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#357 How can People Be So Morally Obtuse?

February 16, 2014
Q

Hello Dr. Craig! I'm a follower of your work and a fan of yours. I study your books just about everyday so I can learn and prepare myself as a Christian for the rest of the world waiting to maul me where I stand! I have question for you today regarding the second premise of your moral argument. This argument is dear to me because I recognized that there truly is good and evil in our world and I came to Christianity because I truly believed in love, justice, and so forth. (Keep in mind this was also before I even knew about this argument!). So when I found out about this argument when I discovered your work I was astonished! So you can see why this argument is dear to me, because it's so close in how I came to Christ!

This is your argument:

1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exist.

Premise (1): I understand the ontology of premise one, that for these moral values and duties to be objectively binding they need to be grounded in God. Without God, who says? Moral values and duties become a giant relative fighting pit and whoever comes out on top gets to be called king and make the rules.

Premise (2): Now for my questions about premise (2). I understand the justification of our moral experience, how it is the exact same case for the physical realm. But my question, probably popular among my generation, is how these values and duties seem so relativistic. I truly believe in good values like love, generosity, justice, equality, and self sacrifice and it's very obvious to me that cruelty, brutality, and vengeance are evil. Now these things seem to be very obvious to everyone in our era. But what's troubling me is when I look back in time at the holocaust, crusades, and tribes that would perform just atrocious acts. Do they even believe the same values that I do!? It just seems so odd that they can throw babies into fire, use them as target practice, or slaughter people to such a caliber! Or that tribes could eat each other, be so brutal to their children or elderly! Or again huge populations being enslaved and beaten to death! It's just so unthinkable! How do these people not perceive the value of love, equality, and so on like we do? I understand that it doesn't matter how many people do it, it's still objectively wrong. I just don't understand how so many people didn't think this was wrong. If these values and duties are objective, then it seems they should have known this was wrong? Is it the values that are different or is it just the standard of what these values are? Does brutality from one side have a higher tolerance then the other? I just don't get it and that is why I am asking you to please clarify this for me Dr. Craig.

Julian

United States

Dr. craig’s response


A

It seems to me that you’re falling into the familiar trap of conflating moral ontology and moral epistemology, Julian. Moral ontology has to do with the objective reality of moral values and duties. Moral epistemology has to do with how we come to know moral values and duties. The moral argument is wholly about moral ontology; it says nothing about how we come to know moral values and duties. Thus, the argument is completely neutral with respect to the relative clarity or obscurity of the moral realm. It would be wholly consistent with the argument to maintain, for example, that it is only through an inner divine illumination that we come to know moral values and duties and that those who suppress God’s illuminating their minds find themselves groping in moral darkness. That would largely explain the phenomena you mention. You understand that I’m not endorsing such an epistemology; on the contrary, my point is that the moral argument I’ve defended doesn’t offer a moral epistemology. It’s neutral in that regard.

Thus, the faulty assumption behind your question is: “If these values and duties are objective, then it seems they should have known this was wrong.” That is a non sequitur. It doesn’t follow from the objectivity of moral values and duties that they should be clearly perceived by everyone. This fact should be especially evident to anyone who has a serious doctrine of sin. The Bible explicitly teaches that fallen, sinful people are darkened in their understanding and have a debased mind and so plunge themselves into immorality (Romans 1.18-32). Indeed, Paul seems to affirm that even though people really do know that such acts are wrong, they do them anyway for selfish pleasure (Romans 1.32; cf. 2.15). The failure lies in the perceiver, not in the perceived. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6.22-3).

On top of this comes the cultural conditioning that results from being raised in a society which is twisted or debased. Sin is not simply an individual matter but becomes ensconced in societal institutions and structures that shape people’s lives. But notice that when we express moral disagreement with a society or when we judge that mankind has grown morally from its earlier condition, we implicitly affirm the objectivity of moral values and duties. We think there has been moral improvement, not merely moral change. Far from supporting relativism, moral disagreement and improvement actually presuppose the objectivity of moral values.

Moreover, I think that you exaggerate the degree of moral divergence among peoples. Anthropologists tell us on the contrary that there is great commonality among the peoples of the world in their fundamental moral codes. What might give the appearance of relativism is the different ways that these common moral values come to expression culturally. For example, modesty is a commonly held virtue, but what counts as modest can differ radically from society to society. Or take cannibalism. From what I have read about tribes which practiced cannibalism, the fact is that, contrary to first impression, they did believe that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. The problem is that they did not believe that members of other tribes were their neighbors! One would never practice cannibalism against members of one’s own tribal community; they were your neighbors. Others outside one’s tribe were, in effect, dehumanized. Something similar happens in cases of Negro slavery or the Holocaust: the victims of such abuse were often regarded as sub-human and therefore not having intrinsic human rights. Sometime the problem is not the failure to see moral values but to see the full humanity of those wronged. And of course, there is just the problem of people’s acting inconsistently. When you ask, “Do they even believe the same values that I do!?,” a good way to answer that question is to look, not at what they do, but at how they react when the same things are done to them! The world is not really as awash in relativism as you think.

- William Lane Craig