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#236 Moral Values and Abstract Objects

October 24, 2011

Dear Dr Craig

Many thanks for all the work you do for God's kingdom. It has been a tremendous help to my own faith.

In connection with the moral argument for God's existence I am struggling with platonism.

In your writings you seem at best to leave abstract objects as an open question. I think you seem to prefer some kind of nominalist posiion though might be open to a conceptionalist view. I think I can just about grasp these!

I understand too that moral values "seem to be the property of a person". This leads us directly to a personal moral being at the end of the moral argument.

However my question is this - why can we allow abstract onjects such as numbers and not moral values. I find it difficult to understand how numbers or propositions or scientific laws can just exist. However you seem happy to leave this as an open quesiton and some philosophers are happy to declare them abstract objects. I find it difficult to see how moral values can exist as abstract objects seperate from people but what is the difference between trying to conceive of this as opposed to the abstract objects metioned above. If we can conceive of some abstract objects (such as numbers) why not moral values too. Does this ultimately come down to epistemology - ie what is properly basic to me?

It seems this could also apply to duty ie moral commands could exist as abstractions follwoing my same argument as above>

I am grateful for any thoughts you may have. I will be able to take them to the "On Guard" group we have set up.



United States

Dr. craig’s response


I hope that I’ve been fairly clear, Mac, in opposing Platonism with respect to abstract objects. On both theological and philosophical grounds, I do not think, as the Platonist does, that there are uncreated abstract entities like numbers, sets, and other mathematical objects. (Whether there are created abstract objects, like works of literature and music, is another question; see QoW 9 & 94.) I see Nominalism and Conceptualism as ways of avoiding the reality of such objects. The Nominalist denies that any such entities exist; the Conceptualist reduces them to ideas in God’s mind.

With respect to moral values, the Platonist takes the Good to be an uncreated, necessarily existing abstract object. I think it would, indeed, be bizarre to think that the Good could be an abstract object created by God. For wouldn’t God have to be good in order to create the Good? Could a morally neutral being create goodness? Explanatorily prior to creating His own goodness, God would be morally neutral, in which case we seem to have an instance of might makes right. This is the well-known vicious circle or bootstrapping objection to God’s creating His own properties. So I’m inclined to agree with the Platonist that the Good cannot be a created abstract object.

It follows, then, that the Good cannot be an abstract object, since there are no uncreated abstract objects. So on my view neither numbers nor moral values are abstract objects. Rather I take the Good to be a concrete object, namely, God Himself. God Himself is the paradigm of Goodness.

I am wholly in sympathy with your scepticism about numbers, propositions, and scientific laws as abstract objects. Moreover, insofar as they are conceived to be uncreated, I am dead set against them. Neither do I think moral values are abstract objects existing separately from persons. The property of being good is no more an abstract object than the property of being brown or being quick. There are good people, certainly, but I see no reason to cash that out ontologically in terms of a person’s standing in a mysterious relation to some morally neutral object beyond time and space, in virtue of which an otherwise morally neutral person is good. Adding such entities to our inventory of what exists has no explanatory value and runs into the bootstrapping problem mentioned above, unless one makes an ad hoc distinction among properties as creatable and uncreatable.

I take it as obvious that moral commands cannot exist independent of a person who issues such commands. Just as there are no interrogatives unless someone asks, so there are no imperatives unless someone commands.

Hope you enjoy going through On Guard together!

- William Lane Craig