Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How Not to Defend the Moral Argument for God (Part 1)

The moral argument for the existence of god has been around for quite some time, and has faced plenty of criticism since its inception. However, the form of it commonly used in debate by William Lane Craig and other apologists is often met with unfortunately weak responses, despite significantly lacking in support of its premises. The argument is usually stated as follows:
1. If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, god exists.
This argument carries a hefty burden of proof because of the second premise. If objective moral values don't exist, then the moral argument fails. Yet it isn't up to the atheist or skeptic to prove that these objective values are not real, it's up to the apologist to justify his second premise. Unless reason is given to think that 2 is correct, the opponent of the moral argument is well within rights to object that there is no grounds for assuming the existence of objective values. The only way 2 could be justified is if it is (i) such an observed fact of the natural world that it can be considered a given, or if (ii) the apologist endeavors to demonstrate it through another argument.

An example of a premise that could be accepted on (i) would be something like "Socrates was a man", from the famous Socrates syllogism (1. All men are mortal, 2. Socrates was a man, 3. Therefore, Socrates was mortal). Enough people are familiar with the story of Socrates, and there is enough evidence from history describing the figure as male, or human, that this premise can be accepted as a given. There is no need for the argument's proponent to demonstrate it, since its truth is readily discernible to anyone who might wish to check. Another example of (i) could be the premise "All men are mortal", as it has many centuries of observation, death records, and the like in support of it. One could say that premises of the type (i) variety might be called obvious.

Many non-theist opponents have objected to the moral argument on the basis of conflicting opinions on morality. Theodore Drange made this move in his debate with Craig, as did a caller named Bill on a recent Unbelievable podcast episode addressing questions to apologist Greg Koukl. In my view, this is a weak response for exactly the reason theists give: differences of perspective on moral matters do not rule out the possibility of objective values. As Koukl notes, we may each see different colors on an object, but it doesn't mean there is no color there. More importantly, though, the moral argument does not deal with moral epistemology, or how we know what moral values are, but only deals with moral ontology, or the perceived reality of moral values. It will not refute the argument to raise examples of immoral acts in scripture or in history, because the argument centers around the existence of objective values, not the content of them.

Still, the second premise of the moral argument is anything but obvious. All that we generally consider as obvious - the shape of the earth, human mortality, gravity, the identity of Socrates - has a wealth of evidence behind it. It isn't simply that we feel the earth is round, or we strongly suspect that humans die, or we have no reason to think that gravity isn't real. It's that time after time, we've observed these phenomena around us, going back a long, long, long while ago in history. It's that experiments have been conducted to help verify the truth of these ideas, and we have held them up against the backdrop of prior knowledge and existing theories to see what best fits the picture as we've ascertained it thus far. Can any of us honestly say that objective moral values are obvious in this sense? What observations have we made about them, what experiments have we done, how have they fared against additional information?

Funny enough, the obviousness of objective moral values can also be challenged by sort of reversing the moral opinions objection. A majority does not make an obvious truth. It could be contended that even if every man, woman, and child on Earth were to think morality is objective, this would do little on its own, apart from the kind of evidence just mentioned. After all, Dr. Craig makes a very similar point in practically all of his debates on the existence of god; he wants morality capable of saying that anti-Semitism is wrong "even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them." [1] While he may rest this on theistic assumptions, the principle behind it should still hold true, that the prevalence of an opinion does not tell us anything about whether or not the opinion is true. For that we need other means of evaluation.

So we have good reason to think that (i) cannot be used to justify the second premise of the moral argument. What about (ii)? In the Unbelievable episode referenced above, Greg Koukl asserts his belief that our agreement on certain moral issues is evidence that we share a moral sense or a moral intuition about right and wrong. Our deeply felt general repulsion to the idea of torturing young children is, in his view, reason to think that it isn't just wrong for us, but wrong for everyone at any time, any place, and in any circumstance. Justin Brierly, the host, explains that he can't imagine a situation in which it would be right for someone to torture a young child, insinuating that it therefore must never be right. Craig has echoed these sentiments in debates like the one he had with Professor John Shook. During the Q&A segment, Craig defended the moral argument by saying:
The moral argument is an appeal to our moral experience, and so it's not just a matter of liking the conclusion or not... I think that in our moral experience we do apprehend moral oughts, we ought to do this or we ought not to do that, we apprehend a distinction between good and evil... we ought to pay attention to our moral experience and take it seriously, and if we do, then I think we'll see that the moralist is wrong when he says that moral values are just relative to individuals, societies, or whatever... [2]
I don't know that any relativist would deny that most human beings form moral judgments. What non-objectivists seem to dispute is whether those moral judgments correspond to anything substantial or not. Thus, moral experience exists even to the relativist - it's only a question of what significance it should be given.

Craig agrees that the Nazis believed themselves to be on the side of right and goodness, [3] but he thinks that their moral experience misled them. He ventures into the territory of moral epistemology in his debates to emphasize the strength of objective as opposed to subjective values, but his moral argument can't tell us anything about what god would condemn or praise. What reason does Craig have for preferring the moral experience of modern Christians to that of the German Christians who participated in the Holocaust? What of the medieval Christians like Martin Luther, who wrote the infamous propaganda piece On the Jews and Their Lies, encouraging the demolition of Jewish businesses, synagogues, houses, and schools, as well as forbidding the Jews from preaching and having access to their religious texts?

Craig, Koukl, and Brierly all seem to belong to the ethical intuitionist camp. Ethical intuitionism is the view that moral truths can be known by intuition, without resort to inference. Presumably one's own intuitive sense is the one that matters most - we generally don't have access to others' intuitions - posing a problem of consideration for others. What exactly resolves conflicts between different intuitions under the ethical intuitionist view? It isn't altogether clear. The irony is that this looks an awful lot like subjectivism in denial of itself. We each have our own intuitions... but if yours conflict with mine, well you're just wrong. Why? Because I intuit it! This may be closer to the truth than you think, considering how Craig responded to Sam Harris during the Q&A segment of their debate, in the following exchange:
Harris: This is the kind of morality that you get out of divine command theory that, again, offers no retort to the Jihadist other than, "Sorry buster, you happen to have the wrong god."
Craig: But that’s exactly your retort, Sam, that God has not issued such a command, and therefore, you’re not morally obligated to do it.
Note that Craig doesn't correct Harris' description of his view or even offer any defense at all. He simply tries to turn the question back on Harris. 

Ethical intuitionism might also commit the is-ought fallacy. David Hume articulated the fallacy as a response to early intuitionists like Samuel Clarke, who thought that feelings, not reason, guide us to moral truths. Hume distinguished between the passions and reason, and argued that deriving an "ought" from an "is" must be accompanied by a line of argument connecting the two. In other words, it is fallacious to use a fact of the world to insist on how something should be, unless a rational explanation draws the two together. To Hume, Clarke's feelings were a fact of his experience that he adopted as moral truths without any legitimate reason.

Predictably, intuitionists think they avoid this problem. Brian Zamulinski, an evolutionary intuitionist (yes, you read that right), defends his beliefs in the excerpt below.
Inference is an intellectual movement from proposition to proposition. Apprehension is the acquisition of a belief in response to a state of affairs. Our ability to apprehend states of affairs is not fundamentally an ability to make inferences, no matter what sorts of inferences. It is an ability to see that such and such is the case. With evolutionary intuitionism, we intuitively apprehend the fact, say, that torture is wrong. We do not infer the belief that torture is wrong from other propositions. Since inference is not involved, the impossibility of inferring an "ought" from an "is" is not relevant. [4]
We draw an inference any time we form a conclusion based on what we know or what we assume to be true. To look at the fact that all men are mortal, that Socrates is a man, and then conclude that Socrates is mortal, is to draw an inference from existing knowledge and experience. Zamulinski's idea that we apprehend states of affairs without resorting to inferences is a bold and unsubstantiated claim. We make use of inference for knowledge acquisition in many other areas of life, so why assume that morality is an exception? Even if it seems like we apprehend moral truths with no consideration of known facts or existing beliefs, the long-term influences on our thinking from culture and other venues make it extremely unlikely that this impression is accurate. It all looks rather convenient, really. Intuition is just 'seeing things as they are', like Alvin Plantinga's faith is so properly basic that it needs no justification.

Methinks this is why Koukl and company argue so strongly about grounding moral values, because their intuitions are in need of grounding. If we intuitively apprehend moral truths, how are we able to do this aside from inference and reason? Where do these moral truths come from, if not from the natural world around us? The only way for these theists to convince themselves that their intuitions aren't just subjective is to attach them to a god who affirms what they feel. However, as we'll see in the next part, the first premise of the moral argument runs into plenty of problems of its own.

1. W.L. Craig, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality (1997).
2. John Shook v. William Lane Craig Debate: "Does God Exist?" YouTube.com.
3. See source 1.
4. B. Zamulinski, Evolutionary Intuitionism (2007), p. 112.

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