Tag Archives: Morality

Is Sam Harris successful at rationally grounding objective moral values and duties?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

I just wanted to put out a few snips from this layperson-level article on the Reasonable Faith web site. The article is about atheist scholar Sam Harris, and his attempt to provide a basis for morality on atheism.

Here’s the Harris project:

The question then is, what is the best foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties? What grounds them? What makes certain actions good or evil, right or wrong? Traditionally, God has been the highest Good (summum bonum) and His commandments constitutive of our moral duties. But if God does not exist, what foundation remains for objective moral values and duties?

Dr. Craig is able to show why Harris’ attempt to ground the objective moral value of humans in “human flourishing” fails, by using the law of identity to show that Harris’ rule doesn’t account for the possibility that those who do evil could possibly flourish and be happy. If Harris is right that objective morality is identical to human flourishing, then it cannot even be possible that this be the case. This can be a bit confusing to non-philosophers, though, so I’ll focus on Dr. Craig’s argument against Harris’ attempt to ground objective moral duties.

Dr. Craig writes:

That takes us to a second question: 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.

First: 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.” In particular it cannot tell us that we have a moral obligation to take actions that are conducive to human flourishing.

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 obligations to one another. When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it does not murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it does not rape her — for there is no moral dimension to these actions. They are neither prohibited nor obligatory.

So if God does not exist, why think we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes these moral duties on us? Where do they come from? It is hard to see why they would be anything more than a subjective impression ingrained into us by societal and parental conditioning.

So we might feel morally obligated to do something, maybe what our herd expects of us in this time and place we live in. But on atheism those feelings are arbitrary. After all, societies have evolved where feelings of obligation are felt by people to perform suicide bombings against civilians. On atheism, those feelings are as valid and grounded as any other “duties” because they emerge from the same process in other times and places. Obligations change between time and place – they are not objectively real. But that means that our moral duties are not objective, they are arbitrary – if atheism is true. The same “socio-biological evolution” is generating opposite moral duties in different times and places. This is not “objective”.

And the second objection is even more lethal:

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. 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. 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.

Harris recognizes that “determinism really does threaten free will and responsibility as we intuitively understand them.” But not to worry! “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.” The point, I take it, is that we do not really have the illusion of free will. Not only is such a claim patently false phenomenologically, as any of us can attest, but it is also irrelevant. The fact remains that whether we experience the illusion of free will or not, on Harris’ view we are thoroughly determined in all that we think and do and can therefore have no moral responsibilities.

On Harris’ view, human beings are computers made out of meat. But if you cannot freely make moral choices, then you cannot choose to perform moral duties or not. What is amazing to me is why he wants to deny free will in the first place. He is surely very well aware of his own experience of free will, and his own consciousness, for that matter. Before we even start to look at scientific evidences against atheism like the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, etc. we already have evidence within ourselves that naturalism is false.

Just in passing, my friend Micah sent me this article about Sam Harris’ academic credentials. Although Harris has a PhD in neuroscience, the underlying reality is a bit more complicated. When I watched him debate William Lane Craig, he seemed to be ignorant of simple problems with his utilitarian moral views, and his inability to ground libertarian free will. The problems with utilitarianism have been known for hundreds of years. You can watch the debate yourself and see if you think he was prepared or not.

Greg Koukl debates Michael Shermer on God, atheism, meaning and morality

Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!
Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!

The full transcript of a debate between Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, and Greg Koukl, president of Stand to Reason. This debate occurred on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, and was moderated by Hugh Hewitt.

HH = Hugh Hewitt
GK = Greg Koukl
MS = Michael Shermer

Here is the full debate transcript from Stand to Reason.

And here’s an excerpt:

GK: Right. Actually, the big question here, Hugh, is whether it’s possible to be good without God. Now I’m not talking about whether it’s possible to be good without a belief in God. I certainly think that’s possible, but be good without God. And the answer to that question hinges entirely on precisely what you mean by good. And so I was going to give an illustration. So a man drags a young girl into the alley, he sexually abuses her, strangles here, and tosses her into the dustbin. Is that act wrong? Now I think everybody listening is going to admit it is wrong. But here is the real question. What do we mean when we say that that act of rape and abuse and murder is wrong? Are we describing the action itself, the object? Are we saying that the object, the rape, the murder, has a quality of being wrong, and therefore, wherever that rape goes, the wrongness follows it, just like your height, 6’ 2”, or whatever it is, is an objective quality of you. Wherever you go, your height follows you in the same way. Does the wrongness follow the rape? Well, if it’s a quality of the rape, if it’s an objective quality of the rape, then it does. And it doesn’t matter what people think about it, or what cultures decides, or what your evolutionary conditioning is. The rape is still wrong. The other alternative is that you’re not talking about the rape. You’re talking about yourself. You’re talking about your genetic conditioning. You’re talking about your culture’s decision about that kind of thing. And if that’s the case, then the truth of the wrongness of the rape is simply in the individual or the subject. And this is why philosophers distinguish between ethical objectivism and ethical subjectivism. Now there’s lots of different subjectivisms in ethics. But simply put, if you’re an ethical subjectivist, you’re a relativist. And actual ethics don’t exist. Ethics are an illusion. If you conclude that ethics are an illusion, there’s lots of different ways to explain it. Michael’s written a really great book, I think, called The Science Of Good And Evil. I’ve read most of it, and it’s well written, and it’s very compelling. But it’s a description about how the illusion of ethics has taken place. If you want to go that route, you’re welcome to go that route. But what you can’t do is you can’t then talk about morality as if it’s objective when your explanations are subjective. So this is a problem that I think all atheists, including Michael, have to solve. Are ethics objective or relative? And if they’re relative, then how can we make moral judgments that are meaningful on other people?

HH: Michael Shermer?

MS: Wow, let’s just get right into it. Well, I don’t think it’s quite so black and white. That is to say I think there are provisional moral truths that exist whether there’s a God or not. In other words, it’s wrong, morally, absolutely morally wrong to rape and murder. And that would be true whether there was a God or not. In other words, if…is God saying that it’s wrong because it’s really wrong, and He’s instructing us in his Holy Scripture that it’s wrong? Or is it only wrong because He said so? And if it turned out there wasn’t a God, would that make it okay? And my answer is no, it really is wrong, whether God says it’s wrong or not. That is to say I think it really exists, a real, moral standard like that. Why? Well, because first, you could ask the person who is being affected, we should always ask the moral recipient of the act, how do you feel about being raped or murdered or stolen from or lied to. And the moral actor will tell you, it doesn’t matter whether, if I could use a current example, I haven’t any idea if Tiger Woods and his wife are religious or not. But you can just ask his wife whether it was morally right or wrong, and she’ll tell you. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a God or not. It’s wrong. And so that’s the first principle. Just ask. Ask the moral recipient of whether it’s right or wrong. But I think Greg’s after something deeper, that is to say is there something even deeper still behind the moral actor’s feelings about how they’re treated. And the answer is yes, I think so. We’re a social species. We don’t live in isolation. We live as members of a group. And as such, there’s no possible way our group could survive, be cohesive, be a unit of any kind of solidarity against other groups, or against a harsh environment. If there were too much violations of social norms, that is if there were constant lying and cheating and raping and murdering, there’s no way a social group could hang together. And as such, as we all know, we’re very tribal. We’re tribal against other groups, but within our groups, we’re very pro-social, altruistic, cooperative. We have a good and evil in our nature. So to this extent, I find myself interesting often in agreement with my conservative friends on most of the things they consider morally, moral truths. That is, we share the same moral values, even though I come at it from a different perspective.

HH: Greg?

GK: Yeah, I’m actually not after something deeper here, Michael. At least to start out the discussion, I’m trying to be as simple and clear and precise as possible, because it’s very easy to weave together a bunch of things that sound persuasive, but turn out to be different things. Like for example, Darwinian evolution, which is a materialistic process, and here I mean the blind watchmaker thesis, the neo-Darwinian synthesis, natural selection working on mutations, and a kind of a cultural evolution that Michael has just referred to as we work together as a group to survive as a group. Those are two entirely different things. One is materialistic, Darwinian, the other one is intelligent design, quite frankly, where the group gets together and makes some determinations to encourage some behavior and discourage others. What I’m trying to do is to be able to answer the question that came up initially, is God necessary for morality, which Michael denies. It’s to say well, what is it that morality, that we’re trying to describe? It is either objective, and therefore an immaterial obligation that applies to certain behaviors, or it is subjective. The things that Michael described were variously subjective, evolutionary elements, subjective cultural elements, but then he affirmed that we all have good and evil in our nature, or an awareness of that. I agree with that entirely. We all are aware of those things. That’s why even if we don’t believe in God, we can still know morality and follow it. The question is what accounts for real, genuine objective morality?

HH: One minute to the break, Michael Shermer.

MS: I’m not arguing for cultural evolution. I’m actually arguing as part of our, what you described as materialistic, natural selection, Darwinian evolution, that it’s not enough to just pretend or fake being a good group member. You actually have to believe it, feel it, and live it. So what I’m arguing is that natural selected certain moral sentiments, as Adam Smith called them, moral feelings, an actual empathy, Adam Smith talked about, we actually empathize with somebody else, we can put ourselves into their shoes and feel their pain, I’m arguing that’s very real. It’s every bit as real a part of our evolutionary heritage as our eyes and our hands.

– – – –

HH: Michael Shermer, when we went to break, you were saying that evolutionary biology has produced a real morality.

MS: Yeah, I think really, Adam Smith had it right in his very first book, The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, long before Darwin, that we actually have in our biological nature, our human nature, the capacity to feel other people’s pain. He called it empathy, we think of it often either as empathy or sympathy. That is, we really do connect to other people. A lot of good research on this now, brain scans, you can show somebody a little video of somebody they know, or have feelings for, getting pricked with a pin, and the same areas of their brain light up, the pain receptors, as in the person getting the pin prick. In other words, we have an evolved tendency to really be deeply, emotionally connected to our fellow group members. And that’s why I say groups like World Vision, where you want to adopt a child, it doesn’t help to show a picture of 10,000 starving African kids. What does affect us is one child, a picture of one child with a little biography. That’s how you get people to adopt a child to donate. The reason for that is because essentially they’re tricking the brain, our brains into making that stranger an honorary family member, an honorary within group member, which is why I argue that free trade is one of the best ways of defusing normal tribal tensions between people. It makes them honorary friends, honorary members. Well, what’s going on there is we’re tricking the brain into sort of this evolutionary rule of thumb – be nice to people that are like you and that are related to you, and that you know, and that are fellow group members, and don’t do what our natural tendency is, is to be tribal and xenophobic against those other guys. And free trade is one of the best things you can do for that. So I’m arguing that’s actually tapping something deep within us.

HH: Greg Koukl?

GK: Yeah, basically, I agree with Mike completely here. We do have this tendency, and it seems to be universal among humankind. The question is, what is that tendency, actually? And what is the best way to explain it? And I see like a handful of significant problems with using evolution to explain morality. The first one is that evolution is a materialistic process. And here, I’m going back to an original point, and I don’t want people to lose it. There is no way that you can take molecules, and reorganize them in any fashion, over any length of time, and have pop out of the mixture an objective moral principle that’s immaterial, and that applies to human beings. All you’re going to get is a reorganization of the molecules. And what they can produce, and this is what Mike has done in his book, and he mentioned just s few moments ago, they can produce sentiments. They can produce feelings. They can produce behavior. But this leads us to the second problem of using evolution to explain morality, is that morality is more than sentiments, feelings and behavior. Morality entails things like motive and intention. I mean, you could have a guy walk into a garage, walk out with a hose, and is that wrong? Well, it depends. Is it his hose or somebody else’s hose? Did he intend to take the other person’s hose? Is he borrowing the hose? So we can see here are elements that are part of the moral thing that needs to be explained, that are immaterial, and therefore the Darwinian explanation can’t even in principle go there. It can’t do that job. But here’s the worst problem. Regardless of what our sentiments happen to be regarding moral actions, we can feel good or feel bad or whatever, the problem is that morality is prescriptive, not merely descriptive. That is it tells us not just what we did, but what we ought to have done in the past, and what we ought to do in the future. That is not something that any Darwinian mechanism can describe, because nothing about my biology can inveigh upon me to act a certain way for moral reasons in the future. It doesn’t tell me why I should be good tomorrow. This is a huge difference between these two views, the descriptive and the prescriptive. Prescriptive is part of morality, and can’t even, in principle, be explained by an evolutionary materialistic system.

HH: Michael Shermer, I’ll give you a start on that. We have about 45 seconds to the break, so you may want to…we’ll come back after the break and pick up. But what’s your start to that?

MS: Well, the start would be that again, let’s not think of evolution just as nature red and tooth and claw, and it’s nasty, brutish and short, but that in fact, we have this whole other social evolution. And I’m not talking about cultural evolution where we consciously make decisions, but subconsciously, because it’s in part of our nature to actually, seriously, deeply feel for other people and their actions, and the consequences of our actions, so that we actually have a sense of right and wrong that we’re born with, but then culture taps into and tweaks, one way or the other.

– – – –

HH: Michael Shermer, when we went to break, Greg had made the argument that the Darwinian model simply cannot explain immaterial concepts like morality, that there’s just no way you can rearrange the molecules to get there. You’re saying well, yes you can.

MS: Yeah, I think so, because if we think of morality as another suite of emotions that are involved with other people’s behaviors, the consequences of our actions, how we feel about them, how people feel about us when we do these things, that’s as every bit as important a biological part of our nature as anything else we talk about. So let’s take a real simple emotion. When you’re hungry, nobody does any calculations about the caloric input/output ratios of eating an apple versus an ice cream, although now it’s posted on the walls for us to see. But we just feel hungry, and we feel hungry for certain kinds of foods. The feeling of hunger is a proxy for something else. Evolution’s done the calculating for us. You need food, so we’re going to, your hypothalamus is going to secrete these certain chemicals that causes your stomach to rumble and so on. When you’re attracted to somebody else, a member of the opposite sex, nobody does the calculation by, let’s say, a man finds a woman attractive who has a .67 hip to waist ratio, and an hourglass figure, although that is pretty much universal. Nobody walks about with calipers taking measurements of who they’re going to want to date or ask out. You just look around, and you just go wow, I really find this woman attractive. It’s a feeling you have, okay? So those are kind of simple emotions, but sliding up the scale, the moral emotions are really no different. When I lie to somebody, I’ve violated a social norm, and they respond in a very angry, hostile way. So those emotions that we both share, guilt, shame, anger, disgust, involved a social relationship that whether it was a norm violation, those are the kinds of emotions that are just like hunger and sexual attraction that are built into us by nature, by evolution. Or, if you wish, this is how God created the moral sentiments, just like He created everything else in the universe, through a process of nature. I think that’s equally reasonable to argue. So I don’t see that it has to be an atheistic viewpoint versus a theistic viewpoint to get to our moral sentiments. Why couldn’t God have used evolution to create the moral sentiments as I’ve described them?

GK: Yeah, well, you don’t actually believe that, I know, Mike, so this is kind of like adding God to the soup, you know, if it makes people feel better. But the basic argument is that evolution all by itself can do the trick. And I think if your listeners are listening carefully, what they’re going to hear is Mike has just described, and if I’m being unfair to your assessment here, let me know, Mike, that moral feelings are simply that. They are sophisticated emotions that do some work for us for survival, and even on a group level. Now there’s a name for this. It’s called emotivism. A.J. Ayer, the famous atheist, offered this description of morality. It’s a relativistic scheme of morality. Morality doesn’t actually exist, Ayer argued. There is no objective right or wrong. Rape isn’t wrong itself. What happens is, we have feelings about it, and we express it in moral language, but rape isn’t really wrong. So your listeners are going to have to ask themselves the questions. When they just survey their own moral senses, and we all have access to this, do we want to believe that scientists have figured out that really what we’re doing is feeling sophisticated, complicated emotions, and that the emotions are in us, and we are not seeing anything about the action? Or does it seem like rape is wrong? Look, when I say rape is wrong, I’m talking about the rape. When I say liver is awful, I’m talking about me. I’m talking about my own tastes and preferences. It’s interesting, as Michael has given his explanation, though, that he’s doing, and I don’t know if you are aware of this, Michael, but you’re doing the very thing that I kind of warned against. You give a description of the foundations of morality that turn out to be relativistic, but then there’s a smuggling of a more objectivistic morality in the back door, like when Michael says you don’t have to do what your nature tells you to do, in other words, what you’ve been programmed by evolution to do. You can kind of rise above that. Well, now we’re talking about a morality that isn’t dictated by evolution, but a morality that we can employ through our acts of will, to rise above this kind of brutish evolutionary morality. And that sounds suspiciously like the very thing that I’m talking about here.

MS: But I don’t mean, there’s nothing to rise above by itself. Yes, we have to say rise above our tribal instincts to be xenophobic when we meet somebody who’s a stranger, who’s different from us. We all struggle against that, particularly in a black and white America, where there’s always been this underlying tension. Indeed, so culture helps us do that – education, travel, diversity of exposure to different people. That makes you a little more tolerant. Okay, but I’m not talking about that. What I’m talking about is tapping into the good part of our nature, the fact that in addition to that xenophobic tribalism we have, we also have this other side that almost never gets discussed in evolutionary…even in evolutionary circles, you’ll still hear evolutionary biologists talking about, in a way that Huxley did, and Herbert Spencer did in Darwin’s own time, that we have to somehow struggle mightily against our genes to overcome that nasty tendency we have to want to rape, kill, pillage and destroy. Well no, actually, we have this whole other side that’s just as genetically programmed into our nature. And the point of culture – education, politics, economics and so on, is to tap into the better angels of our nature as Lincoln said.

GK: Okay, here’s the question I have for you, Michael, then. You’ve identified that really, we have good and we have bad. That’s part of, under your terms, that’s part of our genetic nature, and we can choose to tap into what you call the good side. Why ever should we do such a thing if there is not a higher standard that directs our action to the better side, your words, than the bad side, your words, if really, ultimately, they are both the result of a genetic evolution, and from outside terms, neither is better than the other. Why should we do that, Michael?

MS: Yeah, well I don’t see how entering God into the equation changes that problem at all.

GK: Well, that’s the next step. What I’m trying to show is that the should comes from the outside, and if we can demonstrate that, then we can ask…

New study: belief in free will linked to ability to behave morally and to help others

J. Warner Wallace: God's Crime Scene
J. Warner Wallace: God’s Crime Scene

This is a re-post because I am travelling today.

A while back I finished reading “God’s Crime Scene”, the new book by J. Warner Wallace. I wanted to post something about some studies he mentioned in Chapter 6, on free will. This is one of the places where he found evidence in a surprising area.

Wallace says that free will makes more sense if theism is true, because we have non-material souls that interact with our bodies, but are not causally determined by them. On atheism, only matter exists, and you can’t get free will (or consciousness) from matter. So atheists like Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg, for example, deny free will, because they are materialists and atheists.

Anyway, here’s what he writes on p. 256:

In 2008, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia conducted experiments highlighting the relationship between a belief in determinism and immoral behavior. They found students who were exposed to deterministic literature prior to taking a test were more likely to cheat on the test than students who were not exposed to literature advocating determinism. The researchers concluded those who deny free will are more inclined to believe their efforts to act morally are futile and are, therefore, less likely to do so.

In addition, a study conducted by researchers from Florida State University and the University of Kentucky found participants who were exposed to deterministic literature were more likely to act aggressively and less likely to be helpful toward others.” Even determinist Michael Gazzaniga conceded: “It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.”” The existence of free will is a common characteristic of our experience, and when we deny we have this sort of free agency, there are detrimental consequences.

I decided to look up these studies.

Here’s the abstract for first study: (2008)

Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

And the abstract for the second study: (2009)

Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

So what to make of this?

If you’re an atheist, then your worldview is telling you that what you are doing now is the result of genetic programming and sensory inputs. You’re not conscious. You can’t reason. You make no free choices, including moral choices. Naturally, someone who believes this is going to struggle with prescriptive morality, including self-sacrificial care and concern for others. Their worldview undermines the rationality of the moral point of view. You might find atheists acting morally for their own purposes, but their worldview doesn’t rationally ground it. This is a big problem for people who can see objective morality woven into the universe – and themselves – because they have the awareness of objective right and wrong.

I think what atheists like to say is “I can be moral, too”. That’s not interesting. What is interesting is whether it is rational for you to be moral when things start to get a bit uncomfortable. When I look at the adultery of Dawkins, the polyamory of Carrier, the divorces of Shermer and Atkins, etc. I am not seeing anything that really wows me. They all deny free will of course, and think that trying to resist temptation is a waste of time. What difference would it make if they did, anyway – there’s no afterlife on atheism.

Wallace explains how the awareness of free will and moral choices caused him to turn away from atheism, in this blog post.

He writes:

As an atheist, I chose to cling to naturalism, in spite of the fact that I lived each day as though I was capable of using my mind to make moral choices based on more than my own opinion. In addition, I sought meaning and purpose beyond my own hedonistic preferences, as though meaning was to be discovered, rather than created. I called myself a naturalist while embracing three characteristics of reality that simply cannot be explained by naturalism. As a Christian, I’m now able to acknowledge the “grounding” for these features of reality. My philosophical worldview is consistent with my practical experience of the world.

I think atheists who want to be honest about their own experience of first-person consciousness, free will, moral realism, etc. will do well to just accept that theism rationally grounds all of these things, and so you should accept theism. Theism is real. If you like morality, and want to be a virtuous person, then you should accept theism.

What got me started on apologetics? William Lane Craig debate transcripts

William Lane Craig lecturing to university students
William Lane Craig lecturing to university students

Yes, William Lane Craig debate transcripts. In fact, I still read them from time to time to keep up my skills.

Here’s one of my favorites, the Craig-Nielsen debate on grounding morality without God

Summary:

THE CRAIG-NIELSEN DEBATE: GOD, MORALITY, AND EVIL
William Lane Craig and Kai Nielsen
with annotations by William Lane Craig
February 1991, University of Western Ontario

Best part:

Finally, he raises the issue of immortality and says, “Death doesn’t undermine moral values. In fact, things that we value become all the more precious.” Well, in one sense he’s right. It’s the absence of God that undermines the objectivity of moral values, not death. But let’s suppose that there are objective moral values. What would be undermined by the lack of immortality? I think two things.

First, I think there would be no reason to adopt the moral point of view. Since you’re going to die, everyone ends up the same. It doesn’t make any difference whether you live as a Hitler or a Mother Teresa. There is no relationship between your moral living and your ultimate fate. And so in that sense, death undermines the reason for adopting the moral point of view rather that just being an egoist and living for self.

Second, there’s no basis for self-sacrifice on this point of view. Why should an atheist, who knows everything is going to end in death, do things that are morally right that go against self-interest? For example, a few years ago there was a terrible mid-winter air disaster in Washington, DC, as a plane crashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River, spilling its passengers into the icy waters. And as the helicopters came to rescue these people, attention focused on one man who again and again passed by the rope ladder rather than be pulled to safety himself. Seven times he did this, and when they came again, he was gone. The whole nation turned its eyes to this man in respect and admiration for the noble act of self-sacrifice that he did. And yet on the atheistic view, that man wasn’t noble. He did the stupidest thing possible. He should have gone for the rope ladder first, pushed others away, if necessary, in order to survive! But to give up all the brief existence he will ever have for others he didn’t even know? Why? It seems to me, then, that it’s not simply the absence of God that undermines objective moral values, but ethical living is also undermined by the atheistic point of view because you then have no reason to adopt the moral point of view and you have no basis for acts of self-sacrifice.

By contrast, on the Christian view, where you have both God and immortality, you have the necessary presuppositions for the affirmation of objective moral values and for consistent living of the ethical life.

And another of my favorites, the Craig-Taylor debate on the ontological grounding of morality.

Summary:

Is The Basis Of Morality Natural Or Supernatural?
Richard Taylor and William Lane Craig
October 1993, Union College, Schenectady, New York

Sample Craig:

(2) I argued that moral accountability also exists under the supernaturalist view, and Professor Taylor didn’t deny the point.

(II) What about my critique, then, of naturalism? I said that naturalism doesn’t provide a sound foundation for morality, and here I made two points:

(1) On the naturalist view, objective right and wrong do not exist. Again, Professor Taylor doesn’t deny this point; he just says, “Well, to say that they’re conventional doesn’t mean they’re contemptible.” Well, granted; but it does mean they’re arbitrary, they’re non–objective. There’s no more difference between moral right and wrong than driving on the right–hand side of the road versus the left–hand side of the road. It’s simply a societal convention. And the modern evolutionist thinks these conventions are just based in socio–biological evolution. According to Michael Ruse, a professor of the philosophy of science,

The position of the modern evolutionist…is that humans have an awareness of morality…because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation, no less than are hands and feet and teeth…. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, [ethics] is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…. Nevertheless…such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and…any deeper meaning is illusory….{26}

This is essentially the same view as Professor Taylor’s. Moral values are simply rooted in socio–biological evolution, that have passed down as certain taboos and certain commands, but they have no objective validity in terms of their moral rightness or wrongness. Professor Taylor says, “But I have a high regard for people who are truly moral and decent.” I don’t deny that. Of course he does! But the point is that in his ethics, in his philosophy, he has no basis for that affirmation. What I bring is not a new set of values—I think we pretty much hold those in common—but I’m offering a secure foundation for those values that we all want to hold dear.

You see, on Professor Taylor’s view, there really isn’t any objective morality. I think every one of us here tonight would agree that it’s wrong to kill babies and that the holocaust was morally wrong. But in his book Professor Taylor says, “The infanticide practiced by the Greeks of antiquity did not violate their customs. If we say it was nevertheless wrong, we are only saying that it is forbidden by our ethical and legal rules. And the abominations practiced by the Nazis…are forbidden by our rules, and not, obviously, by theirs.”{27} I submit that that is simply a patently false view of moral values and that naturalism, therefore, can’t provide any objective basis for right and wrong.

And another of my favorites, the Craig-Tooley debate on the problem of evil.

Summary:

A Classic Debate on the Existence of God
Dr. William Lane Craig & Dr. Michael Tooley
November 1994, University of Colorado at Boulder

Sample Craig:

(2) Christian doctrines increase the probability of the coexistence of God and the evils in the world. Let me just mention a couple of these.

(i) On the Christian view, the purpose of life is not happiness as such in this life. Rather it is the knowledge of God—which will ultimately produce true and everlasting happiness. What that means is that many evils occur in this life which might be utterly pointless with respect to producing human happiness. But they might not be pointless with respect to producing the knowledge of God. Dr. Tooley assumes when he talks about changes that would make this world a better place, that the purpose of life is basically to be happy in this life. And I certainly admit that you could make changes that might appear to make this life a better place, make it happier. But that’s not God’s purpose. So if you understand that the purpose of life is not happiness as such, I think that you can see that the existence of evil doesn’t necessarily cast any improbability upon God’s existence.

(ii) It’s also the Christian view that God’s purpose spills over into eternal life. In the afterlife God will bestow a glory and happiness upon us that is incomparable to what we’ve suffered here on earth. And the longer we spend in eternity with Him, the more the sufferings in this life shrink by comparison to an infinitesimal instant. Dr. Tooley admits in his article that it is possible that immortality could justify such evils. But, he says, it’s “very unlikely” that there is life after death. Well, I have two comments. First, I’d like him to prove that it’s unlikely that there is life after death.{26} Second, I suggest that the resurrection of Jesus gives us grounds for hoping in life after death, and I’ve attempted to justify that historically. So given these Christian doctrines, I think you can see that the existence of God and evil is not so improbable after all.

[…]

(4) Finally, I think that there is actually an argument for God from evil. It would go like this:

(i) If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. If there is no God, moral values are either socio-biological by-products or just expressions of personal preference.

(ii) Evil exists. That’s the premise of the atheist. There is real evil in the world.

(iii) Therefore, objective values do exist. Some things are really wrong.

(iv) Therefore, God exists.

Thus the presence of evil in the world actually demonstrates God’s existence because in the absence of God, there wouldn’t be any distinction objectively between good and evil, between right and wrong. So although evil in one sense calls into question God’s existence, in a much deeper sense, I think, it actually requires God’s existence.

So in the light of these four responses, I think that the argument from evil, as difficult and emotionally pressing as it might be, in the end doesn’t constitute a good argument against the existence of God. So I think the four arguments given against the existence of God by Dr. Tooley are inconclusive. You’ve still got my six arguments for God’s existence, and therefore I still think that on balance the evidence favors theism as the more rational worldview.

There are more debate transcripts on Craig’s Reasonable Faith web site.

Do moral dilemmas undermine objective moral absolutes?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

One reason why some people reject the existence of objective morality is because moral absolutes can conflict.

Canadian philosopher Michael Horner to explains the problem.

He writes:

You may have been confronted with the story of the Nazi soldier coming to the door of the family who are hiding some Jewish people in their home and asking them point blankly, “Are there any Jews here?” The person telling the story then asks you, “What would you say?” or more precisely, “What should you say?”

[…]I think for many people the term moral absolutes connotes ideas like inflexibility and rigidity, and that there can never be exemptions. I have also found that many people believe that holding to moral absolutes means that circumstances are not relevant in a moral evaluation and that moral absolutism cannot handle moral dilemmas. But in fact it is possible to believe in moral absolutes, or as I prefer to call them objective moral values, without adhering to these connotations I have mentioned.

For many people to believe in moral absolutes is to believe in rules that no other rules can ever trump. It follows from this that moral absolutes are all equal and there can never be any exemptions. But what if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy?

We know from experience that very often more than one moral rule applies to a situation. This often leads to moral dilemmas. So in the ‘hiding the Jews example’ the moral rule of telling the truth seems to apply to the situation, but it would seem that the moral rule to protect innocent human life from torture and murder applies also.

If absolutes are all equal there is no way out of the dilemma. You can’t choose one absolute over another because in doing so you would be violating at least one absolute which, in their view, is supposed to be inviolable.

So, in this case, it seems as if the moral absolutist is stuck in a dilemma. If you lie to save the innocent life, then that would be wrong. But if you tell the truth and hand the innocent person over to murderers, then that would be wrong. Does this really disprove objective moral absolutes?

This problem annoys me, because I know this is the kind of objection to objective morality that annoying philosophy lecturers like to push onto freshmen in order to convince them that morality is nonsense.  But does the moral dilemma objection really work?

More Horner:

[…][I]f moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy and the circumstances or the situation were relevant in determining which absolute takes precedent, then there may be a solution to the moral dilemma. That is exactly what I think is the case in the example. I for one have no difficulty knowing that the morally right thing to do in that situation is to protect the life of innocent people from torture and murder rather than tell the truth to a person who has torture and murder in their plans. My moral intuitions are very clear about this.

If someone objects and says, “No, you must always tell the truth. After all it is an absolute, and absolutes by definition can never be violated,” I would point out that they are just using a different hierarchy, putting truth telling above protecting the life of innocent people from torture and murder. There is no way to avoid making a judgment like that since more than one absolute does apply to the situation. I would just ask them to think it through again, and once they see that they have to make a judgment based on some sort of hierarchy in that situation, then I think most people’s moral intuitions will affirm that protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder, in that situation, trumps truth telling. There is no way to avoid choosing one over the other.

But isn’t this moral relativism? After all, we are deciding what to do based on the situation! It’s relativism, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t, because there is always one right thing to do in every situation. In every situation, you always follow the weightiest moral rule. The right thing to do does not depend on your subjective state of mind. It is an objective moral duty, and it is the same for everyone, across all times and in all places. That’s what objective morality means -what is right and wrong is not determined by personal preferences or cultural conventions, which vary by time and place.

And of course, God is the ground of this hierarchy of objective moral absolutes. They existed through him before human beings even appeared, as part of his design for us, his creatures. How we ought to behave is grounded ontologically in God’s design for us.