Sometime back, somebody — alas! I cannot remember when or who — asked me to write an analysis of the following article by Wes Morriston:
“God and the Ontological Foundation of Morality” (2012) 48 Religious Studies 15-34
At the time I rejected the suggestion. I had read Morriston’s article when it was first published, and while I found it to be pretty good, I didn’t think it contained any revelatory insights into the putative relationship between theism and morality. More recently, however, I have had the occasion to re-read the article, and although my original interpretation hasn’t changed greatly, Morriston’s discussion has become tangentially relevant to something else I’m researching and writing at the moment and so I am much more motivated to engage with its details. Which is precisely what I’m going to do in this and the next blog post.
Morriston’s article is a sustained analysis and critique of William Lane Craig’s views on the relationship between God and morality. According to Morriston, throughout his work on this topic, Craig has defended two clear theses about this relationship:
Thesis 1: If theism is true, we have a sound (ontological) foundation for morality.
Thesis 2: If theism is false, we do not have a sound (ontological) foundation for morality.
The problem, as Morriston sees it, is that both of these theses are false. It is not true that God provides a sound foundation for morality, nor is it true that without God we would lack a sound foundation. I will discuss Morriston’s analysis of each of these claims over the next two blog posts.
In this post, I will cover Morriston’s discussion of the first thesis. I start by outlining, in a fairly quick-fire manner, Craig’s basic views on the ontological grounding of moral values and moral duties. I then look at Morriston’s critique of Craig’s views on moral values, before closing with Morriston’s critique of Craig’s views on moral duties.
1. Craig’s Moral Ontology, in a Nutshell
The universe consists of entities, activities and states of affairs. Every actually existent entity, activity and state of affairs can be called a “fact”. One of the curious features of these facts is that they sometimes have moral statuses attached to them. There are basically two types of moral status that can attach to a fact: (i) a value status, according to which the fact is held to be “good” or “bad”; and (ii) a deontic or duty-oriented status, according to which the fact is held to be obligatory, permissible or forbidden.
The central assumption guiding Craig’s moral theory is that the moral statuses we attach to facts need an ontological grounding. Without this ontological grounding moral facts would fail to be objective in the sense required by Craig (I discussed Craig’s views on objectivity at some length before). Whether this assumption is a good one is a question to which we shall return. For now, let us focus on the ontological grounding that Craig offers.
Let’s look first to Craig’s ontological grounding of moral values. According to Craig, moral values are grounded in the being of God. They aren’t simply inert abstract facts, as the moral Platonists would have us believe and which Craig thinks metaphysically “queer”, they are facts about a concrete God. Specifically, they are facts about God’s essential nature or characteristics. God, according to Craig, is essentially just, kind, generous, loving and so forth. These characteristics ultimately constitute the moral good; and the fact that they are characteristics of God thus provides the good with its ontological grounding.
Craig’s views about the ontological grounding of moral duties builds upon what he says about moral values. As regards moral duties, Craig adopts a fairly typical divine command theory (DCT): the obligatory, the permissible and the forbidden are grounded in God’s commands. Something is obligatory if God commands us to do it; something is forbidden if God commands us not to do it; and something is permissible if God neither commands nor forbids it.
Craig adds to this typical DCT the additional claim that what God commands “flows from” his moral nature. In doing so, he hopes to avoid the typical Euthphro-based objection to DCT that on this account God’s commands could be arbitrary, i.e. that God could command us to do anything, including raping and torturing children, and that if he did we would be obliged to do it. This potential arbitrariness of God’s commands seems to clash with some deep intuitive beliefs we have about moral facts, namely, that they are necessary, i.e. the same in all possible worlds. But if God’s commands flow directly from his moral nature, the arbitrariness objection is, arguably, overcome. God’s commands are no longer arbitrary, they are constrained by his morally perfect nature.
The diagram below tries to summarise Craig’s views about the ontological grounding of moral facts.
2. Morriston on Moral Values
Morriston offers two main critiques of Craig’s attempt to ground moral values in God’s essential characteristics. The critiques essentially amount to the same thing, but they differ in terms of their rhetorical strength, at least they do so in my opinion. The first, and in my opinion rhetorically weaker critique, is effectively a reformulated version of the Euthyphro dilemma. The second, and in my opinion rhetorically stronger critique, probes a bit more deeply into Craig’s conception of the grounding relationship.
2.1 - The New Euthyphro
The reformulated version of the Euthyphro works like this. Craig is claiming that things are morally good to the extent that they resemble God’s essential characteristics. In other words, as the diagram above makes clear, he is claiming that goodness is equivalent to God-likeness. But this raises a dilemma. Either God-likeness is equivalent to goodness because his essential characteristics — like kindness, lovingness, generosity and justice — are independently good, or those characteristics are good solely in virtue of the fact that they are possessed by God.
If Craig takes the first horn of the dilemma — and says that characteristics such as kindness, lovingness and so on are good independently of God — then he effectively concedes that God is not needed to ground objective moral values, they are independent, free-floating properties. This would surely not be welcome to him. But if he takes the second horn of the dilemma — and says that those characteristics are good simply because they are possessed by God — then he faces two problems. First, he appears to make the good contingent upon God’s characteristics which, arguably, could have been different. Making moral values contingent in this manner clashes with some people’s deep intuitions about the nature of the good. And second, he seems to commit himself to the claim that, in a godless universe, someone who was loving and kind would not be good. Morriston thinks this is strongly counterintuitive: we have no real reason to think that those characteristics would not be good in a godless universe.
Craig may respond that these two criticisms of the second horn of the dilemma involve counterfactual claims with impossible antecedents (call these “counterpossibles”) and that counterpossibles of this sort have, on the standard account, merely trivial or vacuous truth values. That is to say, no serious objection to his view can rely on claims like “If God had different characteristics, then those characteristics would be good” or “If God did not exist, then kindness would not be good” since it is impossible for God to have different characteristics or for God to not exist. I’ll discuss this kind of response in more detail below when I consider Morriston’s critique of Craig’s account of moral duties.
2.2 The Moral Metre Stick
The second criticism of Craig’s ontology of moral value looks more closely at the kind of ontological grounding Craig envisages. Morriston looks at a number of quotes from Craig’s debates at this point in order to determine what Craig thinks about this relationship. I will simply summarise the results of this investigation. According to Morriston, Craig’s vision of the grounding here can be understood in terms of “informative identification” and/or “paradigmatic instantiation”.
The best way to understand what an informative identification is is to look at some examples. Two are cited in Morriston’s article. The first is that “water” can be informatively identified with the chemical compound “H20”; the second is that “heat” can be informatively identified with “mean molecular motion”. To me, these are two classic examples of reductive ontological groundings, i.e. cases in which one set of properties is reduced to another. In theory, this could lead to the elimination of the first set of properties. In other words, all talk of water could be eliminated in favour of talk about H2O, or all talk of heat could be eliminated in favour of talk about mean molecular motion.
Does Craig intend to make similar claims about talk of goodness and talk of God-likeness? It’s not clear to me that he does, and the possibility that he does raises issues not addressed by Morriston in his article so I will not pursue them here. All I will say is that there are significant problems associated with reductive accounts of the good of this sort (which, I hasten to add, is not to say that all reductive accounts of the good are problematic, just that some are). Mark Schroeder’s article “Realism and Reduction” is a good place to start if you wish to explore these issues in more detail.
The notion that God provides a paradigmatic instantiation of the good is rather more interesting and, I believe, significant. The analogy Craig uses to make his case is a familiar one: the metre stick analogy. According to popular lore, the length we refer to as “one metre” is determined by reference to a standard metre stick (an iridium bar that is kept in Paris). This is the paradigmatic instantiation of the metre. But this use of this physical paradigm has a curious effect on the ontology of the metre viz. the degree to which an distance is one metre in length just is the degree to which it is similar to the length of the standard metre stick. There is nothing more to the ontology of the metre than this similarity relationship.
Craig argues that this is also true of the ontology of moral goodness. That is to say, God functions as something like a standard moral metre stick: the degree to which any person, object, event or state of affairs in the real world is good just is the degree to which it resembles God.
I have attempted to summarises the main features of the metre stick analogy in the diagram below.
There are several problems with Craig’s use of the metre stick analogy. For starters, the story about the standard metre stick is a good deal more complex than is being let on. The precise definition of a metre, and the physical paradigm that is used to define it, has changed over the years. At the moment, a metre is defined as “the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1 ⁄ 299,792,458 of a second”. It is not defined by reference to the iridium bar that is kept in Paris. The fact that the paradigm has shifted in this manner over time suggests, perhaps, that the “metre” is not simply reducible to any physical paradigm but is, instead, an abstract property. It may occasionally be helpful to identify it with a physical paradigm, but this should not detract from the fact that it is really an abstract concept, something that is ultimately separate from any physical instantiation. Arguably, this is also true of the good: the good is an abstract property, not reducible to any particular physical paradigm.
This may not be persuasive to everyone so it’s worth notin a second problem with the metre stick analogy. This is that units of measurement are arbitrary in a way that moral values are not. In order to measure things and engage in physical sciences reliant on measurement, we need some conventional system of measurement. These conventional systems can arise from completely arbitrary starting points, e.g. the length of Henry VIII’s thumb, but this does not matter: as long as the units are matters of conventional agreement, the measurement game can begin. The same is not true of moral values. We cannot just pick an arbitrary paradigm, such as God’s characteristics, and say that being good consists in similarity with those characteristics. The good is a more important, and metaphysically robust concept than that.
This leads me to suggest an alternative analogy that might be more in keeping with what we think about the good: the straightedge analogy. The analogy is inspired by Dan Dennett’s discussion of the history of the straightedge in this talk. A straightedge is a tool that is used, unsurprisingly, to draw straight edges or to check the flatness of machined surface (among other things). Over the years, many physical objects have served as paradigms of the straight edge. But the straight edge itself remains an abstract, indeed, mathematical, entity. Although our physical paradigms might get closer and closer to this abstraction, they are still not ontologically equivalent to it. I argue that something similar is true of the good: approximations of it can be found in physical paradigms, but it is not reducible to those paradigms. So there may be many reasons for thinking that God, if he exists, would serve as an excellent paradigm of the good, but this should not be taken to imply that God is ontologically equivalent to the good.
(Note: the last three paragraphs are really based on my own ideas, not Morriston’s)
2.3 - So what does ground moral values?
If the preceding criticisms succeed, then Craig has failed to show that God provides a sound ontological foundation for moral values. This raises the obvious question: if God doesn’t provide it, then what does? Morriston’s preferred answer, which has been hinted at above, is “nothing”. Moral values are abstract, sui generis facts, just as a moral Platonist would hold. Craig might object that this makes moral values metaphysically “queer” but Morriston avers that Craig’s claim that moral values just are equivalent to God’s essential characteristics is no less metaphysically puzzling.
When it comes to finding ontological groundings for facts it’s always going to be a question of which is the most appropriate stopping point. Since not every fact can have a grounding (lest we risk an infinite regress of groundings) we have to decide where to call a halt. Morriston argues that Craig has done nothing to show that God is a more appropriate stopping point than the moral properties of kindness, generosity and justice themselves.
3. Morriston on Craig’s Account of Moral Duties
After that rather elaborate discussion of moral values, my discussion of duties will seem like somewhat of a damp squib. But that’s for two reasons. First, I think the analysis of values is more fundamental and more interesting. And second, Morriston has relatively less to say about this topic.
Recall that for Craig moral duties are grounded in God’s commands, but that God’s commands are constrained by his essential nature. As a result, Craig thinks he manages to slip between the horns of the classic Euthyphro dilemma: duties really do depend on God’s commands, but God’s commands are not arbitrary.
This means that Craig thinks he need not respond to the classic “What if God commanded something terrible?” objections to DCT. Why not? Because these objections depend on counterpossibles, i.e. commands that God could never issue. This could mean one of two things:
(a) The objection relies on a counterfactual claim with a vacuous truth value according to the usual Stalnaker-Lewis semantics of counterpossibles; or
(b) The objection relies on a nonsensical claim. Asking “what if God commanded something terrrible?” is like asking “what if circles had straight edges?”. Whatever answer we give to these questions would be meaningless.
Morriston rejects both of these suggestions. He thinks that counterpossibles can be both non-vacuously true and meaningful. The example he chooses is an unusual one. He asks us to consider what would follow if an omniscient and perfectly honest being told us — per impossibile — that 2+2=5. In response he suggests that we would have to take the claim seriously since it seems to be the case that whatever an omniscient and perfectly honest being tells us has to be true. In other words, this seems to be a counterpossible claim that is neither vacuously true nor non-sensical. Hence, it is still possible for “what if God commanded X?” objections to have some effect on Craig’s DCT.
I’m not entirely sure I follow Morriston’s reasoning here. Those who are better versed in the semantics and logic of counterfactuals will be better-positioned to evaluate his argument. I’m rather more persuaded by Morriston’s second observation about counterpossibles, which is that Craig himself seems to have an inconsistent attitude toward them. In particular, it seems that Craig thinks that there is at least one counterpossible that is neither vacuously true nor nonsensical:
Thesis 2: If theism is false, we do not have a sound (ontological) foundation for morality.
This is a counterpossible because Craig seems to adopt the view that God is a necessary being, i.e. a being that could not fail to exist. But despite this Craig expends a great deal of energy defending the truth of this counterpossible. We’ll consider what he to say in part two.
If Morriston is successful in his refutation of Craig’s ontology of moral duties, the obvious question arises: what does ground moral duties? Morriston argues that there are two possibilities.
The first is that duties, like values, need no ontological grounding. After all, there are a variety of normative laws — e.g. one ought not to believe any argument that commits the fallacy of affirming the consequent — that seem to create something akin to duties but have no grounding outside of themselves.
The second is that duties could be grounded in the commands or desires of a strictly hypothetical agent, as is done in Ideal Observer-style theories of ethics. In this case, the actual existence of the ideal observer is not needed since all that matters is what the observer would command/desire if he/she existed.
To sum up, Craig thinks that if theism is true, then we have a sound ontological foundation for moral facts. Specifically, he thinks that moral values are grounded in the essential characteristics of God and that moral duties are grounded in the commands of an essentially good God.
In response, Morriston has argued that Craig’s attempt to ground moral facts in God is flawed. His grounding of moral values relies on a questionable account of the grounding relationship and is open to a revised version of the Euthyphro dilemma. Likewise, his grounding of moral duties relies on an inconsistent attitude toward the truth of counterpossibles. In addition to this, Morriston has argued that moral facts either do not need any ontological grounding or, if they do, that non-theistic groundings are available.
It should be noted that Morriston does not think that there is anything atheistic about his view. Indeed, he self-identifies as a Christian and thinks that his view, which is shared by other Christians (e.g. Swinburne) should be preferred by theists over that of Craig.