Debate summary: Is God necessary for morality? William Lane Craig vs Shelly Kagan

Debate summary

This is a summary of a debate on the rational justification for moral values, moral duties and moral accountability on atheism. The question of free will and determinism also comes up. Note that this is not a debate to see who wins. The commie wusses at the Veritas Forum made Craig promise not to press for a victory, as he reports here:

I did respond briefly to Prof. Kagan’s view… but I didn’t press the point because our hosts with the Veritas Forum had made it very clear to me that they were not interested in having a knock-down debate but a friendly dialogue that would foster a warm and inviting atmosphere for non-believing students at Columbia. The goal was simply to get the issues out on the table in a congenial, welcoming environment, which I think we did.

The debate was held in February, 2009 at Columbia University between Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan and William Lane Craig.

Video and audio are here:

Shelly Kagan – opening speech

Framing the debate:

  • The question is not whether people need God in order to act morally, because atheists are able act morally and immorally just as well as theists
  • The questions is whether we need to God in order to be the ground for morality. Do right and wrong really exist if there is not God?
  • He will defend objective morality on atheism

One possible explanation for morality without God is:

  • right is what helps others and doesn’t hurt them
  • wrong is what hurts people and doesn’t help them

And the standard rules of moral behavior emerge from these 2 principles.

What are the objections to this help/hurt theory

1) Are these really wrong, or is this standard just a matter of opinion?

No, these moral standards are not a matter of opinion, they are facts.

2) What makes these rules apply to everyone and prescribe behaviors

Possible answers:
– moral rules are just brute facts
– contractarianism: (social contract) the moral rules should be chosen by reflecting on a hypothetical discussion between ideal reasoners
– something else

3) Morality involves commandments, so who is the commander?

Possible answers:
– moral commandments don’t require a commander
– for example, logical rules like the law of non-contradiction don’t need a lawgiver, and moral rules could be just like that
– or, perhaps the commander is society itself, which fits with the contractarian theory

William Lane Craig – opening speech

Framing the debate:

  • not debating whether belief in God is necessary to act morally
  • the question is whether god is a necessary ground for morality to be meaningful

Is God necessary for morality? It depends on what morality means:
– is morality just an arbitrary pattern of social behavior?
– if so, then God isn’t needed to ground humans to act according to a pattern of social behavior

But if morality is objective, (true whether anyone believes it or not):
– then god is necessary to ground objective morality
– because objective moral standards exists independently of human standards of personal preference or cultural fashion

Non-objective morality is illusion/convention
– pattern has no objective moral significance, it’s just an arbitrary fashion that varies by time and place

God is necessary for morality in 3 ways
1) God grounds objective moral values, i.e. – what counts as good and what counts as evil
2) God grounds objective moral duties, i.e. – what we ought to do and ought not to do
3) God grounds moral accountability, i.e. – our ultimate fate depends on how we act morally

1) Moral values
– whether some action is good or evil, independent of whether anyone thinks it is or not
– individual and social opinions do not decide these standards of good and evil
– god is necessary to ground moral standards that exist independent of human opinions
– the moral values are set by god’s unchanging nature

Human value:
– why think that humans have value, such that they should be treated a particular way
– on atheism, humans are just animals
– evolution means that moral values are the product of the struggle for survival
– the “herd” moral standard is arbitrary, it is not really a true standard
– on atheism, moral values do not exist independently, they are merely descriptions of behaviors that are the product of biological and cultural evolution
– in other animal species, many things that we think of as wrong are practiced, like stealing and rape
– so why think that our practices are objectively true, instead of just customs and fashions of our species?

Free will:
– moral choices require a non-physical mind distinct from the physical brain in order to make free moral choices
– on (biological) determinism, no choices are morally significant – just actions of puppets on strings
– no moral responsibility for a puppet’s determined actions

2) Moral duties
– whether some action is right or wrong
– whether humans are morally obligated to perform certain actions, independent of whether we think that we do or not
– the commands flow from god’s unchanging moral nature
– they become duties for us, his creatures

on atheism
– on atheism, humans are animals, and animals don’t have real moral obligations
– where would moral duties come from on atheism, to whom is the duty owed?
– on atheism, it is just a subjective impression ingrained into us by social and biological pressures
– on atheism, there is no standard of what we ought to do
– on atheism, breaking the social contract is the same as belching loudly at the dinner table, it’s just being unfashionable – not doing what the rest of the heard has decided is customary

3) moral accountability
– on theism, the moral choices we make affect where we end up in the afterlife
– god balances the scales of justice in the end

on atheism:
– it is irrelevant how you act, you end up in the same place (dead) regardless of how you live

why be moral on atheism?
– why shouldn’t a person pursue self interest instead of following the moral conventions of the social contract
– it’s not always the case that doing the right thing is also doing the thing that gives you selfish pleasure
– a very powerful person would not need to be moral, since they can escape the social sanctions that result from their breaking the social contract
– why would a very powerful do the right thing when it is against their self-interest, on atheism, since the social contract is just arbitrary fashion?

acts of self-sacrifice are irrational on atheism
– the result is that no one will be moral when it is hard to do the right thing
– because in the long run, it doesn’t matter what you do, on atheism
– compassion and self-sacrifice are not pleasurable, and are therefore pointless on atheism


questions atheists must answer:
what is the basis of objective moral values?
what is the basis of human value on atheism?
why ought we to do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing?
what is the basis for moral accountability

10 minutes of cross X, Craig questioning

WC what makes harming other people wrong, on a naturalistic (atheistic) worldview? Other animals do it, so why is it wrong for humans?

SK because humans have the rational capacity to understand the morality of their actions

WC but why is it wrong for humans to inflict harm on other humans?

SK humans can do neat things that animals can’t do like calculus and poetry, so therefore murder is wrong

2) WC Are you a determinist?

SK Yes

WC Then how do you justify moral choices on naturalism?

SK I’m a compatibilist

WC but on your view, behavior is caused by brain chemicals, so then how can you make free choices?

SK I don’t want to talk about it right now

10 minutes of cross X, Shelly questioning

SK just because I deny ultimate meaning, it doesn’t mean that I can’t be moral

WC on naturalism, everything, including stars and humans, is destined to destruction in the heat death of the universe, so why would moral choices matter in the end, since the moral choices don’t affect your ultimate fate (death)?

SK just because my moral actions lack ultimate significance, things can be still be significant to the people living now, because I can feel good about doing moral things when it is against my self-interest

WC the end of your life doesn’t change regardless of what we choose, on naturalism/atheism, so why be moral on atheism? on atheism, prudence and morality are in conflict, but on theism prudence and morality coincide

SK but then on theism, being moral is just self-interest – and besides, I can still choose morality over prudence, because it makes me feel good, (i.e. – atheists can adopt the moral point of view against their self-interest, based on feelings of happiness)

WC but it demoralizes moral behavior to realize that it makes no difference in the end whether you do right or wrong

SK but it demoralizes morality on theism that it reduces to self-interest, you are doing right in order to be get an eternal reward

SK how can we justify punishing people on atheism? the hypothetical social contract imagined during a discussion between perfectly rational people prescribes morality for all of us

WC what if the person doesn’t want to sign the contract

SK everyone ought to bound by it because the perfectly rational people made it, even very powerful people ought to follow the social contract

Moderator-directed discussion

MD On atheism, is free will impossible

WC yes, because all behavior on naturalism/materialism/atheism is the result of chemical reactions, not free decisions of personal agents

MD if the Nazis won, and ran the world, would the Nazis still be bad

SK yes, because the social contract is a thought experiment with perfectly rational people behind a veil of ignorance so it’s still binding on Nazis even if they win world war 2 and run everything

MD religious history is filled with atrocities

WC yes, and this helps to prove that morality really is objective, not just based on social convention

MD but why do humans do such immoral things

WC humans are sinful, and it shows that they need god

MD why do we violate the social contract

SK humans are sinful

MD how would you prevent or control these moral failures

SK moral education, moral community, the power of the state as enforcer of morality

SK (to WC) isn’t there a tension between doing good and being saved by grace on christianity?

WC on christianity, the bad people who are contrite go to heaven, the self-righteous think they are good enough without god, they are they ones who go to hell

SK but doing good is significant to me, even if it’s not ultimately significant, because it makes me feel good right now

MD should we be nice to animals

WC christians have an advantage here because humans have environmental and animal stewardship duties – not based on animal rights, but based on obligations that god has placed on humans to be good stewards

SK are you a vegetarian

WC no, but we should be humane to animals – in any case why should a naturalist treat animals well?

SK because it’s wrong to harm animals, it’s wrong to make them feel pain

MD what about cross-cultural differences, how is that affected by theism and atheism

WC the question of ontology is separate from the question of epistemology

MD so are some cultures wrong?

WC yes, nazis, etc.

SK we are largely in agreement, some societies are not evolved enough to be able to know what is right and wrong by educated rationality

William Lane Craig – closing statement

theism does have good answers to the questions of moral values, moral duties and moral accountability
– the values are rooted in god’s nature
– the duties are owed to God
– it matters if we’re good or not because our ultimate destination is affected by our moral actions

on atheism
– the social contract is just an arbitrary social convention
– determinism does not allow for free moral decisions
– with no one to prescribe duties, there is no reason to perform duties
– on atheism, moral duties are like rules of etiquette
– it makes no difference in the long run how you behave

Shelly Kagan – closing statement

objective morality can exist without god

atheists can prefer to do the right thing against self-interest because it gives them happy feelings of significance, even if there is no ultimate significance
– atheism cannot provide ultimate significance for moral actions, and that is ok so long as their is emotional (subjective) significance

Craig’s post debate comments

Craig’s comments on the debate from his March newsletter.

Other debates on atheism and morality

Here are some prior debates on the rationality of morality on atheism.

  1. From Christianity Today, a written debate: Douglas Wilson vs. Christopher Hitchens
  2. From the University of Western Ontario, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs. Kai Nielsen
  3. From Schenectady College, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs Richard Taylor
  4. From Franklin & Marshall College, William Lane Craig vs. Paul Kurtz (audio, video1, video2, video3, video4, video5, video6, video7)
  5. From the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, William Lane Craig vs. Louise Antony (audio1, audio2, video1, video2)

Further study

A good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally-grounding prescriptive morality here. My previous posts on this blog on this topic are here and here. The first one is about whether atheists can use a made-up standard to judge God for his perceived moral failures, the second one is on whether meaningful morality is rational on atheism.

27 thoughts on “Debate summary: Is God necessary for morality? William Lane Craig vs Shelly Kagan”

    1. We already had that – in Stalinist Russia, Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea, etc. Sorry, but I’m going to be myself in the comments, even though the post is neutral.


  1. Ouch! I must say I think Kagan was extremely sharp. Craig looked terribly off-balance and confused during Kagan’s questioning.


  2. Without a divine law-giver, in an uncreated, mindless, unconscious, uncaring and unfeeling universe, the very concept of morality is a nonsensical category of thought.

    The problem with atheism is its constant use of concepts which gain their coherence from theism. If your going to be an atheist, then get your own vocabulary and modes of thinking — stop stealing from theism, you know, “thou shalt not steal”.


    1. Plus, it can be argued that, yes, God is necessary for morality, because God is necessary for existence. Without him, there would be no universe, no life, and no creatures endued with a moral sense.


      1. That’s clever thinking. It’s true – which is why I disagree with the idea that mere patterns of subjective moral behavior are possible without God. No they aren’t! Because such patterns wouldn’t even exist without God.


    2. “though shall not steal” my car because I have to go to work? well I do have to go to work ,but according to you instead of the need to go to work we stold those thoughts from Theism sounds like BS to me.


  3. Hey WK- who do you think won this debate? Although I completely agree with WLC’s position, I have no doubt that from a neutral’s perspective, Kagan would have come across as more persuasive and with better arguments. I think he must have had an off day or somethin cos he just wasn’t sharp enough, or maybe the format and it not being a “KO” debate put him off.

    How would you respond to contractarianism as a means of deriving objective morality without God? And what about utilitarinism? These are the two that I personally find coming up quite a lot as responses from atheists who still try to hold on to objective morality in the absence of God and I would love to hear a good response to it; I don’t WLC offered any powerful responses unfortunately.

    Thanks, in advance, WK!


    1. For this debate, in Bill’s newsletter, he explained that the organizers ham-strung him to make it a “nice” debate and not to go for the jugular in the rebuttals.

      I will try to write something about these other two methods, but maybe the commenters can help. For one thing, human rights, such as the right to life, are not absolute on either system.


      1. It’s really quite something that when Craig comes off worse in a debate his response is that he was asked to be nice. It’s even more incredible that you would take this as truth when, to my knowledge, no one else has made this claim after a debate, particularly on such weighty matters. Speaks to the power of faith, I suppose.


        1. Well, I have seen him debate Paul Kurtz and Louise Antony and there he pulled no punches. In the debate with Kagan, I got the impression he was ask to HOLD his rebuttals and focus on just explaining his view. It was Yale. You can’t turn down Yale.


  4. I understand that you’re a theist, but a fair summary of the debate would be nice. For instance, you act as if Kagan argued that “humans can do neat things that animals can’t do like calculus and poetry, so therefore murder is wrong”. This is definitely not what he said.

    Craig suggested that just because we have complex nervous systems it does not mean we suddenly are moral. But Kagan pointed out that our complex nervous systems are what set us apart in many ways in comparison to animals, including the ability to think philosophical thoughts and fall in love, and that the ability for us to think rationally about our actions is what makes murder wrong: because we can recognize reasons not to do it.

    I respect WLC’s skill as a debater and I think his arguments are interesting, but there’s no doubt he lost this debate (whether you make the excuse that he wasn’t given permission to kick Kagan’s ass or not) on points and on the strength of his arguments.


    1. “…including the ability to think philosophical thoughts and fall in love, and that the ability for us to think rationally about our actions is what makes murder wrong: because we can recognize reasons not to do it.”

      How does this establish objective morality? Morality, in this case, are mere values which exist within the human mind – not independent of it. Thus, how is that actually “objective” morality? Let’s assume every conscious human being was obliterated. Would those values still be true (i.e. for humans, murdering an innocent person is wrong)?


      1. It isn’t a necessary condition that for something to be objectively true it must exist outside of a mind.

        If you’re being burned alive, is it not objectively true that you’re in terrible pain, despite the fact that this pain only exists in your own mind?

        Similarly, we can derive objective moral facts based on the objective experiences of people. Nobody (or at least no rational person) wants to be abducted and murdered. It is thus objectively true that to murder someone is to harm them. We don’t have to search further for a grounds for the requirement to not murder people than that murdering someone objectively causes them harm. This is just a fact of our experience and conscious and rational creatures with bodies which react to certain stimuli. To ask ‘why is causing harm objectively wrong’ is equivalent to asking ‘why do we objectively need to eat food’.

        Contractualism doesn’t provide us with a kind of transcendent moral system, but we don’t need that, so long as we are rational and care about our lives as they are.

        You might respond ‘but it’s only your opinion that its wrong to murder someone – what if it’s in my self-interest to murder you, and I know that the act will give me pleasure?’ The contractualist replies that the murderer is morally required not to act in this way so long as he appreciates that the act will cause harm. As we’ve already established, the act necessarily causes harm (this is an objective fact of the human condition) – and thus only an irrational person could fail to understand that he causes harm in committing murder. It is objectively true that to commit murder is to cause harm, and therefore objectively morally wrong to commit murder.


  5. I appreciate Kagan’s efforts here. I think this type of thinking needs to be stretched to see if it can work. But I don’t think it can. Yes, rationality allows us to identify reasons killing is bad, just as it allows us to identify potential advantages gained from murdering our competitors.


    1. he deferred to the contractarian view of ethics, which relies on the veil of ignorance. He didn’t just say to think about it.


  6. “including the ability to think philosophical thoughts and fall in love, and that the ability for us to think rationally about our actions is what makes murder wrong: because we can recognize reasons not to do it.”

    New born infants lack the ability to engage in complex philosophical reasoning. In fact they lack behind mature cows in this respect. So presumably killing them is Ok.


    1. Those who can’t be rational aren’t morally culpable for harm they cause to others, but those who can be harmed have still be wronged.

      On the contractualist view, therefore, it is of course wrong to harm those who are irrational – the insane, newborn infants, even animals, as Kagan points out later in the debate.


  7. Even if Craig pulled punches, which I doubt, (Maybe he was told not to make it a cut-throat) he def wasn’t told not to present a better argument. There’s 2 hours here of him getting pushed back on his heels and left spinning in his chair. Even if he didn’t push the free-will/determinism point, it was a bit off topic, and it wouldn’t have given him the win by any means.


  8. Shelly Kagan had definitely replied in simple and clear responses and pointed out the shifting of questions by William Lane Craig. I have never seen WLC allow the next question to arrive without a rebuttal as much as he did in this debate. Kagan was clear and sharp and he deserves his props.


  9. I don’t understand why we make it so complicated. Being murdered, raped, and stolen from are things no one likes. As rational thought has evolved over time, we have agreed as a society that these things are bad, so we made laws to prevent them. You can disagree all you want, but you will be arrested if you committ these crimes. If you lie and cheat enough, most likely someone is going to harm you back, because the general consensus is that we don’t like these things being done to us. Doing nice things for others makes us happy because we know it makes us happy when people do nice things for us. We ultimately will die, yes, and then it “won’t matter.” But we died happy and fullfilled. Its not really that hard is it? I don’t have to believe in a specific god to realize this.


    1. The murderer, rapist and thief like what they are doing. So it’s basically a case of their like against the victim’s like. And on atheism, there is no way to prefer one vs the other.


  10. The moral commands don’t require a commander should have been responded to.

    Using the law of noncontradiction as a comparison to moral laws is comparing apples to oranges.

    I can’t violate the law of noncontradiction but I can violate a moral law. The former is descriptive the latter is prescriptive.


  11. I thought Kagan seemed very reasonable, and made some good points. It was interesting that he took an objective morality stance, since that’s not very common with atheists. The idea of a society of perfectly rational beings would be able to define objective morality is interesting. Here is my take. I’ll go with the premise that a society of perfectly rational beings would be able to define objective morality. I would even argue that there would be no disagreement among them. They would all agree on what is moral. In that case, you wouldn’t even need a society or group of beings, you would only need one perfectly rational being. I happen to believe that one perfectly rational being is God, and does in fact define morality. So I can agree with Kagan, except that he made up his perfectly rational being(s), and mine actually exists.


  12. Claim, warrant, impact. When you look at the conclusion, it is clear that Kagan’s ideas aren’t as convincing as Craig’s. That is how you decide who wins a debate. Presentation accounts for little, although I get the sense that I would have loved sitting in Kagan’s lectures as a student.


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