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Monday, May 28, 2012

C-objectivity and Craig's moral argument

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has developed and defended an increasingly popular forumlation of the moral argument for the existence of God:
(1) If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists. (Reasonable Faith, p172.)
His principal defense for premise (2) consists in pointing to our moral experience, where he thinks we apprehend the objectivity of morality. However I will argue that while there may be a semantic sense in which our moral experience does offer evidence for the objectivity of morality, nevertheless Craig has in mind a different, specialized sense of objectivity which involves the existence of a concrete exemplar, and which is unsupported by experience.

Craig offers at least two defenses for premise (2), but here we shall only focus on one of them. According to Craig:

I take it that in moral experience we do apprehend a realm of objective moral values and duties, just as in sensory experience we apprehend a realm of objectively existing physical objects... Actions like rape, torture, child abuse, and brutality aren't just socially unacceptable behavior---they're moral abominations. By the same token, love, generosity, equality, and self-sacrifice are really good. People who fail to see this are just morally handicapped, and there is no reason to allow their impaired vision to call into question what we see clearly. (Reasonable Faith, pp179,81)
On the face of it, this appears quite plausible. It seems ludicrous to deny the objectivity of truths such as that, say, child abuse is morally wrong, or that love is morally good. The skeptic need not deny that we really do apprehend this objectivity of moral semantics. However, when Craig argues for the existence of "objective" moral values, he has something in mind other than the ordinary semantic objectivity we so often take for granted. He writes:
Our concern is with moral ontology, that is to say, the foundation in reality of moral values. Our concern is not with moral semantics, that is to say, the meaning of moral terms. ( Q&A #44, "Euthyphro Dilemma.")
So we must carefully distinguish between moral semantics and Craig's notion of moral ontology if we are to evaluate his moral argument. Indeed, Craig seems not to challenge the notion that moral truths can be objective in a semantic sense apart from the existence of God. So for instance, if we have a semantic standard of goodness independent of God, then we can objectively evaluate thoughts, behaviors and so forth as being good or not against that standard. To be sure, this semantic objectivity is a different kind of objectivity than what Craig has in mind. Yet it is important to note that semantic objectivity really does stand independent of the existence of God. Even Craig seems to acknowledge this, as he continues:
The theist is quite ready to say that we have a clear understanding of moral vocabulary like "good," "evil," "right," and so on, without reference to God. Thus, it is informative to learn that "God is essentially good." ( Q&A #44, "Euthyphro Dilemma.")
So even if God does not exist, moral language still has meaning, and hence moral statements can be objectively evaluated for truth or falsity against that meaning. So it really is the case, regardless of whether God exists, that sentences like "murder is wrong" and "love is good" can express objectively true statements, so long as we understand wrongness and goodness to be characterized by those semantics which are independent of God.

The only catch is that this notion of objectivity is a semantic one, and Craig wants to talk about a different kind of objectivity. Let's call Craig's concept C-objectivity ("C" for Craig), to distinguish it from the semantic objectivity described above.

So, just what is C-objectivity, then? Craig explains:

To say that something is objective is to say that it is independent of what people think or perceive. By contrast, to say that something is subjective is just to say that it is not objective; that is to say, it is dependent on what human persons think or perceive. So, for example, the distinction between being on Mars and not being on Mars is an objective distinction; a particular rock's being on Mars is in no way dependent upon our beliefs. By contrast, the distinction between "here" and "there" is not objective: whether a particular event at a certain spatial location occurs here or occurs there depends upon a person’s point of view. (Reasonable Faith, p173.)
Unfortunately, this is more confusing than helpful. For notice that even though the property of being here is said to be C-nonobjective, nevertheless it is objectively true (perhaps only in a semantic sense) that I am sitting in my living room, and my cat is here too. It really is the case that my cat is here, given what we mean by the term. Such statements are true independent of human values and opinions, yet Craig seems to want to deny that they are C-objectively true.

To get a better handle on what we should take C-objectivity to be, I think the following quotation from Craig is instructive:

Just as a meter was once defined paradigmatically as the length of an iridium bar housed in the Bureau des Poids et des Mesures in Paris, so moral values are determined by the paradigm of God's holy and loving character. (Craig, "The Most Gruesome of Guests," Is Goodness Without God Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics, pp169-70, as quoted in Wes Morriston, "God and the ontological foundation of morality.")
This is also problematic. What exactly does Craig mean by saying that the bar "paradigmatically" embodied the property of being a meter long? After all, I think most folks agree that meter bar project was misguided; we don't need a concrete exemplar of the property of being one meter long in order to have an objective semantic standard for that property. It is quite enough that we understand the ideal of meter length. Similarly, we don't need a concrete exemplar of perfect goodness in order to understand what it means to be good. Even Craig seems to acknowledge that much.

Yet Craig appears resistant to the suggestion that having an abstract ideal counts as C-objectivity. For instance, in opposing the social contract theory offered by atheist philosopher Shelley Kagan, where morals are said to be grounded in the ideal of a perfectly rational committee of moral agents, Craig wrote:

Indeed, given that perfectly rational people do not exist, how can his pretended account actually ground moral values and duties? There is no such ideal committee; it does not exist and has never considered or decided anything. So how can actual objective moral values and duties be grounded in such a non-reality? ( Q&A #44, "Contemporary Moral Arguments.")
So it is not enough for Craig that we should have an abstract ideal; rather, we must have some concrete exemplar, akin to the Parisian meter bar. Only then can goodness and morals be rightly judged as C-objective.

Unfortunately, when it comes time to look at our moral experience to assess whether or not moral properties and truths are C-objective, we immediately encounter problems. For whatever objectivity we perceive in our experience seems to be semantic, and fails to indicate the existence of a concrete exemplar of perfect goodness. Craig defends premise (2) of his moral argument by insisting that we apprehend objectivity in our moral experience. I think that is probably correct, except that the objectivity we apprehend is not the sort of objectivity Craig needs for his argument. In particular, we apprehend semantic objectivity; but we do not experience anything to justify inferring a concrete exemplar of perfect goodness any more than encountering an imperfect meter stick justifies inferring the existence of a perfect iridium meter bar.

So I don't think that denying C-objectivity runs counter to our experience at all. Rather, it seems to me that when most people speak of "objectivity" they refer to semantic objectivity, i.e. whether or not it really is the case given what we mean by some property that an object possesses it. This kind of objectivity for morality stands quite independent from the existence of God, as Craig himself seems to recognize. In contrast, I don't think many folks have much of an eye for the alleged C-objectivity of moral values and duties, which is what Craig needs to show exists for his argument. That's not a part of my moral experience, and I see no reason to infer it from anything I really do experience.

The skeptic, then, need not reject the objectivity of moral values and duties; nor need he reject the notion that we reliably apprehend a realm of objective moral values and duties in our day-to-day moral experience. Indeed both of these suggestions seem quite plausible. Instead, the problem with Craig's premise is that he posits the wrong kind of objectivity. We apprehend semantic objectivity, and not the external concrete exemplar required for C-objectivity. So by pointing to moral experience, Craig hasn't actually offered any evidence for premise (2) of his moral argument.


Dima said...

Hi Ben,
Thank you for a very interesting post.
I have a couple of questions though.
Could you please explain a bit more what you mean by "semantic objectivity"? Do you mean by this that we may have a concept of goodness in our language which may serve as a standard against which a particular action is then judged to be good or bad? Our evaluation of actions then is objective in a sense that it is not up to anyone's opinion how well this or that action meets or does not meet the standard of the concept of goodness in our language. For instance, if my concept of badness among other things includes the idea of suffering, then to the extent to which some action causes suffering, to that extent it is bad, i.e. meets the criteria of badness according to our moral semantics. But if this is what you mean by "semantic objectivity", then in what way do we experience this semantic objectivity when, say, we are confronted with child abuse? When we see some abhorrent action taking place do we merely have an experience of clear and unambiguous correlation between what we understand badness to be in our language and some action meeting those standards assigned by the concept (semantic objectivity)? Or, rather, do we come to realize that such action is a clear violation of a duty that exists in reality and is binding on all of us (Craig's actual definition of objectivity), regardless of our opinion, preference or desire? I think it is this latter sense of objectivity that Craig ascribes to moral values and duties in his second premise. I do not think that your "C-objectivity" is what Craig means by "objective" in premise 2 of his moral argument. By "objective duty", for instance, he means that some action is valid and binding regardless of our opinions. When you define what C-objectivity is according to Craig you give this quote:
"Just as a meter was once defined paradigmatically as the length of an iridium bar housed in the Bureau des Poids et des Mesures in Paris, so moral values are determined by the paradigm of God's holy and loving character. (Craig, "The Most Gruesome of Guests,"
I have not read this particular paper so please correct me if I am wrong, but from what else I've read of Craig I doubt that in this quote he is defining what he means by 'objective' in his second premise. Rather he is here answering the further ontological question of how God grounds objective moral values and duties if they do exist. The question is whether there exists in reality anything that can best fill the role of foundation or ground for objective (valid and binding, independent of person's opinion) moral values and duties that we do apprehend in our moral experience. So I don't think your quote is relevant to Craig's second premise and his usage of the term 'objective'. If anything, it is more relevant to the first premise where Craig, in effect, claims that only God can provide the adequate grounds for objective moral values and duties.

Ben Wallis said...


Thanks for the comment.

In answer to your first question, yes, that is what I mean by "semantic objectivity."

However, I do not mean to suggest that when we are confronted with child abuse we merely intuit a correlation between our linguistic standards of evil or badness and the child abuse we imagine to be occurring. Certainly lots of other stuff is going on too, especially a direct emotional reaction of disgust to the child abuse, and also a ready sense of indignation or outrage regarding anyone who doesn't share our reaction of disgust. But I don't think these emotional reactions are what Craig has in mind when he claims that we apprehend an objective moral realm.

Now, you suggest that we have an experience whereby we apprehend that child abuse "is a clear violation of a duty that exists in reality and is binding on all of us." But remember, Craig acknowledges that we have semantic standards for our moral vocabulary independent of God, including terms like "duty" and "(morally) binding." In other words, such binding duties do indeed exist apart from God insofar as the semantic standards which define them exist.

Presumably, though, this is not a strong enough sense of existence to satisfy Craig, which is why I brought up the meter bar analogy. You are correct that he was not using it to directly support the second premise. But by considering his comments about the meter bar we can get a better idea of what he means by "objectivity." As we have seen, it is not enough for Craig that moral duties exist in the sense of having a semantic standard for the term "moral duty." So what is enough, then? Well, he appears to demand some kind of perfect concrete exemplar. But this goes far beyond what we apprehend in our moral experience.


Dima said...

I think it would be helpful to distinguish between moral semantics and moral ontology. It seems to me that one can competently use the terms like "right", "wrong", "good" or "bad" without seeing its ontological basis. One does not need to know, for instance, what the constituents of moral obligation are before one can perceive that something is morally binding on him or her. I think all that Craig wants to say with his premise 2 is that in our moral experience we apprehend such duties and come to realize its demands on us as moral agents. Moreover, when confronted with such clear instances of wrongness as torture of the innocent or child abuse, we tend to regard our emotions as rational and justified. We are inclined to believe in such cases that the "semantic standards for our moral vocabulary" really does refer to something that exists, that they are grounded in reality. It is only after this that Craig explores the options for what may ground such obligations in reality and concludes that the best (the only?) adequate ground for them is God who does so by serving as " some kind of perfect concrete exemplar" of goodness. So I agree with you that Craig is not satisfied with the kind of existence that you meant when you wrote that "such binding duties do indeed exist apart from God insofar as the semantic standards which define them exist". He does not stop at mere semantics but makes a real shift to ontology. This, however, does not mean that Craig is thereby assuming or asking us to assume that the only possible sense of existence there can be for objective moral values and duties is according to the 'particularistic' picture, on which an individual paradigm is cited to answer the ontological question. He is fully aware of the alternative option frequently employed by others, namely the Platonic existence of a general principle or fact which is taken to be the ultimate constitutive of goodness. It is not that Craig thinks this latter picture is impossible, rather he thinks it is highly implausible on naturalism and less likely to be true on theism than its 'particularistic' alternative. But notice we are now discussing premise 1 of his argument, not premise 2. I agree with you that detecting some kind of perfect concrete exemplar is beyond what we apprehend in our moral experience, but I disagree that Craig's sense of existence and his meaning of objectivity in premise 2 of his argument "demand" it.
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this with you.

Ben Wallis said...


I just don't know what Craig means by having a "ground" or "foundation" for moral values and duties unless he means a concrete exemplar. Even without God, semantic standards for moral vocabulary EXIST, right? And these semantic standards are objective in the same way that most natural language is objective. So this gives us a sense in which objective moral values and duties exist without God.

You wrote that "He does not stop at mere semantics but makes a real shift to ontology." But saying that our semantic standards exist IS a kind of ontology---it's just a kind of ontology which fails to satisfy Craig. But then the question is, what kind of ontology does he demand? I don't think he consciously intends to demand a concrete exemplar, at least not in advance of his argument, but I don't know any other way to make sense of his criticism.


Reynold said...

I can't see how the xian god can be used as the basis for "objective morality" in the first place.

For instance: If abortion (ie. baby-killing) is wrong "objectively" than it's wrong no matter who does it.

If people like Craig have no problem with god killing babies, then isn't that "subjective morality"?

That moral double-standard is seen here by, naturally, William Lane Craig.

Reynold said...

Actually, the post that I had here deals with this topic better.

Noctambulant Joycean said...

Hello. It's Noct.

I really like your post and your dissection of semantic objectivity versus C objectivity. I also liked your point regarding ideals and wanted to briefly build upon it.

Craig thinks that Kagan's basing morals on non-existent beings is a vice when, in actuality, it's a virtue. Or at least it is when it's compared to Craig's position where morals are based on an existent mind's opinion. Craig's positions allows for the possibility (at least the logical/semantic possibility, even if one grants the wildly implausible modal ontological argument) that the being on which morals are based could abuse their privilege and harm other people without that behavior counting as wrong. That's one of the reasons we feel so uncomfortable basing moral truth’s a mind or culture’s opinions (theists can place the label “God’s nature” onto the factors that cause God’s opinions of action or “command” on God’s expressed opinions, but it amounts to the same in the end): it’s a recipe for moral abuse. Kagan’s position does not do this and instead (roughly) rigidly designates moral truth to a given set of non-existent beings. Since the beings do not exist, they cannot abuse their privilege as the grounders for moral truth. Craig’s existent God of the Old Testament, however…