The God Debate II: Harris vs. Craig – The notion of objective morality

  RR  – I believe you structured your syllogism wrongly. See, this is not an argument FOR the existence of God, but for the existence of objective morals and duties. Unless i’m wrong, Craig’s argument is the following IF God exists, then there is a sound ground for moral objectives. 

He may say that as well, but I took that argument from a PowerPoint slide WLC presented in a formal debate with Sam Harris. It is repeated almost verbatim here

RR – You seem to have understood the other way around, that the existence of objective morals imply the existence of God, which is a fallacy in itself because, as Craig conceded, the existence of God is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the existence of objective morals (his other premise was the divine command theory)

I’m not surprised that WLC would be inconsistent in his arguments, I find that an ongoing defense of theism almost requires it.

RR – On a side note, It is important to note the use of a conditional sentence. IF A, then B. Keep this in mind, because i will return to it later 2.             Again, i think there’s been a misunderstanding. Aren’t you mistaking Moral Values for Altruism? Moral values are nothing more than a moral scale, which is used to pass moral judgements. The very statement ””A moral value is an internal force for good within us, a force which motivates us to alleviate suffering or promote happiness in others rather than do harm”” makes no sense at all, because the willingness to alleviate suffering and promote happiness (in the physical way) ARE the moral values in themselves. By that standard, you would, for example consider wrong an act of “unjustified” murder and good an act of charity. You see, Moral values are NOT the willingness to do good, rather WHAT you consider to be good or bad in your moral scale.

A moral scale with no defined parameters is an interesting concept. By that you mean the very sense itself that some things are wrong or bad and others are right or good. I don’t what that proves. How we define right and wrong seems to be the main point.

  1. RR –    Here we start to approach the debate itself. The concept of objective morals is related to the existence of an universal morality. An objectively good moral act means that the act is deemed good no matter the context because the scale upon such judgement is based transcends our own. Let me try and give you an example to make it easier to understand. It is generally agreed upon, today, that slavery is wrong for a variety of reasons, so practicing slavery, in our society, is immoral. On the other hand, if we go back ancient Greece, we would see an interesting thing. Slavery was justified on the grounds that there were two kinds of humans. The greeks and the barbarians. The greeks were the intelectually superior kind, who were capable of practicing reason, philosophy, debate, an so forth. The barbarians were uncapable of such things, and as such, were mere tools, vessels which should have been used by the greeks to satisfy their materials need so they would have enough time to occupy their minds with what is truly important in this world. So, curiously, owning slaves was actually the moral thing to do! 

You don’t need to go as far back as ancient Greece to use slavery as an example. Slavery existed in the western world much more recently and in fact still exists in some places. And if we were honest, how far from slavery are the sweatshops of Bangladesh and other places that produce the goods we consume?

RR –  Now, here we reach a crossroads. I’m going to try and simplify the next point, albeit at the risk of commiting a few mistakes. Today we are able to do the following. A. Judge the ancient greeks’ actions by our (or whatever) set of standards B. Acknowledge the impossibility to pass such moral judgement.

If we were to stick with A, then some set of common moral grounds between us and the greeks would have to be found. This is moral universalism, or moral objectivism, if you may. Objective morals are somewhat static, and although moral growth may happen, what is good and what is bad are defined a priori. For example, in the hypothetical situation that murder is an objectively bad act, murdering someone today would be just as wrong as the aztecs that commited human sacrifices Now, if we were to stick with B, then we would acknowledge the fact that, following the example, the aztecs had a moral standard of their own, which was completely DIFFERENT from ours. NOT SACRIFICING for Tlaloc would actually be the immoral thing to do, lest the rain would not come and the crops would not flourish. This would be Moral relativism.

I think we can do both. Obviously, at the risk of being hypocrites we can judge slaveholders by our standards of morality, and by those standards they fail to measure up. We can also acknowledge that if we lived in that era we would likely think no differently, so what is the purpose of the judgment?

  1. RR –   Here we go to your point specifically. In fact, not a single one of those examples you provided as possible sources for an objective moral can actually be a source of objective morals! I’ll try to explain. Do you remember the conditional i’ve said earlier? IF A, then B? this is were it is important. The conditional IF God exists is what grants validity to said claim. Belief in God is the basic belief, the belief upon which other beliefs are grounded and deduced. As such, the existence of objective morals is a corollary of the basic belief. If God exists, then inexorably there are grounds for objective morals.

But there is no way to know for sure what those morals would look like, as witnessed by the many religions with just as many sets of moral ideas.

RR  – (btw, harris himself conceded this). Your mistake (and harris’) is to to think that objective morals can be basic beliefs themselves! To arbitrarily adopt a set of events as a the standard for Morally Bad acts, couldn’t possibly be a ground for an objective moral, because the very association of that set of events with the “Bad” region of the moral scale is a moral judgement already! So effectively, what harris proposes is nothing more than a ground for moral values and duties, and actually a quite reasonable one. Going back to your point, do you see now how teachers, books, and everything else you said CAN be grounds for moral values (and they actually ARE), but not for OBJECTIVE morals?

I agree that Harris makes a misstep by assuming the task of defending objective morality. However I think if you take his apparent definition of objective then I think he gets away with it.

5. RR – Well, the very concept of objective morals transcends this world, so i don’t know why you make such claims:

I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. You could stipulate that’s what you mean by it, but I also think that you can argue that any concept that transcends individual human choice or cultural choice could be called objective. After all we are all flesh and blood organisms; that is an objective fact which could arguably form at least part of the foundation of a set of objective morals. I think that is the tack Harris is taking.

“Lee C ” I see the opposite, a moral value derived from the natural world would lead to an instinct to create life but also to destroy it wantonly with no regard for suffering.””

RR – The moral standard for objective morals would be God himself, not the world he has created.”

What other way can we understand God except by looking at the world he created?

RR -Actually defining moral standards from material observations would be adopting a set of moral values, NOT a set of OBJECTIVE moral values.

But the world is an objective fact, therefore a plausible basis for objective morals.

RR – Simply put, the christian objective moral standard is the NATURE of God himself, and is not, by definition, developed from observing the natural world.

Again, you can’t know the nature of God except by observing the world he created.

RR – If you propose what you propose as a criticism of this supposed Divine nature (specifically the problem of natural evil: if god is good and omnipotent, why are there floods and diseases), then i’d grant you that. There are ways to adress this matter, such as that God does not will it but merely allows it,

Given that he presumably has the power to stop it; that does not get him off the hook.

RR – or that God is transcendent, rather than immanent, and so forth, but i am less inclined to delve in this specific point. If you are interested in your questioning, though, look up “problem of natural evil”. My approach to this question, however, is questioning the evil nature of such events. Why are the consequences of a flood, for example, inherently evil?

Well, I don’t think they are of course, but if those “Acts of God” are judged by the same moral scale that human acts are judged for then they are heinous crimes. I can’t see how you can possibly square the terrible harm caused in nature with the concept of a loving God, without making an unexplainable leap of faith. 

RR – Summarizing, i think you mistook Objective moral values. They are not exactly what you take them for. As for the debate, i believe it to be merely a tactical victory for Craig. His claims are logically sound, but essentially meaningless exactly due to their conditional nature. IF God exists, ok. That’s a big IF.  I’m baffled however by Harris’ approach on the matter. What is the problem of conceding that atheism cannot provide objective morals? Why are they so needed? We, as an increasingly secular society, are becoming orphans of objective morals, and, in my opinion, things such as the immense repercussion of Cecil’s (the lion) death serve to show that we haven’t really thought this through.

I’d agree with that, morality is not well understood at all. We’re kidding ourselves if we think so. I also think you have to realize what Sam Harris is like. I think he sometimes relishes the chance to defy any attempts to limit him or put him a box. His books on spirituality make many atheists cringe. He decided to refuse to let WLC own the word objective.

RR – Neo-atheists in general are prepared to deny God but not the objective nature of His morality! I believe it to be very sad, that such people advocate in favor of not believing without evidence and yet take for granted things which, by their own definition, shouldn’t.

I think we’re in agreement there.

RR -What i’d like to hear though, is your proposition that morality is derived from evolution. i’d be very much inclined to continue this discussion, as i am quite interested in the matter and seldom do i have opportunity to practice my english!

I like to extrapolate when I test my theories of morality, both forward into possible futures (maybe later on that) and backwards past Lucy and to our predecessors which must have some sort of lemur-like creatures. When I think of the species of animals we evolved from I can easily surmise that cooperation and group solidarity gave primate troupes a tremendous evolutionary advantage over other groups which may have been perhaps characterized by discord and in-fighting, perhaps such as the Neanderthals. So there is the seeds of a moral value, get along and you do better, your group does better, and everybody is happier. And the more socially “evolved” individuals were undoubtedly getting laid a lot. That’s why I look at secular moral values as instincts and not mere individual choices as WLC suggests. But as the bible gave us in the allegory of Adam and Eve, we do have those choices nonetheless, as self-aware beings.

Anyway, I think I’m rambling now. That’s my kind of “common sense” take on the origins of morals.


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