Thursday, March 10, 2016


A Reply to WaywardSkeptic on the Moral Argument for God

cf. ‘Another Christian, Another Go at the Moral Argument’ (cf.
WaywardSkeptic's central objection to the meta-ethcial moral argument for theism is that it misdefines 'objective', taking it to mean 'independent of finite minds' rather than 'independent of any and all minds' (including the mind of God). According to WaywardSkeptic the moral argument is therefore self-contradictory, because it argues that objective moral values and duties depend upon God, but by definition nothing can be objective if it depends upon God! Hence WaywardSkeptic complains:
‘It seems Christians just do not understand that for something to be “objective” it has to be ontologically independent from mind and values are ontologically dependent on minds.’
‘If something is a command it is not mind independent and thus commands cannot be the ontological basis of morals.’
Of course, the moral argument is only self-contradictory if it uses WaywardSkeptic's definition of 'objective', and it doesn't.
Why should we join WaywardSkeptic in rejecting the definition of 'objective' used by professional philosophers who both advocate and critique the moral argument?   WaywardSkeptic goes to the dictionary for a definition of ‘objective’: 

‘As an adjective, defines “objective” as the following:
1 (Of a person or their judgement) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts: ‘historians try to be objective and impartial’ (emphasis original) Contrasted with subjective.
1.1 Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual: ‘ a matter of objective fact’ (emphasis original)’

WaywardSkeptic also tries to show the William Lane Craig contradicts himself in advancing the moral argument, tweeting (4th Feb 2016): ‘Oddly, even Craig defined "objective" as ~person-relative which would include ~God-relative.’ But, of course, in context, William Lane Craig clearly means relative to humans or to finite persons. It breaks the principle of charity to think that Craig defines objectivity as having existence independent from any and all minds, including the mind of God, and then argues that objective moral values and duties exist in dependence upon the mind of God! Such an argument would be obviously self-contradictory. Indeed, this is WaywardSkeptic’s central complaint against the moral argument.

However, a dictionary definition can't trump the meaning specifically assigned to a term within a philosophical argument. Complaining that the argument in question would fail if some key term within it meant something else (for example, what it means in the dictionary) is simply to attack a straw man.

Not that the meaning assigned to 'objective' in  the moral argument is at all odd or unusual. Here's how The Oxford Concise English Dictionary defines 'objective': 

Objective, adj. 1 not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering or representing facts. 2 not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.’

However, by ‘the mind’ here is meant the human mind, as becomes clear when one looks at the OED definition of 'objectivism':

Objectivism, n. 1 the tendency to emphasize what is external or independent of the mind. 2 Philosophy the belief that moral truths exist independently of human knowledge or perception of them.’

Unlike WaywardSkeptic, the OED recognizes that there is a specifically philosophical meaning of objectivism wherein it is independence from human minds that is the key point. Likewise, The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy (to which WaywardSkeptic also avers) defines moral realism as:

‘Any moral theory which holds that moral facts or ethical properties, such as being good or bad or being virtuous or evil, exist independent of our beliefs and will , and that ethics should find out truths about them.

As Wayward Skeptic observes, having referenced various sources defining moral objectivism: ‘I would be up front that, unfortunately, these pages tend to be anthropocentric...'
What is unfortunate is that WaywardSkeptic refuses to take such 'anthropocentric' definitions seriously, ignoring the specific, philosophical use of the term ‘objective’ as applied within moral realism.

cf. William Lane Craig, 'Theistic Ethics and Mind Dependence' 

What WaywardSkeptic needs is an argument to the effect that even if moral values and duties are objective (in the standard philosophical sense assigned to this term within the moral argument), they cannot depend upon or be grounded in God or any quality or qualities of God. An argument showing that if moral objetivism were true then moral platonism must be true would do the trick. WaywardSkeptic doesn't produce such an argument.
Moreover, any argument to this effect would need to rebut the arguments given by advocates of the moral argument for thinking that there is a connection between objective moral values and duties and the existence of a god. For example, one strand of the moral argument claims that while we obligated by our objective moral duties, we 'can't be obligated by anything non-personal'. Thus H.P. Owen argues: 

'On the one hand [objective moral] claims transcend every human person . . . On the other hand… it is contradictory to assert that impersonal claims are entitled to the allegiance of our wills. The only solution to this paradox is to suppose that the order of [objective moral] claims . . . is in fact rooted in the personality of God.(‘Why morality implies the existence of God’, edited extract from The Moral Argument for Christian Theism (George Allen & Unwin, 1965) in Brian Davies (ed.), Philosophy of Religion: a guide and anthology (Oxford, 2000), p. 648.)
WaywardSkeptic does take issue with this claim, stating:

Actually, yes, you would be obligated by something non-personal. This would be the normative force for moral properties/facts.

However, this is merely a statement of disagreement, not a counter-argument. Accepting that there are moral facts, facts that have 'normative force', the question is: how does one explain the normative force of objective moral duties? What is the best explanation of the normative, obligatory intentionality of the moral facts we experience? It seems that an obligation is, by its very nature, a relation that can only hold between persons and not between a person and any impersonal reality.

Actually, WaywardSkeptic doesn't accept the existence of normative facts. Responding to the claim that 'Torturing an innocent child for the sheer fun of it is morally wrong', WaywardSkeptic writes:

As moral anti-realist, I would not agree to that. I may prefer it not to happen and I may have a strong, negative emotional reaction to such an event to occur, I would not say it was immoral in an objective sense.

Denying the premise that there are normative facts certainly allows one to escape the conclusion of the moral argument for theism, but as far as I am concerned, is a philosophical price-tag too far, one that flies in the face of experience.

WaywardSkeptic also responds to the essentialist rebuttal of the Euthyphro (false) dilemma:

The nature route is probably path most taken by Christians yet it is not perfect... Are these attributes [being holy, loving, kind, just etc.] good and thus make God good or are these attributes good because God has them?

These properties are not good independant of God's reality, because God is the ground and standard of goodness.

Nor are these attributes good because God just happens to have them. God doesn't just happen to have the moral properties He has (e.g. being loving) since God has these properties in every possible world. When you get to God you've reached the metaphysical and moral ultimate, the explanatory stopping point for moral values. As Craig writes: 'God is the greatest conceivable being, and it is greater to be the paradigm of goodness than to conform to it.' ( Again, goodness may be a primitive, foundational concept that is ultimately undefinable in non-value terms. But that doesn't mean to say that 'God is The Good' is therefore a meaningless statement or an empty tautology. of course God is God! And of course goodness is good! On Theistic Essentialism, moral goodness is constituted by the necessary character of God (that doesn't mean one can't explain what moral goodness is, or wherein the moral goodness of God consists. One can explain that God is loving, kind, merciful, generous, and so forth. But this is an explanation-what, not an explanation-why).

WaywardSkeptic is among those whom William Lane Craig refers to as:
'those who misguidedly try to rescue the false dilemma posed in the Euthyphro argument: either something is good because God wills it or God wills something because it is good. Because these alternatives are not contradictories it is open to the theist to propose a third alternative, viz., God wills something because He is good. Unhappy with this defeat of their dilemma, some have demanded: is something good because of the way God is or is God that way because something is good? The critic isn’t listening. We’ve already said that something is good because of the way God is. “But why is God good?” the critic persists. It’s hard to make sense of this question. The moral theory just is that God is the paradigm of goodness, and it makes no sense to ask why the paradigm of goodness is good. The critic must be asking, “Why believe your theory?” The answer is, “because it makes the best sense of objective moral values and duties.” -


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