Atheistic Moral Realism – Part 3

William Craig’s MOVE argument is simple:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

2. Objective moral values do exist.

Therefore:

3.  God exists.

One obvious atheistic objection would be to reject or cast doubt on premise (2).  If one rejects or doubts that objective moral values exist, then this argument will fail to be persuasive.

Another possible objection is to reject or cast doubt upon premise (1).  Some atheists accept moral realism, and thus believe that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with objective moral values.  I will be focusing on this particular objection to the MOVE argument.  Craig refers to this view as Atheistic Moral Realism.

Craig raises three objections to atheistic moral realism (hereafter AMR):

AMR is incomprehensible.
AMR is incompatible with the nature of moral duty.
AMR implies a fantastically improbable coincidence.

Let’s consider his first objection to AMR:

I must confess that this alternative strikes me as incomprehensible, an example of trying to have your cake and eat it too.  What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists?  I understand what it is for a person to be just, but I draw a complete blank when it is said that, in the absence of any people, justice itself exists.  Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as abstractions–or at any rate, I don’t know what it means for a moral value to exist as an abstraction.  Atheistic moral realists, seeming to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, just leave them floating in an unintelligible way. 
(WIAC, p.76)

My first thought is that Craig is being rather skeptical here, which is a good thing.  However, people who live in glass houses should avoid swinging sledge hammers around in their living room.  Whenever one makes a skeptical move (for example, making use of Occam’s Razor), it is important to avoid doing this in a biased way,  using skeptical moves against ideas that one dislikes while never making use of the skeptical move against ideas that one favors.

I’m not positive that Craig is being hypocritical here, but I strongly suspect that the sort of skeptical move he makes here could also be used to inflict serious damage to many of the beliefs that Craig holds dear.  Nevertheless, I am a skeptic, and I fully appreciate the kind of skeptical thinking that Craig appears to be engaged in here.  So, although he may be wielding a two-edged sword, one that inflicts damage to both AMR and Theism, I will ignore any possible bias and hypocrisy on Craig’s part, and only think about whether his skeptical move works against AMR.

Perhaps Craig is correct that some thinkers who accept AMR believe that justice exists as an abstraction independent of any human beings or persons, but this is NOT a logical implication of AMR, as far as I can see.  Moral realism claims that moral judgments can be true or false, and that some moral judgments are in fact true.  It is hard to see how one can get from these claims to the metaphysical claim that justice is an entity that exists independently of humans or persons.

The word ‘green’ refers to a color.  The sentence ‘Grass is green.’ makes a true statement.  In making these claims,  I do NOT imply that the color green is an abstract entity that exists independently of any blades of grass, or trees, or shirts, or houses, or any other physical objects.

Similarly, if I say that the sentence ‘It was unjust for Hitler to order the killing of millions of innocent civilians’  makes a true statement,  this does NOT imply that justice is an entity that exists independently of any human being or person.

Justice, it seems to me, is primarily an attribute or characteristic of actions, and actions can only be performed by agents or persons. Thus, justice cannot exist independently of agents or persons, because justice cannot exist independently of actions, and actions cannot exist independently of agents or persons.

I think Craig is correct in being skeptical about justice existing as an abstract entity independently of the existence of agents or persons.  If justice is, first and foremost, an attribute or characteristic of actions, then it does appear to be implausible to think of justice as an abstract entity.  However, an attribute (such as ‘green’) may be correctly ascribed to a particular entity (such as ‘grass’ or ‘this patch of grass’) without it being the case that the attribute constitutes an independently existing entity.

So, I am not persuaded by Craig’s objection here.  He may have a legitimate objection to the stated views of some particular thinkers who accept AMR, but this objection does not appear to be relevant to AMR itself.

  • Walter Van den Acker

    I think Craig’s point is that while it is true that “Grass is green” makes a true statement, the use of “green” in this case is conventional. Likewise, we can say that “Action X is morally good” but only if we have some sort of convention as to what exactly “good” is. In other words, what “X is morally good” really means is that X corresponds to a certain definition of “good”, just like the colour of grass corresponds to a certain definition of greenness.
    Craig does not accept this as moral realism because if for some reason people decides to start redefining goodness, other actions would be aclled “good”, just as if people decided that from now on the colour we call “green” should be called “red” instead. According to Craig, there is always an amount of arbitrariness in such definitions and they can’t be held as truly objective

    • Jason Thibodeau

      This is confused. Any linguistic item (e.g., a word) is only conventionally associated with its meaning. There is nothing intrinsic to a word (qua linguistic object) that guarantees that it means what it means. This is true of all words, even words that stand for moral properties. We can call this feature of language the ‘conventionality’ of language without too much injury to the concept of conventionality.

      But you should not confuse the conventionality of language with some kind of conventionality of the properties that linguistic items stand for. That ‘green’ only conventionally stands for the color green does not imply that the property (greenness) is conventional. That the word ‘good’ refers to the property goodness rather than badness is conventional, but that does not mean that goodness is somehow conventional. Nor does it mean that goodness is somehow arbitrary. The simple and purely linguistic fact that the association between words and meanings is conventional tells us nothing about the things that words refer to.

      I think, Walter, that you have failed to distinguish use and mention. When we are talking about the conventionality of the meaning of ‘good’ we are mentioning the word (hence the single quotes). So, “‘good’ only conventionally refers to goodness”is true (or close enough). But if we now use good (get rid of the quotes) and say “It is only conventional that love is good” we are guilty of a use/mention fallacy.

      • Walter Van den Acker

        Yes, i am aware of this and I am not trying to defend Craig on this, but his point seems to be that in order for love is good (without quotes) to have an objective meaning it must be true in all possible situations. That’s what Dennis Robert calls “absolute”.

        So if we say “X is green” it is objectively true that X has a specific type of colour which we call green (but which we could call by convention red if we so wished). But if we say “love is good” we are sayinjg more. we are actually saying that move is something that is to be preferred over some other thing that is not good or not as good. The deeper question is, why is love to be preferred over hate? Or if we say it is unjust for Hitler to order the killing of Jews, theh why is it unjust? And it does not suffice to answer this question by saying,:” Because that is how we define injustice” because we could just define it diffrently, just as we could have defined green as the specific colour we currently know as green.

        So, Craig claims that defining this as injustice is conventional of the property injustice and not just of the word injustice.

        If iI were a neo-Nazi and defined Hitler’s actions as just, how could anybody claim that I was objectively (iby which Craig means absolutely) wrong? Craig claims he has an answer, “Because the one and only absolute Being says it’s wrong”.

        The main probem with this is that on Craig’s view, Theistic Moral Realism is as incomprehensible as AMR. If God, as a necessary being, thinks that X is unjust, then “X is unjust” is a necessary truth, that means that its negation is contradictory, just like married bachelors etc. Which means that Craig implicitly treats moral truths as abstractions, something he claims he “doesn’t know what it means”

        • Bradley Bowen

          Walter Van Den Acker said:

          Or if we say it is unjust for Hitler to order the killing of Jews, theh why is it unjust? And it does not suffice to answer this question by saying,:” Because that is how we define injustice” because we could just define it diffrently, just as we could have defined green as the specific colour we currently know as green.

          ================
          Response:

          I agree that it is not sufficient to say “that is how we define injustice”.

          If we lay out various criteria for determining whether an action is just or unjust, we still have to deal with the question about the justification of those criteria. If the criteria used to distinguish between just and unjust actions are merely a matter of personal preference or of social convention, then the acceptance of those criteria by one person or even by all living persons fails to show the objectivity of the critieria, and thus fails to show the objectivity of the concept of justice.

          Objectivity, here, seems to mean something like ‘capable of being proven to be true with certainty’ or ‘capable of being proven to be true beyond a reasonable doubt’.

          Justice is subjective if the best we can do is gound judgments about the justice of actions on criteria that are themselves accepted on the basis of personal preference or social convention.

          However, this epistemic requirement does not clearly and obviously entail that justice be an abstract entity that can exist apart from any actions and apart from any persons. So, it remains doubtful that AMR implies the view that justice is an abstrace entity that can exist independently of any actions or any persons.

          If there were no actions and were no persons, there could be no just actions and no unjust actions. However, justice could still be applied hypothetically: “If there were ever to be such a thing as human persons who had the power to kill each other, it would be unjust for one human to kill another, except in self-defense or in defense of others.”

  • Denis Robert

    The biggest objection to Craig’s argument rests in his willfully vague definition of “objective” moral values. By objective he seems to mean “absolute”, meaning the same values hold for all time and all space, regardless of whether there are any humans there or not. But there is no way that anyone can honestly call claim that the words “objective moral values” are limited to that definition. Yet again, Craig uses wordplay to avoid facing hard realities.

    The reality is that objective moral values are those that are constant in a given context. If we are talking about humans, which are social animals which depend for their survival on a relatively stable social order, then it is an objective fact that this stable social order is going to be desirable for humans. From an evolutionary point of view, this is not simply reasonable, it is a necessary conclusion. If evolution is true, and humans have evolved as social animals (one of the many strategies for survival that have appeared), then it must be that humans on the whole must value social order. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. That’s objective morality.

    Craig’s absolute morality must be faced with this question: if there were no humans, would it make sense to prohibit the murder of humans? There is no prohibition in the Bible against “murdering” animals. The concept simply doesn’t exist. Murder can only be said to exist when humans are involved, from a purely Biblical point of view. Would the concept of murder even exist if humans did not exist? And if not, how could prohibiting it be an absolute moral value, what Craig dishonestly calls “objective”?

    • staircaseghost

      “If evolution is true, and humans have evolved as social animals (one of the many strategies for survival that have appeared), then it must be that humans on the whole must value social order.”

      Do objective moral values, if there are objective moral values, apply to all humans qua moral agents, or just humans “on the whole”?

      If your answer is the former, then in no sense does “we evolved it” constitute and objective moral foundation.

      If your answer is the latter, then these moral praise and blame can only apply to “humans as a whole”, not to any given human’s action, which can be as flagrantly awful as you like without meriting the term “morally wrong”.

      • Denis Robert

        You are trying to create a philosophical issue out of what is essentially a scientific one. There is no absolute moral foundation; every philosopher who has looked for one has failed. The simple fact that we, as a species, happened upon a strategy of cooperation for survival explains the existence of social order as a value. It needs no pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo.

        Moral praise is what one human expresses to another human when he/she considers the other human’s actions to be in line with what he/she desires. He/she desires those actions out of the other because he/she was built to desire those actions. Without society, we humans cannot survive.

        Is it wrong, in an absolute sense, to kill another human? The question doesn’t even make any sense. The universe couldn’t care less whether we humans kill each other or not. From the point of view of the universe, humans are unimportant, so killing one is an act of no interest.

        But it is of importance to me that humans not kill each other, because if humans routinely kill each other, then my likelihood of dying goes up, and the likelihood of those I love goes up, and that is plainly bad. It’s bad because I’m wired to be social, and being social other people matter to me.

        So you make the same mistake Craig makes, in that you are looking for absolutes upon which to rest moral judgements, when there is no such thing. Moral judgements are made by actual people, in actual situations. There is, there has never been, there will never be an absolute measuring stick by which to determine whether an action is moral or not. And it doesn’t bother me one bit that this is the case. Only philosophers, theologians and Siths see the world in absolutes.

        • Jason Thibodeau

          “Is it wrong, in an absolute sense, to kill another human? The question
          doesn’t even make any sense. The universe couldn’t care less whether we
          humans kill each other or not. From the point of view of the universe,
          humans are unimportant, so killing one is an act of no interest.”

          I don’t follow this argument. Why does the universe have to care about whether humans kill each other in order for the question, “Is it wrong, in an absolute sense, to kill another human?” to make sense?

        • staircaseghost

          You are trying to create a philosophical issue out of what is essentially a scientific one.

          Er, um, well, I was replying to your philosophical claims to have found an objective foundation for morality. So I don’t understand your complaint here.

          Since the rest of your comment (the parts I can understand) seem to concede that there is no such thing, I suppose the issue is resolved.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Denis Robert said:

      Murder can only be said to exist when humans are involved, from a purely Biblical point of view. Would the concept of murder even exist if humans did not exist? And if not, how could prohibiting it be an absolute moral value, what Craig dishonestly calls “objective”?

      ==================
      Response:
      Even if there were no humans, it could still be true that “If there were human beings, it would be wrong to kill them, except in self-defense or in defense of others.”

      I agree that moral rules and principles to which we often appeal are conditioned by particular historical circumstances, such as the origin of the human species, and the fact that humans can die, and can be killed by other humans. If there were no human beings, or if there were human beings but the universe was structured in a way that we could not affect each other’s lives, then our current moral rules would not have any significant purpose or usefulness. But the moral principles might still be true, in the hypothetical manner indicated above “If we could affect each other, if we could kill each other, then it would be wrong to…”

      Moral judgments presuppose moral principles, and moral principles imply the universal nature of morality. If something is wrong here and now, then there must be a moral reason or moral principle that makes it so.

      And if there is a moral reason or principle that makes this act wrong here and now, then similar actions at other places and other times must also be wrong, otherwise one is being hypocritical and using a double-standard to evaluate actions.

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    • Sven2547

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  • Pingback: Morality: Making Simple Things Complicated @ Helian Unbound

  • Sven2547

    I scoff whenever I hear about the supposed absolute and/or objective morality of the Christian “God”.

    Most Americans who support the death penalty are Christians.
    Most Americans who oppose the death penalty are also Christians.

    Most Americans who support abortion rights are Christians.
    Most Americans who want to ban abortion are also Christians.

    Most Americans who support marriage equality are Christians.
    Most Americans who oppose marriage equality are also Christians.

    Most Americans who want tougher immigration laws are Christians.
    Most Americans who want looser immigration laws are also Christians.

    And on and on and on with virtually every contentious issue. That “objective” morality I keep hearing about seems pretty subjective to me.


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