Moral Argument (part 3)

October 28, 2007     Time: 00:46:41

We have been looking at the moral argument for the existence of God. You will notice we have completed our defense of the first premise that if God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist. We looked at an attempt to have moral values without the existence of God – what I call Atheistic Moral Realism. I offered a three-point critique as to why I thought that was a less plausible view of moral values than the view that moral values are rooted in God.

I think the first premise is very plausible. As I say, my experience in sharing this with university students is that this is a premise that university students readily acknowledge and identify with because of the relativism taught in primary and secondary schools that if there is no God then everything is relative. I think that is right.

But premise (2) says objective moral values do exist. Why should we think that objective moral values exist? I think that our belief in the objectivity of moral values is very much on a par, or on the same level, as our belief in the external world of physical objects. Any argument that you could give about being skeptical about our perception of moral values you could give a parallel argument about why we should be skeptical that there is a world of physical objects around us. We have, I think, a clear apprehension of a realm of moral value. In the absence of some reason to doubt that perception we ought to therefore believe that there are objective moral values just as we have a clear perception of a world of physical objects and in the absence of any reason to doubt our perception of the external world we are rational in believing that there is a world of physical objects out there. Skepticism about moral values and skepticism about the external physical world are really on a par. If we accept the existence of physical objects in the real world around us (if that is rational) then it is equally rational to accept a realm of objective moral values.

You might say, but what about the argument of someone like Michael Ruse that we looked at before that moral values are just the products of socio-biological evolution? They are just ingrained into us by this gradual process of biological and cultural development. I think that this argument against the objectivity of moral values is fallacious. It commits what philosophers call the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is trying to invalidate something by explaining how it came about. For example, if someone were to say to you, “The only reason that you believe that the Earth is round instead of flat is because you were born in the 20th century where this is the popular view. Therefore, your view is invalid.” That would be silly. It is true that if you were born in ancient Greece you might have believed that the Earth was flat, but simply telling how your belief came to originate does nothing to invalidate that belief. If moral values, for example, are gradually discovered rather than gradually invented then mankind’s gradual and fallible apprehension of the realm of objective moral values no more undermines the objectivity of that realm than our gradual fallible apprehension of the world discovered by natural science undermines the objectivity of that realm. So long as moral values are gradually discovered rather than gradually invented, that is consistent with saying they are objective. So the fact that you can show that there are cultural and even biological influences that cause you to believe in certain moral values does nothing to undermine the objectivity of those values. That is to commit the genetic fallacy.

Why should we believe that there are objective moral values? I think we know that objective moral values exist because we clearly apprehend them.[1] The way in which we apprehend them is through moral experience. We simply do various thought experiments in which you are placed in moral situations and ask if you don’t apprehend that there is an objective difference between right and wrong. I think the best way to show this is through just giving various illustrations.

In illustrations, we provide a moral experience for a person in which that person, I think, can apprehend an objective moral value. To give an illustration, I was speaking several years ago at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. Prior to the speaking engagement, I was walking the halls of the university building in which it was held and a sign caught my eye on the bulletin board. It said, “Sexual Abuse: No one has the right to abuse a child, woman, or man.” It was put up by some sexual abuse prevention committee at the university. The sign struck me because I thought no atheist can say that. An atheist could not make sense out of one’s right not to be sexually abused because if there is no God there are no objective rights or objective duties. Therefore, anyone who sees that sign and agrees that no one has the right to abuse sexually a child, woman, or man has admitted in so doing that there is a realm of objective moral values and he has perceived one of them.

Or another illustration: several years ago I saw a letter from John Healey who was at that time the head of Amnesty International. It was a fundraising letter for Amnesty International. In it he said something like this: “We do perceive that some things are absolutely wrong. When it comes to government sponsored torture, to disappearances, to government sanctioned rape, these are not just socially relative behavior. These are moral outrages against all of us.” In saying that, again, Amnesty International was committing itself to the existence of certain objective moral values, and that it isn’t just socially relative to say that you can torture people for fun or rape or incarcerate people in concentration camps. I think if you look around you can find illustrations like this all the time where people who are not Christians in particular nevertheless affirm this realm of objective moral values.

One more example. I remember a few years ago when Colorado had passed an amendment to their constitution saying that homosexuals should not be given special civil rights. Barbara Streisand came out publicly calling for a boycott of all ski resorts and vacations in Colorado, saying “the moral climate in Colorado has become unacceptable.” Notice that moral judgment that she was making. No atheist could make a statement like that because the moral climate in Colorado has no objective reality. It is just subjective, and the homophobe or the person who hates and wants to persecute homosexuals is on a par with the person who wants to embrace the values of tolerance and love and openness.

I think you will find in talking with I’d say 98% of people or higher – and they are sincere – you will find out sooner or later where their objective moral values lie. Typically people place a very high moral value on things like tolerance, for example, and openness and love. They think that intolerance and bigotry and racism and sexism are wrong.

I like to use illustrations from atrocities committed by the church in the name of religion. For example, the medieval Crusades. Don’t you think that the Crusades were morally wrong? Or the Spanish Inquisition where people were tortured and thrown into dungeons because they were Jewish. Do you really think that is all right? Do you think that if the United States were to start a policy like that that that would be acceptable? Or the Salem Witch Trials – do you think that was morally acceptable? Is that morally indifferent if a culture wants to do that? If people are sincere, I think you will find that, as I say, 98% or better of the time will say, “Yeah, I guess there really are some things at least that are morally right and wrong.”[2]

There is a general misimpression among undergraduates at the university that relativism is the reigning view among professors at the university. But in fact studies – actual surveys – show that students are more relativistic than their professors. Professors – if you ask them – actually believe in moral absolutes more than the students do. Of the professors, guess which department of the faculty believes the most in moral absolutes? Philosophy professors! The philosophy professors are the ones who believe most in moral absolutes and professors believe more in moral absolutes than students do. So there is this great misimpression that the situation is upside-down when in fact really professors of philosophy who study ethics recognize that there is an objective realm of moral values. The difficulty is that those who are not theists do not have any foundation for it. They don’t have any ground for it. But they do recognize that objective moral values exist. So in the debates that I have with professors, I almost never get a professor who is a moral relativist even though he is an atheist or agnostic. Almost none of them say that it is morally indifferent whether you torture a child for fun or you pick up that child and love him and care for him and treat him tenderly. They all recognize there is an objective moral different there.

So the atheist finds himself in a tremendous tension here. On the one hand, their worldview doesn’t seem to have the foundations in it for objective moral values. But on the other hand, in moral experience, they apprehend and do recognize the existence of objective moral values. They find themselves in a tremendous tension, pulled back and forth between these two premises. You can’t deny them both at the same time. So it seems to me that the argument is a very powerful one because people resonate with both of these.


Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Yes, and irrespective of how sincere these people were in thinking they were doing the right thing.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Peter Haas has written a book called Morality After Auschwitz – a very interesting book in which he asks the question: how could an entire culture for over a decade have ignored and countenanced a program that was aimed at the systematic destruction and elimination of Jews and Gypsies in Germany during that time. He says the only way this could have gone on was that a new ethic was in place, namely, an ethic that defended the deportation and destruction of Jews and Gypsies as morally tolerable and even good. So the Nazi ethic said these were good acts. The thing that Haas points out is that the Nazi ethic couldn’t be criticized from within. It was internally consistent in that they thought that these people were less than human and they were polluting the human race so get rid of them. The only way you could critique the Nazi ethic was by having a transcendent vantage point that transcends culture and society and is able to pronounce this culture’s values as wrong even though that culture was so morally blinded that they thought it was good.[3]

As you say, this reinforces the point that we are trying to make – that moral values are objective. They are not dependent upon human opinion. Even if everybody thought that the Holocaust was good (say the Nazis had won World War II and exterminated everyone who disagreed with them), it would still have been bad. That is what objective moral values mean. I think we apprehend that this was objectively bad. If somebody fails to do so then I would say that person is just morally handicapped. He is like a colorblind person who can’t see the difference between red and green. The fact that he can’t see the difference shouldn’t in any way leave me to doubt that I do see a clear difference between red and green, between the Holocaust and a policy that would tolerate the inherent rights of human individuals. So when the world sat in judgment upon Nazi Germany at Nuremberg and said, “This culture's values were morally wrong. There are inherent human rights” they were affirming the objectivity of moral values in the way that I've described.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That is a little bit simplistic. It is true that Luther made some very ugly antisemitic statements. They are really indefensible. But I think that you can't lay what happened in Nazi Germany at the seat of the Lutheran faith. There were influences from Nietzsche and nihilism and philosophical influences that I think came to be expressed in Nazism that go far beyond any antisemitism that might have been in the Lutheran church.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: There may be some truth to that. I think that the point that both of you are making that is helpful to bring out here is that to say that there are objective moral values is not to say that there is not moral progress. On the contrary, when we look back in history and say that what some cultural society did was wrong and that we have now gotten better and we are beyond that – slavery, for example, once characterized the ancient world and even the United States but now we see this was a great wrong – we don't say, “Oh, well, this is merely moral change.” We say this is moral progress. The very idea of progress implies that you are approximating to an objective standard; otherwise, all you could say is that it has been a moral change but not a moral improvement. I can testify in my own life I see things that as I look back on the way I thought and behaved as a young man that I see places where I had blind spots ethically and that I have grown in now seeing certain things to have been wrong that before I didn't see. I count that as moral progress. That is only possible if there is this objective realm of moral values. Don't think that moral change in some way undermines the objectivity of moral values. Actually, it is quite the opposite.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: No. That was the definition of what objective means.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: She asked, “You say that objective values existing means that they exist independently of our apprehension of them.” And I said, “Yes, that is right.” But then she says, “Then you said the way we know that they exist is by apprehending them! Doesn't that introduce an element of subjectivism?” That is a good question. I think it is very important that we differentiate between the orders of being and the orders of knowing.[4] When I talk about moral values being objective, I am talking about being – that these things really exist independently of whether we apprehend them or not. So everybody could be wrong and there could be objective moral values. But in the order of knowing, there I think it is quite true that there is a good deal of subjectivity in that sometimes we are wrong. Our moral intuitions are not infallible. Neither are our sensory intuitions. Sometimes we see something like water on the highway but it turns out to have been a mirage. The stick in the jar of water looks bent, but we find out it is really not. We thought we heard something but in fact it was just ringing in our ears or something of that sort. Just as our senses are fallible and sometimes need to be corrected, I am not claiming that our moral intuitions are infallible either. This shouldn't surprise us as Christians because as Christians we believe in the doctrine of original sin, right? That we are all fallen. Therefore we have a tremendous ability to rationalize bad behavior in such a way as to convince ourselves that we are really doing the right and noble thing. So sometimes we think that we are very noble and good when in fact we are acting out of selfish motives and so forth. Or other times we have moral blind spots as I said that later may appear to us. Just as our sight of the bent stick in the jar of water can be corrected, so one's attitude – say you grew up in the South and you had a racist attitude but you never knew it until later in life and looking back you say, “Boy, I really had racist attitudes, and I am glad I'm free of those now.” So you are right – in the area of knowing, these aren’t infallible. I am not claiming that. But I am saying that they are good enough and clear enough to say there is a realm of objective moral values out there that we apprehend in moral experience just as there is an objective realm of physical objects out there that we apprehend in sensory experience.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: What are you not convinced about?

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Let’s be very careful here. To repeat the question: just because this whole world society comes to believe that something is wrong, I don’t think that is proof that it is wrong. That is not exactly my claim. I am not saying that because everybody agrees on something therefore it has to be right. In fact, I said really the opposite. Rather, what I am asking you to do is just look into your own moral experience and say, “Don’t you apprehend in moral experience a realm of objective moral values?” I think you do. I am sure that if I were to ask you, “Don’t you really think that it is wrong to do this or that?” you would say, “Yeah.” Don’t you think that is true?

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: What I am asking you is: don’t you think that it is true that no one has the right to sexually abuse a child? So you agree then with the second premise, that objective moral values exist. I didn’t ask you if it was true that you believe it. I asked if you believe that it is true. That’s the question. I would invite you to reflect more on your moral experience and particularly to look at cases of evil and ask yourself, “Don’t I think that it is true that this is evil?”[5] I think probably, if you do this, you will come to say, “Yeah, I guess I do think that it is true that it is evil.” The illustrations I gave were meant to say this is how you can try to convince another person by asking them in a very personal way the kind of questions that I just asked you. If you are talking to an unbeliever: “Don’t you think that it would be wrong if we were to begin to round up all homosexuals in the United States and in an effort to eliminate them from our society put them in concentration camps and kill them? Don’t you think that would be morally evil?” Almost everybody, I think, will say, “Yeah, I guess I think that is right.” It is not enough for them to say, “But it is just right for me” or “That’s just what I think.” No. They have said they think it is really wrong to do that. So it is not just a matter of their opinion. They think it is really wrong. Again, you are right that opinions or intuitions are fallible. We don’t have infallible moral intuitions. But they are clear enough that we needn’t be skeptical of them in the same way our sensory intuitions are not infallible but they are clear enough that we don’t need to be skeptical of them.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: You actually gave two arguments there. Let me deal with the second one first. She said people might say to you, “But if you had been born in another culture then you would have had a different set of values. If you had been born in Nazi Germany you would likely have been in the Hitler Youth and would have believed in Nazi values. Therefore your believe in liberal democratic values is just subjective.” Is that a good objection? No! It commits the genetic fallacy again. It is true that if I had been born in Nazi Germany I might well have believed in Nazi values. But does that mean that the values I do believe in are wrong or false? I think clearly not. If I had been born in ancient Greece, I might have believed that the Earth was flat. Does that therefore mean that my belief that the Earth is spherical is unjustified or false? Obviously not. You can’t invalidate a view by explaining how it came about. This argument about “if you had been born somewhere else” doesn’t do anything to undermine the objectivity of moral values. In fact, ask the moral relativist, “If you had been born in medieval Spain, wouldn’t you have been an absolutist?” He probably would have been a Catholic if he had been born in medieval Spain. Therefore his relativism is merely the subjective result of his being born in late 20th century Western society. By his own argument it is therefore false or unjustified. So that argument “if you had been born” undercuts itself.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: What you have to do in this realm of knowing – there is no way to get outside of your moral intuitions or your moral perceptions to justify them. In the same way that there is no way I can get outside of my sensory intuitions to justify them. Suppose somebody said to me, “You are just a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated by a mad scientist to believe that you are here giving this lecture at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church. In fact, you are nothing but a brain in a vat. Or suppose someone in touch with contemporary culture said, “You are just a body lying in the Matrix all wired up being used as an energy machine, and this is all virtual reality.” There is no way to disprove that because there isn’t any way to get outside of your sense data or information to justify the sense data. Does that therefore mean we should be skeptical about the existence of the external world and physical objects? No! You’d have to be crazy to think that you were a brain in a vat or that I wasn’t really here in this room giving this lecture even though I can’t disprove it.[6] These are what philosophers call properly basic beliefs. They are beliefs that are not founded upon any deeper proof or argument but they are simply given to you in your experience of the world, and you are rational to accept them unless you have some kind of a defeater, some kind of a reason, to doubt them. For example, if you were to discover through various tests that you are in fact color blind. Then you would have some reason to suspect the fact that you don’t see any difference between red and green. Then you would have a reason. But in the absence of any reason to doubt your sense data, you shouldn’t be troubled by someone who says you are just a brain in a vat or a body lying in the Matrix. You have absolutely no reason to doubt your sense data and no reason to deny the reality of the physical objects around you.

I think it is very much the same thing with our perception of the moral realm. There is no way to get outside of your moral intuitions to justify them. You can only justify them from the inside by saying in moral experience I apprehend clear and objective moral values in the same way that in sensory experience I apprehend a world of physical objects. I can no more prove the veridicality, or the reliability, of those moral intuitions than I can prove the reliability of my sensory intuitions. But in both cases, in the absence of any kind of a defeater, in the absence of any reason, to doubt them I am rational to believe in them and accept these.

So I think that is the justification basically one would give for premise (2). As I say, if you talk to most folks, you will find that they do in fact believe that there are certain objective moral values and duties if you just probe enough with examples.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: OK. So you have appealed to conscience in talking to folks from other faiths.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The question was: if a baby grows up on a desert island, and we imagine he is able to grow up and function, would he still apprehend a realm of objective moral values? My answer to that question would be yes, I do think he would, because I think these are part of the image of God in man. Romans 2 says that God has written his moral law on the hearts of all men so they apprehend the difference between right and wrong. I think that is why people do resonate with this premise when they hear it. But it is important to see that that isn’t a part of the argument. In that sense, the point about conscience, though a good one, is slightly off track or misleading because I am not making a statement here about how we come to know moral values. I don’t have any problem with the idea that the way we come to know moral values will be through culture and society and parenting. That is perfectly all right. But to think that because you can show that moral values are, as I said, gradually and fallibly apprehended that that means therefore they are not objective commits the genetic fallacy. Our knowledge of the scientific world, of physical objects, is also gradual and fallible. But if moral values are gradually discovered rather than invented, our gradual, fallible apprehension of them doesn’t do anything to undermine their objectivity. This isn’t an argument based upon you have to postulate God in order to explain how you know the difference between right and wrong. That is a totally different argument than I am offering. I am quite willing to say the way you come to know right from wrong is through parenting, society, culture, and all of that. But that doesn’t say anything about whether or not what you come to know by those influences is objectively true or not. My claim is that in moral experiences is that if you think about them and say, “Is my moral revulsion at torturing a child for fun just something that is programmed into me that has no objective validity or is there really something morally abhorrent about this? Is there really a moral difference between love and cruelty or are these morally indifferent?” Reflect on this.[7] Ask yourself: is this just the result of subjective programming or is this really true? I think, as I say, you and most people will say, “Yeah, I guess there really is a moral difference here.”

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: You say you have talked to an atheist who says that his argument is that because he is an atheist he has good grounds for believing that there is no objective realm of moral values despite one’s moral intuitions. Well, in one sense, that is quite right. Look at premise (1): “If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” The atheist friend agrees. But now, the atheist, rather than denying the consequent, he affirms the antecedent. He says “God does not exist.” If that is your second premise then you are quite right. Therefore it follows objective moral values do not exist. If you have an argument that is based on a premise “P implies Q” you can go two ways. You can say “P, therefore Q” and that is a valid inference. Or you can say “not-Q, therefore not-P” and that is a valid inference. So the question is: what do you have more evidence for? P or not-Q? Do we have more evidence that God does not exist than we have evidence that there are objective moral values? In that case, I would want to ask my atheist friend, give me your proof that the antecedent P is true. What is your argument that God does not exist? Notice he better not say the problem of evil – because if he affirms that there are evils in the world, he is affirming that there are objective moral values! So you can’t use the problem of evil to disprove God if you are denying the second premise. I think that, as I was saying earlier, that our apprehension of a realm of objective moral values is one of the things that we discern as clearly as the external world of physical objects. I don’t think we have any good reason for denying our moral intuitions that we have in moral experience. So I think we have much better reason for believing that objective moral values exist than for believing that God does not exist. But as a purely formal point, he is quite correct. You will need to see where the evidence lies – with the antecedent that “God does not exist” or denying the consequent “There are objective moral values.”

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: No. On the contrary. The question was: just because we think that it is right to execute criminals does that make it right? Not at all! I would say that whether or not it is right to execute criminals will be based upon what God thinks about it. As I will argue next time, we ought plausibly to think that moral values are grounded in the being of God and in his commandments to us. God’s commandments constitute our moral duties and obligations. So I am not at all saying that because everybody agrees on something that therefore it is true. That would just be a numbers argument – an appeal to numbers. That is not the argument. It may be misleading because I say things like 98% of people will agree with you. But that is not why you believe it. I am just saying you will find that this is a good argument that most people will agree with you. That wasn’t meant to be the proof of the premise, what I said about the 98%. That was meant to be an encouragement to you to use the argument because you will find people responding to it. But the proof for premise (2) is simply the appeal to moral experience. Just ask them: don’t you think it is wrong to rape little children? If they say, “No, that is not wrong,” just look at them incredulously and say, “Are you serious? Do you really, really believe that? That it is morally all right?”[8] I have met a few. I can think of two fellows in Canada I met who bit the bullet and they said we think it is all right, it is OK. But I can hardly think of anybody else who has ever affirmed that. Again, that is not an appeal to numbers, that is just to say use the argument. You will find people agree with the first premise because that is what they have been taught, but you will find they agree with the second premise because it is almost an undeniable fact of moral experience. In fact, you can’t really live as though there are no objective moral values. Life would be unlivable, I think, on that basis.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: You are asking: aren’t we after all talking about how we come to know these things? There is something internal, a part of your very being, that helps you to apprehend these things. I don’t think that is the argument. I really want to get away from that because, although I do believe we have that inner sense given by God, that is not part of the argument. That is a question of knowing, which is moral epistemology. That is the study of how we know things. What I am talking about is being, which is moral ontology – whether these things actually exist. When you say, “How do we know that moral values exist?” I am not required to give an account of how we know that they exist because my concern isn’t with epistemology – with the theory of knowledge. I am just saying that we know they exist. That is all premise (2) affirms – that we know it. And don’t you agree? In that sense, what Walter Sinnott-Armstrong said in the book I quoted a lesson or two ago, these things are wrong – don’t you agree? That is what I would say. It is not an argument about epistemology. It is about ontology. You simply have to try to get the person you are talking to to agree that objective moral values exist however they come to know that.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The objective values? Absolutely! Because we are talking here about being. We can imagine a world of color blind people where everybody was color blind so that nobody saw that there was a difference between red and green. But that wouldn’t mean that therefore there isn’t any such thing. Or imagine a world in which everybody was deaf and there were no sounds or something like that. That wouldn’t mean that sound waves weren’t therefore produced. So don’t think that moral values just sort of exist in your head. They are external to the body. They are out there.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Let me say this. In order to know something you do not have to know that you know it. That is the nerve of skepticism. The nerve of skepticism is the skeptic’s claim that in order to know P (let’s let P be some proposition like “I have a physical body”) you have to know that you know P. That is not correct. I can know that I have a physical body even if I can’t give an epistemological account of how I know that I know that I have a body. Right? I maybe utterly naïve about epistemology. I have no theory of epistemology, but I know I have a body! So you don’t have to know that you know P in order to know P.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I think you know that objective moral values exist because when I ask you about them you say, “Yeah, I do know that.”[9] But you may not know how you know that. That is where the subjectivity you think may enter in. But you don’t need to give an account of how you know them in order to know them. That is the skeptics main weapon for making you skeptical about the external world. I can give the same kind of argument – how do you know that you know there is a world of people here? You are going to fall into the same skeptical trap if you think that in order to know there are people in this room you have to know that you know there are people in this room. Skepticism isn’t going to just undermine moral apprehensions; it is going to undermine everything if you go that route. There is no reason to think that we should accede to the skeptic here if this is what the skeptic says. How do you know, Mr. Skeptic, that I must know that I know P in order to know P? I am skeptical of the skeptic’s claim! See, the skeptic says you have to know that you know P in order to know P. I want to know how he knows that! So don’t get all hung up on knowing an epistemology here. You drove me to it! [laughter] This isn’t on the outline! The simple point is that you just share the simple argument. Objective values exist. And give illustrations, give examples, and other people I think will say, “Yeah, I guess you are right. I think there are objective moral values.” Then it follows therefore that God exists.

Next time we will consider an objection to this argument based on the so-called Euthyphro argument found in Plato.[10]



[1] 5:00

[2] 10:05

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:07

[5] 25:01

[6] 30:04

[7] 35:23

[8] 40:13

[9] 45:14

[10] Total Running Time: 47:18 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)