Atheistic Moral Realism – Part 8

I am not impressed by Richard Taylor’s appeal to etymology as an argument for the claim that all duties and all obligations are ‘owed’ to some person or persons (see part 7 for my objections to that line of reasoning).

However, to be fair to Craig, Taylor’s appeal to etymology is not specifically and explicitly quoted by Craig in his essay ‘Why I Believe God Exists’ (WIAC, p.62-80). Perhaps Craig is aware of the weakness of Taylor’s appeal to etymology, and so he avoids quoting such appeals by Taylor.

Let’s assume that Craig is also skeptical about such appeals and take a closer look at the quotations of Taylor that Craig does provide, to see if there is a different reason given in those passages:

As the ethicist Richard Taylor points out, “A duty is something that is owed…. But something can be owed only to some person or persons. There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.”  God makes sense of moral obligation because his commands constitute for us our moral duties. Taylor writes:

Our moral obligations can… be understood as those that are imposed by God…. But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of moral obligation…still make sense?… The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone. (WIAC, p.76)

There are at least two different ways to read the above passage from Craig’s essay. First, one can take Craig as making an appeal to authority, with ‘the ethicist Richard Taylor’ being an authority in the field of ethics. Alternatively, one can attempt to find a reason or argument in the words Craig quotes from Taylor, a reason that is, perhaps, based on something other than the etymology of the words ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’.

If Craig is merely making an appeal to the authority of Taylor, then Craig has failed to give us a good reason for his conceptual claim that duties and obligations are always necessarily owed to some person or persons. This is a weak argument, because there are other equally qualified philosophers who would doubt or reject the conceptual claim here. In general, metaethical issues are at least as controversial among philosophers as are issues of normative ethical theories. Thus, in general, metaethical issues are not the sort of issue that should be resolved by appeal to authority, since the authorities in metaethics do not, in general, share an agreed upon consensus view.

So, if Craig gives us a solid reason for his second objection, it must be something more than just an appeal to the authority of ‘the ethicist’ Richard Taylor. It is not immediately apparent what the argument is in the quotes of Taylor that Craig provides in his essay. However, there does appear, on the surface, to be an argument that goes like this:

1. If one assumes that God exists and that God is a higher-than-human lawgiver, then one can make sense of the concept of ‘moral obligation’.

2. An atheist cannot assume that God exists and that God is a higher-than-human lawgiver.


3. An atheist cannot make sense of the concept of ‘moral obligation’.

I cannot be certain that this is the argument that Craig intends us to get out of the quotations from Richard Taylor, because Craig does not explicitly spell out the argument; he just gives us the quotations.  But this does appear to me to be an argument that is strongly suggested by the quotations that Craig provides.

If this is the argument, then we can quickly dismiss Craig’s second objection, because this argument commits the common deductive fallacy of denying the antecedent:

If P, then Q.

Not P.


Not Q.

This form of deductive argument is logically invalid.  Consider the following example:

If it is raining, then my lawn is wet.

It is not raining.


My lawn is not wet.

The conclusion does not follow, because there are other possible reasons why my lawn might be wet.  For example, if a sprinkler on my lawn has been spraying water for an hour or so, then my lawn would be wet even if it was a clear and sunny day.

So, if we consider Taylor’s argument based on an appeal to etymology, then there is only a fairly weak reason to accept Taylor’s conclusion. If, on the other hand, we take Craig to be making an appeal to the authority of ‘the ethicist’ Taylor, then Craig has given us a very weak reason to accept his second objection to AMR. Finally, if we take it that Craig sees some other argument (not clearly stated by Craig) in the quotations he provides of Taylor, then it appears that Craig has put forward an invalid deductive argument in support of his second objection to AMR.

I do not see a good or strong reason to accept Craig’s second objection to AMR.

Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
The Theistic Arguments: A Brief Critique
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
  • Angra Mainyu

    Nice points again, Bradley.

    Incidentally, considering human history (and even today), there are societies in which there is no belief in a superhuman moral lawgiver, or assumption of it, etc., one might ask: is the concept of moral obligation is unintelligible to all of those people, according to Craig’s views?

    • Bradley Bowen

      I’m not sure what Craig would say about such societies, but Richard Taylor would probably say that people in a society with no belief in a superhuman moral lawgiver still have a concept of duty and obligation, but such duties are to leaders or to the community and other obligations arise out of agreements and negotiations between persons.

      Taylor would say that the concepts of ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ have clear meanings in such non-religious contexts, but he would also say that this is different from the ideas of ‘moral duties’ and ‘moral obligations’ which supposedly transcend human negotiations and agreements, and social arrangements that are created in the service of human needs and desires.

      Taylor is firmly opposed to a Kantian conception of ‘moral duty’ and ‘moral obligation’, particularly Kant’s idea that morality transcends human needs and desires, and that to be morally good one must act purely for the sake of ‘moral duty’ as opposed to acting out of empathy or sympathy or love or compassion or concern for the happiness and well-being of others.

      • Angra Mainyu

        The reason I brought up those societies is that Craig claimed that apart from the idea of God, the concept of moral obligation is unintelligible, and that the words remain but that the meaning is gone.

        So, that seems to presents a dilemma:

        1. If Craig accepted that those people grasped the meaning of ‘moral obligation’ (or whatever term they used in their language) or semantic equivalents, then that would seem to falsify Craig’s claim.
        2. If Craig rejected that those people grasped the meaning of those term, that may also illustrate how far-fetched his position is – not to mention it be a problem for Christian theology.

        In the case of Taylor, I wouldn’t be inclined to raise this example as a reply; I would probably go with the cat example, or something along those lines, since it provides a more straightforward objection.

  • Jason Thibodeau

    Suppose we grant Taylor’s claim that an obligation is something owed to a person. I don’t see how Craig goes from this bare-bones claim to theism. The move is quite mysterious to me. Taylor’s principle (TP) implies the following: If there are genuine obligations, then there are persons to whom something is owed. Obviously, if there exists an obligation and an obligation is something that is owed to a person, then there is a person to whom it is owed.

    But, as far as TP goes, nothing says that the persons to whom something is owed have to be supernatural persons.

    I see Craig arguing as follows:

    (1) The existence of obligations implies the existence of persons.

    (2) There exist obligations.

    (3) A supernatural person (God) exists.

    But this is obviously a bad argument since the persons to whom something is owed could just as well be human persons. Indeed, it is not at all clear what a supernatural person brings to the table, which a human person does not have. that is relevant to generating obligations. If we are doubtful that human persons can be the persons to whom an obligation is owed, what would make us think that a supernatural person can play this role?

    • Angra Mainyu

      Leaving aside the difficulty with the concept of supernatural, accepting (1) – or more precisely, the idea that obligations imply the existence of persons to whom said obligations are owed – seems problematic for things like the cat example in the comments on part 5.

      We can construct hypothetical scenarios in which only one human is alive, yet he has a moral obligation not to torture a cat for fun. Yes, someone might suggest that it’s an obligation owed to himself or some alien person, but that is rather implausible, and we can eliminate aliens too. Of course, the same kind of scenario works against the idea that God is required, for that matter.

      • Jason Thibodeau

        I agree completely. I was just arguing that even if we granted the contentious claim TP, I don’t see how Craig derives theism from it.

        • Angra Mainyu

          I don’t know, but I think a theist might try something like the cat scenario, but modified to try to use the fact that TP has been granted in favor of theism.

          Something like:

          P1: The existence of an obligation entails that of a person to whom the obligation is owed.

          P2: There are possible scenarios in which only one contigent person exists, and there are some obligations not to torture non-personal entities, which are not obligations the person has towards herself.
          C: A necessary person exists, and some obligations not to torture non-personal entities are obligations towards that person.

          P1 would be based on TP.

          P2 would be supported intuitively.
          Of course, in this case, one might (for instance) argue against P2 on the basis of an assumption of TP (i.e., say that P2 is only plausible as long as TP is not true), though a theist might insist that it’s clear.

          Anyhow, one might consider scenarios like the cat scenario in order to reject TP (or, for that matter, even Craig’s conditional ‘If God does not exist’, etc).

        • Bradley Bowen

          Richard Taylor’s view of ethics seems a bit like social contract theory of ethics. Duties and obligations are created by human beings so that we can live together in relative peace and security and so that (having attained a degree of peace and security) we can have a good chance to thrive and be happy.

          So, there is an implied contract or agreement, on this view. I agree to give up some of my freedom to do whatever I feel like doing in exchange for other people in my society also giving up some of their freedom to do whatever they feel like doing (such as harming or killing me, or stealing my possessions, or harming or killing my wife or my children).

          Such a social contract theory can provide justification for why an individual might sacrifice the freedom to do whatever he/she feels like doing, and accepting some duties and obligations that constrain one’s behavior and choices.

          However, social contract theory does not do as well in explaining duties and obligations towards children, animals, the mentally handicapped, the elderly, and those who are physically unable to care for themselves.

          Healthy adults of normal intelligence constitute both a potential threat to my safety and a potential for providing significant help and benefits to me. So, such persons have some significant bargaining power/position.

          But babies, cats, mentally retarded people, and people with serious physical handicaps or serious illnesses, are not much of a threat to my safety and security, and they dont’ have much to offer in terms of significant help or benefits for me. So, such persons/creatures do not have significant bargaining power/position.

          If, we insist that strong, healthy adults of normal intelligence have moral obligations and duties towards babies, cats, mentally handicapped persons, and people with serious physical handicaps or serious illnesses, then it is not clear how such duties and obligations arise, since they do not appear to arise as the result of a negotiation or agreement or contract between human persons.

          Of course, social contract theory is only one possible theory, and there may be some other theory of ethics which does not require God, but which maintains that moral duties and obligations are always ‘owed’ to some person or persons. So, I have not exactly bridged the logical gap to which you are pointing.

          But, the basic idea is that theories which make moral obligations and duties based on agreements or negotiations with human persons fail to account for a significant portion of generally recognized moral duties and obligations, and those duties and obligations can be accounted for if morality is viewed as a set of rules that God has commanded human beings to follow.

          One problem with divine command theory is this: Why should I obey the commands of God? If it is my moral duty to obey God’s commands, then the most fundamental moral duty is one that, necessarily, exists prior to the duties imposed by God’s commands, namely the duty to obey God’s commands.

          Swinburne has no problem here, because he argues that moral duties and obligations are generally apriori truths that exist independently of God, like the truths of logic and mathematics. Thus, we can have a moral duty to obey God’s commands (because God gave us our existence and because God is the creator of everything that we use and enjoy), and this moral duty towards God exists independently of God and God’s commands.

          But Craig has no such way out, that I can see. God commands me to do X. So what? Why should I do what God commands me to do?

          If Craig replies that I owe my very existence to God, then my response is: You are assuming that I have a moral duty to obey anyone who created me or who brought the human species into existence, but where does this moral duty come from? According to you (Craig), all moral duties are based on the commands of God, but it begs the question to say “You are morally obligated to obey the commands of God, because God has commanded you to obey his commands.”

          • Bradley Bowen

            What is the basis for my duty to obey the commands of God? Do I have such a duty independently of what God commands or do I have such a duty because God commands me to obey his commands?

            If I have this duty independently of what God commands, then there is at least one moral duty, and a very fundamental one at that, that exists independently of what God commands, and that implies that the divine command theory is false.

            But if I have a duty to obey the commands of God precisely because God has commanded that I obey the commands of God, then this only moves the problem back one step. Why should I obey God’s command for me to obey God’s commands? If I don’t have a duty to obey God’s commands independently of God’s commanding me to do so, then why would I have a duty to obey a second-level command by God for me to obey every command that he will ever give me? If God’s ordinary first-level commands have no force on their own, then how would a second-level command (i.e. to obey all of his commands) magically obtain such force?

            Afterall, if Hiter gave me a command to obey all of the commands of Hitler, I would (hopefully) just tell Hitler to go to hell. So, if it is legitimate to question someone’s command for me to obey every command they will ever give me, then we have an infinite regress for establishing the duty to obey God. God could, if he chose to, command me to obey his command for me to always obey God’s commands, but then I would just ask, yet again: Why should I obey this latest command of God?

          • Angra Mainyu

            Pretty good point. I’ve yet to see any reply by Craig or any other DCT proponents that manages to get around that.

  • Hollie Rebekah Sramek

    How about owing one self? When I feel it is needed to reveal that I am not Christian, I do get questions based on this faulty reasoning- how do I not just live some hedonist lifestyle? My answer is that instead of being civilized because my imaginary friend told me to, I do it because I know it’s what I want to be. I owe it to myself to behave in a way that pleases me and furthers my species. That’s civilized. I therefore don’t owe anyone anything- in fact I have very strict boundaries on things like duty since I feel no one in inherently OWED anything outright. I owe myself and I honor that by being what I deem is my best self. yeah?

    • Bradley Bowen

      Self-interest and caring about one’s own self and well-being seem important to being a morally good person. If I don’t care about my own self-interest and my own well-being, how can I be expected to care about the interests and well-being of others? People who kill other people can be looked on as being selfish and purely self-interested, but it seems like such people are often self-hating or just lacking in any sort of human care and concern, including care and concern about themselves.

      Craig and other Christian thinkers place a lot of emphasis on the idea that belief in God, and especially belief in heaven and hell, provide a significant motivation for people to be morally good and to do what is their moral duty in the face of temptation to violate one’s moral duties and obligations. This assumes that someone already cares about their own self interest and well-being. But many of the most violent and destructive human beings are people who just don’t care about anything, including their own self interest or well-being.

      If I get angry because I feel like I have been treated unfairly or unjustly, this implies that I care about fairness and justice. If I care about fairness and justice for me, then this implies that I care about fairness and justice for others. Perhaps I don’t feel quite as strongly when somebody else is treated unfairly or unjustly, but caring about fairness and justice for me reflects a moral consciousness, and that moral consciousness is about something more than just what is in my self interest or what will benefit me the most; it is about fairness and justice for all people, for all times, in all places.

      The consciousness of fairness and justice may begin with reflection upon particular instances of unfairness to me, but it ends with a desire for justice and fairness for all.

  • Samreen M

    Craig is perhaps of the existentialist view. Samuel Backett wrote “Waiting For Godot” based on existentialist theory but he still showed the world that consciously or unconsciously we are looking forward to some Supreme power,waiting for some one who will solve our problems. Similarly the moral obligations are due to the existence of God. If this belief is bewildered, a topsy turvy chaos is to be seen in the world.

    Samreen M

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