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#293 Warrant for the Moral Argument’s Second Premiss

November 25, 2012

Lots of discussions have been going on in the past few weeks on the RF.org forums regarding the Moral Argument's premise #2 - specifically, on what basis can we affirm the existence of objective moral values and duties?

As I understand your argument for affirming this premise you say that, through your own moral experiences, you have a properly basic belief that objective morality exists. While some psychopath may claim to think its OK to torture a baby for fun, that does nothing to defeat the warrant you have based on your own moral experiences that it is wrong (always has been wrong and always will be wrong) to torture a baby for fun.

The detracters to premise #2 say this answer is an emotional response not an intellectual one and that an appeal to one's own sense of morality is no more objective than the person who thinks differently than you (and hence is subjective).

In your talk "What Happens When We Die" ( http://www.reasonablefaith.org/transcript/what-happens-when-we-die ) you say of those who had near-death-experiences, "One person's experience is just as real as the next person's, so how do you judge whose experience of heaven is really authentic?" By the same token, if my moral experiences tell me that something is wrong, but someone else senses otherwise - both experiences are just as real but are in conflict so we have the same conundrum in trying to decide which is really authentic.

Perhaps I am misunderstanding what you mean by "moral experiences" and sliding into applied ethics as a result. So my first question is:

1) Does "moral experience" mean what I sense is right or wrong in a given situation or does "moral experience" simply mean that "given any moral situation, there will be a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do, even though I may not know what they are". In other words, simply by virtue of thinking SOMETHING is wrong confirms premise #2 regardless of the difference of opinion on what that wrong thing to do actually is?

I can't help but think I am still missing something and it surrounds this concept of moral ontology vs. applied ethics. It seems when discussing the objectivity of morality, it often diverts to discussions around applied ethics (e.g. "some people think it is wrong to lie, even to save a life; others don't - therefore, morality is subjective"). You often claim premise #2 does not appeal to any situational or applied ethics but rather appeals to your own properly basic belief. But then my second question becomes:

2) What exactly IS this properly basic belief in that allows you to affirm premise #2? The examples given almost always involve a situation ("it is wrong to torture a baby for fun", "it is wrong to kidnap Africans and use them as slaves", "the Spanish Inquisition was wrong to torture people"). These examples appear to slide into appealing to applied ethics. Obviously, people at one time (even today perhaps) thought those were not wrong - but again, the appeal for warrant in believing premise #2 is that "those people that thought otherwise do nothing to undermine my own properly basic belief that they were wrong." But I go back to your quote on the near-death-experiences - every person's experiences are just as real as the next - whose "properly basic belief" is right and whose is false? What is this properly basic belief in, if not the truth of certain applied ethics ("it is wrong to murder a baby to stop it from crying").

I just can't put my finger on this concept of moral ontology and how it is separated from applied ethics; perhaps you can help clarify this in a different way than you have in the past.



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Dr. craig’s response


I’m glad that you’re finding our Open Forum useful for discussion, John! Without having read the threads you refer to, let me respond to the question as you have posed it.

For those who are not familiar with the moral argument as I have framed it, your question concerns the warrant we have for the second premiss of the following 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.


I find this argument to be very powerful because, although people give lip service to relativism, they are, in fact, deeply committed to the truth of (2). Indeed, I would be surprised if the argument’s critics you mention don’t themselves believe (2). In that case, even if they think that (2) cannot be proven true, still, so long as they also accept (1), they are, on pain of irrationality, logically committed to the conclusion that God exists. In that sense, rather than get into an argument with someone over a premiss he already believes, it is better simply to ask him, “Do you believe (2)?” If he does, then the only point of contention is (1).

The use of examples can be seen in this light. If the person isn’t sure whether he believes (2) or says he does not believe (2), you can help him to clarify his beliefs by simply asking specific questions. I remember talking once with a black student who claimed to be a moral sceptic. I simply asked him, “So you think that racism is really not immoral?” He reflected for a moment, and then said, “I guess I do think it is immoral.” That settled it for him, and we were able to move on. You can view this dialectical approach as an exercise in values clarification, using stark examples rather than murky moral dilemmas. Hard-nosed sceptics may dig in their heels and affirm that religious persecution, sexual assault, child abuse, intolerance, and the like are all morally neutral, but in so doing they merely expose their insincerity. If the person you’re dealing with is not a psychopath, then resistance to (2) is usually borne out of a desire to avoid the argument’s conclusion.

As for the warrant for (2), you are right in saying that it is a properly basic belief grounded in moral experience. Moral realists have compared it to belief in the reality of the external world of physical objects around us. Belief in physical objects is a properly basic belief grounded in our sensory experience. There is no way to get outside our sensory perceptions to test their veridicality. Still, until we are given a defeater for our sensory beliefs, we are rational to hold to them.

Appeal to examples is in this respect an appeal to the moral experience which grounds moral beliefs. It’s like saying to someone, “Don’t you see that stone? If I drop it on your foot, will you still deny its existence?” “Don’t you see that torturing a child for fun is morally abominable? If someone did it to your daughter, would you persist in thinking it to be morally indifferent?”

The above is the standard justification that moral realists of all stripes give as justification for moral beliefs. I think it obvious that those who facilely dismiss this as merely an appeal to emotions only betray their lack of understanding. As if to say that my belief in the reality of Mt. Rushmore is based merely on emotions!

Now your question about the veridicality of near death experiences (NDEs) is a very interesting one. To say that a belief is properly basic is not to say that it is indefeasible. As Plantinga has emphasized, properly basic beliefs often face defeaters, and then some defeater-defeater is needed if one is to persist rationally in that belief. Moreover, properly basic beliefs differ in the amount of warrant they enjoy and therefore in the tenacity with which they are held. My memory belief that I left the car keys in the ignition is properly basic but very lightly held and easily defeated, whereas my belief that I have a head is much more powerfully warranted and more reluctantly given up.

So the question about the veridicality of NDEs depends upon the warrant they enjoy and what defeaters we have for them. Maybe they are not as powerfully warranted as our most obvious moral beliefs. One of the reasons I do take such experiences seriously is precisely because of the powerful warrant claimed for them by those who have undergone them. Eben Alexander has remarked that his NDE was far more real than his experience of the world around us. But, as I said in the passage you quoted, we have a powerful defeater of the veridicality of these experiences: they are self-contradictory. So some of these experiences have to be non-veridical. Notice that in the sermon you cite I am speaking about others’ experiences, not one’s own. For the person himself, it may be rational to believe that what he has experienced is veridical. But not having had an NDE, I’m uncertain about whom to believe.

By contrast we all share moral experience. And some of our moral beliefs are very powerfully warranted. When the psychopath reports that to him child rape seems just fine, we are rational if we see this as a deficit in his moral perceptions, rather akin to blindness or deafness, than think that our moral experience is not veridical. Why should you listen to him?—he’s a psychopath!

So in answer to your specific questions:

(1) Does "moral experience" mean what I sense is right or wrong in a given situation or does "moral experience" simply mean that "given any moral situation, there will be a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do, even though I may not know what they are?" It means the former. The latter is an affirmation of the objectivity of moral duty.

(2) What exactly IS this properly basic belief in that allows you to affirm premise #2? There will be multifarious moral beliefs that imply premiss (2): “It is wrong to torture a baby for fun;” “It is wrong to kidnap Africans and use them as slaves;” “The Spanish Inquisition was wrong to torture people,” etc. These are examples from applied ethics of beliefs that are powerfully grounded in and warranted by moral experience. To say that these beliefs are properly basic is not to say that they are indefeasible; but in the absence of a defeater I am rational in holding them. Doubtless, I, like the slave traders of the past, have some moral beliefs that are wrong; we all have moral blind spots. That allows for moral growth. But there is a world of difference between humbly acknowledging my fallibility and thinking that none of my moral beliefs is true.

- William Lane Craig