Atheistic Moral Realism – Part 8

I am not impressed by Richard Taylor’s appeal to etymology as an argument for the claim that all duties and all obligations are ‘owed’ to some person or persons (see part 7 for my objections to that line of reasoning).

However, to be fair to Craig, Taylor’s appeal to etymology is not specifically and explicitly quoted by Craig in his essay ‘Why I Believe God Exists’ (WIAC, p.62-80). Perhaps Craig is aware of the weakness of Taylor’s appeal to etymology, and so he avoids quoting such appeals by Taylor.

Let’s assume that Craig is also skeptical about such appeals and take a closer look at the quotations of Taylor that Craig does provide, to see if there is a different reason given in those passages:

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.”  God makes sense of moral obligation because his commands constitute for us our moral duties. Taylor writes:

Our moral obligations can… be understood as those that are imposed by God…. But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of moral obligation…still make sense?… The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone. (WIAC, p.76)

There are at least two different ways to read the above passage from Craig’s essay. First, one can take Craig as making an appeal to authority, with ‘the ethicist Richard Taylor’ being an authority in the field of ethics. Alternatively, one can attempt to find a reason or argument in the words Craig quotes from Taylor, a reason that is, perhaps, based on something other than the etymology of the words ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’.

If Craig is merely making an appeal to the authority of Taylor, then Craig has failed to give us a good reason for his conceptual claim that duties and obligations are always necessarily owed to some person or persons. This is a weak argument, because there are other equally qualified philosophers who would doubt or reject the conceptual claim here. In general, metaethical issues are at least as controversial among philosophers as are issues of normative ethical theories. Thus, in general, metaethical issues are not the sort of issue that should be resolved by appeal to authority, since the authorities in metaethics do not, in general, share an agreed upon consensus view.

So, if Craig gives us a solid reason for his second objection, it must be something more than just an appeal to the authority of ‘the ethicist’ Richard Taylor. It is not immediately apparent what the argument is in the quotes of Taylor that Craig provides in his essay. However, there does appear, on the surface, to be an argument that goes like this:

1. If one assumes that God exists and that God is a higher-than-human lawgiver, then one can make sense of the concept of ‘moral obligation’.

2. An atheist cannot assume that God exists and that God is a higher-than-human lawgiver.


3. An atheist cannot make sense of the concept of ‘moral obligation’.

I cannot be certain that this is the argument that Craig intends us to get out of the quotations from Richard Taylor, because Craig does not explicitly spell out the argument; he just gives us the quotations.  But this does appear to me to be an argument that is strongly suggested by the quotations that Craig provides.

If this is the argument, then we can quickly dismiss Craig’s second objection, because this argument commits the common deductive fallacy of denying the antecedent:

If P, then Q.

Not P.


Not Q.

This form of deductive argument is logically invalid.  Consider the following example:

If it is raining, then my lawn is wet.

It is not raining.


My lawn is not wet.

The conclusion does not follow, because there are other possible reasons why my lawn might be wet.  For example, if a sprinkler on my lawn has been spraying water for an hour or so, then my lawn would be wet even if it was a clear and sunny day.

So, if we consider Taylor’s argument based on an appeal to etymology, then there is only a fairly weak reason to accept Taylor’s conclusion. If, on the other hand, we take Craig to be making an appeal to the authority of ‘the ethicist’ Taylor, then Craig has given us a very weak reason to accept his second objection to AMR. Finally, if we take it that Craig sees some other argument (not clearly stated by Craig) in the quotations he provides of Taylor, then it appears that Craig has put forward an invalid deductive argument in support of his second objection to AMR.

I do not see a good or strong reason to accept Craig’s second objection to AMR.