Tag Archives: Ethical

William Lane Craig assesses Sam Harris’ attempt to ground morality on atheism

This Reasonable Faith article is worth a read.

First, objective moral values:

So how does Sam Harris propose to solve the “value problem”? The trick he proposes is simply toredefine what he means by “good” and “evil” in nonmoral terms.9 He says we should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being” of conscious creatures.”10 He states, “Good and evil need only consist in this: misery versus well-being.”11 Or again: “In speaking of ‘moral truth,’ I am saying that there must be facts regarding human and animal well-being.”12

So, he says, “Questions about values … are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”13 Therefore, he concludes, “It makes no sense … to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good’.”14 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 is simply a tautology — talking in a circle. Thus, Harris has “solved” his problem simply by redefining his terms. It is mere word play.

Second, objective moral duties:

Does atheism provide a sound foundation for objective moral duties? Duty has to do with moral obligation and prohibition, what I ought or ought not to do. Here reviewers of The Moral Landscape have been merciless in pounding Harris’ attempt to provide a naturalistic account of moral obligation. Two problems stand out.

Natural science tells us only what is, not what ought to be, the case. As 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.”17 In particular it cannot tell us that we have a moral obligation to take actions that are conducive to human flourishing.

[…]Second, “ought” implies “can.” A person is not morally responsible for an action he is unable to avoid. For example, if somebody shoves you into another person, you are not to blame for bumping into this person. You had no choice. But Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will.20 Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of freedom but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom. But if there is no free will, no one is morally responsible for anything. In the end, Harris admits this, though it’s tucked away in his endnotes. Moral responsibility, he says, “is a social construct,” not an objective reality: “in neuroscientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other” for the actions they perform.21 His thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties on his worldview because we have no control over what we do.

If you missed the debate between William Lane  and Sam Harris, here is the video:

And you can read a summary of the debate, written by me. There’s audio in that post, as well.

William Lane Craig asks: can we be good without God?

A video lecture in 3 parts, and a peer-reviewed paper to go with the clips.

Part 1 of 3:

Part 2 of 3:

Part 3 of 3:

And here is the article that discusses the same topic, in more detail, and with footnotes.

Excerpt:

Can we be good without God? At first the answer to this question may seem so obvious that even to pose it arouses indignation. For while those of us who are Christian theists undoubtedly find in God a source of moral strength and resolve which enables us to live lives that are better than those we should live without Him, nevertheless it would seem arrogant and ignorant to claim that those who do not share a belief in God do not often live good moral lives–indeed, embarrassingly, lives that sometimes put our own to shame.

But wait. It would, indeed, be arrogant and ignorant to claim that people cannot be good without belief in God. But that was not the question. The question was: can we be good without God? When we ask that question, we are posing in a provocative way the meta-ethical question of the objectivity of moral values. Are the values we hold dear and guide our lives by mere social conventions akin to driving on the left versus right side of the road or mere expressions of personal preference akin to having a taste for certain foods or not? Or are they valid independently of our apprehension of them, and if so, what is their foundation? Moreover, if morality is just a human convention, then why should we act morally, especially when it conflicts with self-interest? Or are we in some way held accountable for our moral decisions and actions?

Today I want to argue that if God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured, but that in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding. We might act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of God, such actions would no longer count as good (or evil), since if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Thus, we cannot truly be good without God. On the other hand, if we do believe that moral values and duties are objective, that provides moral grounds for believing in God.

This is the easiest argument for God’s existence to discuss with non-Christians. If you would like to hear a good debate on this topic, I recommend the debate between Arif Ahmed and Glenn Peoples.

William Lane Craig asks: can we be good without God?

A video lecture in 3 parts, and a peer-reviewed paper to go with the clips.

Part 1 of 3:

Part 2 of 3:

Part 3 of 3:

And here is the article that discusses the same topic, in more detail, and with footnotes.

Excerpt:

Can we be good without God? At first the answer to this question may seem so obvious that even to pose it arouses indignation. For while those of us who are Christian theists undoubtedly find in God a source of moral strength and resolve which enables us to live lives that are better than those we should live without Him, nevertheless it would seem arrogant and ignorant to claim that those who do not share a belief in God do not often live good moral lives–indeed, embarrassingly, lives that sometimes put our own to shame.

But wait. It would, indeed, be arrogant and ignorant to claim that people cannot be good without belief in God. But that was not the question. The question was: can we be good without God? When we ask that question, we are posing in a provocative way the meta-ethical question of the objectivity of moral values. Are the values we hold dear and guide our lives by mere social conventions akin to driving on the left versus right side of the road or mere expressions of personal preference akin to having a taste for certain foods or not? Or are they valid independently of our apprehension of them, and if so, what is their foundation? Moreover, if morality is just a human convention, then why should we act morally, especially when it conflicts with self-interest? Or are we in some way held accountable for our moral decisions and actions?

Today I want to argue that if God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured, but that in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding. We might act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of God, such actions would no longer count as good (or evil), since if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Thus, we cannot truly be good without God. On the other hand, if we do believe that moral values and duties are objective, that provides moral grounds for believing in God.

This is the easiest argument for God’s existence to discuss with non-Christians. If you would like to hear a good debate on this topic, I recommend the debate between Arif Ahmed and Glenn Peoples.

Audio, video and full summary of the William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris debate

The details of the debate:

  • Who: William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris
  • Where: The University of Notre Dame
  • When: Thursday, April 7 – 7pm to 9pm
  • Topic: Is Good from God?

Here are the links to my preview, the audio and the video.

This comprehensive summary is from Thinking Matters New Zealand. It is entertaining to read, but accurate and comprehensive.

Here’s an overview:

Summary of Craig’s arguments:

  1. Under theism, God accounts for moral values because he is a perfect being and goodness is part of his nature
  2. Under theism, God’s commands account for moral duties
  3. Under atheism, morality is just an evolved convention, in which case it is not actually morality
  4. If morality is evolved convention, it doesn’t refer to anything objective
  5. We can imagine moral conventions evolving differently; therefore they aren’t objective
  6. Harris is trying to redefine goodness as wellbeing, just by his own fiat
  7. Harris’s describing how to be moral doesn’t explain what grounds morality
  8. Harris faces an insuperable problem in the naturalistic fallacy: you cannot derive what ought to be from mere facts about the universe
  9. Harris’s naturalistic view doesn’t allow for free will, which completely undermines his moral theories anyway

Craig’s two basic contentions:

  1. If God exists we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties;
  2. If God does not exist we do not have a sound foundation for these.

Summary of Harris’ arguments:

  1. Objective morality is important
  2. You don’t need religion to have objective morality
  3. Science can actually tell us what we ought to value because we never really separate facts and values
  4. Moral values depend on nature because they depend on nature-dependent minds, and so can be understood with science
  5. Morality is intrinsically about wellbeing because we can imagine a possible world in which everyone suffers horribly, and we see that we have an obligation to relieve that suffering
  6. Morality can’t be dictated by divine commands because God is evil
  7. We can say scientifically that the Taliban is bad

Harris’ main argument:

  1. Moral values and obligations depend upon minds
  2. Minds depend upon the laws of nature
  3. Therefore, moral values depend upon nature and can be understood through science

And, for an excerpt, here’s their summary of Craig’s first rebuttal:

Craig started by drawing the audience’s attention to how Harris was confusing moral ontology with moral semantics: confusing the basis or the foundation for moral values with the meaning of moral terms. Craig’s argument, and the topic of the debate, was about what grounds moral values and duties—not what words like “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil” mean. Christians readily concede that we can know what good and evil are even if we don’t believe they are grounded ontologically in God.

He then rightly dismissed Harris’s criticism of YHWH’s character as irrelevant. For one thing, there are plenty of divine command theorists who are not Jews or Christians. For another, there’s good reason to think that YHWH (the God of the Bible) is not a moral monster—in that regard he recommended Paul Copan’s new book, Is God a Moral Monster?. “We have not heard any objection to a theistic grounding for ethics,” Craig said. “If God does exist, it’s clear, I think—obvious even—that we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.”

He then started to drag Harris over broken glass by showing that the issue of human flourishing, or conscious wellbeing, is not the question of the debate. We agree that, all things being equal, the flourishing of conscious creatures is good. The question is: if atheism were true, what would make the flourishing of conscious creatures good? Craig observed that Harris is using words like “good” and “better” in non-moral ways: for example, that there is a good way to get yourself killed doesn’t imply that it’s a moral thing to do. Harris’s contrast of the “good” life and the “bad” life is not an ethical contrast: it is a contrast between a pleasurable life and a miserable life. Since Harris had given no reason to identify pleasure and misery with good and evil, there was no reason for thinking that the flourishing of conscious creatures is objectively good.

Here Craig brought down the hammer and completely crushed Harris for the rest of the debate, by not only showing that Harris wasn’t engaging with the topic (he was equivocating between moral epistemology and ontology) but that his entire ethical system was necessarily false, by his own admission. Harris was saying that the property of “being good” is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing…but on the penultimate page of his book, he tellingly admitted that if rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his moral landscape would no longer be a moral landscape: it would just be a continuum of wellbeing, whose peaks were occupied by good and bad people alike. But as Craig pointed out, this implies that there’s a possible world where the peaks of wellbeing are occupied by evil people (say psychopaths). If moral goodness is identical to human wellbeing it is logically contradictory for there to be a possible world in which the peaks of wellbeing are occupied by evil people. Thus, moral goodness cannot be identical with human wellbeing or flourishing.

Harris was down for the count, and never even tried to address this argument in his followups.

Craig followed up this crushing argument with a further one, noting that moral obligations only arise when there is an appropriate authority to issue binding commands—and under atheism, no objective authority exists, and so objective moral values cannot exist.

If you missed the debate and can’t listen to the audio or see the video, this summary is well worth reading. It is accurate, and yet snarky, but without any exaggerations. I really think that what is behind atheism’s philosophical flirtations with the language of morality is an effort to put a respectable smokescreen around a worldview adopted by those who simply cannot be bothered with any moral obligation that might act as a speed bump on their pursuit of happy feelings and pleasures here and now. They want to be happy, and being good gets in their way. They aren’t trying to explain morality – they are trying to explain morality away… as the arbitrary conventions of a random process of biological evolution and cultural convention. Then they will be able to dismiss their conscience as an illusion created by the arbitrary culture they were raised in.

UPDATE: An even LONGER summary from New Zealand philosopher Glenn Peoples here.

Audio, video and summary of the William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris debate

Brian Auten has posted the audio of the William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris debate here. And the video of the William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris debate is posted on Youtube. My preview provides background information and lectures to help you to understand the arguments. Here is a more serious, less snarky review of the debate, which doesn’t mention the Monkey God or the Lord of the Rings. But read mine first!

(By the way, you may also be interested in my snarky, humorous summary of Lawrence Krauss’ speeches in his debate with Craig, in the preview post which featured resources for understanding Craig’s kalam argument, the fine-tuning argument and the moral argument, and in my snarky summary of Christopher Hitchens’ case against God)

SUMMARY OF THE DEBATE

This summary is not AS SNARKY as the Lawrence Krauss summary or the Christopher Hitchens summary.

Dr. Craig’s opening speech:

Introduction:

  • Harris and Craig agree on objective morality
  • What is the foundation of morality?
  • What makes certain actions right or wrong?

Two claims

  1. if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties
  2. if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties

1) Theism grounds morality

Objective moral values

Theism provides sound foundation for objective moral values
– objective moral values are grounded in God
– God is the locus and paradigm of moral value
– God is, by nature, the standard for what is right and wrong

Objective moral duties

Theism provides a sound foundation for objective moral duties
– God’s nature is expressed as commands for us
– God’s commands for us are not arbitrary
– they must be consistent with his own nature
– and they reflect his moral character
– the essence of morality in theism is to love God and also to love your neighbor

2) Atheism does not ground morality

Objective moral values

What is the basis for objective moral values on atheism?
– on atheism, human beings are accidental products of evolution
– on atheism, there is no reason to believe that human well-being is any more important than the well-being of any other animal
– Harris denies that the objective moral value is from Platonic forms
– Harris wants to ground moral values in nature
– but nature is morally neutral
– the “morality” of humans is just a set of evolved customs that help them to survive and reproduce
– this morality is just a set of conventions, it doesn’t refer to anything that has an objective existence
– quotes Michael Ruse: “morality is just an aid to survival, and any deeper meaning is illusory”
– if we were to rewind evolution and start it again, another set of conventions might have evolved
– to say that morality is about human well-being is to commit “speciesism”
– quotes Richard Dawkins: “there is no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference”

What does Harris say:
– Harris redefines the word “good” to mean the well-being of humans
– Harris “solves” the problem of moral value by just asserting that HUMAN well-being is the good
– Harris isn’t talking about what is good and evil
– Harris only talks about what is conducive to human “flourishing”

Objective moral duties

What is the basis of objective moral duties on atheism?
– first, natural science tells us only what is, not what ought to be
– quotes Jerry Fodor: “science cannot tell us that we have a moral obligation to take actions to increase human flourishing”
– on the naturalistic worldview, humans are animals – and there are no OBJECTIVE moral duties
– where do moral obligations come from on atheism?
– they are just conventions that are ingrained into us by social evolution
– as human societies evolve, certain actions are unfashionable
– people who act “immorally” against their society’s conventions are just being unfashionable
– bad actions like rape and murder happen all the time in the animal kingdom
– second, Harris believes that there is no free will – all human actions are causally determined
– if there is no free will, then there is no moral responsibility
– no one is responsible for the things they do, on atheism
– on atheism, humans have no control over the actions they take, and cannot make moral choices, or be morally responsible

Conclusion:
– Harris and I mostly agree on practical ethics, but only theists have a foundation for objective moral values and duties

Dr. Harris’ opening speech:

God is not needed to ground moral values and moral duties

  • Good means maximizing human well-being for the largest number of people
  • Religion is not necessary for a “universal” morality
  • Religion is a bad foundation for “universal” morality

Facts and values:

  • Moral values are the products of human evolution
  • E.g. – Sexual jealousy is the result of biological evolution
  • And then these ideas of right and wrong are enshrined in cultural institutions like marriage
  • Religious people insert God in to explain values, when evolution is the real explanation

Moral disagreements:

  • I personal don’t agree with the ethics of the God of Abraham
  • I have no basis for an objective moral standard, but the God of Abraham fails to meet my personal preferences
  • Dr. Craig lies when he quotes me, half his quotes are of other people I quoted, not me
  • But I’m not going to say which quote he lied about

Goodness is what makes you feel happy:

  • Questions of right and wrong depend upon brains
  • Brains are natural entities
  • Science can measure well-being in brain states
  • States of affairs in which the majority of brains have high well-being

I’m a good person because I don’t like the Taliban:

  • The Taliban is bad because the majority of their brains don’t have high well-being
  • I think throwing battery acid in women’s faces is bad
  • The Taliban thinks that throwing battery acid in women’s faces is good
  • What determines right and wrong is brain states of well-being

Insults against religion = Dr. Craig:

  • religion / Dr. Craig doesn’t value evidence
  • religion / Dr. Craig doesn’t value logic
  • religion / Dr. Craig doesn’t value intellectual honesty

Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal:

1) Theism is a good foundation for moral values and duties

Harris says:
– Craig thinks that if God doesn’t exist, then good and evil would have no meaning

Craig says:
– But Craig says that he is not saying that God is required for moral semantics
– He is addressing the question of the ontological grounding

Harris says:
– The God of the Bible is mean

Craig says:
– divine command theory doesn’t require that the Bible be the set of commands
– in any case, the old testament passages can be defended in Paul Copan’s book

Harris says:
– Religion isn’t needed for universal morality

Craig says:
– the issue isn’t universality, because the Nazis could have won, and put in a universal morality
– the issue is if they had won, would there be any standard to condemn them

Harris says:
– Good and evil are related to the number of brain states of well-being

Craig says:
– Harris uses good and evil in non-moral ways
– Harris isn’t talking about moral good and moral evil
– Harris is talking about pleasure and misery
– Harris is equating moral good and moral evil with feelings of pleasure and feelings of misery
– Harris claims that the property of being good is identical with human flourishing
– it is possible that the continuum of human well-being is not identical with the moral landscape
– in order for them to be identical, there cannot be this possibility or it fails the law of identity
– you could have psychopaths with happy brain states that represent a peak in the moral landscape

Harris says:
– If we have a moral duty to do anything, we have a duty to avoid feeling miserable”

Craig:
– moral obligations arise when there is an authority who can issue binding commands
– on atheism, there is no authority who can issue binding commands
– without free will, morality makes no sense since there is no free will
– no free will means no moral duties, and no moral responsibilities

Dr. Harris’ first rebuttal:

I don’t like Hell and I don’t like suffering and I don’t like Christians:

  • There is no evidence that Hell exists
  • Think of the parents of the children of people who die in tsunamis
  • If God allows people to suffer, then he doesn’t exist, because God’s job is to make us not suffer
  • God can’t exist, because some people are born in the wrong culture, and never hear about Jesus
  • Some people pray to the Monkey God, why don’t they go to heaven?
  • What about the people in the Lord of the Rings, are they going to Hell?
  • What about people who repent just before being executed, are they going to heaven?
  • God is cruel and unjust because he lets innocent people suffer
  • God is worse than a psychopath
  • People who believe in God are evil
  • People who believe in God are narcissists
  • God commanded stuff that I don’t like, so he’s evil
  • Suppose God were evil – then people would have to do evil things
  • Religious people think that saying Latin phrases turn pancakes into the body of Elvis Presley
  • The evidence for God is actually not very good, if you avoid read any Christian scholars
  • Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice
  • The people who wrote the Bible were really stupid
  • Christians are psychopaths

Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal:

Sam Harris cannot make any judgments about moral values and moral duties on atheism
On atheism, there is no foundation for making objective moral judgments

Harris didn’t respond to anything Craig said

Harris says that Christians only believe in God to avoid Hell

Red herrings:

Craig says that people who become Christians do it because God is the good
Christians don’t pursue a relationship with God for fire insurance

The problem of evil
– not relevant to the debate topic

The problem of the unevangelized
– not relevant to the debate topic

Evil actually proves that God exists
– if evil exists, then there is an objective moral standard
– if there is an objective moral standard, then God exists

Harris has no foundation for saying that Christian beliefs are morally bad
Harris has no basis for making moral judgments

Harris’ remark that theists are psychopathic
– Harris’ remark is as stupid as it is insulting

Harris says that the Old Testament promoted
– first, there was no slavery in the Old Testament it was indentured servitude
– second, that’s not relevant to the debate topic

Harris mentions the Taliban
– but the response to the Taliban is not to say that God doesn’t exist
– the response to the Taliban is to say that they have the wrong God
– the real God never commanded them to do those things

Dr. Harris’ second rebuttal:

I’m a scientist, Craig is stupid, I’ve meditated with wise yogis and lamas, I don’t like the Taliban:

  • When I make a scientific case for morality, I didn’t really mean that it was scientific
  • You just have to assume that misery is morally evil, and happiness is morally good, even if that can’t be proved scientifically
  • I’m a scientist
  • Science is great
  • Dr. Craig is stupid
  • Dr. Craig is not a scientist
  • Science is better than religion
  • You can ground an objective standard of morality and objective moral duties and moral responsibility on arbitrary brain states of accidentally evolved biologically determined monkeys
  • Dr. Craig’s question for me about my unproven assumptions is a stupid question
  • I prayed to the Monkey God in a cave and he told me about objective morality
  • I have spent a lot of time studying meditation with wise yogis and lamas
  • I consider some people to be spiritual Jesus
  • I can imagine that Jesus was very spiritual and charismatic
  • We don’t have to use logic and reason to debate about morality, we can meditate on the Monkey God
  • i don’t like the Taliban

Dr. Craig’s third rebuttal:

Harris didn’t reply to anything I said

Harris admitted that psychopaths can occupy the peaks of the moral landscape
So on Harris’ view, you can commit unspeakable acts of cruelty and still have a brain state with well-being

Dr. Harris’ third rebuttal:

Dr. Craig is a Muslim, Dr. Craig is the Taliban, Dr. Craig is a Muslim Taliban Muslim Jihadi:

  • How many of you in the audience are Muslims
  • Muslims think that non-Muslims are going to Hell
  • Christianity and Islam are identical
  • Dr. Craig is a Muslim!
  • Dr. Craig is the Taliban!
  • Dr. Craig wants to jihad me!