. So very often when they think they are offering an objection to your view they are really supporting it! Those are actually supportive of this first premise.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That is all. If there is no God then moral values are just the result of social pressures. We could also say biological pressures, too.

Remember, objective means that they are valid and binding independently whether anybody believes in them or not. But if they are just the result of social pressures then they are not objective. What I am trying to help you to see is that most of the kinds of responses that I hear all the time from folks to this argument really support you if you are maintaining this. So when people say, “I think morality is just a social contract. People kind of got together and they said I won’t steal from you and you don’t steal from me. If I don’t murder, you don’t murder, we’ll all get along. That is what morality is.” I say, yeah, that is absolutely right. If God does not exist, that is all it is, and the person who wants to go out and murder and steal – the psychopath or pedophile – is doing nothing more serious than acting unsociably.[7] He is like the person who wears white socks with a tuxedo. But that is not morality. There is no moral significance to that. He is just unsociable. [laughter]

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: What you are jumping to is premise (2) – objective moral values do exist. But I think that is the obvious next step in the argument. The way I came upon this – I used to give a talk on university campuses on the absurdity of life without God. All I would argue was that if there is no God then ultimately life has no value, meaning, or purpose. It was a totally negative talk – just really depressing. The response I started getting from students was, “But certain things really are right. Love is really good. Certain things really are wrong.” That didn’t refute anything I was saying because I was arguing if God does not exist then there aren’t objective values. Instead what I saw was the students were supplying the missing premise in a moral argument for the existence of God. I was saying if God does not exist objective moral values do not exist. The students were saying, “But objective moral values do exist!” What follows from that is: therefore God exists. You can see how your immediate response was the same thing. I do think that your method of arguing for premise (2) is quite right.

If I might share a true story. One of my friends teaches philosophy on a secular university campus. One of his students in his Intro to Philosophy class turned in for his term paper that semester a paper in which he argued that there are no objective moral values and duties – that everything is relative. My philosopher friend wrote on the front of the paper “F” in big letters and turned it back. The student was furious. This was a very lengthy well-documented, well-written, well-researched paper. It was a substantive piece of work. He came into my friend’s office and said, “How dare you give me an F like this. This is a good piece of work. How can you give me an F?” And he said, “You handed it in in a blue notebook. And I don’t like blue notebooks.” And the student said, “You can’t do that! That is not fair! That is not just!” And my friend said, “Isn’t this the paper that argues that there are no such things as fairness and justice?” And the student said, “Yeah, that’s the one!” [laughter] He suddenly got the point. He was himself, by his moral reaction, showing he really did believe in the objectivity of fairness and justice and so forth. So my friend then changed the grade to an A and turned the paper back to the student. But I think the student learned more through that experience than through actually writing the paper. But that is getting ahead to premise (2) where we will argue that objective moral values do exist, which then implies that God exists.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The utilitarian says that you don’t need God to have objective morality. Rather, what is objectively good or what is your moral duty is to bring about the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. I admit you could develop a nice moral theory on that basis. But what I would say is go back and question the starting point. Why is it that bringing about the greatest happiness for human beings is the good rather than bringing about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of mosquitoes? Or the greatest happiness for the greatest number of cattle. Why Homo sapiens?[8] That is where I find these utilitarians cannot justify their starting point. They will simply begin with the assumption that human beings have intrinsic moral value and that therefore promoting the flourishing of human beings is the good. But if you go back to the starting point and ask “Why is human beings' flourishing and happiness the good?” they typically don't have any answer to that. It is just the assumption of their theory, then they work it out from that assumption. But what I want to do is question that assumption.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That is a good objection to the theory in terms of its practical outworking – you can’t calculate what would bring about the greatest good to the greatest number of people. But I want to attack it even more fundamentally than that and to say the whole basis of the theory is suspect in that it gratuitously assumes (that is to say, it assumes without justification) that human flourishing and happiness is identical with the good. On a naturalistic-atheistic view, honestly, I don’t see any reason to think that this little tiny evanescent species down there on that speck of dust called planet Earth lost in this huge cosmos should be invested with that kind of objective moral value and goodness.


What we will do next time is turn to premise (2) and argue that objective moral values do exist. Then we will look at some objections to basing morality in God from the Euthyphro argument.[9]



[1] 5:04

[2] See page 34 of the book God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist that Dr. Craig referred to earlier.

[3] 9:58

[4] 15:09

[5] 20:14

[6] 25:00

[7] 30:00

[8] 35:08

[9] Total Running Time: 37:03 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)