bookmark_borderDo Christians have more to lose?

In a recent blog post, Randal Rauser wonders about the prospects that atheists (or anyone, really) are “simply after the truth”. He begins by noting that many Christians (such as the popular Christian apologist Lee Strobel), assume that atheists reject God in order to give license to their poor behavior. He’s not sold on this view, but he’s also skeptical of the alternative position that atheists are on a dispassionate quest for truth.
He points to academia (well, a subset – philosphers and scientists) in order to illustrate his point. To quote: “As an academic, you stake a claim that a certain set of propositions is true, or more likely true, than another set (even if that set is the skeptic’s set which advocates withholding belief in other sets).
He continues to say that the more time you spend defending these claims, the more attached you become to them. Your intellectual commitments seem to bleed into your personal commitments, and an attack on those ideas might seem vaguely personal. As he says, “Just as we identify emotionally with nations and persons, so we identify with truth claims, theories and ideologies.” This all seems right to me so far.
He concludes by arguing that “we all begin on the same ground, a self-interested desire to know”. While I agree with Rauser about academics being far from impersonal automatons after the pursuit of truth, it is foolish to think that all commitments to beliefs (or all persons professing commitments to beliefs) are on equal ground. As a quick example, here are two beliefs that I think are true and I defend: (1) Eating animals as a source of food is morally wrong if you have an alternative means of having a healthy diet and (2) Philosophical intuitions are not reliable sources of evidence.
Either of these beliefs are susceptible to revision given further evidence. It seems that (1) clearly has higher social costs, higher practical costs, and higher levels of emotional commitment than (2). I’ve invested significant personal resources in maintaining a vegetarian diet (so has my wife, for that matter!), part of my social identity is wrapped up in being a vegetarian, and I have a strong emotional attachment to this dietary decision. The same sorts of things cannot be said for (2), even though I do believe it’s true and do advocate for it.
Being a Christian seems to pack even more of a “sociological punch” than being a vegetarian. In fact, it packs even more of a punch in Rauser’s particular case. Rauser is employed by a Baptist-leaning seminary college, who endorses a very long Statement of Faith which provides the basis for doctrinal teaching. The major body of his (impressive) list of publications is either defending Christian theism, or discussing a particular theological view. If Rauser were to discover that he is wrong about Christianity, I imagine that admitting this in his professional life would require a not insignificant amount of courage (not to mention the courage he would need to tell John Loftus, his recent co-author, that he is right).  Many professors at Christian universities have been fired after failing to properly instruct according to the university’s theological beliefs.
However, for most other philosophical and scientific positions, there are no such repercussions. Frank Jackson was not fired from his academic post after his rejection of epiphenomenalism, a position which he advocated based on the strength of the Knowledge Argument. If anything, philosophers were impressed at the intellectual humility it took to reverse positions on a view that he had previously championed. If Flew had had academic employment at the time of his alleged conversion to deism, it would not have impacted his appointment.
Further than just professional prospects, there are many sociological and psychological impacts from leaving the faith. An excellent book on this topic is Marlene Winell’s “Leaving the Fold”, which discusses the difficulties that accompany leaving the faith. She notes that many people will inevitably lose the support of friends and family upon leaving the faith. There is no shortage of tragic stories online in which people are all but abandoned because of their religious deconversion.
There are not only sociological difficulties, but psychological ones as well. People wrestle with guilt, fear, and alienation after losing their faith. They might begin to seriously grapple with their mortality for the first time, as I did. Without the Bible to help guide their path, they might struggle with indecision – failing to intuit a pre-ordained, supernatural plan for their lives. The list goes on and on.
The conversation about the earnest search for truth is an important one, and the psychological and sociological underpinnings of belief often go unnoticed. We should welcome a discussion on these issues, but we shouldn’t pretend that all beliefs will be equally emotionally valenced, and that all parties engaged in debate have the same amount to lose by renouncing their position. It is unreasonable to compare the endorsement of (relatively) impersonal philosophical positions to the utterly personal nature of religious beliefs.

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 11

If I understand William Craig’s third objection to AMR, then he is basically offering an inductive  teleological argument for the existence of God (similar to how Richard Swinburne argues for God)  based on the assumption that there are objective moral values plus the claim that humans and the circumstances in which humans find themselves are such as to allow humans to live morally significant lives (we have free will, are able to grasp moral principles, are able to reason from moral principles to specific moral judgments, we have some tendency to behave in accordance with morality, and also face temptations to behave contrary to moral duties, and we have lots of opportunities to make morally significant choices that impact the lives of others).
Craig also needs to claim that not only is this correspondence between objective moral values and the nature of human life to be expected on theism, but that it is “fantastically improbable” from an atheistic or naturalist point of view.
If morality is a purely subjective thing, then God does not exist. At least, God as conceived of by most theists does not exist. The word ‘God’ as used by most theists entails ‘a perfectly morally good person’. If there are no objective moral values, then there is no such thing as a person who is ‘a perfectly morally good person’. That is to say, sentences of the form “So-and-so is a perfectly morally good person” are neither true nor false.  Since no such statement is true of any person, no person could be objectively identified as being a perfectly morally good person, and thus no person could be objetively identified as being ‘God’.
Of course, even if morality was purely subjective, there could still be an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient person who created the universe.  But if there were such a person, we could never conclude that this person was a perfectly morally good person.
Since we could not conclude that any person was perfectly morally good, we also could not conclude that any person is worthy of worship. An all-powerful and all-knowing creator would simply be a interesting and unusual person, but there would be no compelling reason to worship this person. If there is no person who is perfectly good, then there is no person who is worthy of worship, and no person worthy of the title ‘God’, in the sense that most theists intend.
What if morality is objective? What if there were “objective moral values”? Craig’s implied teleological argument assumes that there are such values, and also that it is “fantastically improbable” that the random natural process of evolution would lead to the origin of human creatures who were capable of living morally significant lives. Why would random natural processes have any tendency or inclination to favor the existence of such creatures?
If moral principles and moral virtues serve the purpose of helping humans to thrive, then it might well be the case that moral principles and moral virtues also help humans to survive and to pass on their DNA. In other words, if the purpose of morality is to help humans thrive, then morality might well have survival value.
According to Jesus, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In other words, the rule (one of the Ten Commandments) to take a day off from work each week serves the purpose of helping people to thrive (to be happy, healthy, cooperative, and successful). It is the benefits to human beings that justifies having such a rule. If, on the other hand, following this rule was harmful to humans or made human life miserable, then there would be no good reason to have or to follow such a rule.
If this is true of morality in general, if the purpose of morality is to benefit human beings, to help us to be happy, healthy, cooperative, and successful, then the purpose of morality is to help humans to thrive. If this is the purpose of morality, then morality appears to have some significant survival value. It appears to be something that helps human beings to survive and to pass on their DNA to future generations of human creatures, in comparison with humans or human-like creatures who have no morality, follow no moral principles, have no moral virtues.
In the debate between William Craig and Richard Taylor, Taylor makes some comments along such lines in his opening statement:
You don’t have to be religious to realize that for human beings to live in peace and happiness, they must not assault each other. I may want to assault, but I do not want to be assaulted. If I’m tempted to theft, still I do not want to be stolen from. If I’m tempted to murder, I do not want to be murdered. The rule thus emerges: Let no one do these things. Then we can live in peace. Then we can realize the human goods we need. Now if anyone thinks that we wouldn’t know that if God had not come down and given these laws to Moses on Mount Sinai, if anyone thinks we wouldn’t know that otherwise, that person must believe in the tooth fairy.
[…]
The natural basis of ethics is human need. There are certain things which all of us hate. We hate to bleed, we hate to be wounded, we hate to be killed, we hate to be stolen from, and we make our laws according to this. The natural basis is certain universal needs: the need for security, for safety, for love, the need to bring up our families in security, to teach our children to fulfill our own potentials as we can, and having these needs, we have rules. We have rules, and they are important.
(Craig–Taylor Debate: Is the Basis for Morality Natural or Supernatural?
http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-taylor1.html
viewed 6/1/13)
If Taylor is correct that morality serves the basic needs of human beings for security, safety, and for love, then morality appears to have survival value, and Craig’s claim that it is “fantastically improbable” that the natural process of evolution would have a tendency to favor the origin of moral creatures (of creatures capable of living morally significant lives) is false. If morality has survival value, then it is NOT highly improbable that evolution would produce creatures who have characteristics that correspond with “objective moral values”.
However, Taylor’s view is that morality is conventional. Morality is something that human beings came up with in order to serve various basic human needs (for security, safety, love, etc.). If morality is something that human beings made or invented, then this would explain why morality has the PURPOSE of helping humans to thrive or to obtain basic human needs.
On the other hand, if “objective moral values” exist as necessary truths or as abstract entities like numbers, then it is unclear why “objective moral values” would have any tendency to serve basic human needs or to serve the purpose of helping humans to thrive, to be happy, healthy, safe, secure, and successful. So, Craig, or other defenders of Christianity could still press a similar point: it is fantastically improbable that such “objective moral values” would just happen to serve the purpose of helping humans to thrive.

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 10

When I argue against the resurrection of Jesus, I generally take a two-pronged approach. First, I argue that there are various good reasons to doubt the claim that Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday. Second, I make a concession for the sake of argument; I grant the supposition that Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday. Then I point out that this assumption, an assumption that Christian apologists work very hard to try to prove, actually provides a powerful reason to doubt that Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday, and thus the concession hurts the case for the resurrection.
In general, this is a strong way to argue for a skeptical position. First, lay out skeptical arguments that cast doubt on your opponent’s basic assumptions. Second, grant for the sake of argument some of the key assumptions of your opponent, and show that even if those assumptions are true, your opponent’s conclusion does not follow (or better: your opponent’s conclusion is cast into doubt by his own assumptions).
In thinking about Craig’s third objection to AMR, it occurs to me that he is probably using this same strategy in making his case against AMR. His first two objections are arguing that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible ideas. One can be an atheist but this rules out moral realism, or one can be a moral realist, but this rules out atheism. Craig is arguing that we cannot have our cake and eat it too.
But the third objection that Craig makes against AMR is NOT an argument for the view that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. Rather, it is an argument that moral realism makes atheism unlikely or improbable. The idea is that moral realism provides the basis for a version of the teleological argument or argument from design.
Namely, it is unlikely that random natural processes would produce creatures who have natures that fit well with objective moral values, if there were such a thing as objective moral values. However, if there were a morally perfect person who created the universe, then this creator would have a good reason to bring about the existence of creatures with natures that fit well with objective moral values. Thus, the existence of such creatures provides inductive evidence for the existence of a perfectly good creator, whose existence would make it somewhat likely or probable that creatures with natures that fit well with objective moral values would come to exist.
Craig is in effect saying, “Suppose for the sake of argument that I’m wrong, and that moral realism and atheism are logically compatible ideas. Nevertheless, moral realism provides a strong inductive reason for rejecting atheism, so moral realism comes with a serious cost for atheists who wish to claim that their atheism is a rationally justified belief.”
This sort of teleological argument for the existence of God is at the heart of the case for God made by Richard Swinburne. Swinburne believes that there are objective moral values, but that the basic principles of morality are necessary truths, and thus that their truth is independent of the existence of God.
So, Craig could have said this:
“Look at Swinburne, he believes that there are objective moral values, and that these values don’t depend on God. Nevertheless, Swinburne argues that human creatures have just the sort of characteristics that make it possible for humans to have morally significant lives: free will, the ability to grasp moral truths, desires that bring temptation to act contrary to morality, desires to be good and loving towards others, and lots of opportunities to be good and helpful towards other people and creatures or to be bad and harmful towards other people and creatures.
If the universe in general, and humans in particular are merely the product of random natural processes, then all of these facts about the universe and human beings would be a very improbable coincidence. But if the universe and human beings are the product of a perfectly good creator, then these characteristics of reality and human beings are to be expected, or are at least somewhat probable.”
To be continued…

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 9

I have argued previously that Craig’s first two objections to AMR are weak at best. The third objection might not be as weak as the previous two. However, the third objection is the most unclear of the three, so if it turns out to be a strong objection, that will be because we help Craig to clearly formulate his third objection.
William Craig’s third objection to AMR is given in a single brief paragraph:
Third, it is fantastically improbable that just the sort of creatures would emerge from the blind evolutionary process who correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values. This would be an utterly incredible coincidence. It is almost as though the moral realm knew that we were coming. It is far more plausible that both the natural realm and the moral realm are under the hegemony or authority of a divine designer and lawgiver than to think that these two entirely independent orders of reality just happened to mesh. (WIAC, p.76-77)
Because the objection is stated in just four sentences, it is less than clear what the premises of this argument assert.
What, for example, does Craig mean by “creatures…who correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values”? What specifically does he mean by the closely related phrase “two entirely independent orders of reality…mesh”? Before we can evaluate Craig’s objection, we need to be clear about the nature of the alleged “coincidence” to which he is pointing, but his vague and skimpy characterization of this “coincidence” makes it difficult to identify the basic premise or assumption of his argument.
I can only make some educated guesses at what “coincidence” Craig has in mind here:
A. Human beings naturally evolved with free will, and thus were moral agents who are potentially subject to moral duties and obligations.
B. Human beings naturally evolved to have minds that are capable of discovering and understanding objective moral truths.
C. Human beings naturally evolved to have a moral conscience, to have a significant degree of motivation to act in accordance with objective moral duties and obligations.
I suppose Craig might have all three of these points in mind, given that objective moral values would have significance for humans only if all three of these conditions were met: humans have free will; humans are able to discover moral truths; humans have some inclination to act in accordance with objective moral values.
If these are the sort of things that Craig had in mind, then the issue is: Why would the natural process of evolution bring about all three of these necessary conditions for morality to be of significance in human lives? A perfectly good creator would have reason to bring about the existence of creatures that satisfied these conditions, for the very purpose of having creatures for which morality and immorality were real possibilities. But the random and blind forces of evolution would seem to have no such guiding purposes. Natural selection merely favors characteristics that help a species to be good at surviving and passing their DNA to the next generation; good and evil, and right and wrong, have no role to play in such a random, natural process.
One response to this objection that comes to mind, is to try to show that these three aspects of humans have some significant survival value, that they help humans to survive and reproduce more often than if we lacked these three characteristics. For example, altruistic actions, where an individual creature is motivated to put its own life at risk in order to protect its young or the young of its group from a predator, seem to have survival value, in terms of passing on DNA to future generations.
If the sacrifice of one adult in a herd or group preserves the lives of some of the young of that group from being killed by a predator, then that may be a successful strategy for the survival of that species, including passing on the DNA which in turn preserves the tendency of adults to engage in such altruistic behavior. Thus, altruism, an important tendency or motivation that makes morally good behavior a real possibility, can be given an evolutionary explanation.
Let’s suppose that human free will and the capacity of human minds to grasp objective moral truths can also be given a plausible evolutionary explanation. If such explanations were available or became available, would that be sufficient to silence Craig’s third objection to AMR?
I have a feeling that some Christian apologists and philosophers would respond to such evolutionary explanations for the origin of morality in humans along the lines of Richard Swinburne’s divine providence argument. If evolution does provide a good explanation for the origin of morality among humans, then this points back to the existence of God, for a highly intelligent designer would be required to explain how just the right amount and kinds of physical matter and energy and natural laws were present at the start of this universe to make it likely that creatures who were fully capable of being morally good and morally bad arose out of purely random natural processes.
But then, to move to that view of evolution, a view put forward by Swinburne in his case for God, would be, I think, to discard the argument from “coincidence” presented by Craig.

bookmark_borderAtheistic 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.
Therefore:
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.
Therefore:
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.
Therefore:
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.

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 7

Richard Taylor’s book Virtue Ethics: An Introduction (formerly published as Ethics, Faith, and Reason) provides a very readable and interesting defense of the view that the modern conception of morality originates with religion, especially with Christianity.
William Craig quotes from Chapter 11 of this book as his primary support for his second objection to AMR. So, in order to evaluate Craig’s second objection, we need to evaluate Taylor’s argument(s) for the claim that duties are always owed to some person or persons.
Before I examine Taylor’s reasoning, I want to mention a general concern. Part of the appeal of Taylor’s view, at least for skeptics and atheists, is something like the genetic fallacy:
1. The modern conception of morality originates with religion, esp. with Christianity.
2. Religion in general and Christianity in particular are anti-humanistic and mistaken viewpoints.
Therefore:
3. The modern conception of morality is anti-humanistic and mistaken.

I don’t think that Taylor presents such an obviously fallacious argument, but I suspect that his readers, especially his readers who are atheists and skeptics concerning religious belief, may be tempted to reason along these lines. The problem with this argument is that false, mistaken, and harmful ideas can sometimes give rise to true, correct, and helpful ideas.
The historical origins of an idea do NOT determine its truth nor its usefulness. But an unstated assumption of the above argument is that EVERY idea that has its historical origin in religion or in Christianity suffers from EVERY defect or problem with religion or Christianity. There are obviously many exeptions to such a broad generalization. So, this argument makes the conclusion only somewhat probable, at best (once the generalization is qualified to something more reasonable).
One counterexample to the false unstated generalization is the saying of Jesus that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This seems pretty clearly an early hint of humanism. The idea is that ethics or morality serves human needs and/or purposes. It may well be the case that many Christian ideas and beliefs are anti-humanistic, but in this particular case Jesus taught something that looks a lot like a humanistic conception of ethics.
One reason given by Taylor involves an appeal to etymology. Whenever I read an appeal to etymology in support of a conceptual claim, alarm bells ring in my head, and red flags begin to wave. Etymology is a dubious way to support a conceptual claim.
Etymology is a worthwhile approach to asking questions. For example, ‘philosophy’ comes from root words meaning LOVE of WISDOM. So, one can ask ‘What is wisdom?’ and ‘What is the love of wisdom?’ and ‘Is philosophy the love of wisdom?’ But it would be foolish and simple-minded to immediately draw the conclusion that “Philosophy is the love of wisdom, because the word ‘philosophy’ comes from root words that mean ‘love of wisdom’.” If only it were that easy to analyze the meanings of important concepts. If it were really that easy, there would be no need for philosophy!
Etymology is a dubious basis for conceptual claims because words change meaning over time. For example, the word ‘let’ in the King James version of the Bible sometimes means ‘hindered’ (see Romans 1:13), but it means ‘allowed’ in modern English. Since the meanings of words change over time, it is clear that etymology can, at least in some cases, be misleading and fail to point to the correct (current) meaning of a word.
Also, etymology tends to be speculative. Nobody documents the creation of a new word (at the time the new word is coined) with notes about why the particular root words were selected to form the new word (‘agnosticsim’ being a rare exception). Thus, somebody has to guess at how and why the root word or words came to be used as the basis for a new word in the English language, usually hudreds of years after the word entered the language. Some such guesses may be plausible and well-educated guesses that can be rationally defended. But, such explanatory claims about the historical origins of a word are inherently questionable and not subject to firm proof, as we shall soon see in the case at hand.
Taylor gives one argument on the basis of the etymology of the word ‘obligation’ :
…to be obligated is, literally, to be bound. …one can have no obligation just as such; it must, again, be an obligation to some person or persons, for the idea of being bound or tied, yet bound to no one or no thing, is without meaning.
(Virtue Ethics, Chapter 11)
There are at least three problems with this reasoning.  First, Taylor is using etymology as the basis for a conceptual claim, which is a dubious and weak sort of argument.   This is NOT a solid argument, even if there are no other problems or issues with it.
Second, obligations can have more than one sort of object.  If I promise to take care of my friend’s child while he is out of town, then I have an obligation to my friend (the person to whom I made the promise) but I also have an obligation to the child (the person whom I promised to care for and whose interests are most at stake in the question of whether I keep my promise or break it).  So, if an obligation requires being bound to someone, it could require being bound to the child in this case, rather than to the person to whom I made the promise.  
Taylor is assuming that the ‘binding’ meant was to  a person with whom a negotiation or agreement was made, but it could be that the ‘binding’ was a reference to the object of the obligation (the child in this case). If this is how ‘binding’ is involved, then we can conlude that ‘binding’ does NOT necessarily refer to binding to a person, because one can promise to take care of a cat or a garden, and a cat is NOT a person. Taylor’s speculation about the relationship of the concept of ‘binding’ to the concept of ‘obligation’ might be correct, but there are other possible explanations available.
Third, Taylor himself admits the obvious, which is that a person can be bound to a thing, to a tree or to a post. A tree is NOT a person. Thus, Taylor says that the idea of being “bound to no one or no thing, is without meaning.” We could grant this assumption, and yet nothing follows about ‘binding’ requiring that an obligation always involves one person being bound to another person. Thus, even if we assume that the concept of ‘binding to something’ is part of the meaning of ‘obligation’ it could be the case that ‘obligation’ implies that the person with the obligation is bound to some thing rather than to some person.
Taylor gives a similar argument about the meaning of the concept of ‘duty’:
A duty is something that is owed, something due, … .  But something can be owed only to some person or persons.  There can be no such thing as a duty in isolation, that is, something that is owed but owed to no person or persons. 
(Virtue Ethics, Chapter 11, from the section on ‘The Relational Character of Ethical Terms’)
As with the previous argument about ‘obligation’, this is a weak argument, at best, because Taylor is making a conceptual claim based upon the etymology of the word ‘duty’.
Because a duty, like an obligation, can be ‘to’ or ‘for’ someone in more than one way (my promise to take care of my friend’s child involves a duty to my friend and a duty to the child) it is not clear which sort of object of a duty is in view in terms of who or what is ‘owed’ the action. If in this case I owe it to the child to care for the child, then that sort of object of a duty need NOT be a person, since I can also promise to care for a cat or for a garden.
Thirdly, the words ‘owed’ and ‘due’ are not used exclusively of relations to persons:
You owe it to yourself to see this movie.
I owe my love of classical music to my dearly departed grandmother.
We are due for a big earthquake in the next ten years.
The recent string of hot days in spring may be due to global warming.
These may not be central or the most common uses of the words ‘owe’ and ‘due’, but these uses of these words shows that their meanings can be stretched beyond the confines of ‘person X owes Y to person Z’. Since the root words upon which the term ‘duty’ is based can be used in ways that do not require a relationship between persons, this suggests that the term ‘duty’ might also not be strictly limited to situations where
‘Person A has a duty B towards a person C’. If ‘owed’ and ‘due’ do not necessariy imply a relation between two or more persons, then the word ‘duty’ might not necessarily imply such a relation either.
To be continued…

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 6

Some internet resources about  William Craig’s views on morality and Richard Taylor’s views on morality:
Is The Basis Of Morality Natural Or Supernatural?
A Debate Between Richard Taylor and William Lane Craig
Union College, Schenectady, New York
October 8, 1993
http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-taylor0.html
The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality
By Dr. William Lane Craig
http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/meta-eth.html
Is The Foundation Of Morality Natural Or Supernatural?
William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris
Universityof NotreDame, Notre Dame, Indiana, United States– April 2011
http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-the-foundation-of-morality-natural-or-supernatural-the-craig-harris
Book Review of Richard Taylor’s book Good and Evil
By H. Benjamin Shaeffer
HumboldtStateUniversity
http://commons.pacificu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1071&context=eip
Virtue Ethics: An Introduction
(originally published under the title: Ethics, Faith, and Reason)
Prometheus Books, 2002
By Richard Taylor
Available at Google books (preview of first 25 pages):
http://books.google.com/books/about/Virtue_Ethics.html?id=FnTJ8p2YhWAC
Irrefutable Ethics
Article in Philosophy Now
By Richard Taylor
http://philosophynow.org/issues/43/Irrefutable_Ethics
Interview of Richard Taylor
in Philosophy Now
 http://philosophynow.org/issues/40/Richard_Taylor
The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life
By William James
An address to the Yale Philosophical Club, published in the International Journal of Ethics, April 1891. (a major influence on Richard Taylor’s views about morality)
http://www.philosophy.uncc.edu/mleldrid/American/mp&ml.htm
On the Basis of Morality
By Arthur Schopenhauer
(a major influence on Richard Taylor’s views about morality)
Available on Google Books:
http://books.google.com/books/about/On_the_basis_of_morality.html?id=ye8wNs2kELYC
Richard Taylor Remembered
Philosophy Now
http://philosophynow.org/issues/44/Richard_Taylor_Remembered
 

bookmark_borderAtheistic 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:
X LAYS Y on Z
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.
Therefore
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….

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 4

Here, once again, is William Craig’s MOVE (Moral Objective Values Exist) Argument:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore:
3. God exists.

I am considering one possible objection, namely rejection of, or doubt about, premise (1). Atheists who are inclined towards moral realism or belief in objective moral values will be inclined to challenge premise (1) rather than premise (2).
Craig raises three objections to what he terms Atheistic Moral Realism (AMR), which is moral realism held by those who reject belief in the existence of God.  Craig’s second objection can be stated this way:
AMR is incompatible with the nature of moral duty.
Craig argues for this objection in a single lengthy paragraph, which I will divide up into five bite-sized pieces. The first piece states his conclusion:
Second, the nature of moral duty or obligation seems incompatible with atheistic moral realism. (WIAC, p.76)
Based on this conclusion, we should expect Craig to make a claim about the nature of moral duties, pointing to a specific aspect of moral duties, and to make a claim that AMR has a specific implication, and then he should show that the alleged specific aspect of moral duties is logically incompatible with the alleged specific implication of AMR.
Now for the second piece of Craig’s long paragraph on this objection:
Let’s supposed for the sake of argument that moral values do exist independently of God.  Suppose that values such as mercy, justice, love, forbearance, and the like just exist.  How does that result in any moral obligations for me?  Why would I have a moral duty, say, to be merciful? (WIAC, p.76)
First, note that Craig jumps from the idea that ‘moral values do exist independently of God’ to the idea that moral values ‘just exist’.  Given that in the previous paragraph Craig criticized the idea that justice was an abstraction that exists independently of persons, it seems like Craig is once again assuming that AMR implies that moral values are abstractions that exist independently of persons. But this is a false assumption. AMR does not imply this metaphysical view of the nature of moral values. Thus, if Craig’s second objection depends on this alleged implication of AMR, then his second objection fails for the same reason as the first objection.
However, I suspect that the second objection does not require this assumption about AMR, and that it might be possible to state his second objection in a way that avoids this problem. We will need to clarify the content of the second objection in order to determine whether it requires this questionable assumption about AMR.
The last two questions asked by Craig seem significant:
How does that result in any moral obligations for me? Why would I have a moral duty, say, to be merciful? (WIAC, p.76)
David Hume would have asked the same questions that Craig asks here.
Suppose there are some odd metaphysical entities that we refer to by moral value expressions like “justice” and “mercy”.  These entities may be odd and non-physical, but if they were real, then they are merely additional facts or data about reality.  They would fall into the IS category, rather than the OUGHT category in Hume’s scheme of things.  Hume pointed to a logical gap between IS statements and OUGHT statements, between facts and values.  He argued that we cannot logically deduce an evaluative claim from a factual claim.
So, Craig seems to be invoking the spirit of David Hume, and saying, in effect: “So what if there is an odd odd entity that we call ‘justice’? This would just be another fact about reality, and facts do not, by themselves logically imply values.  We cannot derive an OUGHT from what IS.”
Craig makes no mention of Hume, and does not say anything about the gap between IS and OUGHT, so I might be reading too much into these two questions. However, if Craig is invoking the skeptical move made by Hume, then it is important to note that he is wielding a two-edged sword that could inflict injury not only to AMR but also to Craigs own viewpoint: Theistic Moral Realism (TMR).
If “justice” refers to an aspect of the nature or character of God, thus providing Craig with a metaphysical reality upon which to base the moral value of justice, then Craig’s view is subject to the same humean objection: “So what if there is a metaphysical reality that we call ‘justice’ which is a part of the nature of God? This would just be another fact about reality, and facts do not, by themselves logically imply values. We cannot derive an OUGHT from what IS.”
To be continued…

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 3

William Craig’s MOVE argument is simple:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore:
3.  God exists.
One obvious atheistic objection would be to reject or cast doubt on premise (2).  If one rejects or doubts that objective moral values exist, then this argument will fail to be persuasive.
Another possible objection is to reject or cast doubt upon premise (1).  Some atheists accept moral realism, and thus believe that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with objective moral values.  I will be focusing on this particular objection to the MOVE argument.  Craig refers to this view as Atheistic Moral Realism.
Craig raises three objections to atheistic moral realism (hereafter AMR):
AMR is incomprehensible.
AMR is incompatible with the nature of moral duty.
AMR implies a fantastically improbable coincidence.
Let’s consider his first objection to AMR:
I must confess that this alternative strikes me as incomprehensible, an example of trying to have your cake and eat it too.  What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists?  I understand what it is for a person to be just, but I draw a complete blank when it is said that, in the absence of any people, justice itself exists.  Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as abstractions–or at any rate, I don’t know what it means for a moral value to exist as an abstraction.  Atheistic moral realists, seeming to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, just leave them floating in an unintelligible way. 
(WIAC, p.76)
My first thought is that Craig is being rather skeptical here, which is a good thing.  However, people who live in glass houses should avoid swinging sledge hammers around in their living room.  Whenever one makes a skeptical move (for example, making use of Occam’s Razor), it is important to avoid doing this in a biased way,  using skeptical moves against ideas that one dislikes while never making use of the skeptical move against ideas that one favors.
I’m not positive that Craig is being hypocritical here, but I strongly suspect that the sort of skeptical move he makes here could also be used to inflict serious damage to many of the beliefs that Craig holds dear.  Nevertheless, I am a skeptic, and I fully appreciate the kind of skeptical thinking that Craig appears to be engaged in here.  So, although he may be wielding a two-edged sword, one that inflicts damage to both AMR and Theism, I will ignore any possible bias and hypocrisy on Craig’s part, and only think about whether his skeptical move works against AMR.
Perhaps Craig is correct that some thinkers who accept AMR believe that justice exists as an abstraction independent of any human beings or persons, but this is NOT a logical implication of AMR, as far as I can see.  Moral realism claims that moral judgments can be true or false, and that some moral judgments are in fact true.  It is hard to see how one can get from these claims to the metaphysical claim that justice is an entity that exists independently of humans or persons.
The word ‘green’ refers to a color.  The sentence ‘Grass is green.’ makes a true statement.  In making these claims,  I do NOT imply that the color green is an abstract entity that exists independently of any blades of grass, or trees, or shirts, or houses, or any other physical objects.
Similarly, if I say that the sentence ‘It was unjust for Hitler to order the killing of millions of innocent civilians’  makes a true statement,  this does NOT imply that justice is an entity that exists independently of any human being or person.
Justice, it seems to me, is primarily an attribute or characteristic of actions, and actions can only be performed by agents or persons. Thus, justice cannot exist independently of agents or persons, because justice cannot exist independently of actions, and actions cannot exist independently of agents or persons.
I think Craig is correct in being skeptical about justice existing as an abstract entity independently of the existence of agents or persons.  If justice is, first and foremost, an attribute or characteristic of actions, then it does appear to be implausible to think of justice as an abstract entity.  However, an attribute (such as ‘green’) may be correctly ascribed to a particular entity (such as ‘grass’ or ‘this patch of grass’) without it being the case that the attribute constitutes an independently existing entity.
So, I am not persuaded by Craig’s objection here.  He may have a legitimate objection to the stated views of some particular thinkers who accept AMR, but this objection does not appear to be relevant to AMR itself.