bookmark_borderDoes Theism Explain the Necessity of Moral Truths?

The book, Does God Exist? The Craig-Flew Debate, contains a transcript of the debate between William Lane Craig and Antony Flew, responses by eight commentators, and final responses by Craig and Flew. Many of the commentators, including some of the theists, sharply criticized Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence because, they argued, some moral truths are necessary truths and so do not need an explanation. Let’s call this objection UNMT (for ‘Unexplained Necessary Moral Truths’).
In his reply to commentators, as I read him, Craig replied as follows: (i) Christian theists who press the UNMT objection do not believe that God’s existence is logically necessary, whereas “the mainstream Christian tradition has held that God’s existence is broadly logically necessary, so that He can be the explanatory basis of necessary truths” (169). (ii) Necessary truths can stand in relations of explanatory priority to one another; indeed, there is such a thing as “explaining that (or why) a necessary truth is true” (169).
Allow me to explain. Let’s start with (i). Assume for the sake of argument that the proposition, Objective moral values exist, is true in every possible world but that the proposition, God exists, is not true in every possible world. In that case, God couldn’t be the explanation for objective moral values, since it would be impossible for a contingent truth (in this hypothetical, God’s existence) to explain a necessary truth (the existence of objective moral values). This hypothetical shows that, in order for it to be even possible for God’s existence to explain the existence of objective moral values, God’s existence has to be necessary. In other words, “Theism expresses a necessary proposition,” is itself a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for God’s existence to explain necessary truths, including necessary truths about the existence of moral values.
As software engineers might say, this is a bug, not a feature, in Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence. If Craig’s moral argument requires that theism be a necessary proposition, then it is much more likely that theism is necessarily false (and so God cannot be the explanation for necessarily existing moral values) than that theism is necessarily true (and so it is possible that God might be the explanation for necessarily existing moral values). Why? Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper explains the point well.

Suppose that theism is not a contingent proposition. Then it is much more likely that it is necessarily false than that it is necessarily true. This is made clear by any objective comparison of the available reasons for thinking that theism is necessarily true to the available reasons for thinking that it is necessarily false. The former are limited to various versions of the ontological argument, which is almost universally rejected by philosophers. Indeed, even Plantinga admits that this argument fails to prove its conclusion. The latter include a whole host of serious arguments for the incoherence of theism. Keep in mind that I’m not convinced by these arguments for the necessary falsehood of theism, but they are clearly more persuasive collectively than the notoriously unpersuasive ontological argument. Further, theism asserts that the natural world was created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person, which assumes, not only that there is a maximum possible degree of power, knowledge, and moral goodness, but also that these three attributes are compatible with each other and with the existence of natural entities. Even ignoring specific arguments, clearly it is much more likely that some hidden incoherence lurks in the assertion that there exists a creator of nature possessing the highest possible degree of several distinct scaling properties than in the simple assertion that no such creator exists. Therefore, if I am mistaken and theism really is a necessary proposition, then it is very probably a necessary falsehood, which means that my assumption in my opening case that it is a contingent proposition is not only dialectically appropriate (for the reasons given in the previous paragraph), but dialectically generous. (LINK)

But let’s put that to the side and assume that God’s existence really is broadly logically necessary. If that were so, how would it follow that God’s (necessary) existence somehow explains the (necessary) existence of objective moral values?
A bit later in his response to commentators, Craig offers some clarification on the concept of a “moral value.” Regarding the metaethical position I call moral anti-reductionism (which Craig calls ‘atheistic moral Platonism’ but is far better known by the horrible label ‘non-naturalism’), Craig writes this:

First, it is difficult even to comprehend the Platonist view. What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value Justice just exists? It is hard to know what to make of this. It is clear what is meant when it is said that a person is just; but is bewildering 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 mere abstractions – or at any rate, it is hard to know what it is for a moral value to exist as a mere abstraction. (169, italics in last sentence mine)

Craig’s selection of “justice” as his example of a moral value is odd. Craig is aware of the distinction between moral values and moral duties; indeed, he emphasizes it in his writings. But most definitions of “justice” introduce the concept of law through the back door. For example, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins its article on justice with the words:

Justice is one of the most important moral and political concepts.  The word comes from the Latin jus, meaning right or law.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the “just” person as one who typically “does what is morally right” and is disposed to “giving everyone his or her due,” offering the word “fair” as a synonym. (LINK)

In this context, “law” and “right” (including “morally right”) are deontological (duty) concepts, not axiological (value) concepts. This muddies the waters; if we say that “justice” is a moral value, it seems to be a different animal from other moral values which don’t refer to deontological concepts in their very definition. Perhaps we might call “justice” a ‘second-order moral value,’ since it is a moral value which is conceptually dependent upon a deontological concept, and say that we want a first-order moral value, a value which doesn’t combine concepts. Fortunately, Craig provides other, neater examples: mercy, love, and forbearance (170).
Here I want to use moral values like mercy or love to show that God’s necessary existence is not a sufficient condition for explaining the necessary existence of moral values. If moral values like mercy or love “exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions,” it would seem that they are relational and so would require that two or more persons exist. But, even if we assume that (mere) theism is necessarily true, the proposition, “More than one person exists,” is a contingent proposition. Mere theism doesn’t entail Christian theism, which in turn means it does not entail the Christian doctrine of the trinity is true, and so it does not entail the existence of multiple divine persons. Furthermore, mere theism doesn’t entail the existence of any non-divine persons. So, even if it were the case that theism is necessarily true, it wouldn’t follow that more one person exists.
But if, “More than one person exists,” is a contingent proposition, this creates a problem for Divine Nature Theorists (DNT-ists) like Craig who want to argue that God’s nature explains all objective moral values, including relational moral values like love and mercy. Sure, there is a sense in which we can talk about a person loving themselves or having mercy on themselves, but I think it’s clear that not what people usually have in mind when they talk about “love” and “mercy” as moral values. (Besides, it’s hard to imagine how or why God would have “mercy” on Himself.) So if moral values are properties of persons; if some moral values are relational; and if “More than one person exists” is a contingent proposition, then there are possible worlds in which God exists but relational moral values do not exist. Thus, God’s existence, even God’s necessary existence, cannot explain necessary truths about all objective moral values because it cannot explain necessary truths about relational moral values. But that entails Craig’s moral argument fails.

bookmark_borderWilliam Provine on Evolutionary Naturalism and Morality

Cornell University biologist William Provine debated UC Berkeley law professor in 1998. (Click here for a link to the transcript.) In his opening statement, Provine made the following provocative assertion.

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

I don’t know if Darwin would agree with Provine’s list of consequences or not, but I want to comment on the alleged ethical consequences of evolutionary naturalism.
Many apologists (see, e.g., here) have made an argument from authority, using Provine’s statement, to support the claim that atheism entails nihilism. While some arguments from authority can be logically correct, this one is not. Let P be the statement “If naturalistic evolution is true, then there is no ultimate foundation for ethics,” and let S be metaethics. Using Wesley Salmon’s schema for inductive arguments from authority,[1] we can then formulate the argument from authority as follows.

(1) The vast majority of statements made by William Provine concerning subject S are true.
(2) P is a statement made by William Provine concerning subject S.
(3) Therefore, P is true.

This argument does not satisfy Salmon’s conditions for an inductively correct argument from authority, in two ways. First, even if we treat Provine as an expert on metaethics, the argument would still be evidentially worthless. As Salmon observed, an appeal to one group of authorities has no evidential value when another group of authorities who are equally competent disagree.[2] And there are many qualified experts on metaethics who believe P is false.[3] Second, with all due respect to Provine, he is not a reliable authority on subject S. He is an evolutionary biologist with a Ph.D. in the history of science, not a philosopher who specializes in metaethics. Therefore, premise (1) is dubious. The upshot is that this argument from authority provides literally zero evidence for statement p.
Even if we cannot accept P on the basis of Provine’s authority, however, it is still possible that Provine has a good argument for believing it. If he does, however, it’s not exactly clear how the argument is supposed to work. The only relevant statement I could find in the debate transcript is the quotation I provided at the beginning of this post. Here it is again.

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

It’s far from obvious why Provine thinks that “modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear” that “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics.” At first glance, this seems very implausible because P lies within the domain of philosophy, not biology. One can’t help but wonder if Provine presupposes scientism and that his statement about the purported conclusions of “modern evolutionary biology” are really just a statement about the implications of scientism. That really doesn’t matter one way or the other, however. All that matters is whether Provine has given a good reason to think that evolutionary naturalism leads to nihilism, which he hasn’t. Provine has provided nothing more than a mere assertion of bias for moral nihilism.
The upshot is that Provine’s statements in his 1998 debate with Johnson provide no support whatsoever for the claim that atheism entails or implies moral nihilism.
[1] Wesley C. Salmon, Logic (third ed., Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 100.
[2] Ibid.
[3] E.g., Adams; Hick; Moore; Morriston; Nielsen; Pojman; Post; Rottschaefer; Sagi and Statman; Shafer-Landau; Q. Smith; Swinburne; and Wielenberg.

bookmark_borderJ.L. Mackie’s Argument from Queerness against Objective Values

In his highly significant book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, the late Oxford philosopher J.L. Mackie rejected moral objectivism and instead defended an error theory.[1] Although Mackie admitted that ordinary moral language and first-level moral beliefs imply moral objectivism, he argued on empirical grounds that moral objectivism is false.  Mackie called one of his anti-objectivist arguments the “argument from queerness.”  Mackie viewed his argument as having “two parts, one metaphysical, the other epistemological.[2] Since our focus here is on moral ontology, not epistemology, I shall discuss only the metaphysical part.
In the metaphysical part of the argument from queerness, Mackie argues that objective values, including objective moral values, do not exist because they are metaphysically anomalous.  He writes, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.”[3] As I read him, Mackie provides two reasons in support of that claim.  (1) First, Mackie assumed that moral objectivism entails nonnaturalism, which Mackie considers ontologically queer.  In his words, “Plato’s Forms give a dramatic picture of what objective values would have to be.”[4] (2) Second, if moral objectivism were true, then internalism about moral motivation would also be true.  As Mackie puts it, “if there were objective principles of right and wrong, any wrong (possible) course of action would have not-to-be-doneness somehow built into it.”[5]
Mackie later imported his argument from queerness into the philosophy of religion.  Given the queerness of objective values, Mackie argues, moral objectivism is more likely on the assumption that theism is true than on the assumption that metaphysical naturalism is true.  In his landmark critique of theism, The Miracle of Theism, he states,

Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.  … If … there … are objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus, we have … a defensible argument from morality to the existence of a god.[6]

Ironically, what began as an argument against moral objectivism became an increasingly popular argument among some moral objectivists—proponents of ontological versions of the moral argument for God’s existence, to be exact—as an argument for theism and against metaphysical naturalism.[7] Given this popularity as well as Mackie’s own immense influence, this argument is worth a detailed look.  Has Mackie shown that objective values are queer given metaphysical naturalism? Let’s consider Mackie’s two reasons in turn.
(1) begs the question against ethical naturalism by assuming without argument a nonnaturalist interpretation of objectivism.  By itself, however, moral objectivism is metaphysically neutral since it does not specify whether moral facts and properties are natural, nonnatural, or supernatural.  Moreover, nonnatural moral facts and properties are not queer even on the assumption that metaphysical naturalism is true.  Metaphysical naturalism only rules out the existence of nonnatural entities that can affect nature; it does not rule out the existence of acausal objects, including abstract objects or irreducible, sui generis moral properties.  Of course, ethical nonnaturalism does pose a problem for reductive physicalism, since reductive physicalism by definition rules out irreducible, sui generis moral facts and properties.  Since Mackie accepted not only metaphysical naturalism but also reductive physicalism, it is not surprising that Mackie considered nonnatural facts and properties queer.  But this biographical information is of little philosophical significance.  As Quentin Smith writes, “nonreductive physicalism can allow for nonnatural moral values, as Post has plausibly argued, and most physicalists today accept a nonreductive version” of physicalism.[8]
As for (2), why should we believe that internalism is true if moral objectivism is true?  According to Mackie, moral objectivism entails internalism about motives.  He writes, “Something’s being good both tells the person who knows this to pursue it and makes him pursue it.”[9] However, this is incorrect.  Moral objectivism has not been shown to entail internalism, and certainly not by Mackie.  On the contrary, as David Brink has demonstrated, if an objective moral truth is motivating, then that is a contingent fact dependent upon external factors such as the content of the moral truth, the psychological state of the agent, etc.[10] Moreover, internalism is not supported by the empirical evidence.  The existence of intelligent psychopaths shows that one can understand true moral propositions and yet feel utterly unmotivated to act in accordance with such propositions.[11]
I conclude, therefore, that Mackie’s argument from queerness fails.  On the assumption that metaphysical naturalism is true, it neither follows nor is probable that objective moral truths are “queer.”  Thus, Mackie’s argument from queerness does not support the claim that, given metaphysical naturalism, objective moral truths cannot be truths about nonnatural facts or properties.
[1] J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1977).
[2] Mackie 1977, 38.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 40.  Italics are mine.
[5] Ibid.
[6] J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1982), 115-16.
[7] J.P. Moreland, “The Ethical Inadequacy of Naturalism” Promise (May/June 1996): 36-39, republished electronically at <URL:>; Paul Copan, “Can Michael Martin Be A Moral Realist?: Sic et Non,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, 1/2 (1999): 45-72.  Cf. George I. Mavrodes, “Religion and the Queerness of Morality,” Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment (ed. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).
[8] Smith 1998, 174; cf. John Post 1987.
[9] Mackie 1979, 40.
[10] David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), chapter 3.
[11] Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (State University of New York Press, 1998), 211-30.