Excursus on Natural Theology (Part 20)

February 17, 2016

Atheistic Moral Platonism

We have been talking about the moral argument for God’s existence. Last time we looked at an objection to the first premise which is that if God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist. That objection comes from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro in which Plato says that if you say that something is good just because God wills it then that makes good and evil arbitrary which seems wrong. But if you say God wills something because it really is good then the Good is independent of God and therefore it need not be dependent upon him for its objectivity. I suggested that this is a false dilemma. That what Christians say instead is that God wills something because he is good. That is to say, God is himself the standard of goodness and value. That nature then is expressed toward us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties. So moral values are rooted in the nature of God; our moral duties are rooted in the commands of God.


Student: Would it be correct to say that God then never deliberates over good and evil, but simply is the Good and there is no choice made?

Dr. Craig: He might deliberate over right and wrong. Robert Adams who defends this divine command theory of morality would say that not every moral command is necessarily true. God could issue certain commands such as one has, for example, in Old Testament laws that are provisional and temporary. So he could deliberate over that. But in terms of value itself, this is not rooted in the will of God but rather in the nature of God. That is why this isn’t a voluntarist view as is often alleged against it.

Student: The thing I struggle with in Euthyphro’s Dilemma is why exactly does saying that something is good because God wills it or commands it . . . why exactly is that wrong other than it is arbitrary? The way I understand it is if something is arbitrary to God then if God is an objective being then to say it is arbitrary to God doesn’t seem that big of a problem to me. It also seems like that would actually flow naturally out of the idea that something . . .

Dr. Craig: Somebody asked that question last week. What I said to him was that it seems to me that a voluntaristic view of divine command theory would suggest that no moral values and duties are necessarily true. That seems wrong. It would seem that certain moral duties such as loving God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength, would be necessarily true. God couldn’t have willed otherwise. If that is the case then these moral duties are not simply rooted in the will of God. They are deeper than that. They would be expressions of his very nature.

Student: Is it necessary then that God be good? Another way to think of it, if God had a nature other than what he is, would that nature then be good?

Dr. Craig: It is necessary that God be good on this view. It is an essential property of God, and God as the greatest conceivable being must be a morally perfect being. So there is no question about this being contingent or happenstance. This is necessary.

Student: This is about duty as well. So God is holding us to his own standard of himself if we had that, which means epistemologically we must also be able to know him as he is. This means we will be transformed in the self-same image. I think all of that flows from that.[1]

Dr. Craig: I haven’t talked about how we know the content of our moral duties. As I said the other day, I am open to any theory about how we come to know our moral duties. But certainly what you said about being conformed to his image, sanctified in Christ, would all be part of the work of the Spirit in our lives as we move toward glory.

Student: As we let his will be ours then we get to walk in his shoes. If we see him clearly and we see somebody outside of you. Him coming in the flesh is him coming mainly in us as believers letting us rest with contentment with his will. That changes us to be the self-same image because now we can really see him because we see his desires, hopes, and goodness.

Dr. Craig: OK.


The mention of Plato brings to mind another possible atheistic response to premise (1). I call this Atheistic Moral Platonism. Plato thought that the Good just exists on its own as a sort of self-existent Idea. (If you find this difficult to grasp then join the company!) Later Christian thinkers equated Plato’s Good with God’s moral nature; but Plato himself thought the Good just existed on its own. So some atheists might say that moral values like Justice, Mercy, Love, and so on, just exist without any foundation. They are not grounded in God, they just exist on their own. We can call this view Atheistic Moral Platonism. It holds that objective moral values do exist but they are not grounded in God. Indeed they are not grounded in anything. They just exist on their own.

What might we say about this view? I have three responses.

First, the view seems unintelligible. What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value Justice just exists? It’s hard to make sense of this. It’s easy to understand what it means to say that some person is just, but it’s bewildering when somebody says that in the absence of any people Justice itself just exists. It becomes even more bewildering when you reflect on the fact that Justice itself is not just, anymore that Loyalty is loyal, or Intemperateness is intemperate. So if there were no people around who are just then how could Justice exist? It seems like there wouldn’t be any justice – this abstract object is not just. There aren’t any just people. So Justice wouldn’t seem to exist, which contradicts the view that Justice just exists on its own as an idea. Moral values seem to be properties of persons, so it’s hard to understand how moral values like Justice can exist as an abstraction.

Secondly, this view provides no basis for moral duties. It tries to give a basis for moral values but it has nothing to say by way of an explanation of our moral duties. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that moral values like Justice, Loyalty, Mercy, Forbearance, and so on just exist. How does that result in any moral obligations for me? Why would I have a moral duty to be, say, merciful? Who or what lays such an obligation upon me? Notice that on this view moral vices such as Greed, Hatred, Rapacity, Selfishness, and Sloth also exist as abstractions. So why are we morally obligated to align our lives with one set of these abstractions rather than with some other set of these abstractions? Atheistic Moral Platonism, lacking a moral lawgiver, has no grounds for moral obligation.

Finally, third, it’s fantastically improbable that the blind evolutionary process should spit forth precisely those sorts of creatures who correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values. This seems to be an utterly incredible coincidence when you think about it. Remember that this realm of moral values as an abstract realm is utterly independent of the natural realm. It is causally unconnected with the natural realm.[2] So how is it that exactly that kind of creature should emerge from the blind evolutionary process that corresponds to this independently existing moral realm? It’s almost as if the moral realm knew that we were coming. I think it is far more plausible to think that both the natural realm and the moral realm are under the authority of a God who gave us both the natural laws and the moral law than to think that these two independent realms of reality just happened by coincidence to mesh.

For those reasons I think that Atheistic Moral Platonism is a less plausible theory of ethical values and duties than is theism.


Student: Are there any atheist philosophers who defend Atheistic Moral Platonism, and if so how do they usually respond to these criticisms?

Dr. Craig: I think there are. I sort of just invented this view on my own as a possible response, but I think someone like Erik Wielenberg would affirm something close to this. But I do not know how they would respond to these three points. I find it, as I say, just an unintelligible view. Many people have made the point that it seems to lack a basis for moral obligation and prohibition (having no lawgiver). The third point is a point made in the literature that I haven’t seen a good response to. So I can’t say.

Student: It seems to me that Atheistic Moral Platonism worldview on morals would almost be a Star Wars universe where you have a light and dark side but you don’t really have a moral obligation to be on one side or the other. You just pick whatever side you want.

Dr. Craig: That is an interesting analogy. This light and dark side isn’t rooted or based in anything deeper on this view.

Student: There is the Force that has both light side and dark side, but it doesn’t command anyone to do one thing or another thing. You just kind of do what you want on whatever side you want to do.

Dr. Craig: That is a kind of sci-fi analogy to this view.

Student: In this kind of Platonic idea where the Good is this abstract, would that also apply to non-sentient beings? Would animals be therefore somehow under this moral code as well?

Dr. Craig: I guess there you have to ask yourself since it doesn’t have a basis for moral duties in it you’d have to ask yourself to what extent it would apply to animals. I suspect that those who hold to this would say that because animals are not rational therefore they are not moral agents. So they have no moral duties. When a wolf eats a lamb, it harms the lamb but it doesn’t do anything wrong. It doesn’t violate the lamb’s moral rights or do anything wrong. But these people might say if you were to eat the lamb then you would be doing something morally wrong to the lamb because you are a rational agent. At least that is the best sense I could make of it.

Student: In response to the Star Wars analogy, I would just like to point out that the Force does indeed favor the light side because the dark side tends to have violent repercussions for the user. Like Darth Plagueis – he was so hungry for power that eventually . . .

Dr. Craig: We will give Kevin one chance to respond and then I am going to bow out of this debate because I am not a Star Wars aficionado.

Student: From my understanding, what the Force really wants is balance. Balance doesn’t mean getting rid of the dark side. It just means that there is an equal amount on both sides. So you may have one side that is being really destructive . . . we may do this later. We are going to debate this later! [laughter]

Dr. Craig: It is remarkable how much this sounds like Manichaeism, which was an ancient heresy that St. Augustine encountered, which was that the world is divided into light and dark and you have to decide which side you are on.

Student: Has anyone gone the Aristotle route with this?[3] With Aristotle the universes aren’t in some heaven. They are like around or in this table. I am wondering has anyone gone that way saying that moral values supervene on physical states of affairs and maybe our obligations are in our natures.

Dr. Craig: I’ll say something about a view kind of like that later. But I would alert you to a philosopher named Richard Taylor who is very interesting on this. Taylor argued very strongly that in the absence of God there are no objective moral duties. In the absence of a lawgiver there is no right and wrong. He said we are just like animals, and animals aren’t moral agents. But Taylor’s response was to adopt an Aristotelian view of ethics where he said ethics, or virtues, are sort of like skills. Just as, say, a carpenter can be very skilled at his carpentry or a plumber very skilled at his plumbing, so humans can be morally skilled and live lives that are virtuous in highly developed skillful ways. Not that this is right to do or wrong not to do, but it is just a sort of skill you develop – living well, sort to speak. I had a debate with Richard Taylor on this subject.[4] I believe it is on YouTube, and I’d commend it to you because I thought it was a very interesting debate where I pointed out on the one hand on atheism it was hard to see why you would call these virtues at all, and then on the other hand I argued that you could have a theistic-based virtue ethics where God is the source of certain virtues and that therefore it really is good and obligatory to develop these virtues in your life. You are right that there is that alternative, and Taylor would be a representative of it.

Student: I’ve always thought Plato was addressing the little gods that his society was . . . and that he was thinking that is really kind of like the ultimate God. But they didn’t see. He may be intimately involved and ongoing . . .

Dr. Craig: This is a fair comment. The Euthyphro Dilemma was about the gods (plural) of Greece. Do the gods will what is good, or is the Good just what the gods will? For Plato, in a sense, the Good is a kind of God surrogate. It is the sort of metaphysical ultimate from which the world flows and is the ultimate standard of goodness and so forth. But I think it is fair to say it is not a personal being. In that sense this is different than theism. But certainly early Christians found in Plato inspiration. They identified the Good as God.

Student: To him it would be the unapproachable.

Dr. Craig: All right.


Let me look at one final objection which I call Stubborn Humanism.

So what’s the atheist supposed to do at this point? Most of them want to affirm the objective reality of moral values and duties. It is not true that most ethicists or philosophers are relativists or moral nihilists. They want to have objective moral values and duties. So most of them simply embrace Humanism and just stop there. Whatever contributes to human flourishing is good, and whatever detracts from it is bad, and that is the end of the story. This would be the position of someone like Sam Harris, for example, who is very strong on objective moral values and duties and simply roots them in human flourishing.

What might we say in response to this? I would argue that just taking human flourishing as your ultimate stopping point seems to be premature because of the arbitrariness and implausibility of such a stopping point.

Given atheism, why think that what is conducive to human flourishing is more valuable than what is conducive to the flourishing of ants or mice or chimpanzees? Why think that inflicting harm on another member of our species is wrong? When I put this question to the Dartmouth ethicist Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in our debate on the existence of God, he replied, “It simply is. Objectively. Don’t you agree?”[5] Of course, I agree that it is wrong to harm another human being, but I pointed out that that wasn’t the question. The question is: why would it be wrong if atheism were true? Given an atheistic worldview, picking out human flourishing as morally special seems to be arbitrary.[6]

Moreover, it seems implausible as well. Atheists will sometimes say that moral values simply attach necessarily to certain natural states of affairs. The technical term here is “supervene.” These moral properties supervene on natural states. An example of supervention would be the property of wetness supervenes on hydrogen and oxygen when it is combined in a certain way. Neither hydrogen nor oxygen are wet, but if you combine hydrogen and oxygen as H2O then wetness is a property that necessarily attaches to that substance. It supervenes on that state of affairs.

The claim is that moral properties in a similar way supervene on natural states of affairs. So the property of goodness naturally attaches to a mother’s nursing her infant. The property of badness necessarily supervenes on a man’s beating his wife. Atheists will say that once all of the natural properties are in place then the moral properties just sort of come along with them necessarily. Now on atheism this seems to me to be extraordinarily implausible. Why think that these strange, non-natural properties like “goodness” and “badness” even exist, much less that they necessarily supervene on various natural states of affairs? I can’t see any reason to think that on atheism a full description of the natural properties involved in some situation would determine or fix any of the moral properties of that situation.

These humanistic philosophers have simply taken a “shopping list” approach to ethical questions. Because they hold to Humanism, they simply help themselves to the moral properties that they need in order to do the job. They just wheel their shopping cart down the moral isle and pick the moral properties that they want to be part of their view. But what is needed to make this view plausible is some sort of explanation for why moral properties would necessarily supervene on certain natural states of affairs. Again, it’s inadequate for the Humanist to assert that we do, in fact, see that human beings have intrinsic moral value because that’s not in dispute. Indeed, that’s the second premise of the moral argument! What we want from the Humanist is some reason to think that human beings would be morally significant if atheism were true. As it is, I think their Humanism is just a stubborn moral faith.

Somebody might persist: “but why is God the ultimate standard of moral value?” In a certain sense this question is just misconceived. Anybody has the right to present his moral theory and to explain its parameters. The apropos question will be whether that moral theory is plausible. In particular, whether its moral ultimate or its explanatory ultimate is a non-arbitrary and adequate stopping point. I’ve argued that on Humanism that stopping point is premature. It is arbitrary and implausible. In contrast to Humanism, I think that theism has a [inaudible] or adequate stopping point. For God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being. A being that by definition is worthy of worship. Anything that does not have that property just is not God. So nothing higher could be imagined. Identifying the Good with God himself, I think, supplies a foundation for a plausible moral theory.

With that we are out of time.[7]

[1] 5:03

[2] 10:06

[3] 15:01

[4] For a transcript of this debate, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-the-basis-of-morality-natural-or-supernatural-the-craig-taylor-debate (accessed February 15, 2016).

[5] William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[6] 20:00

[7] Total Running Time: 24:58 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)