Craig on the moral argument

This is the third and last of my posts on the arguments in the third edition of William Lane Craig’s book Reasonable Faith. The previous posts in the series are Craig on the ontological and (Leibnizian) cosmological arguments and Craig on the teleological argument. Most of the rest of the contents of the book are covered in my review of the book’s second edition, which I’ll eventually revise to cover the entirety of the third edition, though don’t expect to see that come online for a year or so.

Craig’s worst argument

Craig’s moral argument is probably the worst argument he uses on a regular basis. For reference, the structure of the argument is:

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.

While it’s generally true that Craig likes to throw around big names and invoke the consensus of mainstream scholarship, in the case of the moral argument that’s often all he has in support of the first premise, especially in his public debates. It’s also the place where the strategy becomes completely indefensible. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong put this point very nicely in his debate with Craig:

Authorities are useless where controversy lives, as in philosophy. For every philosopher whom Craig cites, I could quote others who claim the opposite. Almost no view is so absurd that you can’t find some philosopher who held it. But the fact that a philosopher says something is no argument that what that philosopher says is true.

In Craig’s response to Armstrong, Craig simply ignored this point, and said–actually, quoted someone else as saying!–that some appeals to authority are legitimate, ignoring the point that philosophy is a case were appeals to authority are clearly illegitimate. In fact, the source Craig quotes from, Wesley Salmon’s Logic, makes a point very similar to Sinnott-Armstrong’s:

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. (p. 66)

To my knowledge, Craig has in fact never addressed this standard reason for not using appeals to authority in philosophical arguments, even though his critics have frequently pointed it out (for other examples, see Paul Draper and Michael Martin’s comments on his debate with Flew). This could make one wonder whether he even understands the argument, but I am reluctant to accuse him of not being able to since Craig often has thoughtful replies to criticisms of his views. On the other hand, if he understands this point, then why does he continue to present arguments that most philosophers would regard as fallacious, without addressing standard worries about them?

It’s also hard to understand why Craig would make regular use of such an obviously weak argument when he does, I think, have better arguments at his command. The reason, though, is not very hard to see: Craig has found that audiences lacking philosophical education often fail to see anything wrong with his argument. He himself says in Reasonable Faith that, “In my experience, the moral argument is the most effective argument for the existence of God… this argument has tremendous force because students have been indoctrinated to believe both premises.” (p. 194) That much I think is probably true. But his explanation of how students are indoctrinated to believe the first premise–that “they’ve been taught to believe that moral relativism is true, that moral values and duties are culturally and even personally relative and that you have no right to judge another” (same page)–makes no sense. Moral relativism and the view that morality is dependent upon God are two different views. If we need to explain how students are indoctrinated to believe that it is, we need to look elsewhere.

A better explanation is not hard to find. In the United States, at least, public schools do not feel comfortable trying to teach morality, and many parents don’t feel comfortable doing so except by sending kids to Sunday School. The religious right is the only political group that feels completely comfortable with moral language. Journalists assume that when people tell them they are voting on “values,” they mean they are basing their votes on opposition to abortion and gay rights. Every so often, one even sees a letter to the editor asserting that the Ten Commandments are the basis of U.S. law! The result is that may people seem to believe that “morality” just means “religious morality” and therefore there cannot be not other kind.

Because of the prevalence of this mindset, and the fact that it seems to underwrite Craig’s argument, it’s worth making a few points that are not strictly logically relevant to Craig’s presentation: first, there are non-believers who have strong moral convictions, and there were people with strong moral convictions before the rise of Christianity. In modern liberal democracies, even ostensibly religious people tend not to get their moral convictions from religion–I doubt Craig’s belief that we should not execute gays really has much to do with attempts to show through biblical hermeneutics that command in Leviticus 20:13 no longer applies. And finally, the claim that the Ten Commandments are the basis of U.S. law is refuted by the fact that the command to worship the god of Israel but no other gods is nowhere to be found in our statue books, and if anyone thinks we would not have laws against theft and murder without the Bible, this is refuted both by history and common sense. As Robert G. Ingersoll once quipped, there will be laws against murder as long as people object to being murdered. This should be enough to show that not all morality is, necessarily, religious.

Other confusions: epistemology, naturalism, and animal rights

Officially, Craig’s argument is an argument for the existence of God is an argument for the existence of God based on objective morality. Craig’s own explanation of the argument describes the issue this way:

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)

However, when Craig tries to develop a defense of his argument that goes beyond simple appeals to authority, his arguments tend to conflate the issue of God an objective morality with a number of logically distinct points. For example, at the beginning of his defense of premise (1) in Reasonable Faith, Craig asks, “If theism is false, why think that human beings have objective moral values?” That makes it sounds like a question of why we should believe certain things, an epistemological question, but Craig endorses the view that many moral facts are just obvious, and has never tried to argue this view is not available to atheists. In fact, in Reasonable Faith, he agrees that atheists can adopt that moral epistemology, and accuses his opponents of being confused about the issue. He says, “I have been astonished at the confusion of moral ontology with moral epistemology on the part of prominent moral philosophers responding to premise (1).” But the obvious reason why Craig’s critics have sometimes treated the epistemological question as central is Craig’s repeated reliance on the “why think?” rhetorical question in his arguments.

Craig also sometimes relies on the conflation of atheism and naturalism (the latter being something like the view that nature is all that exists). Certainly, naturalism entails atheism, and in the 21st century, most atheists are also naturalists. But atheism does not obviously entail naturalism, and even if objective morality were a problem for naturalism, this would be no reason to think that God exists.

A third argument example: Craig often seems to think that the problem with atheism is that it gives us the wrong view of the relative moral value of humans and animals. Why this would be so is never explained. Craig’s response to Paul Draper on this point is instructive: Draper commented that he thinks animals do have some moral standing, and Craig didn’t challenge this moral view, but just went on complaining that atheism provides no basis for morality–effectively abandoning his argument about the moral status of animals.

Abstract objects and grounding

In his final contribution to the Craig-Flew debate book, Craig suggests a version of the moral argument that has the benefit of not suffering from the sort of basic confusions described above:

[Keith Yandell] gives us the two candidates for the ground of necessary moral truths: God or abstract objects. I agree that these are the alternatives, and it is unclear to me whether Draper, Martin and Rowe, in rejecting theistic ethics, would embrace Platonism. In a debate situation, one waits for one’s opponents to bring up the alternatives; now that it has been raised, let me say a word about why I find theism a more plausible ground for moral values and duties than Platonism…

This suggests a moral argument in this form:

1) If morality is objective, it must be either grounded in God or abstract objects.
2) Morality is not grounded in abstract object.
3) Therefore, if morality is objective, it must be grounded in God.

Unfortunately, it is unclear whether Craig means this to be the core of his moral argument, because the closest he has ever come to explicitly stating it this way is in the passage above. The attacks on “Platonism” that follow are found, almost verbatim, in Reasonable Faith and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, but it is very hard to find justification for the first premise that can be separated from Craig’s more confused statements about God and morality.

As for the second premise, Craig’s primary argument is the very idea of abstract objects is problematic. For those not familiar with the philosophical jargon, “abstract objects” is a blanket term for a variety of things which we regularly talk about but which obviously aren’t at all like tables and chairs and human beings: numbers, colors, meanings, ways the world could be, as well as moral properties like goodness, justice, and so on. Since we talk about them all the time, many philosophers would insi st we should accept that they exist. Indeed, to explain the meaning of the term “abstract objects,” I almost wrote “there are many things which obviously aren’t at all…” which would seemingly commit me to saying that there are numbers, colors, and so on. On the other hand, statements like “the number three exists” sound extremely puzzling. As Craig asks, “What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value Justice just exists?”

However, I have a hard time seeing that worries about abstract objects lead to any serious worry about whether morality is objective–whether, as Craig puts the question, moral truths are true independent of what anyone believes. Compare this to the case of mathematics: even if we are not sure what to make of statements like “the number three exists,” I don’t know of anyone who thinks I find it extraordinarily implausible to think that reflecting on that problem might lead us to conclude that mathematical truth depends on what people believe. The same goes for morality.

Edit 4/4/10: Andrew points out in the comments that some people, particularly mathematical fictionalists, appear to think mathematics depends on our beliefs, but it’s unclear to me how mathematical fictionalists account for our common-sense views on mathematics. This is an example of how I realize I should know more about philosophy of mathematics than I do.

Indeed, if Craig thinks this “abstract objects” version of the moral argument is successful, why does he not also use an analogous argument from mathematics just as often? Craig has made gestures in the direction of a “conceptualist argument” for God’s existence, but has only done so occasionally and has never developed the argument much. The presentation in Reasonable Faith is full of qualifiers indicating Craig has little confidence in the argument: statements about how the argument “might be formulated,” what a defense of a premise “would involve,” and so on. Why so little confidence in an argument so closely analogous to part of Craig’s moral argument? Probably, because while Craig can count on his audience to have a prejudice in favor of thinking that all morality is religious morality, nobody thinks that mathematics is an inherently religious endeavor.

There’s more I could say on this–in particular, how insulting it is (in the “do you think I’m stupid?” way) that Craig goes around saying it’s the “atheistic view” that rape isn’t really wrong, when Craig is the one who believes that any killing can be made morally OK on God’s say-so. But I’ve spent way too much time writing this blog post already, and I’ve said enough to show how incredibly weak Craig’s argument is. Really, it’s embarrassing to see such an argument put forward by a Ph.D.’d philosopher as the result of serious philosophical inquiry.

Leave a comment


  1. “Certainly, naturalism entails atheism, and in the 21st century, most atheists are also naturalists. But naturalism does not obviously entail atheism, and even if objective morality were a problem for naturalism, this would be no reason to think that God exists.”

    In the second sentence above, did you mean to say that atheism does not obviously entail naturalism? Otherwise it seems to contradict the first sentence.

  2. “Compare this to the case of mathematics: even if we are not sure what to make of statements like “the number three exists,” I don’t know of anyone who thinks reflecting on that problem might lead us to conclude that mathematical truth depends on what people believe.”

    Mathematical fictionalism, let us say, is the thesis that mathematical sentences are *strictly false* (since their purported subject matter–numbers and the like–do not exist) though such sentences are *true according to the math fiction*. Isn’t that problem you mention above *precisely* what drives mathematical fictionalists? And doesn’t the matter of what’s true in a fiction depend in some part on what people believe?

  3. Chris Hallquist

    JJ–Good catch, fixed.

    Andrew–Edited the post to try to take that into account.

  4. I also think that the moral argument is probably Craig’s weakest regularly used argument, although I would say that his ontological argument is the weakest overall.

    I find that the biggest problem with the whole thing is that it uses appeal to emotion to try and demonstrate that morality is objective. If I say that in some possible world, child rape could be good, it causes most people to cringe. People don’t want to believe this could be the case, and they fall in line with the objective morality side of things. Unfortunately this is still a subjective argument that can’t be proven. Without an evaluative domain from which to test the argument, emotion is all he has.

    Craig relies quite often on this, and he wins debates not because what he says is true, but because what he says feels good, and pointing out logical fallacies does little to diminish the emotional pull of his arguments.

    I would also argue that his claim of bifurcation fallacy of the Euthyphro dilemma is also very weak, and if you can push him into further answering for why God is moral instead of immoral when he claims God’s nature is to be moral, you would get to an arbitrary position. In other words, both premises fail.

  5. My understanding of theistic moral ontology is the following: theists want God to be both the source and the creator of moral prescriptions. In other words, the want morality to be “up to God”.

    In resolving the Euthyphro, Craig tries to collapse both horns of the dilemma into the being of God: God commands what is good because it is his nature to be good.

    But this is simply to ascribe an independently defined property to God. There are other properties that we ascribe to God, such as “necessity”, “immateriality”, “eternality”, “personhood” etc. Is Craig saying that all these properties are “up to God” as well, i.e. that God gets to determine what personhood really is?

    If so, this would seem to make it impossible to argue for God’s existence. But his attempt to ground mathematical properties in God is perhaps an indication that Craig would be willing to go all the way on the properties mentioned above.