Is God necessary for morality?

This is a summary of a debate on the rational justification for moral values, moral duties and moral accountability on atheism. The question of free will and determinism also comes up. Note that this is not a debate to see who wins. The commie wusses at the Veritas Forum made Craig promise not to press for a victory, as he reports here:

I did respond briefly to Prof. Kagan’s view… but I didn’t press the point because our hosts with the Veritas Forum had made it very clear to me that they were not interested in having a knock-down debate but a friendly dialogue that would foster a warm and inviting atmosphere for non-believing students at Columbia. The goal was simply to get the issues out on the table in a congenial, welcoming environment, which I think we did.

The debate was held in February, 2009 at Columbia University between Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan and William Lane Craig.

Video and audio are here:

Shelly Kagan – opening speech

Framing the debate:

  • The question is not whether people need God in order to act morally, because atheists are able act morally and immorally just as well as theists
  • The questions is whether we need to God in order to be the ground for morality. Do right and wrong really exist if there is not God?
  • He will defend objective morality on atheism

One possible explanation for morality without God is:

  • right is what helps others and doesn’t hurt them
  • wrong is what hurts people and doesn’t help them

And the standard rules of moral behavior emerge from these 2 principles.

What are the objections to this help/hurt theory

1) Are these really wrong, or is this standard just a matter of opinion?

No, these moral standards are not a matter of opinion, they are facts.

2) What makes these rules apply to everyone and prescribe behaviors

Possible answers:
- moral rules are just brute facts
- contractarianism: (social contract) the moral rules should be chosen by reflecting on a hypothetical discussion between ideal reasoners
- something else

3) Morality involves commandments, so who is the commander?

Possible answers:
- moral commandments don’t require a commander
- for example, logical rules like the law of non-contradiction don’t need a lawgiver, and moral rules could be just like that
- or, perhaps the commander is society itself, which fits with the contractarian theory

William Lane Craig – opening speech

Framing the debate:

  • not debating whether belief in God is necessary to act morally
  • the question is whether god is a necessary ground for morality to be meaningful

Is God necessary for morality? It depends on what morality means:
- is morality just an arbitrary pattern of social behavior?
- if so, then God isn’t needed to ground humans to act according to a pattern of social behavior

But if morality is objective, (true whether anyone believes it or not):
- then god is necessary to ground objective morality
- because objective moral standards exists independently of human standards of personal preference or cultural fashion

Non-objective morality is illusion/convention
- pattern has no objective moral significance, it’s just an arbitrary fashion that varies by time and place

God is necessary for morality in 3 ways
1) God grounds objective moral values, i.e. – what counts as good and what counts as evil
2) God grounds objective moral duties, i.e. – what we ought to do and ought not to do
3) God grounds moral accountability, i.e. – our ultimate fate depends on how we act morally

1) Moral values
- whether some action is good or evil, independent of whether anyone thinks it is or not
- individual and social opinions do not decide these standards of good and evil
- god is necessary to ground moral standards that exist independent of human opinions
- the moral values are set by god’s unchanging nature

Human value:
- why think that humans have value, such that they should be treated a particular way
- on atheism, humans are just animals
- evolution means that moral values are the product of the struggle for survival
- the “herd” moral standard is arbitrary, it is not really a true standard
- on atheism, moral values do not exist independently, they are merely descriptions of behaviors that are the product of biological and cultural evolution
- in other animal species, many things that we think of as wrong are practiced, like stealing and rape
- so why think that our practices are objectively true, instead of just customs and fashions of our species?

Free will:
- moral choices require a non-physical mind distinct from the physical brain in order to make free moral choices
- on (biological) determinism, no choices are morally significant – just actions of puppets on strings
- no moral responsibility for a puppet’s determined actions

2) Moral duties
- whether some action is right or wrong
- whether humans are morally obligated to perform certain actions, independent of whether we think that we do or not
- the commands flow from god’s unchanging moral nature
- they become duties for us, his creatures

on atheism
- on atheism, humans are animals, and animals don’t have real moral obligations
- where would moral duties come from on atheism, to whom is the duty owed?
- on atheism, it is just a subjective impression ingrained into us by social and biological pressures
- on atheism, there is no standard of what we ought to do
- on atheism, breaking the social contract is the same as belching loudly at the dinner table, it’s just being unfashionable – not doing what the rest of the heard has decided is customary

3) moral accountability
- on theism, the moral choices we make affect where we end up in the afterlife
- god balances the scales of justice in the end

on atheism:
- it is irrelevant how you act, you end up in the same place (dead) regardless of how you live

why be moral on atheism?
- why shouldn’t a person pursue self interest instead of following the moral conventions of the social contract
- it’s not always the case that doing the right thing is also doing the thing that gives you selfish pleasure
- a very powerful person would not need to be moral, since they can escape the social sanctions that result from their breaking the social contract
- why would a very powerful do the right thing when it is against their self-interest, on atheism, since the social contract is just arbitrary fashion?

acts of self-sacrifice are irrational on atheism
- the result is that no one will be moral when it is hard to do the right thing
- because in the long run, it doesn’t matter what you do, on atheism
- compassion and self-sacrifice are not pleasurable, and are therefore pointless on atheism


questions atheists must answer:
what is the basis of objective moral values?
what is the basis of human value on atheism?
why ought we to do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing?
what is the basis for moral accountability

10 minutes of cross X, Craig questioning

WC what makes harming other people wrong, on a naturalistic (atheistic) worldview? Other animals do it, so why is it wrong for humans?

SK because humans have the rational capacity to understand the morality of their actions

WC but why is it wrong for humans to inflict harm on other humans?

SK humans can do neat things that animals can’t do like calculus and poetry, so therefore murder is wrong

2) WC Are you a determinist?

SK Yes

WC Then how do you justify moral choices on naturalism?

SK I’m a compatibilist

WC but on your view, behavior is caused by brain chemicals, so then how can you make free choices?

SK I don’t want to talk about it right now

10 minutes of cross X, Shelly questioning

SK just because I deny ultimate meaning, it doesn’t mean that I can’t be moral

WC on naturalism, everything, including stars and humans, is destined to destruction in the heat death of the universe, so why would moral choices matter in the end, since the moral choices don’t affect your ultimate fate (death)?

SK just because my moral actions lack ultimate significance, things can be still be significant to the people living now, because I can feel good about doing moral things when it is against my self-interest

WC the end of your life doesn’t change regardless of what we choose, on naturalism/atheism, so why be moral on atheism? on atheism, prudence and morality are in conflict, but on theism prudence and morality coincide

SK but then on theism, being moral is just self-interest – and besides, I can still choose morality over prudence, because it makes me feel good, (i.e. – atheists can adopt the moral point of view against their self-interest, based on feelings of happiness)

WC but it demoralizes moral behavior to realize that it makes no difference in the end whether you do right or wrong

SK but it demoralizes morality on theism that it reduces to self-interest, you are doing right in order to be get an eternal reward

SK how can we justify punishing people on atheism? the hypothetical social contract imagined during a discussion between perfectly rational people prescribes morality for all of us

WC what if the person doesn’t want to sign the contract

SK everyone ought to bound by it because the perfectly rational people made it, even very powerful people ought to follow the social contract

Moderator-directed discussion

MD On atheism, is free will impossible

WC yes, because all behavior on naturalism/materialism/atheism is the result of chemical reactions, not free decisions of personal agents

MD if the Nazis won, and ran the world, would the Nazis still be bad

SK yes, because the social contract is a thought experiment with perfectly rational people behind a veil of ignorance so it’s still binding on Nazis even if they win world war 2 and run everything

MD religious history is filled with atrocities

WC yes, and this helps to prove that morality really is objective, not just based on social convention

MD but why do humans do such immoral things

WC humans are sinful, and it shows that they need god

MD why do we violate the social contract

SK humans are sinful

MD how would you prevent or control these moral failures

SK moral education, moral community, the power of the state as enforcer of morality

SK (to WC) isn’t there a tension between doing good and being saved by grace on christianity?

WC on christianity, the bad people who are contrite go to heaven, the self-righteous think they are good enough without god, they are they ones who go to hell

SK but doing good is significant to me, even if it’s not ultimately significant, because it makes me feel good right now

MD should we be nice to animals

WC christians have an advantage here because humans have environmental and animal stewardship duties – not based on animal rights, but based on obligations that god has placed on humans to be good stewards

SK are you a vegetarian

WC no, but we should be humane to animals – in any case why should a naturalist treat animals well?

SK because it’s wrong to harm animals, it’s wrong to make them feel pain

MD what about cross-cultural differences, how is that affected by theism and atheism

WC the question of ontology is separate from the question of epistemology

MD so are some cultures wrong?

WC yes, nazis, etc.

SK we are largely in agreement, some societies are not evolved enough to be able to know what is right and wrong by educated rationality

William Lane Craig – closing statement

theism does have good answers to the questions of moral values, moral duties and moral accountability
- the values are rooted in god’s nature
- the duties are owed to God
- it matters if we’re good or not because our ultimate destination is affected by our moral actions

on atheism
- the social contract is just an arbitrary social convention
- determinism does not allow for free moral decisions
- with no one to prescribe duties, there is no reason to perform duties
- on atheism, moral duties are like rules of etiquette
- it makes no difference in the long run how you behave

Shelly Kagan – closing statement

objective morality can exist without god

atheists can prefer to do the right thing against self-interest because it gives them happy feelings of significance, even if there is no ultimate significance
- atheism cannot provide ultimate significance for moral actions, and that is ok so long as their is emotional (subjective) significance

Craig’s post debate comments

Craig’s comments on the debate from his March newsletter.

Other debates on atheism and morality

Here are some prior debates on the rationality of morality on atheism.

  1. From Christianity Today, a written debate: Douglas Wilson vs. Christopher Hitchens
  2. From the University of Western Ontario, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs. Kai Nielsen
  3. From Schenectady College, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs Richard Taylor
  4. From Franklin & Marshall College, William Lane Craig vs. Paul Kurtz (audio, video1, video2, video3, video4, video5, video6,video7)
  5. From the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, William Lane Craig vs. Louise Antony (audio1, audio2, video1, video2)

Further study

A good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally-grounding prescriptive morality here. My previous posts on this blog on this topic arehere and here. The first one is about whether atheists can use a made-up standard to judge God for his perceived moral failures, the second one is on whether meaningful morality is rational on atheism.


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