Excursus on Natural Theology (Part 21): The Moral Argument Part 4February 24, 2016
The Second Premise of the Moral Argument
We’ve been talking about the moral argument for God’s existence. I’ve completed my defense of the first premise of that argument that if God does not exist (that is to say if atheism is true) then objective moral values and duties do not exist. We looked at some objections to that premise, and I answered those as best I could.
Today we want to move to the second premise of that argument, that objective moral values and duties do exist. I initially thought that this would be the weak and more controversial premise in the argument. In my debates with atheistic philosophers, however, I find that virtually nobody denies this premise. Virtually everyone affirms that some objective moral values and duties do in fact exist. In fact, it might surprise you to learn that actual surveys taken on university campuses indicate that faculty professors are more likely to believe in the objectivity of moral values than students, and that of the faculty, philosophy professors are more likely to believe in objective moral values and duties than professors in other disciplines!
So it is not the case that students get their relativism from university professors as is often thought. The professors are more objectivist than the students, and of the professors the philosophers are the ones who affirm moral values and duties are objective in the clearest way.
Why is that? Philosophers who reflect upon our moral experience would say that just as I believe my five senses (that there is a world of physical objects around me that I am sensing) unless and until I have some overriding reason to distrust my senses, similarly, in the absence of some overriding reason to distrust my moral experience I should also accept what my moral experience tells me, namely that some things at least are objectively good or evil, right or wrong.
Notice that this doesn’t require that our moral experience is infallible in telling us which moral values and duties exist or that we have. Neither are our fives senses infallible. The stick that is in the jar of water looks bent. The highway appears to have water on it in the distance on a hot day. Our senses can mislead us. Nevertheless unless we have some sort of overriding defeater or reason to distrust our five senses, we generally believe what they tell us – that there is a world of physical objects around me which I perceive. In exactly the same way we may grow in moral sophistication and apprehension as we discern certain things to be right or wrong that we didn’t see before. I think in the history of mankind there has been moral progress. But what that presupposes is is that objective moral values and duties do exist which we fallibly and defeasibly apprehend. In the absence of some sort of overriding defeater or reason to doubt our moral experience we should also believe that there are objectively existing moral values and duties.
I think that most of us recognize this. Most of us would agree that in moral experience we apprehend a realm of moral values and duties that impose themselves on us as objectively binding and true. For example, several years ago I was speaking on a Canadian university campus, and I noticed a poster on the wall put up by the Sexual Assault & Information Center. It read as follows: “Sexual Assault: No One Has the Right to Abuse a Child, Woman, or Man.” I think most of us would recognize that that statement is true. Sexual abuse of another person (actions like rape or child abuse) aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior—they’re moral abominations. Some things at least are really wrong. By the same token, love, generosity, and self-sacrifice are really good. People who fail to see this are just morally handicapped. They are like the person who is vision-impaired and can’t tell the difference between red and green. There is no reason to let their impairment cause us to call into doubt what we clearly perceive.
I’ve found that although many students give lip-service to relativism, 95% of them can be very quickly convinced that some moral values and duties do objectively exist. All you have to do is produce a few illustrations, especially those that are tailored to the person you are talking to, and let them decide for themselves. For example, you can ask them what they think of the Hindu practice called suttee (which was the practice of taking a widow and burning her alive on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband) or what do they think of the ancient Chinese custom of tightly binding the feet of female babies thereby crippling them for life because they wanted to make them resemble lotus-blossoms. You can especially make this point effectively by appealing to examples of atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion. Ask them what they think of the Crusades or the Inquisition. Ask them if they think that it’s alright for Catholic priests to sexually abuse little boys and then for the Church to try to cover it up by moving the priest to another diocese. If you’re dealing with someone who is honest and not just trying to have an argument, I can guarantee you that almost every time that person will agree that there are some objective moral values and duties.
Of course sometimes you may encounter hardliners who will just dig in their heels. But usually their position is seen to be so extreme that other people are just repulsed by it. For example, many years ago I attended a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature which featured a panel discussion on “Biblical Authority and Homosexuality.” All of the panelists endorsed the legitimacy of the homosexual lifestyle. One panelist dismissed the biblical prohibitions against this activity on the grounds that they reflect the cultural context in which they were written. Since this is a case for everything that Scripture says – it wasn’t written in a vacuum after all – he concluded that, “There are no timeless, normative moral truths in Scripture.” In the discussion from the floor, I pointed out that such a view leads to socio-cultural relativism which makes it impossible to condemn a society which has moral values that include the abuse and the persecution of homosexuals. Who is to say that that society’s values are wrong? He responded with a fog of theological double-talk, and then claimed that there is no place outside of Scripture either where we can find timeless moral values. And I responded, “But that just is what we mean by moral relativism. In fact, on your view there is really no content to the notion of the goodness of God. He might as well be dead. And Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that if God is dead that leads immediately to nihilism.” At that point one of the other panelists jumped in with the knock-down refutation, “Well, if you are going to get pejorative, we might as well not talk about it!” So I sat down. But the point wasn’t lost on the audience. The next man who stood to his feet said, “Wait a minute. I am rather confused. I am a pastor, and people are always coming to me, asking if they have done something wrong and whether they need forgiveness. For example, isn’t it always wrong to abuse a child?” I couldn’t believe the panelist's response to this pastor’s question. She said, “What counts as abuse differs from society to society. So we can’t really use the word ‘abuse’ without tying it to a historical context.” Well, the pastor was insistent. He said, “You call it whatever you like, but child abuse is damaging to children. Isn’t it always wrong to damage children?” And she still wouldn’t admit it! This sort of hardness of heart ultimately backfires, I think, on the moral relativist and exposes in the minds of most people the bankruptcy of such a worldview.
So I think that on the basis of our moral experience we are justified in affirming a realm of objective moral values in the same way that on the basis of our sense experience we are justified in affirming a world of physical objects around us.
Student: My experience on the Internet when talking about this argument is most people will deny the second premise of the argument. My experience has been they usually do it in the same way that they deny the existence of God – by saying there is no evidence for the existence of God, that is why we don’t believe. It is almost like the default position. What I am trying to say, would you compare our belief in God being properly basic (and our experience of him) . . . would that be in the same category as our moral experience of objective moral values and duties? Would that be a properly basic thing?
Dr. Craig: Exactly. I am glad you discerned that. That shows that you understand what we were talking about when we talked about the proper basicality of belief in God. There is no way to prove that you are not a brain in a vat of chemicals wired up with electrodes by some mad scientist being stimulated to think that you are here in this room listening to this lecture. There is no way to prove that you are not a body lying in the Matrix inhabiting some virtual reality. Rather, as I say, we are justified in believing in the world of physical objects around us on the basis of our experience of the world unless and until we have some overriding reason to doubt that experience – to think that I am a brain in a vat or a body lying in the Matrix. In the absence of such an overriding defeater, I am perfectly justified in accepting what my sense experience tells me – that there is a world of physical objects around me. I would say exactly the same thing about our moral experience. This is a properly basic belief grounded in our experience of moral values and duties, and unless and until some overriding reason is given to me to think that that experience is utterly delusory I am justified in thinking that there are objective moral values and duties.
Student: This could not be more timely because this week I am writing a rebuttal to post-structuralism. I am the only one in the entire group who actually thinks there is a foundation to belief! I have a sneaking suspicion I am going to be pummeled for the next few days. One of the things I wrote in my stance against post-structuralism is the only truth post-structuralists recognize is oppression and marginalization and corruption of power. Yet by their own floating definition of truth they must leave open the possibility that people are only marginalized because they perceive the words and actions of others to be oppressive. This, of course, is ridiculous. If, however, oppression and marginalization are real and tangible wrong truths then there must be actual right truths. So pray for me this week!
Dr. Craig: OK. Good!
Now the question arises: Do we have some overriding reason to distrust our moral experience? To think that we are the victims of some gigantic illusion?
Some people have claimed that the socio-biological account of the origins of morality undermines our moral experience. Remember, according to that account, our moral beliefs have been ingrained into us by biological evolution and social conditioning. Does that give us reason to distrust our moral experience that there are objective moral values and duties?
The socio-biological account clearly does nothing to undermine the truth of our moral beliefs. For the truth of a belief is independent of how you came to hold that belief. In fact, this objection seems to be a textbook example of what is called the genetic fallacy, which is trying to invalidate a person’s point of view by showing how that person came to hold that point of view. For example, someone might try to indict your belief that representative democracy is the best form of government by saying “the reason you believe that is because you were born in the United States. But if you were born in another country you would have held another belief.” That is the genetic fallacy – trying to invalidate the truth of a belief by showing how the person came to hold it. You may have acquired your moral beliefs through a fortune cookie or through reading tea leaves, but they could still happen to be true. In particular, if God exists, then objective moral values and duties do exist regardless of how we come to learn about them. The socio-biological account (or as it is sometimes called the evolutionary-psychological account) at best proves that our perception of moral values and duties has evolved. But if moral values and duties are gradually discovered, rather than invented, then our gradual and fallible apprehension of the moral realm no more undermines the objectivity of that realm than our gradual, fallible apprehension of the physical realm undermines the objectivity of the physical world.
Taken as an objection to the truth of premise (2), this simply commits the genetic fallacy.
Student: Perhaps one way they could get around the genetic fallacy part is . . . you know there is Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism. That is not genetic fallacy. But there he tries to show that if you believe evolution, you believe this is how your cognitive faculties have evolved, then you have a good reason to doubt all of your other beliefs. What if they try to do that for this? I just want to make a comment. I find it funny the same people who bring this objection by the way will say this undermines our moral intuitions, but somehow it doesn’t undermine the rest of our cognitive faculties.
Dr. Craig: Yeah. That is just hypocritical, isn’t it? OK, your point is an excellent one and will form the segue to the very next point that I am going to make.
Student: It is interesting when we talk about the existence of objective moral truths and is there a God because it seems to expose, I think, a certain part of human nature that we want to have the privilege of having our lives be objectively meaningful, but at the same time we don’t want to be responsible to a higher power when we really can’t have it both ways because only the existence of a higher power can ensure that our lives are objectively worth something. So we can’t have the privilege of having a meaningful life without the responsibility of the moral obligations that are involved in attaining that.
Dr. Craig: I agree with you 100%. What these people would have to say is that not only are the lives of other people morally worthless, but that their own life is morally worthless, and that other people are at liberty to treat them anyway that they want – treat them as dirt, persecute them, abuse them – and no moral protest could be raised. I think you are quite right in saying that that is not how people want to live. They do recognize their own self-worth, at least, and that such activity would be wrong.
Student: Just to add onto that good point – Ravi Zacharias says that if you are truly an atheist, that is a life that is truly devoid of meaning, purpose, and hope ultimately. The first question to ask college students, or anybody else, if they say they are atheists is to say, “Why are you here?” You are going to be a doctor? Who cares.
Dr. Craig: In a sense that was the first premise of the argument. You will remember I shared that initially when I was speaking on university campuses I just talked about that first premise – that if there is no God then ultimately our lives are absurd. They have no ultimate meaning, value, or purpose. But then the students began to respond by saying, “But there are things that are valuable and good and so forth.” It hit me that they had supplied this missing premise in a moral argument for God. As I say, I think that most people will grant the truth of premise (2) if you just probe a little bit and use telling examples with them.
Let’s go on by saying that perhaps the socio-biological objection – or the objection from evolutionary psychology – is not intended to undermine the truth of our moral beliefs, but rather our justification for holding such beliefs. If your moral beliefs were based on reading tea leaves, they might accidentally turn out to be true, but you wouldn’t have any justification for thinking that they were true. So you wouldn’t know that they were true.
Similarly, the objection here could be that if our moral beliefs have been produced by evolution then we can’t have any confidence in the truth of those beliefs. Why? Because evolution aims merely at survival, not at truth. Our moral beliefs are selected for their survival value. The fittest are the ones that survive. If having moral beliefs will be conducive to the perpetuation of your species then these moral beliefs will be selected for in the process of evolution. And since evolution is aiming merely at survivability, not truth, we can’t trust our moral experience. So we can’t know that premise (2) of the argument is true. This is the objection that was suggested just a moment ago. The objection is aimed not at the truth of premise (2) but at your justification for believing premise (2).
My claim is that we are justified in believing premise (2) on the ground of our moral experience unless and until we have some overriding defeater of that experience just as we are justified in believing that there is a world of physical objects around us on the ground of our sense experience unless and until we have an overriding defeater of that experience. Such a defeater would have to show not merely that our moral experience is fallible or defeasible, but that it is utterly unreliable – that we may apprehend no objective moral values and duties whatsoever.
Our moral experience is so powerful, however, that such a defeater would have to be incredibly powerful in order to overcome our moral experience just as our sense experience is so powerful that a defeater of my belief in the world of physical objects I perceive would have to be incredibly powerful in order for me to believe that I might be a brain in a vat of chemicals or a body lying in the Matrix. But as Louise Antony, an atheist philosopher, put it in our debate on the foundations of moral values, any argument from moral skepticism will be based on premises which are less obvious than the existence of objective moral values and duties themselves. That is to say, any argument for moral skepticism will rely upon premises which are less obvious than premise (2) of the moral argument, and therefore could never be justified.
So what is then this allegedly powerful defeater of premise (2) that shows that my moral experience is utterly untrustworthy? Is it just that our moral beliefs are the result of evolutionary development, and therefore they are aimed at survival, not at truth? Is that the whole objection? If that is it, we need to ask ourselves what is the evidence for that? In fact, there is no compelling evidence that our moral beliefs are the products of biological evolution.
In a complex survey of literature on this topic by the biologist Jeffrey Schloss, Schloss examines contemporary work on evolutionary theories of morality and he reports, “not only do we lack currently a fully adequate evolutionary account of morality, but the manifold accounts we do have are also disparate and are often represented by prominent exegetes as having resolved issues that are still in dispute.” In other words Schloss is saying that these accounts offered by evolutionary psychology are mutually contradictory and that the proponents of these theories are making claims that in fact they cannot support. In personal correspondence, Schloss elaborated,
the evolutionary debunking argument . . . assumes that moral beliefs are in fact adequately explained by natural selection. . . . there is little question that they are not. Dispositions toward certain behaviors . . . (reciprocity, parental care, etc.) do have fairly compelling evolutionary explanations. But . . . we don’t actually have a plausible evolutionary proposal for the moral beliefs associated with these behaviors. I’ve done a fairly recent review of the literature. . . , and I can’t find any coherent account for moral beliefs or even normative intuitions.
Yet how easily we allow the evolutionary debunker to get away with mere hand-waving and generalizations in trying to undermine the veridicality of our moral experience. The powerful defeater of our moral experience of premise (2) simply does not exist.
Secondly, moreover, the assertion that because our moral beliefs have evolved they are aimed at survival not at truth presupposes atheism. For if God exists then plausibly our moral beliefs, though evolved, will be generally reliable. God would want us to hold generally reliable moral beliefs. The defeater presupposes that naturalism is true. That begs the question in favor of atheism. Only assuming that atheism and naturalism is true is it the case that our moral beliefs are aimed at survival rather than at truth. It is actually the debunker of our moral experience who has the burden of proof here to give a sufficiently powerful defeater of our moral experience. He needs to prove that our beliefs are not aimed at truth if they are evolved, and that is obviously not the case if God exists. You have to presuppose atheism in order for this argument to get off the ground, and that is question-begging.
Finally, the objection turns out to be self-defeating. On atheism and naturalism, all of our beliefs, not just our moral beliefs, are the product of evolution and social conditioning. Thus, the evolutionary account would lead to skepticism about knowledge in general. But this is self-defeating because then we should be skeptical of the evolutionary account itself, since it, too, is the product of evolution and social conditioning! Therefore the objection undermines itself. This, as someone earlier reminded us, is Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism – naturalism has a built-in defeater. If our beliefs are aimed at survival rather than truth then the naturalist can have no confidence in the truth of naturalism. Therefore this objection would undermine not only our moral beliefs but all of our beliefs including the belief in naturalism and atheism.
It seems to me that given the warrant for premise (2) provided by our moral experience, we are justified in thinking that objective moral values and duties exist.
Student: I am going to have to dumb this down a little bit. Premise (1) – if God does not exist objective moral values do not exist. Premise (2) – objective moral values do exist. Premise (3) – therefore God exists.
Dr. Craig: Right – (3) is the conclusion, not a premise.
Student: Right now we are talking about (2). Right?
Dr. Craig: Yes.
Student: Personally, I am not convinced that objective moral values do exist. The argument then to me doesn’t . . . if objective moral values do not exist, I don’t go to “God does not exist.” It is just not a meaningful argument for me. I can see that objective moral values do not exist, and yet God exists.
Dr. Craig: Oh, really?
Dr. Craig: How could you affirm that God exists and objective moral values do not exist when one of the essential attributes of God is goodness?
Student: I think that morality is by definition subjective, not objective. Even though I know we talked about in prior weeks the Nazi argument and all of that stuff, but the thing is for us in this room to look back on that and say even if they had won we still think it is wrong, that is still my subjective experience. That is not evidence for me that there is objective morality. I don’t make a conclusion that because there is no objective morality there is no God.
Dr. Craig: You just want to undermine our justification or, it sounds to me like you are saying even the truth of premise (2).
Student: The truth of premise (2) is my problem.
Dr. Craig: Again, here let me step back from the argument and just say that if you believe in God you are committed to the truth of premise (2) because God has as an essential attribute goodness. God by definition is a being that is worthy of worship, and nothing would be worthy of worship if it isn’t good. So every theist is committed to the objectivity of moral value because he believes in the goodness of God. That is not going to rescue the argument, but I just want to speak to you as a sister in Christ that if you believe God exists you have to believe in the objectivity of moral values. Don’t you believe God is good?
Dr. Craig: If you worship him you must believe that otherwise how could you worship something you don’t think is good? Just as a Christian you are committed to the truth of premise (2). But you can perhaps role play here the role of the atheist and say, “All right. I believe in premise (2), but as an argument for theism this isn’t very good because I, playing the devil’s advocate as the atheist, I don’t think premise (2) is true.” But then I’ve already responded to that. As I say, if you believe in the world of physical objects around you on the basis of your sense experience, you have exactly the same sort of reason for believing in a realm of objective moral values and duties because you have an experience of that realm. Unless and until you have some overriding defeater of that experience you are justified in believing in it just as you are justified in believing in the external world.
Student: You are using the word “objective” and the word “experience” – to me the word “experience” takes me out of objective and into subjective. That’s my subjective experience.
Dr. Craig: Ah. OK. Yes, I’ve heard other people say something like this and I think this is based on a confusion. Obviously my experience is subjective. Right? That is what experience is! But the object of the experience isn’t therefore subjective. If I have an experience of the external world, that doesn’t make the external world subjective. If I experience Ben Jones, that doesn’t make Ben Jones a product of my consciousness even though my experience of Ben Jones is my experience and is subjective. In exactly the same way, say I have an experience of pain. That is obviously subjective. Right? A pain experience is my inner experience. I have a pain experience. But that isn’t to deny the objective truth, “He is in pain.” Somebody stuck a knife in his leg and is twisting it around and look at him – he is writhing and screaming. It is obviously true that he is objectively in pain even though his experience is subjective. So of course our experience of everything is subjective because it is experiential. But the object of the experience can be objective. And I’d say that is what moral values and duties are.
Student: Let’s use an analogy that is a little less physical, medical, and a little more abstract. Because we are talking not about injury or of pain but more about beliefs. The one that comes to my mind is the flat Earth. For many, many centuries the commonly held belief was that the Earth was flat. Many people – we could take you to the mountaintop and you could see the edge. There was evidentiary support for that belief. Objectively the world was round whether we believed it was flat or not.
Dr. Craig: Good. I’m glad this is what you think.
Student: The thing is though that it doesn’t lead to any conclusion for me that . . .
Dr. Craig: Wait a minute. Don’t you believe that the Earth is round?
Student: I do.
Dr. Craig: It is spherical isn’t it? I assume you believe this on the basis of evidence, right?
Dr. Craig: So on the basis of the evidence, you think that these people in the past were wrong in what they said. They were objectively wrong. The Earth is objectively spherical. Even though your experience of that is subjective. You have a subjective experience of the evidence – you see it and so forth. But you believe that the Earth is round. The subjectivity of your experience doesn’t mean that the fact you believe in is subjective. Why isn’t it just as objectively true to say that torturing a little girl and raping her is wrong as to say that the Earth is round?
Student: Your last point – you made a point and I just wanted to explore it a bit – the belief that evolutionary forces led us to these things, that if our beliefs are based on survival rather than truth. I am going to ask you a question. What is truth? I probably shouldn’t phrase it that way but.
Dr. Craig: Truth is the property of a proposition that corresponds to the world as it actually is.
Student: So if the evolutionary forces say I am going to continue the human animal structure and by doing that we kill children that are weak and eat them or whatever things that are repugnant to us but it does result in more survival and protects the Earth we should kill one-third of the population because the Earth is important and we need to have a sustainable environment. I hear this all the time. Is that truth, and how do we argue that truth (if it is) against our objective moral values and say, “Yeah, that may protect the Earth but that is against my objective moral structure.”
Dr. Craig: It would be objectively morally wrong to do that. Nobody is claiming – not even atheists – that you can just read moral values off of the evolutionary process. Nature is red in tooth and claw, so no one claims that whatever helps you to survive is good because lots of things are violent and wrong. So there isn’t any claim that evolution teaches us what is good and evil. The claim that we are exploring is whether or not my moral experience of right and wrong and good and evil is undermined by the fact that moral values have evolved – or my perception of moral values has evolved over time. I gave three responses to that. Let me just review these three responses before we conclude today.
The first response is that in fact there is no such account in the literature. There is no coherent compelling account recognized by biologists that would explain how moral beliefs or normative beliefs arise from biological evolution.
The second point is that that would undermine the objectivity of these beliefs only if atheism is true because only if naturalism is true would our beliefs be shaped by survival value and not by truth. The argument begs the question. It assumes that atheism is true.
The third response was that if this objection is true – if this would undermine our moral beliefs – then it undermines everything we believe because all of our beliefs then are selected by evolution for survivability, not for truth. But if everything we believe is unjustified then belief in the evolutionary account itself is unjustified. So it is inherently a self-defeating objection.
We can resume this discussion next time.
 Jeffrey P. Schloss, “Darwinian Explanations of Morality: Accounting for the Normal but not the Normative,” in Hilary Putnam, Susan Nieman, and Jeffrey Schloss, eds., Understanding Moral Sentiments: Darwinian Perspectives? (Piscataway, N. J.: Transaction Publishers, 2014), p. 83.
 Jeffrey Schloss to WmLC, Sept 17, 22, 2015.
 Total Running Time: 42:19 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)