Atheistic Moral Realism – Part 5

I am currently considering William Craig’s second objection to Atheistic Moral Realism (AMR):

Second, the nature of moral duty or obligation seems incompatible with atheistic moral realism. (WIAC, p.76)

The following is a third piece of the paragraph where Craig presents this objection:

Who or what lays such an obligation on me?  As the ethicist Richard Taylor points out, “A duty is something that is owed. … But something can be owed only to some person or persons.  There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.” (WIAC, p.76)

First of all, note the prejudicial phrasing of Craig’s question “Who or what lays such an obligation on me?” This question presupposes or strongly implies that an obligation can exist only if some person ‘lays’ that obligation on some other person. The word ‘Who’ obviously points to the idea of a person, but Craig adds the alternative ‘or what’ to avoid obviously begging the question.

However, the verb ‘lays’ requries both a subject and two objects:


For example, “My wife lays her keys on the table”. Strictly speaking, the subject of such a sentence does not have to be a person. It could be a machine or an animal:

The machine lays the record on the turntable.

The cat lays its paw on my face.

But these are derivative from and analogous with sentences about the actions of persons. They are anthropomorphic sentences, which treat machines and animals as if they were persons.

So, the way Craig phrases the question is biased towards the answer that he hopes to persuade others to accept.

Craig quotes Richard Taylor as a sort of authority here. It is important to note that Taylor represents himself as a rebel, as a philosopher who is challenging a basic and widely held view of ethics and morality in the Wester philosophical tradition.

As skeptics and atheists, we have a soft spot in our hearts for such rebels. We too are often in the role of rebels, challenging longstanding and widely held religious beliefs and superstitions. Richard Taylor is a recognized expert in the field of ethics, but we should keep in mind that his views, at least in terms of his key ideas, are at odds with most of the great thinkers in the history of ethics. What Taylor has to say about the nature of moral duties and obligations is likely to be controversial (as are most theories in ethics anyway).

Here is Taylor’s argument:

1. A duty is something that is owed.

2. Something can be owed only to some person or persons.


3. A duty is something that is owed to some person or persons.

The first problem I see is that premise (1) is not clearly and obviously true. It is not obvious to me that a duty is always and necessarily ‘something that is owed’. Perhaps some duties are ‘something that is owed’, but in order to make a universal claim, a claim that ALL duties are ‘something that is owed’ we are owed a good reason to believe this claim.

Premise (2) seems less objectionable, more plausible on its face. However, there is an ambiguity in premise (2) and also in the conclusion. So, there is the possibility of the fallacy of equivocation here, and at least there is the likelihood of misunderstanding and unclarity.

Suppose that a friend of mine has a family emergency, and he asks me to take care of his six-year-old son for the weekend while he is out of town dealing with the emergency. I promise to take good care of his son for the weekend. Because I made this promise, I have a duty to take care of my friends son for the weekend. To whom do I have this duty?

I made the promise to my friend, so you could say that I owe it to my friend to keep the promise I made to him. On the other hand, I promised to take care of the boy, so I have a duty to take care of the boy. One could say that I have a duty towards the boy. It is the boy who will benefit from my care if I keep the promise, and it is the boy who will suffer if I fail to keep the promise, and the point of the promise was to assure my friend that the boy would be safe and cared for. So, care of the boy is my duty, and the object of my duty is the boy.

So, the expression ‘I have a duty to X’ seems ambiguous, at least in some circumstances, like when I make a promise to care for someone other than the person to whom I make the promise. There is the person to whom I have made the promise, and there is also the person to whom I have taken on the duty of caring.

The object of promised care, however, need not be a person. If my friend must go out of town for a family emergency, and he asks me to water his vegetable garden while he is away, if I promise to water it every day, then I have taken on a duty towards his garden which is obviously NOT a person. I make the promise to my friend, so there is a person to whom I have an obligation, but the object of the promise is, in this case, a garden not a person.

So, in the sense of the object of a duty, a duty need not always be ‘to a person or persons’. The object of a duty may be to a plant or to a non-human animal.

To be continued….