5 / 06

#304 Moral Scepticism

February 10, 2013

Dr. Craig,

My wife and I have begun to teach an apologetics class at our church, and we invited our class to our house to watch your debate with Alex Rosenberg. We also invited my wife's father, who claims to believe in the Christian God, but is very defensive about morality. He basically believes there are no objective morals, which makes me wonder how he can truly be saved, since the crux of Christianity is about needing God's grace because we have broken objective morality.

Watching your debate got us talking about objective morality and intuition - or as you called it, a "properly basic belief." But when we pressed my father-in-law, he denied that the notion of objective morality was an intuition like other minds. It's difficult to find anyone we'd classify as sane who believes other persons don't exist, yet we can find examples galore of those like Bundy or Hitler who think rape or murder are perfectly fine. In fact, my father-in-law even went so far as to say if a society of Ted Bundys would arise, while he doesn't like the thought of it, he couldn't say it was objectively wrong.

In our discussion, it also seemed like he was hung up on the idea that there was no "list" of morals. The "Ten Commandments" aren't exhaustive, and Jesus's notion of loving God and loving others is too subjective for him. If you can't prove objective morality by providing a knowable, exhaustive list, he's not satisfied. We can see demonstrations of abstract concepts like the addition of numbers, we can empirically test scientific truths, and we can intuitively know that we exist, but objective morality seems to fail all these tests.

He seems to conflate the epistemological struggle of morality with the ontological struggle. However, we're having enough trouble in even showing him that objective morality exists at all. How do you talk to someone who is willing to say that a future society of Ted Bundys wouldn't be objectively wrong? Thank you again for all you do.



United States

Dr. craig’s response


I’m so glad, Derek, that you had the vision to use the debate as a forum for reaching out to others! And isn’t it wonderful that it should have stimulated a conversation on such an important question?

You’re spot on in discerning your father-in-law’s conflation of moral ontology and moral epistemology. In order for objective moral values and duties to exist we do not need to have an exhaustive list of our moral duties. (Such a list would be infinite and incomprehensible, in any case.)

Trying to convince your father-in-law to believe in the objectivity of moral values is rather like trying to convince someone who says he believes that he is living in the Matrix to believe in the reality of the external world of perceptible objects around him! If you deny the veridicality of your senses, then there is no way to get outside your senses to check whether or not the perceived objects really exist. Nevertheless we are rational to believe in the deliverances of our senses unless and until we have some reason to think that they are defective. Belief in the existence of the external world of perceptible objects is thus the default position, a properly basic belief grounded in our sensory experience.

Similarly, I should say that belief in the objectivity of moral values and duties is the default position, a properly basic belief grounded in our moral experience. We should therefore believe in the objective reality of moral values and duties unless and until we have some reason to think otherwise. But, as Louise Anthony put it so well in our debate on the existence of God, the existence of objective moral values and duties will always be more obvious than the premises in any argument for moral skepticism. One will always have less warrant for believing at least one of those premises than for believing in the objectivity of moral values and duties. Therefore it can never be reasonable to embrace moral skepticism.

So one thing you might say to your father-in-law is that if he denies the objectivity of moral values and duties, then he should by the same token be skeptical about the world of perceptible objects around him. For his moral skepticism to be justified, he needs to have some reason to doubt the veridicality of our moral perceptions that does not equally apply to our sense perceptions. But the minute he attempts to provide some such reason, then you have moved beyond mere skepticism and into a substantive discussion of whether or not he really does have a good reason for doubting his moral perceptions.

For example, his objection that “It's difficult to find anyone we'd classify as sane who believes other persons don't exist, yet we can find examples galore of those like Bundy or Hitler who think rape or murder are perfectly fine,” is multiply flawed.

(1) There are sane people who believe that other persons don’t exist. For example, Alex Rosenberg! Recall from the debate that he does not believe that any selves, persons, or first-person perspectives exist. Think of my argument against metaphysical naturalism from personal existence. Moreover, Buddhists, Hindus, and idealists deny the reality of the world of perceptible objects and other persons. Should that lead your father-in-law to deny the existence of his daughter?

(2) In fact, the vast majority of people, including Bundy and Hitler, and philosophers as well, believe that objective moral values do exist. Bundy and Hitler did not deny the existence of objective moral values and duties. They just disagreed on what some of those values and duties are. Similarly, we might disagree on whether or not the object we seem to see is a certain thing, but that does not lead us to deny the reality of any physical objects at all.

(3) More fundamentally, the objection assumes that all properly basic beliefs are similar in terms of their universality and indubitability. That is simply mistaken. Memory beliefs and beliefs taken on testimony, for example, are examples of properly basic beliefs; yet these are person-specific and hardly as indubitable as the belief, say, that the world has existed longer than five minutes. It is hardly surprising that some moral beliefs are not universally held, given the existence of psychopaths and evil men! Why should we let psychopaths and tyrants undermine our confidence in objective moral values and duties? By the same token, how does the supposed universality of belief in the external world do anything to justify the belief that we do that we do not inhabit a virtual reality like the Matrix?

The other thing you might do with your father-in-law would be to show him that objective moral values follow logically from things that he already believes. For example, you say that he believes in the Christian God. Well, then, ask him if he thinks that God is good? If not, then how is God worthy of worship? If God is not worthy of worship, then how can He be God? Does he think that Jesus of Nazareth was a good man? If not, then how can he worship Jesus? I’d encourage you to read him various Bible passages about the goodness of God. Not only would that show him that the Christian God is good, but reading the Word of God to him might penetrate his callous heart.

- William Lane Craig