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#222 Moral Argument for God

July 18, 2011

Dear Dr. Craig,

I thought you did very well in your debate with Sam Harris recently. Not only did you "knock down" his arguments but he knocked himself down by pretending that you weren't even on the stage with him!

However, something is troubling me about your Divine Command Theory. It takes the form of two questions, one simple and the other more complex:

1) Simple question: If Christianity were proven false, and Islam true, would you simply drop your current moral convictions and adopt those of Islam because you found you "had the wrong God"? Would there not be a part of you which may rebel, against Allah, when faced with certain scenarios concerning judgements on creaturely well-being?

2) Trickier question: you say that God is the Good, or that Goodness flows from God's nature. This is supposed to split the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma: that God doesn't conform to external standards of morality, but neither does he subjectively decide them on a whim.

Moral Argument for God – Is identifying the “Good” as God’s nature simply pushing the Euthyphro problem back a step?

However, I genuinely am troubled by the thought that this only seems to push the problem back one notch, because we can then ask:

Is Goodness "good" because it is found in God's nature, or is God "good" because his nature necessarily matches Good?

Or, let's put it as conditional statements to choose from:

A) If (X) is to be found in God's nature, then (X) is good.


B) If (X) is good, then (X) is to be found in God's nature.

These choices of contention, "A" and "B" seem to open up different possibitiies when it comes to modal logic:

Consider "A", that if something just so happens to be in God's nature, then we must call it "good". The trouble is, we can conceive of different possible worlds where God values completely different things and holds a different moral nature. We could imagine a world where, frankly, the questioner who claimed homosexual love-making was good... is correct! Or, like my first question, we could imagine a God of an Islamic nature, or one that says "rape is okay".

In this respect, we can imagine there are many different possible moralities that God could hold to, as if they were cards in a pack, and we have been "dealt" a particular "moral" card. God's moral values could have been a "King of Clubs" compared to the "Ace of Spades" or the "Six of Hearts" (to make an analogy) and we just so happen to live in a world where our God holds the nature of the "3 of Diamonds".

If we adopt "A" then we simply have to say, no matter what possible world we find ourselves in, that the mere fact that God's moral values just so happen to be a certain way, means that they are "The Good". We would be saying this of God no matter what his moral nature actually (and specifically) turned out to be. Potentially, you may even be saying this depending on your answer to the first question?

How, therefore, do we guarantee that something is truly "good" if it is entirely contingent upon our simply "waking up" in a possible world where God's nature swings one way, rather than the other?

As for "B" this would imply that "Goodness" is self-existent, independent of God, and that God's moral nature cannot vary, because he is necessarily "locked" into reflecting these external, necessary truths.

So, if we adopt "B" we don't have the problem of God's moral nature being free to vary - and our merely calling it "Good" because that's the way things are in this world. We'd end up with a God who's moral nature is necessarily fixed a certain way.

Trouble is, that's simply because his nature conforms to a standard which doesn't require him in the first place... and maybe some sort of "science" (better than Sam Harris', of course) could discover it? I.e. The Euthyphro argument would succeed in showing that the Good is independent of God.

I hope that made sense. It's a real brain teaser, and currently holds me back from adopting a DCT model.

Many thanks again for your brilliant work, Dr Craig!


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Dr. craig’s response


Moral Argument for God

Nice to hear from you, Peter! I look forward to meeting you in October during our U.K. visit.

Let’s deal first with the simple question. “If Christianity were proven false, and Islam true, would you simply drop your current moral convictions and adopt those of Islam because you found you ‘had the wrong God’?” This question is, I think, misphrased. The important question is not what I would do under the envisioned circumstances, but what I should do. What I would do is an autobiographical fact about my personal psychology, which is of little philosophical interest. Moreover, it would be presumptuous for me to make predictions about what I would do under different circumstances (remember the apostle Peter on the night of Jesus’ betrayal?). What is of interest rather is what I should do under the envisioned circumstances. So stated, the question’s answer is clear: if Islam were proven true and Christianity false, then Islam would be true, and so of course I should believe in it. The same answer would present itself to the atheist: if atheism were proven false and Islam true, then should you obey the commands of Allah? Of course, for then Islam is the truth, and you really do have those moral obligations, however difficult it might be for you to stomach them.

Let’s turn, then, to the second question: “Is Goodness ‘good’ because it is found in God's nature, or is God ‘good’ because his nature necessarily matches Good?” Again, I think the wording of the question might be improved by selecting certain qualities like compassion, fairness, generosity, and so forth, and asking, “Are these qualities good because they are found in God’s nature or are they good quite independently of God?” The answer to that question is obvious: the theistic view is that these qualities are good because they are found in God’s nature. The alternative (that God is good because his nature matches the Good) is just Platonism all over again, which we’ve already rejected (see my three-pronged critique of Platonism ).

So what’s the problem supposed to be for the classical theist?

The objection is that we can conceive of different possible worlds in which God’s moral character is different. But, Peter, that isn’t the model I defend! On most Divine Command theories God possesses His moral qualities essentially (indeed, that’s just what it means to say they’re part of His nature!). So there is no possible world in which God is not kind, impartial, gracious, loving, and so on. So I don’t think it is possible that Allah is God, since Allah is not all-loving and impartial.

Moral Argument for God – God’s moral qualities are an essential part of His nature.

Your deck of cards analogy presupposes that God’s moral qualities are contingent properties of God. But classical theism holds these properties to be essential to God. So it’s fundamentally mistaken to say that God’s moral qualities “just so happen to be a certain way.”

Let’s think a minute as well about alternative B. Why think that the content of the Good is the same in every possible world? What about worlds in which the Good comprises different moral properties? And why think that God is necessarily locked into reflecting the Good? Why, on this view, couldn’t it also be contingent that God is good? I think you’d rightly say that there are no such worlds. The content of the Good is essential to it, and God is necessarily good, so He could not have failed to reflect the Good. I agree; but then why isn’t a similar answer available to the classical theist? The only difference between the Platonist and the classical theist on this score is that the theist identifies the Good with God Himself. Just as the Good could not have been different, so God could not have been different.

I think that what this objection is really getting at is the claim that it’s somehow arbitrary to adopt God’s nature as the Good. But every moral realist theory has to have an explanatory stopping point at which one reaches the ultimate good. Anyone who broaches a moral theory is entitled to identify whatever he wants as his ultimate explanatory stopping point. The question, then, will be, is the explanatory ultimate posited by some moral theory plausible? In the case of theism, taking God to be one’s explanatory ultimate is, I think, eminently plausible. For the very concept of God is the concept of a necessary, metaphysically ultimate being, one, moreover, that is worthy of worship. Indeed, He is the greatest conceivable being , and it is greater to be the Good than merely to reflect it. So the theist’s stopping point, in contrast to, say, the humanist’s, is not at all arbitrary or premature.

- William Lane Craig