Sunday, April 22, 2012

Morriston on God and the Ontological Foundation of Morality (Part 2)

(Part One)

This is the second part in a brief series on Wes Morriston’s article “God and the Ontological Foundation of Morality”. The article offers a sustained critique of William Lane Craig’s views on moral ontology. Throughout his work on moral ontology, Craig defends two key theses:

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.

In part one, we saw how Morriston challenged Craig’s defence of the first of those theses. In this post, we will take a look at Craig’s defence of the second thesis and Morriston’s response thereto.

Before getting into the nitty gritty, however, we must briefly revisit a complication from part one. If you recall, there are two kinds of moral facts for which Craig seeks a sound ontological foundation: (i) facts about moral value; and (ii) facts about moral duty. Officially, Craig argues that neither values nor duties have a sound foundation in a godless universe. But our focus here will be solely on his arguments in relation to moral value. This is for two reasons. First, Craig himself spends far more time on this issue than he does on duties. And second, the foundation of values seems to take primacy over that of duties. A duty is effectively an action with moral value that we are obliged to perform. Thus, to say we have a duty to do X is to presuppose that are actions and states of affairs with moral value.

So if Craig can show that moral value does not exist in a godless universe, he will effectively have shown that moral duties cannot exist either. Similarly, if Morriston can show that moral values do exist in a godless universe, he will at least have shown the possibility of a foundation for moral duties. As it happens, he does more than this. As we saw the last day, Morriston thinks there are two plausible foundations for moral duties in a godless universe. You might find that the arguments for those foundations seem more plausible after reading the discussion in this post.

1. Is Human Flourishing Morally Significant?
One popular ontological grounding for moral value, which is plausible in a godless universe, is human flourishing. Many philosophers, from Aristotle to Bentham, have argued that human happiness or flourishing, broadly construed, are sources of moral value. That is to say, actions and states of affairs that constitute or contribute to human flourishing are thought to be morally good, and actions and states of affairs that constitute or contribute to human unhappiness are thought to be morally bad.

Irrespective of whether the philosophers supporting this have believed in God or not, it seems that there is nothing essentially theistic about this conception of moral value. In other words, it seems like, even in a godless universe, there would be reason to think human flourishing was a source of value. Ask yourself the question: if it turned out that God did not exist, would you suddenly have reason not to promote human flourishing?

Interestingly, Craig’s defence of Thesis 2 (above) is almost entirely dedicated to answering this question in the affirmative. According to Craig, it is in fact true that in a godless universe, human flourishing is devoid of moral significance. Craig devises a number of arguments to support this, many of them more rhetorical than formal. However, I will attempt a formal reconstruction of some of them here.

I start with the following, which might be termed the “nothing special”-argument.

  • (1) If there is nothing special about humans, then human flourishing is not morally significant (and vice versa). 
  • (2) There is nothing special about humans in an atheistic universe. 
  • (3) There is something special about human in a theistic universe. 
  • (4) Therefore, human flourishing is morally significant in a theistic universe, but not in an atheistic one. 

I’ll talk about how Craig defends each of the key premises here in a moment. First, I want to make a general comment. As I just said, Craig is more rhetorical than formal when presenting his case for thesis 2. Nowhere is this more clear than in his use of the “nothing special” vocabulary. Craig never defines what he means by “special” and this is unfortunate since the phrase is ambiguous. Does he mean special in some objective sense? If so what could this be? Does he mean special in a subjective, observer-relative sense? Is so, whose perspective is relevant? None of these questions are answered directly and, as a result, the subsequent argument suffers. This is something that Shelly Kagan used to his advantage in his debate against Craig.

Now, that’s not to say we have no idea what Craig means by “special”; it’s just to say that whatever notion of “special” Craig is working with must be inferred from what he says. As it happens, in defending premise (2), Craig gives us a window into the workings of his mind:

“[O]n the atheistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental byproducts of nature that have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.” (Craig and Kurtz, 2009)

As Morriston notes, this seems to boil down to:

  • (5) The following facts are true: (i) humans are tiny compared to the universe; (ii) humans haven’t been around for very long (given the age of the universe); (iii) humans owe their existence to a mindless natural process; (iv) humans die after a short time; and (v) eventually, all humans will be permanently dead. 


  • (2) There is nothing special about humans in an atheistic universe. 

As is clear, there is a gap that needs to be filled in the logic here. The filler will consist of some explicit principle or set of principles that allows us to say that shortness of existence, temporal and spatial “smallness”, natural origins and so forth imply a lack of “specialness”. But as Morriston notes, there is no reason to endorse any such principles. Surely, what makes humans special (or not) is what they actually are, not where they came from and how long they will be around? In this vein, he suggests that the capacity to feel pain, to love, to experience joy, to solve mathematical theorems, to write poetry and to compose symphonies are things that should make us think humans are special. And each of these is a fact about what humans actually are, not a fact about their origins and their eventual deaths. I’m not sure all of Morriston’s examples are useful — rhetorically effective though they may be — but I do agree that there is at least one important fact here, namely: the capacity for sentience (feeling pain and experiencing joy). Many strong moral principles (e.g. those covering the wrongness of killing), with robust intuitive support, make use of this fact, suggesting that it does indeed make humans morally valuable. (Note: I should add that, although ultimately endorsing a kind of nihilism, Nagel’s famous article on the absurd also makes the point that Craig’s “facts” cannot form the basis for a persuasive argument against the value of human flourishing).

2. Isn’t it all just matter re-arranging itself?
Most of Craig’s other arguments in favour of thesis 2 are simply variations on the “nothing special” theme. Still, some are worthy of independent consideration. First up is the argument based on the following, rather remarkable, passage:

“[I]f man has no immaterial aspect to his being, whether you call it a soul or a mind or whatever, then we’re not qualitatively different from other animal species. On a materialistic anthropology there’s no reason to think that human beings are objectively more valuable than rats. When a terrorist bomb rips through a market in Baghdad, all that really happens is a rearrangement of the molecules that used to be a little girl.” (Craig and Antony, 2008)

One could focus on the comparison Craig makes with animals in this quote, but that would be a mistake since it’s clear that the moral implications of materialism are really what’s at issue. If we attempt to formalise the argument that Craig is making, we notice something interesting — I think — about its rhetorical structure.

  • (6) If materialism is true, humans are just mere arrangements of molecules. 
  • (7) No mere arrangement of molecules can have moral value. 
  • (8) Therefore, if materialism is true, humans have no moral value. 
  • (9) On materialism, to blow up a little girl is simply to rearrange the molecules of which she consists.
  • (10) Therefore, if materialism is true, blowing up a little girl is a morally neutral act. 

I say this is rhetorically interesting because, once Craig has reached (8) he has proven all he needs to to show that thesis 2 is true (since he is assuming most atheists are materialists). But he still adds the argument about the little girl. Why? I conjecture this is largely for rhetorical effect, to underline the absurdity of the view he is critiquing. This is all well and good, given that this is something Craig originally said in a debate, but it’s worth being on the lookout for rhetorical ploys like this and recognising them for what they are.

In any event, rhetorical ploys to the side, is there anything to be said for this argument? Morriston thinks not. In particular, he notes that premise (7) is easily rebutted: Craig assumes that, on materialism, there is no difference between a collection of molecules forming a rock — or a rat — and a human being. But this is to massively mischaracterise the materialist view. No materialist thinks that all arrangements of molecules are the same. If the arrangement is organised in such a way that it has first person experience, is capable of planning and dreaming, of loving and laughing, then it has a very different moral character from an arrangement of molecules that has none of these things.

Furthermore, there is no reason to think that immaterialism gets a free pass when it comes to moral value. Do immaterial substances automatically come imbued with moral value? Some immaterial concepts, e.g. mathematical entities and truths, seem pretty value neutral. So why think immaterial mental parts do?

If the argument that Craig is making is that only entities with minds have moral value, then that’s all well and good (I might even agree) but that argument should be construed as being strictly neutral as between materialism and immaterialism. Materialists do not deny the existence of minds; they just have a different theory as to their origin and constitution.

3. Evolution and Moral Knowledge
There’s one final argument in Craig’s arsenal that Morriston deems worthy of consideration. This one is based on the notion that the fact of evolution somehow debunks morality. Now, as it happens, I did a fairly extensive series of posts on evolutionary debunking arguments last year in which I outlined exactly how it is that evolution might debunk morality. Craig doesn’t engage with the subtleties of that debate. This is unfortunate because it leads Craig to overestimate the power of the debunking argument and to contradict one of his own key commitments in the process. I won’t review all the details of debunking arguments here myself. Instead, I’ll just sketch some of the important aspects. Hopefully, this will be enough for people to appreciate where Craig goes wrong.

Craig’s view is that if our moral conscience is explained by evolution — in other words, if our morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction — then there is a sense in which morality doesn’t exist. In adopting this view, Craig relies on work done by the inimitable philosopher of science, Michael Ruse. Morriston had some difficulty in working out what Ruse’s actual argument was. It seems — and I’m relying entirely on Morriston’s discussion when I reconstruct this — that the argument reduced to the following:

  • (11) Evolution selects for some degree of cooperative behaviour.
  • (12) Therefore, evolution can explain morality (where “morality” = “judgments and behaviour about what is right and wrong”).
  • (13) If evolution explains moral judgment and behaviour, then the actual existence of an objective morality would make no difference to human thought and behaviour.
  • (14) Therefore, objective morality does not exist. 

As Morriston points out, there are a number of puzzling gaps in the reasoning here. First of all, the leap from (11) to (12) seems unwarranted. Morality is far more complex than mere cooperation and so even if evolution does explain cooperation we’re a long way from being able to show that all moral behaviour and judgment is, in fact, explained by evolution. Second, the leap from (12) and (13) to (14) is highly dubious. Ruse justifies premise (13) in the following manner:

“Consider two separate worlds, identical except that one has objective morality and the other does not. Humans could have evolved in both worlds to believe exactly the same thing…In short, therefore, there is a sense in which objective morality is redundant. Its existence is irrelevant to human thought and action.” 
(Ruse, "Evolutionary Ethics and Christian Morality: Are they in Harmony? 1994, Zygon)

Morriston thinks this is flawed since a moral realist is apt to argue that moral properties supervene on natural properties in such a way that a world devoid of objective value, yet in which our moral beliefs are the same as they would be in a world with objective value, is impossible. But even if that’s not right, there’s a bigger problem: there’s no way that you can get from (13) and (12) to (14) without adding an additional premise. Morriston suggests that the best candidate for this would be:

  • (15) If the truth of a proposition contributes nothing to the best causal explanation of our belief in its truth, then that proposition is not true. 

But this is a deeply flawed principle. It commits the genetic fallacy in assuming that if the origins of our belief in a proposition are suspicious then so too is the truth of that proposition. This is not good reasoning and so Ruse’s argument can’t help Craig to defend thesis 2.

This, incidentally, is a mistake that all careful proponents of the evolutionary debunking according are at pains to avoid. None of them will say that the fact (if it is a fact) that evolutionary processes explain our moral beliefs is sufficient reason for us to doubt the existence of objective morality. Instead, they will say that the fact that evolutionary processes explains our moral beliefs undercuts the warrant that we have for our belief in objective moral value. This is a subtly different thing and, it just so happens, is something Craig should be keen to deny.

Craig fans (and I use the term “fan” somewhat unorthodoxly here since I count myself as one) will know that all his claims about morality are made as part of his effort to offer a moral argument for the existence of God. The argument looks like this (it usually includes references to duties but I’ve excluded those here):

  • (16) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
  • (17) Objective moral values exist.
  • (18) Therefore, God exists. 

This argument is supposed to provide reason for believing in the existence of God. To do that successfully it cannot simply presuppose the existence of God. That would be to beg the question. Craig is aware of this, that’s why, in defending premise (17), he is keen to point out that we all — atheist and theist alike — have knowledge of the existence of objective moral values. Which is to say, he thinks that everyone has warranted beliefs in the existence of objective moral values. Hence, Craig shouldn’t want to do anything that would undercut our warrant for believing in the existence of moral values. Hence, he should not use the warrant-form of the debunking argument.

4. Conclusion
To sum up, one of Craig’s two theses about morality claims that moral values cannot exist in a godless universe. In this post, we considered three arguments he uses to defend this thesis, as well as the responses thereto from Wes Morriston.

First, there was Craig’s argument that there’s nothing special about humans in a godless universe. Craig argued that this was due to their temporal and spatial smallness. Morriston rejected this on the grounds that the specialness of humans is grounded in facts about who they are, i.e in facts about their cognitive and mental faculties and so forth, not in facts about their natural origins and their ultimate fate.

Second, there was Craig’s claim that, on materialism, all arrangements of matter are of equal (i.e. “zero”) moral value. As Morriston noted, this argument is flawed for a variety of reasons. Not least of which is its caricaturing of the materialist position. Materialists will typically point out that there are many important differences between different arrangements of matter, some of which may be of great moral significance.

Third, there was Craig’s attempt to use an evolutionary debunking argument. As was pointed out above, if Craig is to use this argument to support his thesis, he will overreach and commit the genetic fallacy. On the other hand, if he is to use the argument appropriately, he will undermine a key premise of his moral argument. So he is caught in a bit of bind.

This brings us to the end of my exposition of Morriston’s article.


  1. Thanks for these posts. I would love to hear how Craig or his legion of defenders respond to these points.

  2. "(15) If the truth of a proposition contributes nothing to the best causal explanation of our belief in its truth, then that proposition is not true.

    But this is a deeply flawed principle. It commits the genetic fallacy in assuming that if the origins of our belief in a proposition are suspicious then so too is the truth of that proposition. This is not good reasoning and so Ruse’s argument can’t help Craig to defend thesis 2."

    I would actually support said principle as a core epistemological principle. Or at least something very much like it, which I think better represents Russ's apparent thought here. Perhaps,

    (15') If the actual truth of something cannot cause anyone to believe in it (through rational reasoning), then there it is irrational to believe in it.

    Specifically, supposing absolute morality exists as some "standard" somewhere. If this fact is not causally connected to us in a way that would allow us to discover it, then believing in it will be irrational. For another example, there may very well be a parallel universe where I am the King of England, but given that there are no causal links between that universe and ours it would be irrational on my part to believe that this universe exists. Asking us to believe that objective morality exists is then just as absurd as asking us to believe that an invisible angel paints every rainbow, that every earthquake is caused by the wrath of Vulcan in the "Olympian" plane of existence, or any number of baseless hypothesis for which there is no and cannot be a shred of evidence.

    Indeed, one can phrase it as a semantic issue. Let us call the "objective morality" that exists O and the thing we talk about when we talk of "objective morality" as T. What we are referring to when we're talking about T is T, not O. When we are talking about moral issues we are talking about our moral intuitions T, which definitely exist; if there is anything O that exists but does not affect T, then our talk of T is simply not about O. [O would need to cause T in specific ways for us to talk about it when we talk of T, much like the existence of trees makes us talk of "trees"; but it first needs to affect us, in any way, at all.]

    This is the same problem mathematical Platonism faces. And my rejection of Platonism seeps through to my rejection of Objective Morality. Even if some standard of "morality" exists, if it does not affect human thinking then it might as well be called "norality"; it has nothing to do with what we speak of when we speak of "morality".


  3. So, I wouldn't disagree with any of that. That's what I meant by saying that the evolutionary debunking argument undercuts the warrant for believing in objective morality, but that's distinct from saying it proves that objective morality does not exist. As I then said, Craig needs the latter not the former.

  4. Craig and Aquinas beg the question of God's nature being good.

  5. So, in the evolutionary debunking argument section, Morriston is actually attacking Ruse's naturalism? Ruse describes himself as a moral non-realist, but not a non-cognitivist (eg Morriston quotes Craig as having problems understanding atheistic moral realism as an intellectual stance, though Morriston obviously doesn't - but I would imagine that atheistic moral realism has to be non-naturalistic. Regarding warrant, I presume Craig has a similar idea to Plantinga: moral realism is so intuitively obvious that you need strong evidence to discount it.

  6. Re: Warrant

    Perhaps, but even on Plantinga's model of warrant, I'm not sure that moral beliefs would be as strongly warranted as other kinds of belief. In other words, they may be more vulnerable to defeaters. Haven't thought about it too much.

    Even then, though, Craig's moral argument is an exercise in positive apologetics not negative apologetics so it seems like he couldn't avail of the warrant approach here. (Indeed he has objected to certain aspects of the Reformed approach in print before, see Five Views on Apologetics edited by Steven Cowan).

    Re: Non-naturalism

    There are several naturalistic moral realist views (e.g. Railton's moral reductionism, Jackson's moral functionalism). I prefer the anti-realist views myself and have argued that evolutionary debunking arguments might provide one reason to favour anti-realism over realism. I think I did that on the blog before, can't remember where though, possibly buried somewhere within the series evolutionary debunking arguments. I don't think Morriston is objecting to Ruse's views per se but, rather, Craig's use of Ruse's views. Nevertheless, it may be that he misrepresents Ruse, having not read Ruse's original article I can't say.