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#553 Stuck with the Moral Argument

November 19, 2017

Hello Dr Craig, 

I am a 16 Year old High school student who is super passionate about Christian apologetics. I frequently have discussions/debates with other students about the existence of God, but lately I have gotten quite stuck with the moral argument. 

Here is the moral argument: 

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

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

Now I am having trouble with premise 2. Objective moral values and duties do exist. When I talk to students at school about this premise, I might bring up the Holocaust or child abuse and they will agree that it is wrong, but they think that morals are relative, that they are a result of the combination of 3 things:

Morals are taught/learnt (Parents, society) 
Morals are subliminal survival instincts (helping the human race survive) 
Morals are a matter of opinion and personal preference. 

When I try to tackle personal preference, it is backed up by survival instincts, and the same goes for personal opinion. So I can never really show that morals are objective since people honestly have different ideas on what is right and wrong - take homosexual marriage for instance. It has already been legalised all around the world because people honestly think that people should love each other! If Morals are objectively written on our hearts, why is this? 
Now I understand how much you have emphasised the importance of keeping apart moral Epistemology and Ontology. I started to read your Podcast with Kevin about 'Do animals display morality?' and then I read this: 

“The theist can be happy to admit that the moral values that we believe in are conditioned by parental instruction, by society, and by our evolutionary origins.” 

Please help me! I need help understanding the difference between Moral Epistemology and Ontology, how that fits in the debates I'm having with my peers and how I can effectively counter their arguments. 

Sorry if what I have said is a bit in pieces, but I thank you so much for your awesome dedication to the community out there who is seeking evidence for the God. You have helped me greatly with giving an objective reason for believing in the existence of God.


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Dr. craig’s response


I’ve responded to this sort of question so many times, Hugo, that it’s hard to find something interesting and new to say! I suggest that you take a look at our Question of the Week Index under “Moral Argument” or “moral values” for resources.  But perhaps exposing some of the fuzzy thinking of your friends might be helpful.

I don’t know how someone in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre or the Texas church shootings can sincerely affirm that there are no objective moral values or duties—unless he’s psychopathic, which I’m sure your friends aren’t.  I’m told that the shooter in Texas went through the church aisle by aisle shooting anyone he found lying there, including little children. How can your friends think that this is just fine? Do they really think that those people had no value, as though the shooter were just firing into wooden pews instead of people?

“But wait,” you’ll say, “They will agree that it is wrong, but they think that morals are relative.” What does that mean? They agree that it is wrong to shoot innocent people in a church or at a concert. Now I take it that they mean objectively wrong. They’re not saying that moral values and duties are purely subjective. That would be to say that such an act is not really wrong, that there’s nothing wrong with committing such atrocities. Your friends don’t want to say that.  They just insist that morals are relative.

But therein lies their confusion.  The relevant distinction as far as the moral argument is concerned is objective vs. subjective, not absolute vs. relative. Of course, moral right and wrong are often relative to the persons involved.  I, for example, have the moral right to enter my house uninvited, without ringing the bell, and eat the food in our refrigerator.  But my neighbor down the street has no such right!  If he tried to do such a thing, he would be acting wrongfully and could even be arrested for breaking and entering. When I enter my house uninvited, I do something which is objectively morally permissible, but when my neighbor tries to do that he does something that is objectively morally wrong. Relative to me it objectively right, but relative to him it’s objectively wrong.  So the fact that morals are relative is just irrelevant; what is at issue is whether, relative to some particular person, a certain action is objectively right or wrong.   

So let’s think about that Texas shooter. Was it objectively morally permissible for him to kill those innocent people in the church, even though it would have been wrong for one of your friends to do so? Why in the world would we think such a thing?  Why not think instead that he was evil or deranged and so had no moral right to act as he did? “Well,” your friends might say, “It was all right for him to murder those people because morals are a matter of opinion and personal preference,” and in his opinion it was all right and preferable. 

Now wait a minute!  Let’s concede for the sake of argument that in the shooter’s opinion, it was all right for him to murder those people. How does it follow that relative to him, murdering those people was all right? Maybe he only thought it was all right; maybe he made a mistake in his moral judgement. Maybe he’s not, in fact, one of those persons relative to whom it’s all right to kill innocent people.  Maybe, in fact, the person, relative to whom murdering those people is objectively all right, is really one of your friends!  Your friend just doesn’t realize it. He and the shooter might both be making errors of judgement: one thinking that relative to himself it’s all right (when it really isn’t) and the other thinking that relative to himself it’s not all right (when it really is).

Now maybe your friends will say, “That’s impossible!  Since moral values are determined by one’s opinion and personal preference, one cannot be mistaken about one’s moral judgements.”  So on this view we’re all morally infallible, right? Right! On this view, if the shooter, prior to entering the church, had had pangs of conscience and said to himself, “What I’m about to do is wrong,” then suddenly it would no longer be objectively all right relative to him to kill those people; it would suddenly have become objectively wrong relative to him. What is objectively right or wrong relative to some person just flips around depending on what he thinks. Not only is that implausible, since making moral mistakes is commonplace, but there seems to be no difference anymore between saying that moral values and duties are person relative and saying that they are just subjective. To say that moral values and duties are just a matter of personal opinion is just to say that they are subjective, which contradicts your friends’ affirmation that events like those of the Holocaust are wrong.

Your friends thus can’t have it both ways:  either admit that objective (even if relative) moral values and duties exist or else affirm that the Holocaust and child abuse are not wrong.

Now at this point your friends will doubtless say, “But how can we know if some action is objectively right or wrong for me to do?” That is a matter of moral epistemology, how we come to discern our moral duties. That question has nothing to do with moral ontology, whether there are objective moral values and duties.  Though important, the epistemological question is irrelevant to the moral argument, which is all about moral ontology. Suffice it to say that the objectivity of moral values and duties does not imply that they are always easy to discern. There are black and white cases (like shooting innocent people for pleasure), but there are also are lots of gray areas, like same sex marriage, where apart from divine revelation our moral duties may not be clear. So genuine moral disagreement and errors of judgement are common. Obviously, what is “written on our hearts” are very general moral principles, and specific application may often require much reflection and debate.

- William Lane Craig