Thursday, July 18, 2013

How Not to Defend the Moral Argument for God (Part 2)

In my previous post, I discussed a few problems I see in the second premise of the moral argument for god's existence, as popularly formulated by William Lane Craig. I'll rehash the argument here again, for the sake of clarity:
1. If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, god exists.
I chose to begin my critique with the second premise because I wished to point out that even if one does believe in objective moral values, Craig and Koukl fail to adequately justify 2. Of course, if one accepts the second premise, as I do, it doesn't matter much how it is justified by apologists. In a debate, however, it is incumbent upon the speaker to support their premises. Were I engaged in a formal debate on this subject, I would grant the second premise while drawing attention to its poor justification, if only to show that the non-theist can better account for the reality of objective moral values. Thus, in this second part, I will focus on the first premise. In my opinion, this is the best way to deal with the moral argument for god.

Let's say, hypothetically, that we are ethical intuitionists, like Dr. Craig. Remember that the moral argument deals with moral ontology, not moral epistemology. In our hypothetical scenario, we believe that we can apprehend moral truths, and we believe that these truths are intrinsic in nature. The atrocities of Nazism are intrinsically wrong, we would claim, and by definition, intrinsic values are objective, not being reliant on any relations to other things. They would be wrong even if the Nazis had won the war and brainwashed or killed everyone. This is practically the spitting image of the kind of morality Craig professes to have when he talks of the Holocaust being wrong "even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them." [1]

What objections could be raised against this stance? Craig could argue that objective values have to be grounded in something external to human beings - god, in his view. Yet this response would seem to ignore the meaning of intrinsic value. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines intrinsic as
belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing. [2]
If we say that human life is an intrinsic good, normally we mean that human life is good in and of itself. It is good independently of any opinion or belief to the contrary. Dr. Craig asserts that human beings do have intrinsic value, [3] but also claims that moral values are grounded in the character of god. [4] This appears to be a contradiction in terms, because if values come from god, then they cannot, by definition, be intrinsic, since they are determined by something outside of the thing itself. Rape is wrong not in-and-of itself, but because it is not in accordance with god's character. In a response to Luke Muehlhauser, Craig explains that he sees intrinsic value in a bit of a different way:
...persons have intrinsic value in that they are not merely means to be used for some end but are to be treated as ends in themselves. So we might well ask, "But why are human persons intrinsically valuable?" and the answer will be because God is personal. [5]
Craig's understanding of intrinsic value is arguably weaker in contrast to my own, supported by dictionaries and countless philosophers and ethicists. It is particularly weaker in how it addresses the view of objective values as ensuring that "something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so." [6] In that "anybody", Dr. Craig makes an unstated exception for his personal god, and what guarantee do we have that god would never change his mind about moral issues? According to most strains of Christian theology, god's moral prescriptions on unclean foods and circumcision were altered - overturned in every practical sense of the word - by the time of Jesus. As a divine command theorist, Craig believes that god's moral commands flow from his character. But what does it mean to suggest that the circumcision and food laws were effectively neutered once Jesus came around? If god's commands loosened up, does that mean his character changed too?

The Euthyphro dilemma asks, 'is something good because god commands it, or does god command something because it is good?' Apologists frequently retort that the answer is neither; something is good when it is in keeping with god's character or nature. However, we can rephrase the dilemma as follows: 'does god inform his character, or does his character inform him?' If the former is true, we fall back into the original dilemma, because by informing his character, god determines what is moral. If the latter is true, then there is something over which god has no authority, and this challenges the omnipotence and sovereignty of god. In addition, it simply will not suffice to define goodness as consistent with god's character, because we don't know god's character. Even if goodness is an essential property of his character, we still have no actual information about that property.

Not only does moral epistemology look troubling on the theistic side, but moral ontology seems unjustifiable, too. Even if we set aside the incoherency of claiming that good flows from god's character, useless as it is in defining actual goodness, there remains the problem of scripture and reason that argues against an unchanging character. As well, if intrinsic value exists, in the fullest, most objective definition, it will be accessible apart from the existence of any god, since it only has to do with the things in themselves, and not any relations to other things. 

Craig could also possibly object to the reliability of our intuitions, if there is no god. How can we trust our faculties, he might ask. This is just as much a problem for theists as for non-theists, though. See my previous blog entry on the problem of induction. There is no reason to assume that the existence of a god would make it any more likely that we would have uninhibited access to our sensory apparatuses, and there are good reasons to suspect that, at the very least, natural selection would favor reliable sense organs over unreliable ones that might lead to our deaths.

Even so, I must admit I do not subscribe either to intuitionism or to intrinsic value. These views are capable of countering the moral argument, though, I believe, and they are close enough to Craig's own standpoint that they would not be easily rebutted.

Alonzo Fyfe's theory of desire utilitarianism is the most persuasive, realistic, and meaningful moral theory I have yet run across. Moral statements describe behaviors as well as relationships, typically relationships between certain desires. When we think about why we act or behave in some way, desire is always the reason. You want to keep your job, so you choose to act appropriately at work. You want someone to like you, so you choose to behave positively around them. You want to be in the favor of the god you worship, so you choose to adhere to its will. According to desire utilitarianism, a behavior is "good" if it fulfills certain desires, and "bad" if it thwarts certain desires. Note, the focus is not on maximizing desire fulfillment, but on seeing that certain desires are met. I say certain desires because there are some desires that would be wrong to fulfill. These wrong desires are ones that, if carried into action, would thwart the desires of others for selfish reasons. To say that murder is wrong in desire utilitarianism means that it is wrong because it thwarts the desires of the victim, the victim’s family, and the larger society that wishes to live without the threat of murder.

Moral evaluations focus on malleable desires, those that can be changed by social forces like praise and condemnation. In the example above, the murderer commits the first thwarting of desire, for the purpose of fulfilling his own selfish interests. We can judge that the murderer's desire is harmful to others rather than fulfilling their desires, and so we can determine that it is morally good to condemn murder and appropriate for law enforcement to prevent murderers from killing. The desires of the murderer are thwarted because he has (or will) "cast the first stone", and because more, greater desires will be fulfilled by thwarting his.

Although desire utilitarianism rejects moral absolutism, it does provide for moral realism and moral universalism. The question of whether or not a desire will fulfill other desires has an objective answer, and these relationships between desires are part of the real world. Different persons may hold different desires, but this does not affect the objectivity of desire utilitarianism, since it takes these differences into account. We can say that a claim is universally moral when, after considering all desires involved, we see that it fulfills more, greater desires than would be thwarted. For example, a humanitarian desire can be called universally moral because it tends to fulfill more, greater desires than it thwarts.

Does this theory meet Craig's criterion for objective moral values as meaning that "something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so"? I would argue that it does. A desire is either fulfilled or thwarted, and that will remain true in spite of any beliefs to the contrary. But what about Craig's scenario - would the Holocaust be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and successfully brainwashed and/or killed all dissidents? Desire utilitarianism can look at the mountains of good desires thwarted by Nazism, as well as the oceans of bad desires it fulfilled and would continue to fulfill to reach such a hypothetical point, and can offer a resounding "yes". 

Contrast this moral approach, based on the intentions and actions of the Nazis, with the approach advocated by proponents of the moral argument, who believe the Holocaust was wrong essentially because it was inconsistent with the vague, undefined nature of god. A god with a history of genocide (Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3), slavery (Exodus 21:20-21, Leviticus 25:44-46, Colossians 3:22), and the promise of eternal, unimaginable torment for those who don't see things his way (Matthew 3:12, 13:41-42, Mark 9:47-48).

The moral argument for god fails to justify its ontological claims, and actually seems to strengthen the case for secular morality with the messy and inadequate defense that typically accompanies it. Unless one is already predisposed to the views associated with the argument, it is unlikely to be appealing.

[For more on desire utilitarianism:
Alonzo Fyfe, What is Desire Utilitarianism?
Luke Muehlhauser, The Ultimate Desirism F.A.Q.
Luke Muehlhauser, CPBD 005: Alonzo Fyfe - Desire Utilitarianism]

1. W.L. Craig, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality (1997).
2. Merriam-Webster, entry for intrinsic.
3. W.L. Craig, Q&A #61: Abortion and Presidential Politics.
4. W.L. Craig, Q&A #208: Sam Harris on Objective Moral Values and Duties.
5. Luke Muehlhauser, Craig on Intrinsic Value, Common Sense Atheism (2009).
6. See source #1.

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