I’m going to step back and analyze Willian Lane Craig’s opening statement from his debate with Sam Harris on “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?”. Again, I’ll summarize his argument, hopefully without too much distortion, commenting as I go. See part 1 for my analysis of Sam Harris’s Opening Statement.
There are objective moral values and duties. They are valid and binding independent of human opinion. For example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively evil is to say that it was evil, even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was good, and it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everyone who disagreed with them, so that everybody thought the Holocaust was good.
Harris makes the same point, and again, I agree.
I’m going to defend two basic contentions:
- If God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
- If God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
Moral values have to do with what is good or evil. In the theistic view objective moral values are grounded in God. God is by definition perfectly good, He is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus if God exists, objective moral values exist, wholly independent of human beings.
Assuming that the conception of God as omnibenevolent is true, then I agree. The God of the Old Testament is not omnibenevolent, condoning slavery and ethnic cleansing, for example, but Craig appeals to the definition of God put forward by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, a definition that most non-fundamentalist Christians are in reasonable agreement with.
In the theistic view, objective moral duties are constituted by God’s commands. God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with His holy and loving nature. Our duties, then, are constituted by God’s commandments and these in turn reflect his essential character.
This may be true, but the question is, how are these commandments (which I would call moral principles) communicated? If I were to receive clear, unambiguous communication directly from a being that I could verify as being an omnibenevolent and omniscient god, I’d be all set. How do I do get that?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the whole moral duty of man can be summed up in the two great commandments: First, you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength and with all your soul and with all your heart and with all your mind, and, second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On this foundation we can affirm the objective rightness of love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectively wrong selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression.
This argument hinges on several unestablished facts:
- Jesus (the source of the two commandments) must have actually been God (the Christian view) or have accurately communicated God’s commandments to his disciples
- His disciples must have accurately transmitted the commandments to their followers verbally, and all verbal transmissions that followed must have been similarly accurate
- The author of the Gospel of Q, the first written source of the two commandments, must have accurately recorded them
Ignoring the potential for errors in transmission and recording, this raises some significant questions:
- Was Jesus infallible? He believed that the world would end during the lifetime of his disciples. Doesn’t this cast doubt on his statements?
- Why couldn’t this saying have originated with the author of Q, or with one of his sources?
This puts Craig’s first conclusion on shaky ground. He then goes on to his second contention, that if God does not exist, there is no basis for morality.
If God does not exist, then what basis remains for the existence of objective moral values? Why think that human beings would have objective moral worth? On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism it’s hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, anymore than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being.
I disagree with this one hundred percent. I appreciate beauty. I have aesthetic preferences. The golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, doesn’t seem to me to require anything other than logic to establish it’s correctness, and it seems to be a perfect basis for defining morality. The only way this argument hold water for me is if, without God, we would have neither logic or aesthetic preferences. The onus is on Craig to show that to be true.
Harris explicitly rejects the view that moral values are Platonic objects existing independent of the world. So his only recourse is to try to ground moral values in the natural world. But how can you do that, since nature in and of itself is just morally neutral?
This is a rubbish argument as well. Mathematical laws do not require recourse to Platonic forms, yet they are not entirely grounded in the natural world. Consciousness gives us access to logic, which forms the basis for moral reasoning.
On a naturalistic view moral values are just the behavioral byproducts of biological evolution and social conditioning. Just as a troop of baboons exhibit cooperative and even self-sacrificial behavior because natural selection has determined it to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so their primate cousins homo sapiens have evolved a sort of herd morality for precisely the same reasons. As a result of biological pressures there has evolved among homo sapiens a sort of herd morality which functions well in the perpetuation of our species. But on the atheistic view there doesn’t seem to be anything that makes this morality objectively binding and true.
More rubbish. The naturalist view says that consciousness is the byproduct of evolution (something that I think is an open question, personally), but it does not say that morals are entirely evolved. Tribal preference could understandably evolve, but altruism more likely came from reason, assuming you believe it did not come from God.
If there is no God, then any reason for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens on this planet as objectively true seems to have been removed. Take God out of the picture, and all you seem to be left with is an ape-like creature on a speck of dust beset with delusions of moral grandeur.
Again, this argument completely ignores reason, and everything that we have achieved since we (via accident of evolution or cosmic intervention) achieved consciousness. After discarding reason from the argument, Craig attempts to bring it to bear against Harris:
So how does Sam Harris propose to solve the Value Problem? The trick he proposes is simply to re-define what he means by “good” and “evil”, in non-moral terms. He says, “We should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being” of conscious creatures. So, he says, “questions about values . . . are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”And therefore, he concludes, “it makes no sense . . . to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good’.” Why not? Because he’s redefined the word “good” to mean the well-being of conscious creatures. So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being?” It’s just a tautology. It’s just talking in circles! So Dr. Harris has “solved” the Value Problem just by re-defining his terms. It’s nothing but wordplay.
This is another huge crock. How is it any different to define good and evil as well-being and suffering than to define them as what God wants and what God does not? In fact, Harris’s definitions seem less “non-moral” than Craig’s. The argument Craig seems to be making is that of historical precedent. Historically, people have defined good and evil in terms of God. But if you assume that there is no God, which for the purpose of this part of his argument he has, then those definitions are meaningless.
At the end of the day Dr. Harris isn’t really talking about moral values at all. He’s just talking about what’s conducive to the flourishing of sentient life on this planet. Seen in this light, his claim that science can tell us a great deal about what contributes to human flourishing is hardly controversial. Of course, it can–just as it can tell us what is conducive to the flourishing of corn or mosquitoes or bacteria. His so-called “moral landscape”, which features the highs and lows of human flourishing isn’t really a moral landscape at all.
This completely misrepresents Harris’s argument, which is that conscious suffering can be approached with science. I.e. Harris equates morality to “conscious well-being”, not survival. Either Craig is an ass for claiming to have read Harris’s book when he hasn’t, or he is a liar. In any case, it does nothing to prove the claim that without God, morals are impossible, since even if Harris is wrong, there may be other explanations for morals that do not require a supernatural explanation and are valid.
Natural science tells us only what is, not what ought to be, the case. As the philosopher Jerry Fodor has written, “Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it wouldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are.” In particular it cannot tell us that we have a moral obligation to take actions which are conducive to human flourishing.
Again, Craig places the arbitrary restriction on any non theist argument that it can only rely on natural science, and not logic and reason. Why?
So, if there is no God, what foundation remains for objective moral duties? On the naturalistic view, human beings are just animals, and animals have no moral obligation to one another. When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it doesn’t murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it doesn’t rape her–for none of these actions is forbidden or obligatory. There is no moral dimension to these actions.
This is another gross misrepresentation of Harris, who explicitly calls out consciousness as being a requirement for morals. I.e. Harris acknowledges that humans are not just animals. At this point, I have to conclude that Craig is practising sophistry.
So if God does not exist, why think that we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes these obligations upon us? Where do they come from? It’s very hard to see why they would be anything more than a subjective impression ingrained into us by societal and parental conditioning.
Morals can be derived from reason. If you take the golden rule as an axiom, most moral principles follow. An example of a secular framework for moral reasoning is Stefan Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behaviour. I find most atheists think carefully about their morals. On the other hand, taking your morals from religious dogma leaves you prone to accepting commandments like those in the Old Testament, which condone racial cleansing and slavery.
In the atheistic view, certain actions such as rape and incest may not be biologically and socially advantageous, and so in the course of human development have become taboo, that is, socially unacceptable behavior. But, that does absolutely nothing to prove that such acts are really wrong. Such behavior goes on all the time in the animal kingdom. On the atheistic view the rapist who chooses to flout the “herd morality” is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably, the moral equivalent, if you will, of Lady Gaga. If there is no moral lawgiver, then there is no objective moral law, and if there is no objective moral law, then we have no objective moral duties.
Absolute rubbish. No atheist I’m aware of considers rape to be moral, and it’s hardly biologically disadvantageous. It does, however, violate the non aggression principle. As far as incest goes, cousin marriage is actually condoned by some religious sects. No atheist would condone the practice, since cousin marriage can reduce IQ by 2.5 to 10 points. On what basis does God find incest immoral?
After making this long series of truly weak arguments and misrepresentations of Harris’s position, Craig concludes with an attack Harris’s belief in determinism. While I agree that determinism is unbelievable (whether it’s the religious or the atheist sort), I don’t think it strengthens the argument against atheist morals.