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#296 Can God Ground Necessary Moral Truths?

December 16, 2012

Dear Dr. Craig,

There have been a lot questions recently asked about grounding the existence of morality in God, and I have one as well. The Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne rejects the Moral Argument for God because, he thinks, moral truths are necessarily true, and so the existence of God cannot have an effect on their truth.

He comes to the conclusion that moral truths are necessary because certain events are thought to be morally good or bad; more than that, the moral goodness or badness of an event is inseparable from the state of affairs itself. So, Swinburne claims, there is no possible world in which the exact same things occur as occurred during the holocaust, and in which the holocaust is not morally abominable. It is the same with other events that are considered morally good or bad. There is no possible world in which the event is the same as in the actual world and in which the moral judgement of the event is different than in the actual world. Thus Swinburne concludes that the moral judgement of an event is necessary to the event itself. And this leads naturally to his conclusion that the existence or non-existence of God is irrelevant to the existence of the moral judgement since the moral judgement is necessary given the event.

Swinburne's argument would thus undercut one of the premises to your moral argument. I am a Christian philosophy student at a secular university where many of my professors take a view similar to Swinburne, holding that the objectivity of moral values does not depend on God's existence. I have read and heard your arguments about the absurdity of life without God, and I am currently undecided. What would be your response to Swinburne's argument?


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Dr. craig’s response


I have been taking quite a number of questions concerning God and morality lately, Robert, and I’m glad for yours. Richard Swinburne was one of seven respondents to the published version of my debate with the late humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz, entitled Is Goodness without God Good Enough? In my closing reply to the respondents, I address Swinburne’s objection, which you summarize.

I agree wholeheartedly with Swinburne that some moral truths are necessary truths. (Some may be contingent in virtue of a divine command issued contingently by God, e.g., the command to keep the Sabbath.) Those who have heard me defend the moral argument for God’s existence in debate know that I am fond of quoting Michael Ruse: “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2=5.” Here Ruse ascribes to a moral truth the same sort of broad logical necessity that is typically ascribed to mathematical truths. So the necessity of certain moral principles does not serve to separate Swinburne’s view from that of divine command theorists like Robert Adams and myself.

One of the things we are looking for in a moral theory is some sort of explanation for the moral truths there are. Ethical theorist Shelley Kagan has emphasized the need for sound explanations in moral theory. He insists, “This need for explanation in moral theory cannot be overemphasized. . . . Ultimately, unless we have a coherent explanation of our moral principles, we don’t have a satisfactory ground for believing them to be true.” He anticipates the objection that all explanations must come to end somewhere. “Perhaps this is so,” he responds, “but it would still be no license to cut off explanation at a superficial level.” Short of an adequate explanation, he says, our moral principles “will not be free of that taint of arbitrariness” that characterizes ad hoc shopping lists of moral principles. He rightly maintains that “one of the things we want our moral theory to help us understand is how there can even be a moral realm, and what sort of objective status it has.” A divine command theory of ethics seeks to provide an explanation for necessary moral truths.

The bone of contention, then, will be, not the necessity of certain moral truths, but Swinburne’s tacit assumption that necessary truths cannot stand to one another in relations of explanatory priority. Why should we accept that assumption? Not only do I see no reason to think that assumption true, but it strikes me as obviously false. For example, the axioms of Peano arithmetic are explanatorily prior to “2+2=4”, as are the axioms of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory to the theorems thereof. In metaphysics, I should say that “No event precedes itself” is necessarily true because it is necessarily true that “Temporal becoming is an objective and essential feature of time.” To give a theological example, I should say that “States of consciousness exist” is necessarily true, since “God exists” is necessarily true. That is to say, the fact that a personal, metaphysically necessary being like God exists explains why it is necessarily true that states of consciousness exist. I should regard as utterly implausible the suggestion that the relation of explanatory priority in such cases is symmetric. It would be inept to maintain, for example, that the reason it is necessarily true that God exists is because, necessarily, states of consciousness exist.

But if necessary truths can stand to one another in asymmetric relations of explanatory priority, then there is no objection to holding that moral values exist because God exists.On classical theism there is no possible world in which God fails to exist and, since His character is essential to Him, no world in which certain moral values fail to exist. The problem for Swinburne is that he thinks that God exists contingently and therefore cannot ground necessary moral truths. Such a view is not only out of line with classical theism, which holds God’s existence to be metaphysically necessary, but terribly deficient theologically. God a contingent being? The central insight of Anselm’s ontological argument, whether one regards it as a successful piece of natural theology or not, is that if God, the greatest conceivable being, exists, He exists necessarily. God’s existence, then, is either necessary or impossible.

Classical theists, unlike Swinburne, thus have no problem in grounding necessary truths in God.

- William Lane Craig