Craig’s Defense of Moral Objectivity in his Moral Argument for God’s Existence

William Lane Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence is as follows.

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

(2) But objective moral values and duties do exist.

(3) Therefore, God exists.

In defense of (2), Craig offers an appeal to intuition. Here’s an excerpt from one of his debate opening statements:

But the fact is that objective moral values do exist, and we all know it. There’s no more reason to deny the objective existence of moral values than to deny the objective reality of the physical world. Actions like rape, torture, and child abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior. They’re moral abominations. Even Ruse himself admits, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says two plus two equals five.” Some things are really wrong. Similarly, love, equality, and self-sacrifice are really good.

How, precisely, does this support (2)?

One interpretation of Craig’s sparse remarks is that “we all know” objective moral values exist by intuition. In a forthcoming paper, “Intuition Mongering,” Moti Mizrahi argues that appeals to intuition are similar to appeals to authority. If that’s the case, then that creates a problem for appealing to intuition to support (2).

Here’s why. Start with the logical form of a particular type of inductive argument called the statistical syllogism.

(4) Z percent of F are G.
(5) x is F.
(6) Things that are F bear such-and-such relevance to property G. [This premise is usually suppressed.]
(7) Therefore, x is G.

The argument from authority is an inductively correct argument which conforms to the same pattern as the statistical syllogism.

(8) The vast majority of statements made by authority A concerning subject S are true.
(9) p is a statement made by A concerning subject S.
(10) Therefore, p is true.

As Wesley Salmon points out, an inductively correct argument from authority must satisfy two conditions.

(a) Subject S must be within authority A’s area of expertise.

(b) There must be no equally qualified authorities who disagree with A about S.

If an argument from authority does not satisfy both (a) and (b), it is inductively incorrect: it fails to make the conclusion probable.

Now consider the argument from intuition.

(11) The vast majority of intuitions held by philosopher A concerning subject S are true.
(12) Concerning subject S, it seems to philosopher A that p.
(13) Therefore, p is true.

Conditions (a) and (b) also apply to the argument from intuition.

What does all of this have to do with Craig’s moral argument? Craig’s defense of (2) is interpreted as an appeal to intuition, it fails to satisfy condition (b). There are equally well qualified philosophers who disagree with Craig about the objectivity of morality. Indeed, non-cognitivists deny that morality is even cognitive! The upshot is that an argument from intuition for objective moral values is weak.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Steven Carr

    Intuitively, there is no acceptable moral reason to allow young babies to be raped.

    I can imagine Craig nodding sagely and telling us that our intuitions are not to be trusted….

  • L.Long

    Intuitively, there is no acceptable moral reason to allow young babies to be raped.

    but then this is not an ‘objective moral value’. as it is not universally true.
    If a psychotic is doing so then it is good and correct to do so, YOU or I may say is it awful but it is OK for that person. I don’t know of anything that is absolutely moral that an example can’t be shown to be acceptable to someone. Everything ‘moral’ is based on our empathy and social interactions. So his all 3 of his statements are wrong.

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      This is a bad argument against objective moral values. The concept of objective moral values does NOT mean “moral values that are universally accepted, i.e., accepted by literally everyone.”

      • Steven Carr

        ‘The concept of objective moral values does NOT mean “moral values that are universally accepted, i.e., accepted by literally everyone.”‘

        Isn’t that Craig’s working test of what an objective moral value is – values that are universally accepted?

        • Angra Mainyu

          I don’t know about that. Craig says that the Nazis may have approved of the Holocaust, but it was morally wrong. And he claims that gay sex is always immoral, even if he realizes that many people disagree. So, universal acceptability does not seem to be needed.

          The second premise, I would say, is probably equivalent (Craig is obscure as usual) to the following two claims:

          OMVD1: Statements – or judgments, or whatever one calls them – of the form ‘X is immoral’, ‘Y is morally good’, ‘A has a moral obligation to Z’, etc., are objective, in the sense that there is an objective fact of the matter as to whether they’re true. For instance, if someone claims that gay sex is immoral among humans, then there is a objective fact of the matter as to whether that claim is true, and so on.

          OMVD2: Some statements of the form ‘A has a moral obligation to Z’ are true, and some statements of the form ‘Y is morally good’ are true, and so on, where Y is an actual behavior of a person, or a person, A is an actual agent, etc.

          • Steven Carr

            So Craig’s argument is that there are objective moral values because we just know that there are, except for the people who don’t?

          • Angra Mainyu

            No, that’s not his argument – though given his usual obscurity, it’s understandable when people don’t understand his metaethical argument. It took me a lot of time to decipher many of his claims and arguments in that context, and in some cases, I even have to consider options because what he means is still obscure.

            His claim in this context is basically that there are objective moral values and duties in the sense explained above. Trying to explain his argument would take too long (you can find an analysis in a reply to his argument I wrote, reachable from my profile).

            ETA: with regard to the argument in support of objective moral values, he seems to be appealing to universal human intuitions. We do not need to be always right or always know the correct moral answer in order to reckon that there is a fact of the matter, and that some behaviors are immoral.
            For example, if Craig were defending that there is objective illness, he could point out that people who have the flu are ill, and that there is an objective fact of the matter as to whether a person is ill. But he does not need to assume that everyone knows whether, say, being gay is an illness.

          • Steven Carr

            I was just going by Jeff’s statement ‘One interpretation of Craig’s sparse remarks is that “we all know” objective moral values exist by intuition.’

            Out of curiosity, does Craig think his hypothetical god can ever have subjective opinions?

            For example, if Craig’s god declares he likes the smell of roasting meat (Leviticus 1:9), does that automatically make the smell of roasting meat objectively pleasing?

            How does Craig tell what opinions of his hypothetical god are subjective and which opinions of his hypothetical god are objective?

            (The answer is that Craig’s god has the same opinions as Craig….)

          • Angra Mainyu

            In order for the smell of roasting meat to be objectively pleasing in Craig’s sense, there would have to be a fact of the matter as to whether the smell in question is pleasing. Craig is using obscure terminology, but plausibly there is no fact of the matter as to whether or not the smell in question is pleasing, since it pleases some humans and fails to please some other humans (though context of utterance also needs to be considered, because whether there is a fact of the matter might depend sometimes of whether the relevant category is ‘humans’ or something else, and/or whether the claim is about a specific instance of roasting meat or all of them, etc).

            But for example, suppose that Alice claims that there is a foul smell coming from the basement (specific basement, etc.). Often, there is a fact of the matter as to whether her claim is true (or an objective fact of the matter if you like). For instance, it might be that there is a dead cat in the basement, and it’s decomposing, and it smells like hell.

            Granted, the carcass would not smell bad to, say, a vulture. But in context, her claim that there is a foul smell is usually implicitly about a normal human sense of smell, not about the sense of smell of vultures.

            I don’t know what Craig would say about Yahweh’s alleged sense of smell, though.

          • Steven Carr

            ‘Craig is using obscure terminology, but plausibly there is no fact of the matter as to whether or not the smell in question is pleasing, since it pleases some humans and fails to please some other humans …’

            So if something is to be objective, it has to be universally agreed upon by all humans?

          • Angra Mainyu

            No, it does not have to.
            But in the case of the smell in question, it might be that it’s true that it’s pleasant to some humans, and unpleasant to others, and they are humans with a normal sense of smell.
            In context, the claim of being pleasant might require that humans with a normal sense of smell (and in some normal conditions, etc.) would find it pleasant. But it does not have to be that way. It depends on what’s meant in the context, since expressions like ‘pleasant’ are usually context-sensitive (pleasant to whom?).

            Other expressions do not have such sensitivity. For example, if Alice says that Bob ran a red traffic light and Bob says the light was green, there is a fact of the matter as to whether the light was red or green, regardless of whether they actually disagree or someone is lying.

            ETA: The reply to Craig’s metaethical argument I wrote has more details on this, and explains more carefully what it means.
            But basically, the distinction he’s making is between matters of fact and matters of opinion, claiming that moral matters are matters of fact and that some behaviors are morally bad, etc.

          • Steven Carr

            But God says it is a pleasing smell.

            Why can we not say that people who disagree with God about what is a pleasing smell are simply wrong, just as people who disagree with God about morality are simply wrong?

            Presumably because morality is objective and pleasing smells are subjective.

            But isn’t that begging the question of why morality is objective and pleasing smells are subjective when Craig’s hypothetical god has an opinion on both?

          • Angra Mainyu

            Whether people who disagree about whether the smell was pleasant are wrong is a matter that would be debatable; I do not know what Craig’s position is in the particular cases mentioned in the Bible.
            Maybe he wouldn’t interpret that literally. Or maybe he would, and say that the aroma was in fact pleasant, and that that was not a matter of opinion.Or maybe the aroma was pleasant to Yahweh (and that’s a fact), but not pleasant to everyone.

            But I do not see how that begs a question. Which question are you saying it begs?

            In any case, I would say that the way to determine whether a matter is objective in the relevant sense is not whether there is agreement, but whether it’s a matter of fact (because that’s what it means for a matter to be objective in the relevant sense).

            For example, whether there is a powerful creator that gives us commands is a matter of fact, even if people disagree a lot about it. Whether a smell is pleasant might or might not be a matter of fact, depending on the smell and on how the word ‘pleasant’ is used in context (i.e., pleasant to all normal humans? To all agents? No specification, so that every human assesses the matter by her own standards?)

          • staircaseghost

            Fair warning: I’m going to steal that smell example.

  • Ryan Hite

    There is no such thing as objective moral reasoning. It is subjective even though it gives the illusion of objectivity.

  • Hierophant2

    Not to defend Craig (because he is an idiot), but… you’re assuming intuitionism is necessarily false. And yet intuitions are necessary in order to have any values at all, because of the is-ought fallacy. Intuitionism is not an argument from authority, it’s an argument from personal experience. People who for whatever reason do not have any given intuition are free to disagree with an argument based on it. So what? You haven’t refuted intuitionism, only your “objective” version of it.

    “Objective morality” does exist, as long as you define “objective” as “based on reality.” It is based on reality, because intuitions are part of reality.

    That being said, it is absolutely false that God is necessary for objective morality to exist. The following intuitionist argument demonstrates it:

    Intuitionist Argument for the Non-Existence of God

    (I1) Harming innocents is wrong.
    (I2) It is unreasonable to believe that an object exists unless we have (some) sufficient evidence for its existence.
    (I3) Contradictions cannot exist.

    (A) Torturing an infant is wrong. (from I1)
    (¬A) Torturing an infant is not wrong.
    (B) Occam’s Razor: the most parsimonious explanation is the only one that fulfills the burden of proof. (corollary of I2)
    (C) If the existence of an object implies a contradiction, then that object cannot exist. (corollary of I3)

    (1) God is partially defined as a being (external to oneself) upon
    which the validity and force of ethical beliefs are contingent.
    (2) Either A is valid and forceful (a) because it is intuitively true
    or the result of deliberation applied to some intuition, (b) because it
    was decreed by some external agency which cannot also bring about ¬A,
    or (c) because it was decreed by some external agency which can also
    bring about ¬A.
    (3) If (a), then the validity and force of A are not contingent on any external agent, therefore God does not exist.
    (4) If (b), then we cannot distinguish between A being intuitively
    true and A being the result of the actions of some external agency,
    intuition becomes the most parsimonious explanation, and this scenario
    therefore collapses into 3. (from B)
    (5) If (c), then A and ¬A can both be valid and forceful, which is a contradiction, therefore God cannot exist. (from C)
    (6) Therefore God does not exist. (from 3, 4 and 5)

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Please provide your definition of “intuitionism,” so I can understand why you think I’m “assuming that intuitionism is necessarily false.”

      • Hierophant2

        That there is “a class of irreducible, objective properties, which
        cannot be known on the basis of observation.” (Huemer) That is to say, a priori knowledge. e.g. “Actions like rape, torture, and child abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior. They’re moral abominations.” (although the word “abomination” is too laced with religion to really be useful or descriptive, so I would change that to a simpler word such as “wrong”).

        • Jeffery Jay Lowder

          Got it. Can you please now explain how it is that my original post (OP) assumed that intuitionism, so defined, is necessarily false? I am unable to see how you arrived at that conclusion.

          The claim that intuitionism is necessarily false is a very strong claim and one I disagree with. So far as I can tell, intuitionism is not a self-contradictory position and it does not appear to contradict a proposition known to be necessarily true. So, again, I don’t see any reason to think it is necessarily false.

          Nor does my OP support the idea that intuitionism is contingently false. In fact, my OP says nothing one way or the other about whether intuitionism is true, All it says is that an argument from intuition is a weak argument for objective moral values. The fact that such an argument is a weak argument doesn’t mean that intuitionism is false; rather, it literally means just that the argument is weak, and that’s all.

          • Hierophant2

            The argument against objective moral values is even weaker, since it has to be more convincing than the most persuasive objective moral statements such as “raping a child is wrong.”

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Premise (3) of this argument presupposes that the doctrine of divine aseity is true. If that doctrine is true, then there cannot be Neoplatonic objective moral values existing as abstract objects–all on their own, apart from God. If such things do exist, then any doctrine of God based upon aseity would be false. So, at most (a) proves that an “a se” God does not exist. It does not prove that a non-”a se” (sp?) God does not exist.

      Premise (4) is a non sequitur.

      Premise (5) is also a non sequitur.

      • Hierophant2

        What? I never argued for any platonic view of values. The argument assumes intuitionism is true.

  • Keith Parsons

    Near the end of my second debate with Craig, at Indiana University in 2002, I asked him on what basis he asserted, as the first premise of his Kalaam argument, that everything that “begins” to exist must have a cause. He replied that this premise rested on a “metaphysical intuition.” Full stop. End of story. This is why I think that debating people like Craig is ultimately pointless. In my view, an appeal to intuition is a good place to begin a philosophical discussion, but a very poor place to end one. Yet, that is what Craig can do every time he is backed into a corner. How do you refute a “metaphysical intuition”? All you can do is, as I did, point out that such intuitions are hardly universal. I have no intuitions at all about the beginning of space/time, and if I did I would not trust them. It seems to me that a salient lesson of the course of physics over the last hundred years is that intuitions shaped by our experience of mundane objects need not, and generally will not, apply to events or entities outside of that experience. Of course I have intuitions about the beginnings of things IN space and time–but this is something entirely different from the beginning of space/time itself. In short, when theory is sufficiently well confirmed, its predictions should be accepted even if they are counterintuitive. The overall lesson is that when we are discussing matters far outside ordinary experience, we should be deeply skeptical of the invocation of intuitions as the final word on the matter.

    The same sort of thing applies to ethical intuitions. When Craig claims that moral values are objective, I interpret him as wanting something like a categorical imperative–a pure “thou shalt” that is independent of contingencies. Kant argued that moral demands are absolute, and therefore must have a foundation that is universal, necessary, and certain. Clearly, nothing contingent could supply such a basis, so he attempted to provide an a priori grounding for ethics derived from the pure form of the moral law. As an Aristotelian/ethical naturalist I think that categorical imperatives are a myth and that moral duties are based on hypothetical imperatives. Craig could claim that intuition is on his side. We feel that ethical demands are of such absolute importance, that they must transcend and trump every factual consideration. I hold that ethical values are objective in the sense that they are grounded in human nature. Craig could say that all an ethical naturalist like me can do is to show that we DO have certain basic values, while, intuitively, we ought to be able to say that we SHOULD have certain values, whether or not these accord with human nature.

    Craig may be right in claiming that intuition is on his side. That is, our feeling is that moral duties are of such absolute significance that they cannot be based on merely hypothetical imperatives, however deeply biologically grounded these might be. Once again, however, it could well be that our intuitions are wrong. We might hanker after a metaphysical or a priori grounding for ethical value and duty when there is no such thing. How important something FEELS for us might well be a poor guide to its actual rational basis. Indeed, is it not typical that the intensity of our moral feelings bears little relation to any rational basis? The arguments of opponents of gay rights are so transparently thin and shoddy that you must conclude that, at bottom, they are simply repulsed by the idea of two men or two women making physical love. Two men passionately kissing just FEELS so wrong to these people, though, objectively, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. I think, therefore, that our feelings–i.e.intuitions–about what must be the case ethically–or even metaethically–should not be taken as the final word.

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      I’m really surprised that you think “debating people like Craig is ultimately pointless.” Is this a new opinion? (When I interviewed you for my article, “Christian Theism’s Hired Gun” almost 15 years ago, I didn’t get the impression that you thought it was pointless.)

      Clearly, no debate is ever going to change his mind. But, just as clearly, it seems to me that there are other reasons to participate in debates.

      • Keith Parsons


        No, from a PR point of view, I think it is necessary to debate Craig. As a kind of activism, I think it is abundantly justified. I might do it again. The context of such debates is the broader “culture war” that has been going on in this society for decades. These debates really took off in the 1980′s with the rise of the religious right. Since their humiliation in the Scopes Trial in the ’20′s, conservative Christians have yearned for intellectual respectability. In Craig they have a very bright guy who is a topnotch debater and has all the scholarly accomplishments and credentials.

        With such a spokesman, conservative Christians no longer need fear that they project the image of an ignorant hick. Billy Craig is anything but. Further, as E.J. Dionne’s column published in today’s Houston Chronicle notes, conservative Christianity is strongly correlated with right-wing ideology, so validation of the former will constitute, by association, validation of the latter. If you loathe the extremist, irrational right-wing ideology that passes for “conservatism” in our society, as I do, and if you regard Christianity as false, which I do, you have to oppose aggressive apologetics for “fundagelical” Christianity.

  • Jason Thibodeau

    Even if Mizrahi is correct, appeals to intuition are only similar to appeals to authority. It is not obvious that they are so similar that they must satisfy (a) and (b). It seems more likely that there are analogous principles to (a) and (b) that apply to appeals to intuition.

    But, equally importantly, there are different kinds of appeals to intuition. Jeff, in his reconstruction, interprets Craig’s argument as an appeal to the intuition of philosophers. But I don’t see it that way. I think that Craig is appealing to the intuitions of his audience, that is, to a large group that is potentially unlimited, not a group of experts. It is not clear that we can sensibly speak of expertise or authority when the appeal is to the intuitions of so vast a group.

    Here is an alternative reconstruction for Craig’s support for (2):

    (14) The vast majority of people (including you, dear reader) believe that morality is objective.

    (15) Such widespread agreement is best explained by the fact that the intuitions are correct.

    I don’t see this as a matter of expertise. It may not be a good argument, but I don’t think that it fails for the reason that Jeff gives.

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Here is a revised version of (a), designed just for that alternative reconstruction:

      (a’) Subject S must be something about which we can reasonably expect person P’s intuition is accurate or reliable.

      Notice that (a’) is related to (15). If there’s no good reason to believe that people’s intuitions about the objectivity of morality is accurate and reliable, then “the objectivity of morality” will not be the best explanation for such widespread agreement.

      • Jason Thibodeau

        Okay. That seems fine. So the question is whether there is good reason to believe that people’s intuitions on this issue are good. The power of our intuition (at least mine) that it is wrong to torture infants is such that, it seems to me, the onus is on those who doubt that this intuition is good to provide a reason to think that it is not good.

        One other point that it is worth pointing out is that it is possible to interpret Craig not as relying on the claim that morality is objective, but rather as claiming that if one believes that morality is objective, one is thereby committed to believing in God. The second premise functions, in this reconstruction, as a shared assumption; shared, that is, by those who think that morality is objective (obviously those that don’t think this will be unmoved by the argument from morality). In this case, Craig is under no obligation to argue that (2) is true since all that he is claiming is that if you believe that it is true, you have to believe in God. So, on this understanding, everything rides on the first premise.

      • Bradley Bowen

        Jeff Lowder said…

        (a’) Subject S must be something about which we can reasonably expect person P’s intuition is accurate or reliable.


        Hmmmm. Reliability seems to just move the question back one step.

        In the case of ordinary predictions about ordinary empirical states of affairs, one can just wait and look and see if the predicitons come true. Reliability in such cases is grounded in simple observations.

        The weather man predicts that it will rain tomorrow. We then wait and see what happens. If we wait a day and check the weather outside, there might be dark clouds and lots of drops of water falling from the sky, and we can conclude that is is raining and that this particular prediction came true.

        But what if someone says “Homosexual acts are morally wrong, and so is rape, and so is theft.” How can we judge the reliability of this person concerning moral matters? We cannot just wait for the next homosexual sex act and observe whether it has the quality of moral wrongness.

        We could do a sort of character evaluation of the person making the moral judgments. Is he or she a morally sensitive person? Does he or she show care and concern for the well-being of others? or is he or she a sociopath who will cut his/her own mother’s throat to gain a few bucks?

        But there are a couple of problems with that approach. First, we have to determine what counts as good moral character and that seems to be logically connected to moral judgments about the goodness or badness of actions. How can we be ignorant about whether rape and torture are morally wrong, and yet make correct evaluations of someone’s moral character? “Jason is a serial murderer, and I don’t know whether the killings he has done are morally wrong or not, but I do know that Jason is a morally good person” This makes no sense!

        Second, if we could somehow make determinations of good moral character independent of judgments about the morality of different actions, how do we know that good moral character correlates with correct moral judgments?

        Perhaps people of good character tend to be ignorant, gullible, and uncritical in their thinking, and thus make lots of wrong moral judgements. If good moral character is logically independent from reliable moral judgment, then it might also be empirically independent from reliable moral judgement. But then we are back to having to determine the correctness of specific moral judgements.

        • Jeffery Jay Lowder

          I agree.

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