The Moral Argument: A Look at the Harris/Craig Debate

Last week, Dr. William Lane Craig debated Dr. Sam Harris on whether or not morality needs to be grounded in God. Dr. Harris has recently released a book called The Moral Landscape. The premise of this book is that science can determine moral values. Hence, God is out of the picture.

We had Dr. Craig here last year at OSU. He did a lecture on the moral argument called The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality. There is a summary of it online.

It became apparent to me that there is mass confusion about this issue. In regards to the debate, I don’t think Harris really answered many of Craig’s points. He had plenty of red herrings. However, I don’t want to give a detailed critique of the debate. Instead, I would like to discuss the topic and see if I can offer some clarifications.

First, when we say “objective morality,” we need to define our terms:

1. Objective: Means “independent of people’s opinions”
2. Subjective: Means “dependent on people’s opinions.”

Let’s define moral values and moral duties:

Moral Values: Have to do with whether something is good or bad; this has to do with something’s worth. Moral values are love, justice, etc.

Moral Duties: Have to do with whether something is right or wrong; they have to do with moral obligation. In other words, when you say “You ought” or “You ought not to do that,” that is a moral duty. The “oughtness” appeals to our will, compelling us to act in a certain way though we may obey or disobey. A moral duty encompasses both a proposition and a command; both are features of minds. Example: If I stood at an intersection and put my hand up, cars might not stop voluntarily, but they would have no duty to respond. They could ignore me without fear of punishment because I have no authority to direct traffic. But if a police officer replaced me, traffic would come to a halt. What is the difference between the officer and me? My authority is not grounded. It doesn’t rest on anything solid. Police represent the government, so their authority is justified. Thus a law has moral force when grounded in an appropriate authority. (see Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl’s Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, pgs 166-167).

In the Q&A time, Dr. Craig had to differentiate between moral epistemology and moral ontology:

1. Moral Epistemology: Deals with Moral Knowledge (How We Know)
2. Moral Ontology: Deals with the nature of reality (What Is)

As Dr. Craig said, we should not confuse (knowledge) of morality with the basis for morality (ontology). The issue with objective morality is centered on the ontology issue. Theists are not saying that the non-theist doesn’t have moral knowledge. So when atheists get ticked at theists because they think we are saying, “You can’t be a moral person without God!” that is not what the theist is saying. After all, from the Christian perspective, since all humans are God’s image-bearers, it isn’t surprising that they are capable of recognizing or KNOWING the same sorts of moral values—whether theists or not.

The question is what justification do we have for knowing what is right? What is the justification for our moral knowledge? Let me mention ONE way a theist could posit that all humans have moral knowledge. It is called Natural Law Theory. J. Budziszewski has written on this topic in his books What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and Written on the Heart: A Case For Natural Law Theory. Some of the points that of the natural law theory are summarized by Budziszewski:

1. Basic moral principles are discovered, not invented, and persons with a decently functioning conscience can get a lot of moral things right. As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, law codes across civilizations and through¬out history (Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Native American, and so on) reveal a continual resurfacing of the same basic moral standards—do not murder, break promises, take another’s property, or defraud- see The Abolition of Man

2. Budziszewski notes that when we are talking to people about natural law, we are not teaching people what they have no clue about, but bringing to the surface the latent moral knowledge or suppressed moral knowledge that they have already.

3. Atheists say: “We can be moral without God” Remember, the foundational principles of the natural law are not only right for all, but at some level known to all. This means that non-Christians know them too—even atheists. It does not follow from this that belief in God has nothing to do with the matter. The atheist has a conscience; atheists know as well as theists do that they ought not steal, ought not murder, and so on. The problem is that they cling to a worldview that cannot make sense of this conscience. The Greek word for conscience is “suneidesis” which means “a co-knowledge, of oneself, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God as that which is designed to govern our lives; that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, condemning the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter.”

This type of natural revelation is called intuitive knowledge. It is instantaneously apprehended. So if an atheist says “I KNOW what is right and wrong because of moral intuition,” then then they are in agreement with the theist. The question is what accounts for the KNOWING part?

Craig’s Argument: Craig states the moral argument the following way:

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

Remember, it is incumbent on the theist and the non-theist to account for both moral values and moral duties!

Let’s look at Premise 1:

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

Are moral values and moral duties the result of Design/God? In the debate, Craig wasn’t giving robust arguments for God’s existence. So if someone thinks that is one of the most pressing issues, than that is fine. You can go to Craig’s website or look at some of this other work on God’s existence. Just remember that that wasn’t the topic of the debate.

Craig makes these two points:

1. We observe that humans have intrinsic value/dignity and rights. We start with value-it is based in the nature of God and then we can end with value (we are divine image bearing humans with moral responsibility and rights).
2. God’s nature is what provides the grounds for moral values –the ontological foundation. God wills things in accordance with his own unchangeably good nature. So the ultimate good is not outside God but inside him, his own nature.
3. Craig also appeals to what is called the divine command theory of ethics. Whatever action God specifies as a good action is a good action.

In his book Christian Ethics, Norman Geisler points out two objections to the divine command theory view:

First, it is alleged that it is a form of authoritarianism. This objection, however, is valid only if the authority is less than ultimate. That is, if any finite creature professed to have this ultimate authority, then we could rightly cry “authoritarianism.” However, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that the Ultimate Authority has ultimate authority. If an absolutely perfect God exists, then by His very nature He is the ultimate standard for what is good and what is not.

The second objection argues that defining good in terms of God’s will is arbitrary. This objection applies, however, only to a voluntaristic view of good, not to an essentialistic view. A voluntarist believes that something is good simply because God wills it. An essentialist, on the other hand, holds that God wills something because it is good in accordance with His own nature. This form of the divine command view of ethics escapes these criticisms and forms the basis for a Christian ethic.

Craig’s arguments are also strengthened when we look at whether moral values and moral duties can be eplained by Chance/Naturalistic Evolution:

I will go ahead and list some of the problems with naturalism and whether it can account for moral values and moral duties:

1. In his book An Atheist Defends Religion, author Bruce Sheiman gives a summary of the naturalistic view of human life: Laws of physics X chance + randomness+ accidents+ luck X 3.5 billion yrs: The laws of physics for our present universe arose by chance (from a multitude of possible universes); the first forms of life developed by chance (arising by primordial soup combinations that resulted from the laws of physics plus accidents); the first concept of life developed purely by chance (genetic mutations and environmental randomness); and humans evolved by more improbable occurrences. Hence, human beings were produced by valueless processes.

2. An ethical system based on naturalistic/chance evolution fails to account for communication between two minds and can’t offer any reason as to be an imperative. As we said, a moral duty involves a proposition and a command; both are features of a mind. How does a blind, impersonal force allow for this?

3. In his book “True For You, But Not For Me”: Overcoming Objections to the Christian Faith, Paul Copan notes that knowledge is a belief that is true and is warranted or properly accounted for. In other words, knowledge excludes beliefs that are just true accidentally. If naturalistic evolution were responsible for our beliefs and we think that we happened to believe that naturalistic evolution were true, then this would of come about by accident. We would hold accidentally true beliefs.

4. Also, let’s say moral facts do exist on their own. Some naturalists say moral facts are simply part of the furniture of the universe. If so, let me ask this: Even if they do exist on their own (apart from God), anyone will still have to explain how these moral properties are actualized or realized in this world in the form of human rights or moral duties. The typical response from naturalists is that moral values just emerge via supervenience on natural non-moral properties. The result? Morally valuable, duty-bound, rights-bearing human beings. In order to posit this as an explanation, you would have to assume that materialism is true. Furthermore, it seems a bit ad hoc. So even if a moral standard exists independently of God, the question remains as to how valuable and responsible beings could emerge from valueless matter.

5. How do we find moral values in a test tube? Just like numbers, propositions, and the laws of logic, values like justice, loyalty, mercy, etc, are not accessible by science. They are immaterial realities. What does a materialist say to this?

6. Copan also notes that naturalism’s inability to get beyond descriptions of human behavior …the (“is”) does not inspire confidence for grounding moral obligation (“ought”). For example, atheist Michael Shermer says, “ Why should we be moral? To be much like “Why should we be hungry or horny?” The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love”; such drives are hardwired into us by evolution.” All Shermer can do is DESCRIBE how human beings actually do function based on scientific observation; he can’t PRESCRIBE how humans OUGHT to behave.

I have barely scratched the surface on this issue. I will provide one link that may help. Paul Copan’s lengthy article called “God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality,” is worth a read. See here:


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