This is the second part in a short series of posts looking at Erik Wielenberg’s recent article “An Inconsistency in Craig’s Defence of the Moral Argument”. Unsurprisingly, given its title, the article tries to show that the manner in which William Lane Craig — that most famous and indefatigable of Christian apologists — defends the moral argument for the existence of God leads him to contradict himself.
Part one traced out the various dialectical steps that Craig takes when defending the moral argument (more precisely: when defending his version of the modified DCT). The central premise of Craig’s moral argument holds that (a) only God provides a sound foundation for the existence of objective moral truths; and (b) objective moral truths are in need of a sound foundation. Critics challenge both (a) and (b).
In defending (a), Craig develops his version of the modified DCT. The modified DCT is designed to overcome classic Euthyphro-style objections to the DCT. It holds, contra the Euthyphro, that God’s nature is such that he cannot command that certain acts are permissible (e.g. the torture of the innocent). Thus, according to the modified DCT, there are such things as “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 are certain logically necessary moral duties.
In defending (b), Craig rejects the approach of non-theistic, non-natural moral realism (NTNNMR). According to NTNNMR, (at least some) moral truths do not need to be explained or grounded. Rather, they are logically necessary and hence self-explanatory. Craig accuses proponents of NTNNMR of adopting a “shopping list” approach to metaethics, of helping themselves to the moral entities they prefer, and thus he imposes the following condition of success on metaethical theories:
Craig’s Condition: Any approach to metaethics that posits the existence of logically necessary connections must adequately explain those necessities.
Wielenberg’s argument is that these two things — N-commands and Craig’s Condition — lead to a contradiction. Let’s see exactly how this works.
1. Wielenberg’s Argument
Superficially, there’s nothing contradictory about Craig’s commitment to the existence of N-commands and his condition of success for metaethics. The former says only that certain moral duties exist as a matter of logical necessity; the latter says that logically necessary connections must be explained. It’s only if an additional premise is added to the mix — viz. that N-commands are unexplained logical necessities — that a contradiction emerges.
This means that Wielenberg is proposing that the following argument is a good one.
- (1) Craig’s modified DCT posits the existence of N-commands: divine commands, which define the scope of our obligations, and which flow as a matter of necessity from God’s nature.
- (2) Any successful metaethical theory must explain posited logical necessities, otherwise it fails.
- (3) N-commands are unexplained logical necessities.
- (4) Therefore, Craig’s modified DCT fails.
Clearly, this argument is valid: the conclusion follows from the conjunction of the premises. Furthermore, premises (1) and (2) look to be pretty solid. As outlined above, Craig seems to be committed to them in his defence of the DCT. If he rejects (1), he opens himself up to Euthyphro-style objections that he worked so hard to avoid. Similarly, if he rejects (2), one of the key assumptions of his moral argument is undermined.
So premise (3) is where the action is. And premise (3) is obviously going to be controversial. Certainly, when I first read Wielenberg’s article, I thought to myself “but, of course, Craig will argue that N-commands are explained. He will say that they are explained by the divine nature.” Wielenberg’s task is to show that this response doesn’t work.
2. Are N-commands Unexplained?
The simple answer to Wielenberg’s argument — and the one I suspect Craig would give — is that N-commands are explained. They are, after all, grounded in the divine nature. So something like this will be used to rebut premise (3) of Wielenberg’s argument.
- (5) N-commands are explained: they are explained by the fact that they flow necessarily from God’s moral nature.
How exactly does this work? Let’s take a command like “Love thy neighbour and do them no harm” (not a quote, I hasten to add). The idea is that this is explained by the fact that God’s nature is good and it consists of the property of lovingkindness. Thus, the goodness of lovingkindness explains the command in question. A similar story can be told about other moral commands such as the command not to torture the innocent. This is explained by the fact that it is contrary to the divine nature, hence bad, and its badness then explains why it is impermissible.
This simple answer is dubious. As Wielenberg points out, and as Craig seems to agree, goodness and badness do not provide sufficient explanations for obligatoriness and impermissibility. In other words, the mere fact that something is good cannot tell us (for sure) whether it is permissible or obligatory. Quoting Craig:
It is good that I become a wealthy philanthropist…; it is also good that I forgo the pursuit of wealth to become a medical missionary to Chad. But obviously I cannot do both, since they are mutually exclusive. I am not, therefore, obligated to do both, though both are good. Goods, then, do not imply moral obligations. (Craig in Is Goodness without God good enough? 2009, p. 172)
Wielenberg argues that something similar is true in the case of the relationship between evil and the impermissible. Because there are situations in which any act one performs is bad (i.e. because there are moral dilemmas), there are situations in which the mere fact that something is bad does not tell us whether it is forbidden.
This seems right on the money to me. Indeed, if one goes back to the originator of the modified DCT — Robert Adams — one finds that this is one of his main reasons for defending the DCT. Adams argues that God’s commands are needed in order to explain the existence of moral duties because without a command from an authoritative being, we cannot tell the difference between an act that is obligatory and one that is supererogatory. I discuss this argument elsewhere, but in essence it holds that there is an explanatory gap between the value status of an act or state of affairs and the deontic status of an act or state of affairs. The former does not entail the latter.
This suggests that N-commands are fundamentally mysterious entities. The fact that God’s nature is essentially good, does not by itself explain why certain things are necessarily impermissible or obligatory. Or, at any rate, this is what Wielenberg argues. He provides additional support for this view by appealing to sceptical theism (a position that Craig also endorses). According to sceptical theism, we should doubt our ability to explain and justify the connections and entailments between good, bad, right and wrong. Thus, to the extent that Craig endorses sceptical theism, it seems like he should also accept that N-commands are unexplained logical necessities.
We’ll summarise and create an argument map:
- (6) God’s moral nature cannot explain N-commands: there is an explanatory gap between goodness/badness and obligatoriness/impermissibility.
I have to say: I’m not entirely convinced. It seems to me that Adams’s explanatory gap may not hold true in all cases. It may be that it only holds true in those cases which involve dilemmatic choices. But are such dilemmatic choices a necessary feature of the moral universe? Do they arise in all cases of N-commands? Obligations such as “Do not torture an innocent child for fun” seem like they would never feature as part of a credible moral dilemma.
Nevertheless, I think there are other problems for Craig. Leaving the issue of obligations to one side, Craig’s theory also posits certain necessary connections between God’s nature and the properties of goodness and badness. So, for example, Craig says that lovingkindness is good because it is one of God’s properties and God is essentially and necessarily good. But this in itself posits a deeply mysterious necessary connection between God’s properties and goodness. This is something I discussed before.
In addition to this, there is a more general problem for Craig. This is that the condition of success he imposes on metaethical theories is absurdly high. We simply cannot explain all logically necessary connections. The reasons were well articulated by Simon Blackburn and I want to close by exploring them.
3. Blackburn’s Dilemma
Simon Blackburn is a well-known Cambridge-based philosopher. Perhaps his most famous contribution to the philosophical world comes in the shape of his quasi-realist, expressivist account of morality. Interesting and all as that account is, I want to focus on another of his contributions to philosophy here.
In one of his papers, Blackburn formulates a dilemma for those wishing to explain the sourcehood of necessity. This has subsequently become known as “Blackburn’s Dilemma”. Here is my paraphrase of the dilemma:
Blackburn’s Dilemma: Either the necessity of a necessary truth is to be explained by a contingent truth or it is to be explained by another necessary truth. If the necessity of a necessary truth is explained by a contingent truth, then that contingent truth could have been otherwise and hence the necessary truth need not have been necessary. Therefore, the necessity of a necessary truth cannot be explained by a contingent truth. But if a necessary truth is explained by another necessary truth, then we have not explained its necessity, we have simply transferred its necessity elsewhere and started off on a regress of necessary truths that need to be explained.
The two horns of the dilemma are illustrated in the diagram below. The two horns of the dilemma are illustrated in the diagram below. We call the first the contingency horn and the second the necessity horn.
Now, as it happens, there are certain technical problems with how Blackburn formulated the dilemma, but these need not detain us here since the overall thrust of the dilemma remains intact (for a discussion of the technical problems and how they can be overcome, I recommend this article by Hanks). Furthermore, that overall thrust seems to highlight the main problem with Craig’s Condition.
If Craig really thinks that every logically necessary connection must be explained before there can be a successful metaethics, he is doomed to permanent disappointment. Every time he purports to explain a posited logical necessity he will either have to appeal to a contingent fact (in which case the necessity will not explained) or to another logical necessity (in which case the problem is pushed back). We see this pattern above: even if God’s goodness did explain the existence of N-commands, the logically necessary connections between God’s nature and the property of goodness would need to be explained. Thus the problem of satisfying Craig’s condition remains, simply being pushed back one step.
In sum, then, it would seem like Craig’s best bet would be to abandon his strict condition of success. But in so doing NTNNMR becomes a live possibility once more. And so the explanatory battle between NTNNMR and modified DCT must be fought on different turf.