|He's smiling now...
Forgive me. I am going to start with a self-indulgent bit of blog history.
I started this blog over three years ago. At the time, I saw it as an outlet. I was completing my PhD and finding that I was reading lots of things that weren’t directly relevant to my research. I found a lot of that stuff interesting and I didn’t want to let it go to waste. So this blog became my information dump: when I read something interesting I would write up a blog post about it so it I would have a permanent record of how I understood the arguments it made, which I could return to at a later date.
Originally, my main extra-curricular interest was in the philosophy of religion and ethics. Consequently, the majority of my early posts tended to cover those topics. Practically none of my early posts covered material related to my own research, mainly because I used this blog to get away from my PhD.
Obviously, things have changed quite a bit since then: my posts have become longer and more complicated (neither of which is necessarily of good thing), and the subject matter has moved away from looking at philosophy of religion toward looking more and more at ethical-legal issues that happen to be the focus of my current research and teaching. Nevertheless, I remain interested in the philosophy of religion, and like to occasionally do blog posts on it.
This post is going to be an example of that continuing interest. In it, I’m going to take a look at a recent paper by Erik Wielenberg entitled “An Inconsistency in Craig’s Defence of the Moral Argument”, which unsurprisingly argues that William Lane Craig’s defence of the modified Divine Command Theory (hereafter “modified DCT”) is best by a (fatal) inconsistency.
The paper is quite short, and readily available online, but I’m going to try to add some value to it by simplifying its elements, diagramming its main argumenst, and offering some commentary of my own. To that end, I’ll spread my discussion over two separate posts. In the remainder of this post, I will do three things. First, I’ll quickly sketch the basic structure of the dialectic between Craig's moral argument and its critics. Second, I'll explore one branch of the dialectic, which challenges the role of God in the explanation of moral facts. And third, I'll consider another branch of the dialectic, which challenges the assumptions underlying Craig's moral argument.
1. The Moral Argument and its Discontents
William Lane Craig, like many others, believes that there are objective moral truths. He believes that there are states of affairs in the world of which it is true to say “that state of affairs is good/bad" and that there are actions in the world of which it is true to say “that action is right/wrong”. What’s more he believes this without thinking that the truth conditions of either statement is wholly dependent on subjective states of those who might utter them. To put it more succinctly, he believes that there are objective (mind-independent) moral values and objective moral duties.
He also believes that objective moral truths can only exist if they have some “sound foundation” or explanation. What’s more, he believes that the only possible foundation or explanation for such truths is theistic in nature. This suggests that he is committed to something like the following argument:
- (1) There are objective moral truths. That is to say: there are objective moral values and objective moral duties.
- (2) There is a sound foundation (explanation) for objective moral truths if and only if God exists (i.e. only God provides a sound foundation for objective moral truths).
- (3) Therefore, God exists.
Those of you who are familiar with Craig’s work will realise that this is not a perfect replication of the moral argument that he typically presents in his debates and writings. To be precise, Craig doesn’t usually frame the second premise in terms of “sound foundations” or “explanations”; rather, he frames it in terms of the existence of such facts in the first place. In other words, he says such truths cannot exist if God does not exist. But the modest framing that I have adopted above is more appropriate given the dialectic that commonly arises between Craig and his critics.
What is that dialectic? Well, obviously, as with any logical argument of the sort presented above, there are two potential sites of criticism. One could criticise premise (1) and thereby reject the notion of objective moral truths. That would be radical and discomfiting to many, but there are some who take that approach. We won’t, however, be looking at it here. The other option is to criticise premise (2). That’s the one that’s relevant here and we’ll be spending the remainder of the post looking at it.
Significantly, the criticism of premise (2) can follow at least two separate branches (there is at least one more). The first branch — which we shall call the theistic branch — challenges Craig’s contention that God provides a sound foundation for objective morality. The second branch — which we shall call the foundationless branch — challenges the assumption of premise two, namely: that we need to provide a foundation for objective moral truths in the first place. For Craig’s argument to succeed, he has to cut off both of these branches of criticism.
Wielenberg’s claim is that in trying to do so, Craig contradicts himself. Thus, the way in which he prevents the theistic branch of the criticism from taking hold is in direct contradiction to the way in which he prevents the foundationless branch of criticism from taking hold. To see this, we need to carefully trace out the dialectic that takes place along both branches. The remainder of this post tries to do so.
2. The Theistic Branch of the Dialectic
The most direct critique of Craig’s argument takes place along the theistic branch of the dialectic. As a first step, the critic can pose the question to Craig: why think God provides a sound foundation for moral truths? Craig might (if he were extremely naive, which he isn't) duly oblige by saying: through his commands God tell us what is right and wrong, and good and bad. Thus, God's commands provide the foundation we need. This is the unmodified DCT.
The critic will immediately highlight a problem with this. As noted long ago by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro, making moral truths dependent on God’s commands in this manner seems to render them disturbingly arbitrary. Allow me to explain. Take an objective moral duty of the following sort:
Dutyct: It is morally wrong (read: impermissible) to torture an innocent child for fun.
This would seem to be an uncontroversial example of a moral duty. What’s more, it seems like the kind of moral duty that simply has to hold true, irrespective of the circumstances. In other words, it seems like there could never be a scenario in which it is morally acceptable to torture an innocent child for fun. There is no possible world in which such torture is permissible.
But what if God commanded it? What if he said: you must torture an innocent child for my amusement. If one is a proponent of the unmodified DCT, then it would seem like one is committed to the view that if God commands it, it becomes morally acceptable. So in that case, if God issued that command, the torture of the innocent child would become permissible. The deontic status of an act is suddenly dependent on the arbitrary whim of God.
That seems unpalatable to many — including many theists who accept that God must provide the ultimate foundation for moral truth. So they’ve come up with an escape route: the modified DCT. This was (I believe) originally formulated by Robert M. Adams, but Craig has become a staunch proponent of it in latter days.
The essence of the modified DCT is that moral duties are indeed grounded in God’s commands — thus, Dutyct is true only because God has commanded it — but that there are constraints on what God can command. To be precise, because God is essentially and necessarily good, he could never command (for example) the torture of an innocent child for fun. Thus, certain key moral duties are not dependent on some arbitrary divine whim.
Of course, the upshot of all this is that certain moral truths must hold as a matter of logical necessity. For example, the torture of an innocent child is always and everywhere wrong because God’s nature is such that he forbids it in every possible world; because it is not logically possible for a being with that nature to command otherwise. Following Wielenberg, we call such moral truths “N-Commands”:
N-Commands: God’s nature is such that there are certain things that he forbids, and certain others that he obliges, in every possible world. That is: there certain logically necessary moral duties under the modified DCT.
This is a neat solution to the arbitrariness objection, but it comes at a cost. Or so Wielenberg will argue. To see what that cost, we need to proceed to the foundationless branch of the dialectic.
(Note: You may wonder what happens to objective moral values under the modified DCT. Does God still provide the foundation for them? After all, the modified DCT solves the abritrariness problem by saying that God’s nature is such that he commands certain things as a matter of necessity. But that seems to focus solely on obligations and duties, not on values. As it happens, Craig argues that God’s nature is the grounding for moral values. Thus, God remains the foundation for all moral truths. This grounding of values in the divine nature has problems that I’ve explored before on the blog.)
3. The Foundationless Branch
The second critique of Craig’s argument follows a less direct path, but it highlights a venerable and increasingly popular view among metaethicists.
What is this view? It can be called, for want of a better name, non-theistic non-natural moral realism (NTNNMR). It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. I know. But it accurately describes the view, which is something. NTNNMR holds that moral truths do exist, but that they don’t really need an explanation or grounding. They simple are true. Thus, the second premise of Craig’s argument relies on a faulty assumption. Objective moral truths don’t need what Craig claims he can provide.
There is much to be said for this view. That there are certain things that are self-explanatory, self-grounding or brute is widely accepted. After all, few people think that explanations or grounding exercises can continue indefinitely. There must be some stopping points after which it makes no sense to ask for explanations or foundations. Our conception of reality must bottom-out somewhere.
But Craig nevertheless objects to NTNNMR. Why so? Let’s hear from the man himself:
If our approach to metaethical theory is to be serious metaphysics rather than just a “shopping list” approach, whereby one simply helps oneself to the supervenient moral properties…needed to do the job, then some sort of explanation is required for why moral properties supervene on certain natural states.” (Craig in Is goodness without God good enough?, p. 180)
So Craig thinks that proponents of NTNNMR aren’t serious metaethicists. Their claim that moral facts need no grounding is a case of special pleading. No serious metaethicists play this game: they all think the supervenience of moral properties on natural properties requires some explanation.
But as Wielenberg points out, this is an odd claim to make. The supervenience relation is one of logical necessity. To say that the moral property of wrongness (call this M1 supervenes of the natural states of childhood, torture, innocence and amusement (call these “N1 - N4), is to say that in any two possible worlds in which N1 - N4 hold, so too does M1. In other words, it is logically necessary that if N1- N4 is true, so too is M1.
The upshot of this is that when Craig complains about the “shopping list” approach to metaethics employed by proponents of NTNNMR, he is complaining about a failure to explain logically necessary connections. This suggests that Craig imposes the following success condition on a metaethical theory:
Craig’s Condition: Any approach to metaethics that posits the existence of logically necessary connections must adequately explain those connections.
Now, Wielenberg exploits the appeal to this condition in his challenge to Craig. We’ll look at that the next day. But I want to close by dwelling on the substance of this condition for a moment.
To me, it is somewhat redolent of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). The PSR states (in one form) that for every fact F there is a sufficient explanation of that fact. But Craig’s Condition is both less and more extreme than that famous principle. It is less extreme in that it only applies to the explanation of moral facts — a restriction that could be called into question by critics of Craig’s position. But it is also more extreme in that it applies to logically necessary facts. Many would hold that logically necessary facts fall outside the remit of the PSR since they can be self-explanatory. So in calling for logically necessary connections to be explained, Craig is doing something quite extreme. Of course, Craig defends this by claiming that just because a fact is necessary does not mean it cannot be explained. For example, he claims that “2+2=4” is a necessary truth, but nevertheless it is explained by the Peano axioms This suggests that at least some logically necessary facts can be explained. All that needs to be shown then is that moral facts are among those necessary facts that both have and need an explanation. But can this be shown?
Wielenberg doesn’t answer this question in his short article. That is understandable. He has other fish to fry. Still, I find it quite interesting. And as it happens I have a piece currently under review somewhere that tries to critique Craig (and some other theistic metaethicists) on this very point. That, however, is a topic for another day. For now, I shall conclude this post.
In part two, I’ll outline Wielenberg’s critique in full detail, and consider his defence of it. Stay tuned.