Moral Argument (part 4)

November 05, 2007     Time: 00:37:24

Last time we had a rather wild and woolly discussion about the moral argument. I want to try to condense some of what we said last time in a succinct way, and then bring this section to a close.

[Dr. Craig then opens the class in prayer.]

We have been talking about the moral argument for the existence of God, and in particular last time we talked about the premise that objective moral values exist. Let me condense what was said last time so as to try to summarize it in a clear way.

The way, I think, in which we know that this premise is true is through moral experience. We either find ourselves in moral situations or we contemplate in our mind moral situations. Then we ask ourselves: do we see a clear moral answer in these sorts of experiences? A right and a wrong way or action; something that would be good and something that would be evil. This is the typical way in which all moral philosophers work in terms of assessing moral theories. For example, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who is an atheist philosopher that I’ve debated, in his article on ethics from the Philosophical Perspectives series has said this – this is a quote from this atheist ethicist:

The most common way to choose among moral theories is to test how well they cohere with our intuitions or considered judgments about what is morally right and wrong, about the nature or ideal of a person, and about the purpose(s) of morality.

According to Sinnott-Armstrong, the way in which ethicists decide about which moral theory is correct is simply by weighing how it shapes up with our moral experience and with our experience of persons. When we do so, as I said, the vast majority of philosophers recognize that there are objective moral values which are discerned in moral experience.

For example, here is quotation from Lewis Vaughn in his book The Case for Humanism. Again, this is an atheist philosopher who doesn’t believe that God is the basis of moral values, but this is what he has to say in assessing moral theories.

If [any moral theory] approves of obviously immoral acts – the theory is flawed and must be discarded. If our moral theory sanctions, say, the inflicting of undeserved and unnecessary suffering on innocent children, we must conclude that something is very wrong with our theory.

When you see a little child like Allison (who came in here before the class) and you imagine some atrocity done to her by some sexual predator or something like that, I think every one of us senses that there is a morally evil component of that action.[1] If our moral theory says that there is nothing wrong with that then, as this atheist says, something is very wrong with your moral theory. So he says,

But most moral philosophers have rejected these views [that moral statements only express emotions of approval or disapproval, or that moral judgments are not objective but relative, entirely dependent on what persons or societies happen to believe] precisely because they cannot explain our ordinary moral experience.

The point of this premise is not to appeal to numbers. I am not saying that most people agree with this, that is why you should believe in it. Rather, I am saying that in moral experience we apprehend a realm of objective moral values and duties, and therefore we have every reason to believe that objective moral values exist.

Someone might say, “But what about the claim that moral values are just the byproducts of socio-biological evolution? You have just been conditioned this way by your society and by our evolutionary history.” My response to this is that this commits the genetic fallacy. In order to make this clear to you, I have a handout on the genetic fallacy. This is from a secular book on logic by Morris Engel and a page on the genetic fallacy. This is what he has to say about it:

One of the simplest of personal attacks is genetic fallacy. A type of argument in which an attempt is made to prove a conclusion false by condemning its source or genesis. Such arguments are fallacious because how an idea originated is irreverent to its viability [or whether that idea is true or false]. . . .

Genetic accounts of an issue may be true, and they may be illuminating as to why the issue has assumed its present form, but they are irrelevant to its merits [that is to say, to its truth or falsity].

So with respect to the claim of the socio-biologist that my moral beliefs are the byproduct of evolutionary history and social conditioning, you don’t need to dispute it! You can agree – yeah, that genetic account of how I came to believe this is largely correct. I learn these values from my parents, from my society, it has been ingrained into us by human evolution. That is irrelevant to the truth of the belief. How the belief originated is irrelevant to the belief’s truth or falsity. You can’t show a view is false by showing how it originated.

Although I don’t for a minute believe the socio-biological account of moral values – as a Christian, I have a quite different view – you don’t need to get into that issue in order for this argument to go through. Part of the task of apologetics is not to let the unbeliever steer you in a false direction by red herrings. A red herring is a fallacy in which literally a dead fish is dragged across the path of, say, a fugitive so that the bloodhounds are detracted off the path to following the red herring scent. Arguments can be red herrings to get you off the track and get you into arguing about the origins of our moral beliefs – the degree to which they are the product of society and evolution. Then you’ve lost the argument because you’ve been pulled off the track onto some irrelevant other issue. The relevant thing is that it commits the genetic fallacy to think that my moral beliefs are largely shaped by society and culture that therefore those beliefs are false.

Engel goes on to say:

The spread of psychoanalysis has tended to promote the appeal to underlying motivations that is found in this last argument.

That “last argument” is:

We must take Schopenhauer’s famous essay denouncing women with a grain of salt. Any psychiatrist would at once explain this essay by reference to the strained relationship between Schopenhauer and his mother.

In other words, Schopenhauer’s anti-feminist views must be false because they resulted because he had a bad relationship with his mother.[2] That is a genetic fallacy. His views may be true or false, but how they originated is just irrelevant to their truth or falsity. People use psychoanalysis to try to invalidate your beliefs. That is exactly what is the case with this socio-biological claim about morality. By trying to show that your beliefs have socio-biological origins, they try to invalidate those beliefs. That commits the genetic fallacy.

Let me give other examples to perhaps help illustrate this fallacy. For example, here would be an example of this fallacy:

The doctor tells you to quit smoking because he says smoking is injurious to your health. But then you find out that the doctor himself is a smoker. Does that make his advice false? Obviously not. He may be himself inconsistent and a bad source but nevertheless the advice is true.

Or another example. You go to buy a car and the car salesman tells you, “You should get this model. It has the highest gas mileage of any model on the lot.” So you buy it, take it home, and drive it. And it turns out you get great gas mileage with this car. But then you find out that this salesman was just making it up! He didn’t have any information; he just told you this. Does that make it false? No! Obviously not. He was an unreliable source, that is true. But that doesn’t mean that therefore it is false that the car gets the best gas mileage on the lot.

Suppose I say to you right now that there is someone standing right outside the door. Suppose the way I arrived at that belief is by flipping a quarter – if it was heads, I believe there is somebody outside the door, and if it’s tails I don’t believe anybody is outside the door. Clearly that is unreliable, but does that mean there isn’t anybody outside that door? No! There could be somebody right outside there even though the origin of my belief is based on the flip of a coin. The truth or falsity of the belief is not relevant to how the belief came to be formed.

One last example that is a true example that Jan and I are amused by. A couple of years ago they had a contest to see who could pick the best winners in the stock market. The one candidate that won had a clearly superior record. This candidate’s stocks out-performed everybody else’s stock. It turned out that the candidate who had the most successful stock picking record was a chimpanzee! This chimp turned out to pick the best stocks in the stock market that year. Clearly, again, anybody following the chimps advice would be following an unreliable source in the sense that there isn’t any information or knowledge of the stock market, but that doesn’t mean that therefore his picks were false or bad. You have to assess the truth or falsity of a belief on its own merits. You can’t disqualify it by showing how the belief originated. That is what this socio-biological account of morality tries to do.

At this point somebody might say, “What the socio-biological account is trying to do is not invalidate your moral beliefs by showing how they originated. Rather, what it is trying to do is to undermine your confidence in your moral faculties. It is trying to show that your moral faculties aren’t really reliable and therefore you can’t trust your moral intuitions.” It is not committing a genetic fallacy; it is trying to say that your moral faculties are unreliable and you can’t trust these moral intuitions. To that my response is that any argument that you can frame for undermining your moral faculties and intuitions, you can give a parallel argument for why you shouldn’t believe your sensory faculties and information. There is no way to prove that you are not a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated by a mad scientist with electrodes to believe you have a body and that there are other people and chairs in this room. You can’t prove that either because there is no way to get outside of your sensory faculties to show their reliability.[3] In the same way there isn’t any way to prove your moral senses or faculties are reliable because there is no way to get outside of them to prove that they are reliable. But in the absence of any reason to think that they are unreliable you have every right to trust them.

Interestingly enough, this point was brought home to me this week in a book I was reading by a Berkeley professor Charles Chihara called A Structural Account of Mathematics. You wouldn’t think you would gain insight into the moral argument from a book A Structural Account of Mathematics, but what Chihara is responding to is very relevant. He is responding to the view of a very famous American philosopher Willard Quine who taught at Harvard University and was one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. Quine thought that we don’t really have any evidence that people and chairs and podiums and churches and things exist. He said when you think about it, all you really have is sense impulses from electromagnetic radiation impinging upon your body surfaces in various ways. You see color patches, and you have tactile sensations and so forth but you really don’t have any reason or evidence to believe that these things exist. This is what Chihara is reacting to. He says,

Quine then introduces a surprising new twist to an old story. He asks: what evidence do we have for the existence of the “bodies” of common sense? That is, things like tables, chairs, dogs, buildings, even people? Here, we are apt to think that, unlike molecules [which you can’t see or touch and so forth], these things can be directly seen, felt, smelled, heard, and tasted. Not so, suggests Quine:

. . .

If we have evidence for the existence of the bodies of common sense, we have it only in the way in which we may be said to have evidence for the existence of molecules.

The positing of either sort of body [molecules or commonsense bodies] is good science insofar merely as it helps us formulate our laws.

He says that we don’t really have evidence for these. We just have sensory impulses of these. What Chihara reacts to in this is this is a misunderstanding of the concept of evidence. Let me read to you what his response is on this:

I suggest that we question the cogency of Quine’s reasoning on this point. What I claim is that it by no means follows from the hypothesis that we have no evidence for the existence of the bodies of common sense that . . . such bodies would have to be taken to be unreal.

Quine said that they are not really real – we don’t have any evidence for them therefore they are unreal. Chihara says that doesn’t follow.

Before accepting Quine's conclusions regarding evidence, we should consider the following possibility. Our belief in the existence of physical objects . . . may be so fundamental to our thinking, to our theorizing about the world, that all talk of evidence for the existence of such things is simply inappropriate, the reason being that our practices of gathering observational data, performing experiments, assessing data, confirming hypotheses, and testing theories take place within a framework of ideas and beliefs in which physical objects are presupposed. In such a situation, it would make no sense to try to gather evidence for the existence of physical objects. It is not that we would be in a situation in which it would be reasonable to look for evidence for the existence of physical objects but in which, for some reason, we just couldn't find any. Rather, it would make no sense to speak of evidence for something so fundamental to our whole practice of gathering evidence. If something like this is the case, then it would be unreasonable to infer from the absurdity of maintaining that physical objects are unreal that we must adopt the Quinean pragmatic conception of evidence.

In other words, what he is saying there is that the belief in the reality of the external world – the belief that I have a head, for example – is so basic that it is simply inappropriate to demand evidence for it. In the absence of any reason to doubt it, it is what philosophers call a properly basic belief. That is a technical term. A properly basic belief. That is to say it is a belief that you cannot prove on the basis of any deeper beliefs because it is absolutely foundational to rationality and in experience.[4] It is grounded in experience. What I am saying is, in the same way that our beliefs that I have a head or that Flynn is sitting there is a properly basic belief grounded in my experience, so belief that it is wrong to torture a child for fun is a properly basic belief grounded in my moral experience of the world. If you deny the rationality of the truth of those properly basic moral beliefs, then you are in the same boat with Quine in saying you ought to think that physical objects of common sense are unreal because they are exactly on a par with each other.

So the idea here is that, granted you cannot get outside your moral intuitions in a way so as to justify those faculties from an external vantage point, but given that these are properly basic beliefs grounded in moral experience in the absence of any good reason to think that that experience is somehow delusory, we are within our rational rights in believing that a realm of objective moral values and duties exist.

That is basically the three points that we made last time and that I wanted to summarize.

The first one is that we apprehend a realm of objective moral values in moral experience.

The second one is that claims that these values are not objective and true based on socio-biological conditioning commits the genetic fallacy.

The third one is that any attempt to question the reliability of our moral faculties will be paralleled by the same kind of argument that would call into question our sense faculties and lead us to the absurd conclusion that physical objects are unreal.


Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The terminology of “properly basic belief” is one that I get from Alvin Plantinga, who is a Christian philosopher. But the concept of beliefs which are foundational is a common currency of Western philosophy and theory of knowledge. This type of theory of knowledge is often called foundationalism which says that there has to be a foundation of your belief system which is just basic and is foundational. The question is what kind of beliefs get to be put into the foundation. I am suggesting that moral beliefs are part of that foundation. So, yeah, whether you use the term “properly basic” or “foundational” people would know what you are talking about.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: When we get to our next argument next time we are going to raise the question: could the belief that God exists be a properly basic belief? Could that be part of the foundations of a person’s system of belief. That is a very interesting question. Right now we are not assuming that it is. We are inferring God’s existence based upon things like our moral experience, but we will raise this other question next time.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I guess I don’t see that he said anything that I haven’t just addressed.[5] That is exactly what I just addressed. This person doesn’t think that there are objective moral values. He thinks that moral values are just the result of social conditioning and therefore they are common among folks raised in a particular society. What I just said was intended to address that.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Then he should be skeptical about the existence of physical objects like that he has a head.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: These are all good question you are raising – the extent of this objective moral values. To say there are objective moral values is not to say there aren’t areas of gray. But if there is even one thing that is evil or one thing that is good the argument goes through. So we don’t need to worry about those other things.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I think you do probably know about that because we believe that God has revealed his will to us in Scripture, and in the Ten Commandments, and so forth. In one sense, rather than an objection, that would be a nice segue into sharing the Gospel. Say, “From our moral intuitions alone, we grasp that there is right and wrong, good and evil, but we may not be fine-tuned enough to see clearly what our moral duty is in various situations. We need help.” Then you can appeal to God’s divine revelation.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Again, this question is an interesting and important one though it is not directly relevant to what we are talking about now. What I would simply have to say, I think, in a case like this is that in a theocracy like you had in the Old Testament where God was the head of the government and everything was under his perfect will and control, it shows God’s hatred of sin in, for example, violating the Sabbath. We don’t take that very seriously because for us we don’t think that is all that big a deal, but for God that was a capital offense.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: No, because we don’t live in a theocracy.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: You are getting into what is called applied ethics and the degree to which we should try to legislate morality. Here we have to recognize that when you are not living in a theocracy where God is the head of the government, you have a secular state, that you have to in many cases allow people to do things that you regard as deeply immoral. Therefore, these things aren’t perfectly punished the way they would be if God were running the government. If God were running the government, it would be a lot more severe than it would be given our laws and so forth which allow people the right to do things that are moral.[6] We do not forbid, for example, cigarette smoking. We allow people to smoke cigarettes. But in God’s economy, I think this is self-destructive of the human body, it endangers your health, and therefore it damages the temple of the Holy Spirit that God has given you. So this would be a sin against God to do such an unhealthy and damaging thing. But we don’t try to legislate that out of existence. So you have got to understand that in the political situation in which we exist you don’t try to fully incorporate all of God’s laws, though you try to live according to those laws yourself by not smoking and by not doing these other evil things that the law allows you to do.


Let me just say something about the last point which is this Euthyphro objection to basing values in God.

Basically this argument presents a dilemma. It says either something is good because God commands you to do it, or God commands you to do it because it is good. Which is it? Is something good because God commands you to do it? It is good in virtue of his commandment? Or is the reason God commands you to do it because it is good, and because it is good he gives the commandment? Which is it? If you say that something is good just because God commands it then that seems to make morality arbitrary. God could have commanded that cruelty and hatred and child abuse be good. Then we would be morally obligated to carry out such acts. That seems morally inconceivable and crazy. On the other hand if you say that something is commanded by God because he recognizes it to be good then the good is independent of God after all. The good is not based in God. Rather, God is himself, in a sense, subservient to the good and he must command what is good and prohibit what is evil – the good is not based on God. So you have a dilemma here it seems for the person who wants to say that moral values are grounded in God. Either that makes moral values totally arbitrary which seems wrong, or it means that God is subservient to the good and must himself obey and do what is good which seems to deny that moral values are grounded in God. How do you get out of this dilemma?

The way you get out of a dilemma is by exercising a maneuver which is known both to philosophers and to matadors called splitting the horns of the dilemma. You evade the dilemma by crafting a third alternative. I think Plato himself saw what that third alternative is, namely, the good is God himself. God is the good. The good is the moral nature of God. That is to say, God’s moral nature defines what is good. He is himself the yardstick of moral values. God is necessarily, by his essence or nature, kind, holy, loving, just, and so on and so forth. These moral attributes of God’s moral nature are constitutive of the good. They define what the good is. God’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of certain commandments like “you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength, heart, soul, and mind,” “you shall love your neighbor like yourself.” These then become our moral duties. So our moral duties are grounded in God’s commandments, but these commandments are not arbitrary, but they flow necessarily out of the very nature of God himself. They are necessary expressions of the way God is.

So they are neither arbitrary nor is the good something above God. Rather, God’s commandments which constitute our moral duties are necessary expressions of the essence, the moral nature, of God himself.

Somebody might say at this point, “Why pick God’s nature as being constitutive of the good? Why should his nature be the yardstick that determines what is good and evil?”

Well, in one sense, the answer to that question is – there isn’t anything else available! We’ve seen in the argument that without God (say you have all these other things existing in the universe – everything else that exist) there are no objective moral values.[7] So there isn’t anything else that can be constitutive of the moral good. Without God, objective moral values and duties do not exist. If they do exist, it therefore follows that they must be grounded in God. So in one sense there just isn’t anything else available, other than God’s nature, to define what is the moral good.

But in addition to this, I want to say I think that God is an appropriate foundation for moral values. Why? By definition, God is a being who is worthy of worship. Think of that. Any being that was not worthy of worship could not be God. By the very definition, God must be worthy of worship. Worship isn’t just admiration, folks! It is not just praise. Worship is adoration of God as the supreme good. Therefore, as a being who is worthy of worship, as a being that merits worship, God must be perfectly good. He must be the locus, the definition, of what the good is. So when you really think of what it means to be worthy of worship and who God is as such a being, I think it makes it very appropriate for God to be the stopping place and foundation point of moral values.

On this view that I am suggesting, moral values are grounded in God in the sense that our moral duties are established by God’s commandments to us, and his commandments flow necessarily out of his own moral nature which he has as part of his essence. Therefore, it eludes this dilemma.[8]



[1] 4:55

[2] 10:13

[3] 14:56

[4] 20:09

[5] 25:09

[6] 29:58

[7] 35:08

[8] Total Running Time: 37:23 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)