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#116 Contemporary Moral Arguments

July 05, 2009


Regarding your recent debate with Shelly Kagan (on "Is God necessary for morality?"), I feel you didn't have enough time to really reply to Kagan's view that "moral duties are whatever rules perfectly rational people would agree to as a way of governing society" i.e. rationality is a basis or measure of morality.

What's so wrong with this view? Don't we agree that normal people SHOULD be rational (e.g. believe in necessary truths) even if God didn't exist? If so, why can't we say the same thing about morality?

I'd really appreciate if you could answer this question. Thanks!


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Dr. craig’s response


Contemporary moral arguments

I did respond briefly to Prof. Kagan's view, Alexander, but I didn't press the point because our hosts with the Veritas Forum had made it very clear to me that they were not interested in having a knock-down debate but a friendly dialogue that would foster a warm and inviting atmosphere for non-believing students at Columbia. The goal was simply to get the issues out on the table in a congenial, welcoming environment, which I think we did.

By the way, the curious thing about the view that Kagan defended is that it is not really his view at all! He is a radical consequentialist, who holds that the moral value of our actions is determined solely by the consequences of our actions. He believes that we are morally required to perform any action, no matter what it is, if it will eventually lead to the best result overall, the best defined in terms of human flourishing. If torturing and raping a little girl leads to greater human well-being in the end, then that's what you're morally obligated to do. Kagan admits that this sort of consequentialism is not only widely rejected by ethicists but is wildly implausible as well. I suspect that's why he chose not to articulate and defend his real views in our dialogue but to affect a position he himself regards as false, namely, the view that the moral thing to do is whatever ideally rational persons would agree one ought to do.

In our dialogue I argued that objective moral values and duties are grounded in God and His commands. So in answer to your question, "Don't we agree that normal people SHOULD be rational even if God didn't exist?": if by "should" you mean "morally ought," then on atheism I see no reason at all to think that people have a moral duty to be rational. There's no reason, given naturalism, to think that the relatively advanced primates on this planet have a moral obligation to be rational.

Contemporary moral arguments – The problems in Kagan’s pretended view

As for what's wrong with Kagan's pretended view, we need to keep clearly in mind the distinction I constantly emphasize between moral epistemology and moral ontology . Moral epistemology concerns how we come to know the Good; moral ontology concerns the foundation in reality of the Good. The view affected by Prof. Kagan, if it is to be relevant to my case for God as a foundation for morality, must not put forward merely as a prescription for how we come to know our moral obligations. That's not the issue before us, and the theist could agree that asking, "How would perfectly rational persons act in this situation?" might be a reliable guide to discerning one's moral obligations.

Rather Kagan must be taken to mean that our moral obligations are actually constituted by how ideally rational people would say we ought to act in a particular situation. But then the question I raised in our dialogue presses: why think such a thing? Why think that if you could assemble a committee of perfectly rational human beings and they all would agree that you should do some action A , this constitutes a moral obligation for you to do A ? As a foundation for objective moral values and duties this explanation seems wholly arbitrary.

Prof. Kagan in his book The Limits of Morality (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989) has a good deal to say about the need for sound explanations in moral theory. 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" (p. 13). 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" (Ibid.) 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" (p. 14). 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 (p. 13).

Contemporary moral arguments – The explanatory inadequacy of Kagan’s pretended view

As I said in our dialogue, Kagan's pretended view seems to me to be characterized by just that sort of arbitrariness because it cuts off explanation at a superficial level. What we want to know is why the decisions of such an ideal committee has any objective status in grounding actual moral values and obligations. I can't see any reason to think that this is the actual ground of objective moral values and duties.

Indeed, given that perfectly rational people do not exist, how can his pretended account actually ground moral values and duties? There is no such ideal committee; it does not exist and has never considered or decided anything. So how can actual objective moral values and duties be grounded in such a non-reality? (If Kagan's pretended view grounded morality in the decisions of actual human beings, it would be just an affirmation that moral values and duties are not objective. They're made up or constituted by human beings. But then moral values and duties would not be valid and binding independently of whether anybody believes in them or not.) Asking how such ideal persons would behave might, once more, be a helpful guide to discerning our moral duties (like asking "What would Jesus do?"), but a non-reality cannot be the ontological foundation of some reality.

Finally, notice that there is an assumption underlying Kagan's pretended view which threatens to be massively question-begging, namely, it just assumes that all perfectly rational people would agree about what our moral obligations are! That simply assumes that what Kagan calls moral minimalists, like nihilists, egoists, and libertarians, are all irrational. But then he needs to show why the atheistic moral nihilist is wrong in thinking that in the absence of God objective moral values and duties do not exist. Otherwise, he's begging the question. So long as it is rational to maintain, as I argued, that in the absence of God, objective moral values and duties do not exist, minimalists cannot be excluded from the ideal committee, and so the committee will fail to agree that we have any moral obligations to do anything. In other words, to borrow Dostoyevsky's memorable phrase, all things will be permitted.

- William Lane Craig