Saturday, January 15, 2011

Do Objective Moral Values and Duties Exist?

I have finally found the time to finish covering William Lane Craig's moral argument for God's existence. The second premise, Objective moral values and duties exist, is something most people will agree upon, those that don't are hard-line relativist, but they take such an extreme position (because you have to) that most are repulsed by it. This second premise, at first seems controversial, however Craig says in his debates with atheist philosophers he finds that nobody denies it. Surveys taken at universities reveal that professors are more apt to believe in objective moral values than students, and that philosophy professors are more apt to believe in objective moral values than professors in general!1

Craig relates the our moral experience to our experience of our five senses. He says, "I believe what my five senses tell me, namely, that there is a world of physical objects out there. My senses are not infallible, but that doesn't lead me to think that there is no external world around me. Similarly, in the absence of some reason to distrust my moral experience, I should accept what it tells me, namely, that some things are objectively good or evil, right or wrong."2 This is a good comparison. Thinking of our moral experience as an experience of our five senses helps to show the objectivity of morality. Everyone shares the five senses experience, just as everyone shares the morale experience. Wait a minute, some people don't have the full functionality of their five senses, so the comparison is flawed, correct? Not so. I'll let Craig explain.

"Most of us recognize that sexual abuse of another person is wrong. Actions like rape, torture, and child abuse aren't just socially unacceptable behavior - they're moral abominations. By the same token, love, generosity, and self-sacrifice are really good. People who fail to see this are just handicapped, the moral equivalent of someone who is physically blind, and there's no reason to let their impairment call into question what we see clearly." 3

So what about relativists? Shouldn't we listen to them? Something may be true for you, but not for me. Isn't that a good rule to live by? Although people give lip service to relativism, many very quickly I might add, agree to objective moral values and duties. A good quote by Richard Dawkins explains relativists quite well, " Show me a relativist at 30,000 feet and I'll show you a hypocrite." 4 Obviously, the relativist knows the Western mathematicians and engineers have got their sums right and that there is truth. I say this because relativist dismiss the fact that there is objective truth. Philosopher Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty assert that science does not describe "the world out there"; rather, it is a Western cultural construction that has no more claim to reality than anyone else's cultural construction. Fish even suggested, in a New York Times article, that the rules of science are just as arbitrary as the rules of baseball.5 In spite of this belief, I'm sure Mr. Fish and Rorty fly in airplanes, which shows that one cannot hold to relativism very long.

Produce a few illustrations to a relativist and let them decide for themselves if there are objective moral values and duties. Craig gives great illustrations:

"Ask what they think of the Hindu practice of suttee (burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands) or the ancient Chinese custom of crippling women for life by tightly binding their feet from childhood to resemble lotus blossoms...Ask them what they think of the Crusades or the Inquisition. Ask them if they think it's all right for Catholic priests to sexually abuse little boys and for the church to try to cover it up." 6 There are many more illustrations to give in addition to the ones Craig mentioned, e.g., Nazi training camps, cheating on one's spouse, spouse abuse. If you're dealing with a honest person, I'm sure that person will agree that there are objective moral values and duties.

Do we have any reason to distrust our moral experience? Some have claimed that, "the sociobiological account of the origins of morality undermines our moral experience." 7 To put simply, according to that account our moral beliefs are the result of evolution and social conditioning, or self-interest for the preservation of our society. That account does nothing to undermine the truth of our moral experience. Craig says "For the truth of a belief is independent of how you came to hold that belief." 8 In other words, you may have acquired your moral beliefs through your parents, a fortune cookie, or by a book and they could still be true. If God exists, then objective moral values and duties exist, regardless of the vehicle used to learn about them. Craig writes, "The sociobiological account at best proves that our perception of moral values and duties has evolved. But if moral values are gradually discovered, not invented, then our gradual and fallible perception of those values no more undermines their objective reality than our gradual, fallible perception of the physical world undermines its objective reality." 9

OK, maybe the sociobiological account doesn't undermine the truth of moral beliefs, but our justification for holding the moral beliefs. Well, Craig mentions two problems for that objection to premise 2.

"First, it assumes that atheism is true. If there is no God, then our moral beliefs are selected by evolution solely for their survival value, not for their truth." 10 Fine, I agree with that. In fact, Craig pressed this issue in defending premise 1. If God does not exist, then our moral beliefs are illusory, but no one firmly holds to that belief. Our moral experience tells us that rape is wrong, mass murdering is wrong, that punching someone in the face is wrong, and so on. However, if one truly stands on the sociobiological account, then rape is just acting in a socially unfashionable way, like a man belching at the dinner table. That action is not wrong and in fact does not act in a negative way toward our species. Rape actually guarantees that your genes will make it into the next generation. You see, that's no reason to think that the sociobiological account is true. If God exists, it's likely He would want us to have fundamentally correct moral beliefs and so would either guide the evolutionary process to produce such beliefs or else instill them in us. 11

Second, Craig writes that the objection is self-defeating. Given naturalism, all of our beliefs (not just moral beliefs) are the result of evolution and social conditioning. So, following the evolutionary account honestly would lead you to be skeptical about knowledge in general. This is self-defeating, Craig writes, "because then we should be skeptical about the evolutionary account itself, since it, too, is the product of evolution and social conditioning! The objection undermines itself." 12

Craig finishes the argument by saying that we're justified in thinking that objective moral values and duties do exist. From the two premises, the natural conclusion is that God exists. The moral argument compliments the cosmological argument by showing us the moral nature of the Creator and Designer of the universe. It's my belief that the moral argument is the most effective argument for God's existence because it's something we all share. Moral values are not arbitrary, they flow from God's nature and thus have a purpose and direction for our lives.

To answer the question, "Can we be good without God?" no, we can't be good without God. If we can be good in some measure, then it must follow that God exists. 13

Related content

Evolution Can't Explain Morality an article by Greg Koukl

Euthyphro Argument. Reasonable Faith podcast

My posts covering the moral argument

On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision by William Lane Craig is the finest source for further exploring his arguments for God's existence.


1. William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), pg. 140

2. ibid, pg. 140

3. ibid, pg. 141

4. Dinesh D'Souza, Letters to a Young Conservative (Basic Books, 2002), pg. 109

5. ibid, pg. 108

6. William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), pg. 141

7. ibid, pg. 142

8. ibid, pg. 143

9. ibid, pg. 143

10. ibid, pg. 143

11. ibid, pg. 143

12. ibid, pg. 144

13. ibid, pg. 144

note: I know I'm covering William Lane Craig's Moral Argument in this post, so why include references from D'Souza? Well, the information from Letters to a Young Conservative complimented the relativist portion of Craig's argument.

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