Note: Below is a repost of this 2011 article on thinkingmatters.org. I’m reposting it because while navigating around their site I kept getting popups. Yes, that is for real my reason. Good on them though they seemed to have a number of good articles, even through Feb 2018.
Since I was fortunate enough to have some time free yesterday, I was able to watch, live, the Craig-Harris debate on whether God is the foundation of moral goodness. I live blogged this on Twitter, along with with several other apologists—including @MaxeoA and @bossmanham—and a couple of skeptics—including our own village atheist @OpenParachute. (Click here for the full archive; the hashtag is #GodDebateII.)
A quick overview of Craig’s arguments
Since this was a more specialized debate topic than versus Krauss—which was simply “is there evidence for God’s existence?”—Craig had prepared an entirely new defense, based on the moral ontological argument that makes up the third point of his tried-and-true pentad.
Summary if you don’t want to read my verbiage:
- Under theism, God accounts for moral values because he is a perfect being and goodness is part of his nature
- Under theism, God’s commands account for moral duties
- Under atheism, morality is just an evolved convention, in which case it is not actually morality
- If morality is evolved convention, it doesn’t refer to anything objective
- We can imagine moral conventions evolving differently; therefore they aren’t objective
- Harris is trying to redefine goodness as wellbeing, just by his own fiat
- Harris’s describing how to be moral doesn’t explain what grounds morality
- Harris faces an insuperable problem in the naturalistic fallacy: you cannot derive what ought to be from mere facts about the universe
- Harris’s naturalistic view doesn’t allow for free will, which completely undermines his moral theories anyway
Here are Craig’s two basic contentions, with some extra explanation and discussion if you’re interested:
- If God exists we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties;
- If God does not exist we do not have a sound foundation for these.
In support of (1), Craig brought in Perfect Being Theology. (I’m paraphrasing from Wintery Knight’s and Randy Everist’s excellent reviews; if you find Randy’s white-on-black text too hard to read, try this Readability link.) If God is the perfect being, then it follows he is also morally perfect, and so his nature is the locus or grounds of that which is good. This accounts for moral values, and by extension for moral duties, which are derived in the form of commands from God, grounded in these values. This is known as Divine Command Theory—an important theory in Christian ethics because it is unassailable by the classic objection to theistic ethics, the Euthyphro Dilemma, which Krauss tried to sic on Craig in their debate a few days ago, and which Harris also ineptly aimed at Craig in thisdebate, demonstrating that New Atheists simply aren’t familiar with the basic positions of their opponents, and the ramifications this has for their own arguments. This is particularly inexcusable in the case of Harris, who has a degree in philosophy from Stanford (you know, the institution in charge of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Not exactly a second-rate school).
In defense of contention (2), Craig brought a several powerful arguments to bear:
- He questioned the worth of humans, both collectively and individually, from a non-theistic perspective, pointing out that if all we are is evolved animals, then morality is just a behavioral byproduct of evolution, and thus in no sense obligatory. But “obligatoryness” or “oughtness” is exactly what morality is, so without it you have no actual account of morality at all.
- Moreover, if morality is just a set of evolved social customs, it doesn’t refer to anything that has objective existence, as we typically suppose moral values and duties must. Quoting atheist philosopher Michael Ruse, and the infamous Richard Dawkins (another New Atheist along with Harris), he said, “morality is just an aid to survival, and any deeper meaning is illusory” and “there is no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”
- Drawing on possible worlds semantics, Craig also pointed out that if we were to rewind evolution and do it again, we can imagine moral customs evolving differently given Harris’s view—which bodes very badly for their supposed objectivity.
- Craig also aptly pointed out that saying Harris simply tries to redefine “goodness” to mean “well-being”—but that won’t fly because why should we accept that definition? Harris ultimately is not talking about morality at all, but merely about human flourishing.
- In the same vein, that we ought to do something in order to achieve human well-being, doesn’t answer how well-being grounds morality—which was the topic of the debate! It’s like saying “If you want to be good at growing corn, do such-and-such.” It gives us an ostensible description of how to go about being moral, but that is irrelevant to the question of what moral values and duties are.
- He also mentioned the “is-ought” fallacy, which Harris seems to have real trouble with: that you can’t derive a prescription from a description; just because something is some way doesn’t imply that it ought to be (even if we know it ought to be via some other method!)
- And to round off his defense, he brought in the free will argument for moral agency, pointing out that under Harris’s view of the world we cannot do other than what physical laws have determined, and thus have no moral responsibility in any case, making the whole question meaningless for him to begin with.
I list the arguments like this to show that Craig brought a great many cogent objections to bear against Harris’s view—this is important for reasons you’ll see in a moment. Ultimately, Craig argued, those who act immorally under Harris’ view are doing nothing more than acting unfashionably: “The moral equivalent of Lady Gaga.”
What Harris said
Harris is a great speaker. A much better speaker, I think, than Craig, who while practiced does not have the natural cadence and charisma of Harris. In fact, the most annoying thing about Harris is how he can say the most outrageously illogical or irrelevant things, and make them sound utterly reasonable and topical with his soft-spoken earnestness. And thus it was with his opening statement.
Summary for skimmers:
- Objective morality is important
- You don’t need religion to have objective morality
- Science can actually tell us what we ought to value because we never really separate facts and values
- Moral values depend on nature because they depend on nature-dependent minds, and so can be understood with science
- Morality is intrinsically about wellbeing because we can imagine a possible world in which everyone suffers horribly, and we see that we have an obligation to relieve that suffering
- Morality can’t be dictated by divine commands because God is evil
- We can say scientifically that the Taliban is bad
Harris started with some quite gracious comments regarding the importance of objective morality: about how religious people fear that without the conviction that moral truths exist, that words like right and wrong, good and evil actually mean something, humanity will lose his way. He shares this fear and has come to believe that this concern over the erosion of secular morality is not empty.
He then went on to claim that belief in God is not only unnecessary for universal morality, but is a source of blindness about universal morality. He criticized the view that science can never tell us what we ought to value, and so cannot, in principle, be applied to the most important questions in life (moral questions).
By this stage he had used up half of his time without actually defending his moot at all.
To defend his contention that morality is intrinsically about conscious well-being—still not the topic—he went on to ask the audience to imagine two worlds: Firstly, a world comprised entirely of rocks. In such a world there is no good and evil, and value judgments don’t apply—changes in the universe matter only if “some conscious system” is there to care about them: thus consciousness is intrinsic to morality. Secondly, he entertained a world where everyone suffers as much as they can for as long as they can. Do we, he asked, have an obligation to help relieve that suffering if we can? If we do—as seems obvious—then conscious well-being is at the heart of what is morally good. From this he tried to develop the following argument for his position:
- Moral values and obligations depend upon minds
- Minds depend upon the laws of nature
- Therefore, moral values depend upon nature and can be understood through science
This argument is hopelessly confused, as Craig would go on to indirectly point out. Harris went on to talk about conceivable moral “landscapes” where there are peaks of wellbeing and valleys of suffering: peaks are morally good; valleys are morally bad.
At this stage he changed tacks and started talking about the Taliban, and how the society they were trying to build is not good; that it is not unscientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about their moral ideas. He also talked about how we can’t ground morality in God because God is (supposedly) immoral.
The rest of his opening statement tried to show that he should be allowed to use the naturalistic fallacy: ie, that he should be allowed to derive an “ought” from an “is”; a value from a mere fact. He used some very odd examples to show that, in practice, we don’t artificially separate questions of fact from questions of value. One involved a rather ridiculous example involving a “biblical chemist” whose reading of Genesis 1, where God creates water before light, precludes him from believing that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen because there were no stars to fuse hydrogen into heavier elements like oxygen when water already existed. Ignoring the uncharitably malicious strawman itself, the point was to show “scientific values” like the importance, the goodness, of understanding the universe. This was supposed to defuse the naturalistic fallacy. But he gave no actual argument: he only showed that we consider our beliefs about values and our beliefs about facts together. Not that one can be derived from the other.
Again, I say all this to give a reasonably comprehensive sense of Harris’s opening statement, and how well it interacts with Craig’s position, and the topic of the debate. Suffice to say that Harris gave only one real argument—and that one a very poor, very dubious one—for the actual topic. If you compare his statement to the various arguments Craig raises in his own opening statement, it is quite clear that Harris doesn’t even touch on the vast majority of the issues at hand—and as Craig will suggest in a moment, it seems he actually doesn’t understand the topic of the debate. Most of what he talks about—even if we were to find it compelling—is simply irrelevant.
Craig crushes Harris
- Harris is confusing how we know moral values and duties with what grounds moral values and duties
- Harris’s critique of God’s character is irrelevant and off topic
- The question isn’t whether human flourishing is good, but what makes human flourishing good
- Human flourishing cannot be identical with moral goodness because we can imagine a possible world, under Harris’s own assumptions, where evil people primarily flourish (this is a devastating argument that blows Harris’s entire ethical framework out of the water and leaves him with nothing in the debate)
- Moral obligations come from an appropriate authority, and under atheism there is no objective authority; thus no foundation for objective morality
Craig started by drawing the audience’s attention to how Harris was confusing moral ontology with moral semantics: confusing the basis or the foundation for moral values with the meaning of moral terms. Craig’s argument, and the topic of the debate, was about what grounds moral values and duties—not what words like “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil” mean. Christians readily concede that we can know what good and evil are even if we don’t believe they are grounded ontologically in God.
He then rightly dismissed Harris’s criticism of YHWH’s character as irrelevant. For one thing, there are plenty of divine command theorists who are not Jews or Christians. For another, there’s good reason to think that YHWH (the God of the Bible) is not a moral monster—in that regard he recommended Paul Copan’s new book, Is God a Moral Monster?. “We have not heard any objection to a theistic grounding for ethics,” Craig said. “If God does exist, it’s clear, I think—obvious even—that we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.”
He then started to drag Harris over broken glass by showing that the issue of human flourishing, or conscious wellbeing, is not the question of the debate. We agree that, all things being equal, the flourishing of conscious creatures is good. The question is: if atheism were true, what would make the flourishing of conscious creatures good? Craig observed that Harris is using words like “good” and “better” in non-moral ways: for example, that there is a good way to get yourself killed doesn’t imply that it’s a moral thing to do. Harris’s contrast of the “good” life and the “bad” life is not an ethical contrast: it is a contrast between a pleasurable life and a miserable life. Since Harris had given no reason to identify pleasure and misery with good and evil, there was no reason for thinking that the flourishing of conscious creatures is objectively good.
Here Craig brought down the hammer and completely crushed Harris for the rest of the debate, by not only showing that Harris wasn’t engaging with the topic (he was equivocating between moral epistemology and ontology) but that his entire ethical system was necessarily false, by his own admission. Harris was saying that the property of “being good” is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing…but on the penultimate page of his book, he tellingly admitted that if rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his moral landscape would no longer be a moral landscape: it would just be a continuum of wellbeing, whose peaks were occupied by good and bad people alike. But as Craig pointed out, this implies that there’s a possible world where the peaks of wellbeing are occupied by evil people (say psychopaths). If moral goodness is identical to human wellbeing it is logically contradictory for there to be a possible world in which the peaks of wellbeing are occupied by evil people. Thus, moral goodness cannot be identical with human wellbeing or flourishing.
Harris was down for the count, and never even tried to address this argument in his followups.
Craig followed up this crushing argument with a further one, noting that moral obligations only arise when there is an appropriate authority to issue binding commands—and under atheism, no objective authority exists, and so objective moral values cannot exist.
Harris goes fishing
At this point Harris completely abdicated his obligation to defend the atheistic foundation of morality, and launched into a diatribe about how he didn’t like Christian doctrine, or Christians, or (again) the Taliban. Here’s a non-exhaustive summary of his “arguments”, with particular gems highlighted:
- There is no evidence that hell exists
- think of the parents of the children of people who die in tsunamis
- if God allows people to suffer then he doesn’t exist
- some people pray to the Monkey God—why don’t they go to heaven?
- God can’t exist because some people are born in the wrong culture and never hear about Jesus through no fault of their own
- the Bible says people go to hell to be tortured for eternity—perhaps you’ll remember in Lord of the Ringswhen the elves die they go to Valinor, but can be reborn in Middle Earth
- God is cruel and unjust because he lets innocent people suffer
- evil people who repent just before being executed go to heaven
- God would embarrass the most vicious psychopath
- people who believe in God are morally reprehensible narcissists
- God imposes misery on helpless children, so faith is obscene
- to think in this way is to fail to reason honestly or care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings
- if God is good and loving and wanted us to behave morally, why give us a book that supports slavery and admonishes us to kill people for imaginary crimes like witchcraft?
- Craig’s divine command theory tries to avoid these questions by saying that God doesn’t have to be good
- think about the Muslims who are blowing themselves up convinced that they are agents of God’s will—what could Craig say to them aside from his own faith-based claims?
- this is a psychotic, completely delusional and psychopathic moral attitude
- …true horror of religion…
- if you think saying Latin words over your pancakes will turn it into the body of Elvis Presley you’re insane, but if you think the same about a cracker and Jesus you’re a Catholic
- salvation depends on believing in God on the basis of bad evidence
- Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice
- the people who wrote the Bible were ignorant and barbaric
- if there’s a less moral framework than the one Doctor Craig is proposing, I haven’t heard of it.
That’s quite a number of red herrings—count them! And some, at face value, have force. But notice, not a single one of them is germane to the topic. Harris utterly ignored Craig’s arguments, and utterly failed to defend his own position. It’s as if, seeing that he was having his ass handed to him, he just dipped into the Village Atheist’s Bucket of Stock Objections to Christianity, and flung as many of them at Craig as he could, in the hope that some would stick.
Craig: tsk tsk tsk
“A less moral framework is atheism,” started Craig with an exasperated laugh, and then went on to point out that Harris had said nothing to defend an atheistic foundation for morality, nor to refute Craig’s own arguments. To demonstrate how poorly Harris understood Christianity, and how irrelevant his “arguments” were, Craig quipped, in regards to Harris’s claim that the goal on theism is to avoid hell, “Belief in God isn’t some kind of fire insurance.” He then went on to list a number of other ways in which the red herrings that Harris had laid across the path were irrelevant—which was fair enough since there wasn’t much else to say.
Harris responds with another diatribe
Getting further and further off topic, as if he knew he had nothing to contribute and just wanted to get his talking points off for the benefit of the village atheists in the audience, Harris went over various topics, saying, in Wintery Knight’s summary:
When I make a scientific case for morality, I don’t really mean that it is scientific; You just have to assume that misery is morally evil, and happiness is morally good, even if that can’t be proved scientifically; I’m a scientist; Science is great; Dr Craig is stupid; Dr Craig is not a scientist; Science is better than religion; You can ground an objective standard of morality and objective moral duties and moral responsibility on arbitrary brain states of accidentally evolved biologically determined monkeys; Dr Craig’s question for me about my unproven assumptions is a stupid question; I prayed to the Monkey God in a cave and he told me about objective morality; I have spent a lot of time studying meditation with wise yogis and lamas; I consider some people to be spiritual Jesus; I can imagine that Jesus was very spiritual and charismatic; We don’t have to use logic and reason to debate about morality, we can meditate on the Monkey God; I don’t like the Taliban.
And so on
It doesn’t seem worth summarizing the final rebuttals separately; Craig noted that Harris had conceded his point about psychopaths occupying “peaks” on the moral continuum, and had thus thrown in the towel as far as his contention that goodness is identical to wellbeing—and for the debate as a whole. Harris continued to make off-topic remarks and generally display his inability to charitably represent and seriously grapple with the issues at hand, all in his earnest, sing-song way, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world.
The Q&A period was weak, compared to the Krauss debate. There was no opportunity for rebuttals, which made the whole process quite pointless, turning it effectively into a soapbox for Harris, who got most of the questions. Craig, on the upside, did display his sharpness by having no part in a specious question from an audience member claiming direct revelation from God.
In the end, my sense was that Craig was quietly exasperated at Harris for failing to deliver; and Harris was exasperated at Craig for being a Christian.