William Lane Craig’s moral argument

Now for Craig’s moral argument (or “axiological argument”), which I’ve sometimes thought is Craig’s worst argument (though picking a single worst argument from Craig is hard). Here’s the basic argument:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

The first question to ask here is, “what does Craig mean by ‘objective’”? Here’s the definition from Reasonable Faith:

To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independent of what any human being believes. Similarly to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong independently of whether any human being believes them to be so (p. 173).

This is a silly definition. On this definition, someone who believes morality is whatever space aliens tells us it is counts as a believer in objective morality. A more sensible definition would be something like “morality independent of what anyone says or thinks.” And I do think morality has to be objective in something like that sense.

Craig’s reason for defining “objective morality” the way he does is that he wants to claim the only moral theory that works is one based on God. Craig is trying to rig the definition of “objective morality” to favor God. But not only would this be ruled out by a sensible definition of “objective morality,” Craig’s moral theory is in fact completely insane.

Craig’s theory of morality is known as divine command theory, according to which our moral duties are whatever God says they are. That means that if God commanded genocide, on Craig’s view, genocide would be a moral duty.

In his debates, Craig is fond of saying things like, “Actions like rape, cruelty, and child abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior–they’re moral abominations.” He thinks this is just obvious, and I agree. But I think it’s equally obvious that those things would be wrong even if a god commanded them.

And this is not a purely hypothetical worry for Craig, given that he’s a believer in Biblical inerrancy, and in the Old Testament the Israelites are frequently commanded to wipe out entire tribes (when they’re not being told to keep the virgin girls alive “for themselves” and kill everyone else.) Craig has explicitly said that on his view, God ordering these things makes them right.

Similarly, in his debate with Sam Harris on morality (which I saw in person), there was this exchange during the Q&A at the end of the debate:

Harris: This is the kind of morality that you get out of divine command theory that, again, offers no retort to the Jihadist other than, “Sorry buster, you happen to have the wrong god.”
Craig: But that’s exactly your retort, Sam, that God has not issued such a command, and therefore, you’re not morally obligated to do it.
Harris: No, if God did, he would be evil. So I can get behind that God, if God is issuing that command, he’s an evil bastard.
Craig: The problem is that you see, on atheism, you don’t have any basis for making that kind of moral judgment.
Harris: I’ve tried to give you a basis, sorry.

This won Harris massive applause from the audience. It’s worth noting everything that happened here. Craig didn’t deny Harris’ description of his view, but instead responded by telling falsehoods about Harris’ view.

Craig misrepresenting his opponents’ views isn’t unusual, but since this was during the Q&A, Harris could correct him immediately. Once corrected, Craig just changed the subject in a way that ignored everything Harris had said up to that point in the debate.

In short, Craig’s moral argument depends on claiming that his insane theory of morality is the only possible one. I could move on to the next argument now, but I want to say a couple things about how Craig argues for premise (2) of his argument. Frequently in his debates, his entire argument for premise (2) is to cite atheists who (he claims) agree with him about (2).

This is a terrible argument because many atheists, as well as some theists like Richard Swinburne, disagree with Craig about (2). This has been frequently pointed out to Craig, but he has yet to drop his appeals to authority. Once, in fact, he defended his appeals to authority by citing yet another philosopher, Wesley Salmon, saying appeals to authority are sometimes legitimate. He ignores the fact that Salmon also said:

Authorities who are equally competent, as far as we can tell, may disagree. In such cases there is no reason to place greater confidence in one than the other, and people are apt to choose the authority that gives them the answer they want to hear. Ignoring the judgment of opposed authorities is a case of biasing the evidence. When authorities disagree it is time to reconsider the objective evidence upon which the authorities have supposedly based their judgments. (Salmon, Logic, p. 66)

The other thing is that in making his moral argument, Craig frequently attacks naturalism, determinism, materialism, etc. I have already explained repeatedly why such arguments are worthless when the topic is supposed to be God.

(As with my previous post, if you want to read more on this issue you can look at a longer post at my old blog.)

  • Randomfactor

    Are you sure about the second point? I think “DO exist” is what you meant.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Oops, fix’d. Is there even a name for the fallacy I had Craig committing there?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independent of what any human being believes. Similarly to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong independently of whether any human being believes them to be so (p. 173).

    One problem with this that should be apparent to anyone with any knowledge of biology is that it reeks of human exceptionalism. It is only concerned with the beliefs of human beings. A more general wording might be moral beings, or some such. For example, is it moral to kill and eat your mate after copulation? Humans and mantids might legitimately differ on that point.

  • MNb0

    “God has not issued such a command”
    How does Craig know? Any believer can claim that his god has issued a command to kill all atheists, including pregnant women and babies. How does Craig know that this claim is false, but the claims of the OT are true?
    Harris is too nice. For all I know Craig’s god can whisper in his ear to commit the most cruel crimes and he will conclude, because of divine command, that it will be the right thing to do.
    Believers like Craig should be confronted with this in the most straightforward manner. It’s the best way to reveal how they excuse genocide, rape, etcetera. I know from experience as I have debated a few Dutch co-loonies.
    Yes, I think this Craig’s worst argument.
    Btw I feel that Craig hides a circular argument somewhere (something like 4. and God formulated those objective moral values), but frankly I am too disgusted to think it over.
    In fact Craig’s “logic” is an important reason for me not to believe (since I was 13 or 14). I know it’s an emotional issue, but so what?

    • eric

      Mnbo: How does Craig know?

      That’s the key. Because we don’t know, appeals to the divine can never solve the morality question, they can only add a turtle to the stack. We start with the question “who (or more generally, what source) should we believe has the correct view of morality.” The theologian has the answer: God! But where does that get us? Now we have to answer the question “who should we believe has the correct view of God.” Turtles all the way down, see?

      Yes, I think this Craig’s worst argument.

      I gotta disagree. Have you read Chris’ next post, on WLC’s argument for the ressurection of Jesus?

      • MNb0

        Yes. It is about as stupid, but by far not as disgusting.

  • anteprepro

    Craig is fond of saying things like, “Actions like rape, cruelty, and child abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior–they’re moral abominations.”

    Even with his justifications for genocide put aside, this is an example of Craig accusing atheists of being weak in specific areas that happen to be Christianity’s greatest weaknesses. Just look at the three crimes he chose.

    Rape- It was punished according to OT only insofar as it was theft of virginity or sex with another man’s wife. If the rape victim was to be married or was already married, and the victim didn’t struggle enough, both victim and rapist were given the same penalty as adulterers: Death. A rape victim is to marry her rapist if she was not engaged. The Bible is far from pitch perfect on the subject. To say nothing of the fact that, despite the ten commandments included 4 commandments about properly praising Jeebus, none even hint at the idea that rape is bad.

    Cruelty- Also transparently absent from the Ten Commandments. There are pretty much no clear prohibitions against inflicting pain on others. No cry out against torture. And, of course, God Himself relishes in cruelty, given the fact that Hell is even a thing. Most attempts to resolve the problem of evil accidentally wind up justifying suffering and cruelty as well. God either has the right to be cruel or such cruelty builds character or we deserve whatever we get because of sin, blah blah blah. If you want to preach against cruelty, pretty much any justification would be better than the Bible. Related to the below, I could probably say even more on the subject of the Bible actively supporting cruelty.

    Child abuse- “Spare the rod, spoil the child” anyone? One of the Ten Commandments isn’t “don’t abuse your children”. It is “honor thy father and mother”. And the punishment for disobedient children was death. The Bible is all about obedience, and (as above) doesn’t particularly care about cruelty. There are no rules against child abuse in the Bible. If we are talking about sexual abuse, there are only prohibitions against incestuous sexual relationships, some of which might entail sexual abuse. There is no “thou shalt not have sex with children” or anything resembling such concerns, anything resembling an age of consent, anywhere. So, the Bible actively supports beating as a form of child discipline, and has no prohibitions against abuse, and yet Christianity supposedly provides objective morals, including “child abuse is bad”. NOT BUYING IT.

    Is it really an accident that Craig managed to choose three obviously immoral, horrible things that simultaneously are some of the things that the Bible doesn’t really frame as immoral? Do Christian apologists really buy their own bullshit to such a degree?

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Heh, I gotta say, some of Craig’s arguments are just not even all that fun to debunk. The game of “Find the Flawed Premise” loses its luster when all of the premises are deeply flawed!

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Yeah. I’m starting to feel cranky about putting myself through this. Thankfully, I’m done with the arguments, and am left with doing some wrap-up posts.

  • Robert

    Christian Philosopher Wes Morriston:

    “In recent years, William Lane Craig has vigorously championed a moral argument for God’s existence. The backbone of Craig’s argument is the claim that only God can provide a ‘sound foundation in reality’ for morality. The present article has three principal aims. The first is to interpret and clarify the account of the ontological foundation of morality proposed by Craig. The second is to press home an important objection to that account. The third is to expose the weakness of Craig’s case for saying that without God morality would be groundless and illusory.”


    More papers at http://spot.colorado.edu/~morristo/selected-papers.html

  • Babun

    The claim that there is no possible atheistic foundation for morality is an unrestricted universal negative – something that is very difficult to prove, especially in cases like this. I think it’s safe to say that Craig hasn’t even scratched the surface with his moral argument.

  • TheVirginian

    Here’re two examples of “objective morality”:
    Down into the 1960s in the Deep South, and to some extent is still true today, it was considered quite moral for white men to murder black men who violated a supposed racial code. White murderers were acquitted of the murder of black male in the 1960s. And even down to today, statistics show racial bias exists in who gets convicted/acquitted of crimes involving whites and/or blacks.
    Put it this way: If you are on a jury in 1950s or 1960s Mississippi and you are presented clear evidence that a white man/men murdered a black man or white civil rights workers and yet you acquit the killers, you are saying it is moral to murder someone simply based upon racial hatred. (I lived in Miss. in the 1970s and visit there fairly often, so I have no bias against Miss. or the Deep South, per se. My point is that the people who excused violence based upon racial beliefs are saying that that violence is morally right.)
    Second: If you read pre-Civil War defenses of slavery, nearly all written by some 300 clergy, you will be told many times that slavery is divinely ordained, and therefore abolitionists are atheists who are immorally violating God’s law. Millions of white Southerners agreed, which is why some 600,000 Americans died in a war that was mainly about slavery. Millions of Americans believed slavery was moral and based upon God’s command. If Craig wants to argue that morality is from God, then he must either endorse slavery or prove that abolitionists (many of whom were atheists, in fact, not just in insult) were right, in which case the Bible/God’s command is wrong, as the slavery defenders clearly won the “slavery is of biblical origin” argument.

    • Rosemary

      The usual theist reply to that argument is to point to some atypical Christian who supported the abolition of slavery, and then argue that Christians were at the forefront of slavery abolition or, worse, they were the major driving force behind it.

      That is the fallacy of ignorance of history, statistical incompetence and poor research skills :-)

      • http://twitter.com/blamer @blamer

        …and an excellent example of christendom schisming, having a bet each way, and claiming to be on the right side of history. Counting the hits and ignoring the misses.

  • Rick Taylor

    Oh I disagree! I think Craig’s moral argument is easily his best argument. But I don’t think we can define best as “most rationally compelling.”

    Fundamentally Craig’s purpose is apologetics, not making the best rational argument. And his first aim isn’t to win over skeptics like you and me (who will never be convinced anyway), but to shore up the faith of people who already believe, to give them the sense their faith is well supported and that people who disagree are not just wrong but ridiculously wrong, so wrong that they must be dishonest.

    So he doesn’t have to give a coherent argument why belief in God gives a moral foundation for one’s life. They already know it from their experience of living in community with other beleivers, and they’re not going to pay much critical attention to his Divine Command theory (which he talks about as little as possible).

    So Craig is not so subtly warning this audience, hey, be careful about taking atheistic ideas too seriously. Because if you do, how will you know right from wrong? This moral basis you’ve found for your life that gives you meaning and support will be gone, and how will you find another? And because most of this audience aren’t philosophers, and because giving an ontological justification for morality is difficult even if you are, that’s a pretty effective warning.

    I really don’t think one can understand Dr. Craig without keeping in mind we are not his intended audience. If he says something we can see is unsupported or dishonest, it doesn’t necessarily matter, we were never going to be convinced anyway. We’re not really the people he’s primarily speaking to; we are a prop in his performance.

    • http://twitter.com/blamer @blamer

      Sounds about right, RT.

      Theologians play into the popular (mis)conception of “good” being something separate to the value judgments of thinking animals.

      >>Harris: …if God did, he would be evil. So I can get behind that God

      Wait, “can” or “can’t”??

    • Rosemary

      Apologetics is a money making venture that fleeces the already faithful, not a mission to convert the already faithless. I think at least some of the main practitioners have managed to delude themselves that things are otherwise.

      I am not convinced that this exception applies to Bill Craig or Ravi Zacharias, both of whom seem to revel in promoting themselves in a deviously deceptive fashion.

      Both these men arrange high-profile debates and invite themselves as “guest lecturers” to manner of prestigious places. Ravi even formed a committee to organize “invitations” for him to speak at prestigious university sites. His “invitations” are organize in such a way that it appears, falsely, that he was invited to do so by senior faculty members to provide examinable material that formed part of the school’s professional education of enrolled students. This is a huge distortion of reality. In cases where students from a particular faculty or department (law, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy) are encouraged to attend his “lectures” they are encouraged to do so in order to provide them with experience in recognizing and dealing with falsely persuasive arguments and emotional ploys.

      Both these men ruthlessly and shamelessly inflate their credentials, expertise, academic standing and international significance. Neither have a commitment to intellectual integrity and both lie by omission, deflection and slight of word.

      They are men to be exposed, not admired.

  • Randall Lord

    You quote his definition of “objective morality” as being independent of beliefs, then attack him with this statement, “On this definition, someone who believes morality is whatever space aliens tells us it is counts as a believer in objective morality”. Although I disagree with his argument, your above noted sentence seems to be a non sequitur to me.

  • http://www.biblewheel.com Richard McGough

    I wrote a 4500 word critique of Craig’s argument you might find of interest. It’s called:

    Why most Animals are not Philosophers: Fatal Flaws in Dr. Craig’s Moral Argument for God