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#36 Our Grasp of Objective Moral Values

December 24, 2007

Dear Dr. Craig:

In one of your papers (“The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality”), you argue that the existence of objective morality leads logically to the conclusion that God exists. The argument seems powerful but not totally clear to me.

In that paper, you make the following claims:

To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so. It is to say, for example, that Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong, even though the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.

But then you later make the following claims.

And could anything be more obvious than that objective moral values do exist?

The fact is that we do apprehend objective values, and we all know it. Actions like rape, torture, child abuse, and brutality are not just socially unacceptable behavior—they are moral abominations.

First, I understand that if objective moral values are rules that are right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes them to be so, then Nazi atrocities were morally wrong even though the Nazis thought they were good. But then how can you say that “we do apprehend objective values, and we all know it”? How could we “all know it” if the Nazis didn’t know it and if they destroyed or brainwashed all who disagreed with them?

Second, if we indeed do apprehend objective values, and we all know it, how can we be sure that evolution is not just making it seem to us that these values are objective? For example, most people see a young female model as more beautiful than an elderly woman. Why is that the case? A likely reason is the young model is at the peak of reproductive fitness. Her appearance (a proximate factor) is linked to her reproductive fitness (an ultimate factor) as our recognition of beauty evolves. We respond to beauty, but it is the underlying reproductive fitness that ultimately directs evolution. In the same way, our moral values (proximate factors) could be linked to our or to our group’s reproductive fitness (ultimate factors) as our recognition of moral values evolves. We respond to morality but it is the underlying reproductive fitness that directs evolution. I cannot see how one can ever recognize morality as objective if our perceptions have been colored by the inevitable link between proximate and ultimate evolutionary factors.


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Dr. craig’s response


The article you cite, Carmine, was originally a paper I presented at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion. So with respect to your first question, my phrase “we all know it” was intended to include my listeners, not any imagined Nazis. Even so, since there’s doubtless a number of folks in the AAR who give lip-service to relativism, it’s a rhetorical flourish, intended to elicit some commonality with one’s audience. It’s as if I were to say, “We all know that we must guard against terrorism”—even though the terrorists themselves would dissent from this statement!

As a matter of fact, however, I don’t think the Nazis would dissent from the statement that there are objective moral values. They would just disagree on what they are. That was the point of the quotation I read concerning Peter Haas’ book Morality after Auschwitz:

. . . far from being contemptuous of ethics, the perpetrators acted in strict conformity with an ethic which held that, however difficult and unpleasant the task might have been, mass extermination of the Jews and Gypsies was entirely justified. . . . the Holocaust as a sustained effort was possible only because a new ethic was in place that did not define the arrest and deportation of Jews as wrong and in fact defined it as ethically tolerable and ever good.

Haas’s point is precisely that the Nazis were not moral relativists or nihilists but rather objectivists who had a different value system than those of us who see all persons as intrinsically valuable. Something similar could be said of Islamic terrorists today.

So while there are nihilists around, I think you’ll have to look very hard to find them. People may give lip-service to relativism, but you’ll find that if you ask a few penetrating questions, like “So do you think child abuse is just fine morally?,” you’ll discover that people do believe in objective moral values.

Now your second question—“if we indeed do apprehend objective values, and we all know it, how can we be sure that evolution is not just making it seem to us that these values are objective?” —is somewhat misstated. For if we DO apprehend objective values and we KNOW this, then it follows automatically that we know that evolution is not just making us believe that these values are objective. (Otherwise we don’t really apprehend them or know this.) You might say, “Yes; but how can we be sure?” But it’s no part of my argument to claim certainty about these matters. There are very few matters in life about which we can be certain. All that matters is that, after thoughtfully reflecting on the question of moral values and weighing the alternatives, we come to the conclusion that, yes, objective moral values probably do exist.

What you’re really asking, I think, is, “Why should I think that objective moral values exist rather than that evolution has made me believe in the illusion that there are objective moral values?” And the answer to that question is, “Because I clearly apprehend objective moral values and have no good reason to deny what I clearly perceive.”

This is the same answer we give to the sceptic who says, “How do you know you’re not just a body lying in the Matrix and that all that you see and experience is an illusory, virtual reality?” We have no way to get outside our five senses and prove that they’re veridical. Rather I clearly apprehend a world of people and trees and houses about me, and I have no good reason to doubt what I clearly perceive. Sure, it’s possible that I’m a body in the Matrix. But possibilities come cheap. The mere possibility provides no warrant for denying what I clearly grasp.

That’s not to say that our senses don’t sometimes deceive us or that some people don’t have physical impairments that prevent them from accurately apprehending the world. But that doesn’t justify total scepticism about the veridicality of my senses. Analogously, our moral sense is not infallible, and in some people, like the Nazis, it is terribly twisted and blunted. But that’s no justification for general moral scepticism.

Now, of course, the objector’s claim here will be that we’ve got good evidence that evolution has, in fact, determined our moral perceptions and so gives us a good reason to doubt the deliverances of our moral sense. But is that true? Two issues arise with respect to this claim.

First, to infer that because evolution has programmed us to believe in certain values, therefore those values are not objective is a logical fallacy. This was the point I made in the article against Michael Ruse, when I said,

The reasoning of Ruse is at worst a text-book example of the genetic fallacy and at best only proves that our subjective perception of objective moral values has evolved. But if moral values are gradually discovered, not invented, then such a gradual and fallible apprehension of the moral realm no more undermines the objective reality of that realm than our gradual, fallible perception of the physical world undermines the objectivity of that realm.

The genetic fallacy is committed whenever someone tries to invalidate a view by explaining how that view originated or came to be held. People commit this fallacy, for example, when they dismiss your belief in democracy by saying, “You believe in it only because you were born in a democratic society.” That may, indeed, be the explanation of why you believe in democratic government, but that in itself does absolutely nothing to show that your belief is false. (Compare “You believe that the earth is round only because you were born in a scientific age!” Does that make your belief false?)

Your example of the aesthetic value beauty is a perfect illustration of my point. Suppose we agree for the sake of argument that evolution has programmed men to see young women as more beautiful than old women because of the selective advantage to the species of mating with younger women. Does that do anything at all to show that younger women are not in fact generally more beautiful (physically) than old women, that there is no objective difference between beauty and ugliness? Obviously not! Objective aesthetic values can exist regardless of how we come to apprehend them.

Now you might say, “All right; I see that objective moral values can exist even if we’re programmed by evolution to believe in them. But, still, why should I think that they are objective, given the evolutionary story?” The answer is, “Because you clearly apprehend them and the evolutionary story gives you reason to doubt your moral sense ONLY IF naturalism (atheism) is true.” The objection begs the question because it presupposes that naturalism is true. I agree that if there is no God, then our moral experience is, plausibly, illusory. Indeed, I said as much in my defense of premiss (1) of the moral argument:

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

But why think that naturalism is true? To undermine the warrant which our moral experience gives to our moral beliefs much more must be done than hold out the possibility that naturalism may be true. In the absence of some argument for naturalism, I’m entirely within my rational rights to stick with my moral sense and accept the objectivity of the moral realm. The real issue, then, is not evolution but naturalism.

Secondly, there’s no good evidence that our perception of moral and aesthetic values has been programmed by evolution. Darwinists are extremely imaginative and creative in coming up with what are called “just so” stories in order to explain things via evolution for which there is no empirical evidence. Indeed, these stories are almost endlessly adaptable, so that they become almost irrefutable and, hence, unfalsifiable.

I take your example of why we find young female models more (physically) beautiful than old women to be the reductio ad absurdum of this approach. Why in the world should I believe that the reason I think Claudia Schiffer is more beautiful than Madeleine Albright is because the former but not the latter is closer to her peak of reproductive fitness? That strikes me as preposterous. What evidence is there that warrants so absurd a conjecture?

In fact, doesn’t the evidence point in the opposite direction? If reproductive fitness determined our appraisal of beauty, then why wouldn’t a young woman with a big nose and a harelip look as beautiful to me as a fashion model? Ugly young women are just as fertile as beautiful ones. So what selective advantage is there in being attracted to beautiful women rather than just younger women? Or again, isn’t it odd that you, a woman, agree with me that the young model is more beautiful than an old woman, since you as a woman could have no selective advantage from such an aesthetic judgement? Even if evolution programmed you to think that young men are more handsome than old men, why do you also find the young female model more beautiful (physically) than an old woman? Or again, how is it that we also recognize beautiful members of other species? We often admire a particularly beautiful Arabian horse or a champion in a dog show. How can such judgements be plausibly explained as due to evolutionary programming, since differential judgements of beauty in other animals has absolutely no selective advantage for us?

I’m sure that given their ingenuity for coming up with “just so” stories, Darwinists can figure out ways to explain away these anomalies. But why believe such stories? We should demand some pretty strong evidence for thinking that evolution has, in fact, determined our moral and aesthetic judgements. But there is no such evidence. Rather I suspect that these “just so” stories are accepted by many because on the assumption of naturalism it seems natural to suppose that our tastes have been determined by their selective advantage. But then the question arises once more: why think that naturalism is true?

- William Lane Craig