Note: This is a much longer version of my "Countering the Moral Argument" video/paper that goes through each objection listed there in far greater detail.
The moral argument for god’s existence is one of the most common arguments apologists will use in debates with atheists. It also tends to be one of the most misunderstood arguments, which I think contributes to its persistence in sticking around despite having been debunked a long time ago.
This paper will focus on two objectives.
1. The primary goal is showing the Moral Argument is false.
2. Showing inherent problems with the theistic moral system that underlies the moral argument.
Note why these are two separate goals, because one can show that the moral argument is false, but still hold to a theistic ethical system.
I’d like to start by presenting the argument as it is commonly defended by popular apologists like William Lane Craig:
1.) If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
2.) Objective moral values exist.
3.) Therefore god exists.
First off let’s get the easy caveats out of the way. The argument does not say that:
● Atheists can’t act morally
● Atheists can’t tell the difference between right and wrong.
Here’s what the argument does try and say:
1. Atheists do not have a basis for an objective morality on their worldview.
The argument alleges that atheists are somehow being inconsistent by not believing in a god while still believing that morality can be objective.
Now that we’ve established what the moral argument is trying to do, let’s get started with identifying exactly what apologists mean when they use this argument.
Like other apologetic arguments, what seems simple up front hides a lot of philosophical nuance being baked into the premises. More than other arguments, I feel that once we charitably explain exactly what an apologist means with their premises, the argument loses a lot of its force.
The first premise is where most of the contention is for the argument, and it’s also where the most ambiguity lies. It’s also a bit confusing, especially if you’re not a theist.
1.) If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
At first glance, one would wonder what god has to do with moral values at all. At the very least it’s not immediately obvious. One might be tempted to think this premise is quite silly, the perfect example of a logically valid argument that is not sound:
1.) If 2+2=4, then leprechauns exist.
3.) Therefore leprechauns exist.
In order to avoid this issue with the moral argument, apologists have to give us some kind of link between their concept of god and objective moral values.
Apologists and theologians who use the moral argument are all too ready with to provide such an explanation, and I’m going to present their case as charitably as I can.
Classical theists, which most Christians are, believe that “goodness” itself is “ontologically equivalent” with “god’s nature”.
If you’re like me before I started studying philosophy, you’re asking “What the hell does it mean to be “ontologically equivalent”?
The best example used in apologetic literature is the relationship between water and H2O. For anyone who hasn’t taken a high school chemistry class, a water molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms bonded with a single oxygen atom, represented by the notation: H2O.
The point of the example is that water simply IS two hydrogen atoms bonded with a single oxygen atom, which is another way to say that water is ontologically equivalent with H2O. This however does not mean that water is simply defined as H2O, or more importantly that we have to understand the basics of chemistry to understand what water is. In fact entire generations of humans have lived their lives without the knowledge that water is H2O, but never the less we would say they knew what water is.
Apologists say it is exactly the same way with “goodness” and god’s nature. One doesn’t have to know of or believe in a god to apprehend what “goodness” is, but that doesn’t change the fact that on their view, goodness is ontologically equivalent with god’s nature.
To express this in an equivalent way for the moral argument, consider this argument:
1.) If H2O does not exist, then water does not exist.
2.) Water exists.
3.) Therefore H2O exists.
Translating this back into the moral argument, we get a much clearer picture of what an apologist is actually saying:
1. If god does not exist, then objective [god’s nature] does not exist
2. Objective [god’s nature] exists.
3. Therefore god exists.
With a clear understanding of what the moral argument is actually trying to say, it immediately starts breaking down. This is because while many people, including atheists want to say something like “objective moral values exist”, they certainly wouldn’t agree that “moral values are ontologically equivalent to god’s nature”. If the apologist expects us to swallow that premise, then they’ve got quite a lot more work to do, and I intend to show that their attempts at this endeavor fail rather horribly.
Before we move on, I’d like to make a technical point. This kind of move does not render the moral argument circular or fallacious since the claim that’s being made is ontological, not semantic. Ie. They’re not simply defining moral values as “god’s nature”.
Just what is “The Good”?
What I hope to have shown is that the entire debate about the moral argument really hinges on exactly how we understand, semantically and ontologically, what moral values are. This is a perennial and highly controversial debate in moral philosophy that has been going on for literally millennia, well before even Christianity was remotely on the scene.
So far, the apologist has a very daunting task – to convince us that we should accept that moral values are equivalent with god’s nature. This seems doomed to fail from the start, but I’d like to look at how this could remotely be attempted.
One case for tying “objective moral values” to god’s nature can come from a metaphysical view that moral values must be a fundamental part of reality. This can be a confusing concept, so let me illustrate with an example.
Consider an atheist who is a crude reductive materialist. They think that all only matter exists, at least when talking about what exists in terms of fundamental categories of reality. Basically if it’s not made up of sub-atomic particles, it’s not a fundamental part of reality.
Compare this with a Platonist or Christian dualist who defends the moral argument. Their picture of fundamental reality is going to much more diverse. They will think matter & sub-atomic particles exist as a category, but they think other equally real categories exist that don’t reduce down into one another. Things like “minds” and “moral values” exist as separate, distinct categories of reality.
What I want to make clear is that the proponent of the moral argument thinks of moral values, or specifically the good, as its own “fundamental thing”. I like to call this view the “Grand Metaphysical Object” view, or GMO for short.
Now if we take the GMO view, then at least it starts to become more plausible that “goodness” would be ontologically equivalent to god’s nature, since god is his own “Grand Metaphysical Object”.
However, this still doesn’t give the apologist what they need in order for Premise 1 to be true. Because even if one does think that “goodness” or moral values must exist as a GMO, Premise 1 is still false.
This is because an atheist who thinks moral values must be a grand metaphysical object could just adopt the philosophical view that Christian theology stole these concepts from a couple thousand years ago – moral Platonism.
Basically, one could think that “goodness” exists as a platonic ideal form, but not include god in their ontological picture.
This isn’t to say that I think Platonism is the correct view, but it’s no less defensible than a generic theistic meta-ethics. Arguments against an atheistic Platonism typically center on the idea that if such platonic objects exist, how is it that we could come to know of these kinds of objects, especially given a belief in unguided evolution. There are responses from contemporary Platonists, which entail accepting other metaphysical positions on controversial topics like causality. My point here isn’t to get into the specifics on the arguments for and against Platonism, so much as it is to point out that theistic meta-ethics suffer from much the same issue.
Theists don’t really provide a how explanation as to how human nature is supposed to perceive the “good” as a reflection of god’s nature, so much as they just assume that we do because god just made it that way. There’s nothing to stop a Platonist from asserting that the platonic forms “just have” some kind of a similar perceptual or causal connection to the physical world.
The main point in all this is to say that even if you thought moral values had to be a kind of grand metaphysical object in order to count as “real”, then the moral argument is still false.
But the more interesting question is do we even have to consider moral values to be a grand metaphysical object in order for them to count as real?
Moral Realism and Atheism
Why should we consider the “grand metaphysical object” view of morality to be the only game in town when it comes to getting an objective morality?
Objective could be used as a key, in that if the apologist was to use the word to mean “object-like” could be a way to insinuate that, but why would we care? We can have objective, independent reasons that apply equally to all moral agents, to adjudicate between right and wrong. In fact, it is this second kind of objectivity that’s referred to in debates about the moral argument:
“To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so. It is to say, for example, that Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong, even though the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.”
-Dr. William Lane Craig, “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality” http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/meta-eth.html
What’s important to note here is that there’s a difference between “objective” moral values and any notion of moral values “existing” as a grand metaphysical object. This is an important distinction to realize: moral objectivism is quite different from moral realism.
If moral values are simply the basis that moral agents use to determine between right and wrong actions, then we can have an objective moral value system that does not require a “value” to exist as some object. On this conception of morality, it would be equivalent to something like “money” or “chess”. One certainly would say that these things “exist” even if it is only a concept that is used by human beings, and we can derive objective facts about these kind of things.
I’m touching on a debate about what counts as “moral realism”. Moral realism is a philosophical position that there are true moral facts that accurately describe reality. That’s a bit confusing if you’re not into philosophy, so let’s use an illustration.
Consider the following two statements:
1.) I used to own a pit bul.
2.) It is morally wrong to torture babies for fun.
Moral realism holds that both statements, if true, are true in the same way. That is the statements actually describe some facts about reality.
Suffice it to say, if one is a moral realist, you will affirm premise two of the moral argument.
One of the things that isn’t brought up often enough in debates over the moral argument is that the majority of “moral realist” theories in contemporary philosophy are completely compatible with atheism.
There’s John Rawls’s Social Contract theory, various forms of consequentialism, Railton’s Reductive Naturalism, the Ideal Observer Theory, and a host of others. Each of these theories provides a basis for moral agents to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong in an objective way.
There are entire families of “atheism compatible” moral realist theories that satisfy the criteria of there being objective moral values in the sense Dr. Craig describes with his Nazi example. The list provided above isn’t even close to exhaustive. This is why the moral argument is so unconvincing to anyone who has spent time studying moral philosophy. One of the first things that become clear is that there are a plethora of meta-ethical theories out there that can get us to this kind of “objective moral values”.
An apologist might counter that the above kinds of conceptions of morality don’t actually count as moral realist views as they don’t get you a Grand Metaphysical Object kind of morality. Sometimes you’ll hear them refer to “robust moral realism” in order to indicate belief in the “Grand Metaphysical Object” style of moral values. My response there is to ask why it should matter if there is no Grand Metaphysical Object.
This is because even if one denies the Grand Metaphysical Object style of moral values, they can still get an objective moral value system that gives the atheist a basis for discerning between right and wrong, like in Dr. Craig’s Nazi example. All that we’re arguing over is a semantic issue on whether or not such systems count as “real” even if they’re not fundamental parts of reality, but rather if morality was a “real” as “the economy” or “baseball”. The point is that atheism, even if one is a naturalist or materialist, allows one to avoid collapse into nihilism or moral relativism.
This is the second reason why the moral argument is false. What I want to do next is show how the moral argument is rendered false by its own criteria for justification.
Criteria for Justification
So far we’ve only touched on premise one of the moral argument, which is by far its most controversial. However, I want to spend a little bit of time talking about premise two: Objective Moral Values Exist.
I don’t really want to get into the debate about whether objective moral values exist or not, since it’s immaterial to the debate. What I do want to point out is the apologist’s justification for accepting premise two – an appeal to what philosophers call our deeply held, pre-theoretical moral intuitions.
Consider this often repeated refrain from William Lane Craig in his debates on the moral argument:
“But the problem is that objective values do exist, and deep down we all know it. There's no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world.”
-William Lane Craig, Does God Exist? http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-1
The key here is that no one can really show, deductively or empirically that objective moral values do exist. What we get is an appeal to intuitions. Besides this intuitive appeal, the best an apologist will give us is something to the effect about how if we all believe that objective moral values don’t exist, then life becomes unlivable. But that in itself doesn’t mean that objective moral values exist, merely that we need a belief in them to have a functioning society. Plus, such an appeal can do as much work for a moral system that is compatible with atheism.
For now, the main point here is that the criteria the moral argument uses to justify premise two is simply an appeal to our strongly held moral intuitions. This appeal takes the form of:
1. Our intuitions strongly indicate that morality is objective.
2. We should trust our intuitions enough to believe that morality is objective.
What I intend to show next is how this poses a significant problem for the moral argument.
The Euthyphro Dance
One of the most famous objections to a theistic basis for morality came from Socrates in what’s called the Euthyphro Dilemma. Paraphrasing, here’s the dilemma:
“Is something good because god says it is, or does god say something is good because of some other quality it has?”
This seems to leave an apologist with two horns, equally bad for their position. Either something is good because god says so, in which case goodness is simply arbitrary. On the other hand if god says something is good because of some other quality, then god has nothing to do with what makes something good or evil.
It’s almost impossible to discuss the moral argument and not have the Euthyphro come up, and for good reason. It’s my view that the Euthyphro does end up leading to a good objection to theistic meta-ethics, but it just takes a bit more work to get there. Apologists have a ready-made response to the Euthyphro as I presented it above, and in a timed debate this is usually as far as things get. However what I want to show is that the apologist’s response only pushes the problem back a bit, which brings out a back-and-forth I like to call the “Euthyphro Dance”. Once we’ve started the Euthyphro Dance, eventually the apologist will succumb to one of the horns of the dilemma.
The first step in the Euthyphro Dance is for the apologist to attempt to split the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma with the following response:
“The Euthyphro is a false dilemma because “goodness” is actually identical to “god’s nature”. As such when god gives a divine command, it is necessarily good because it’s impossible for god to go against his nature. In this way, god’s commands are not arbitrary and goodness does not exist apart from god.”
This gets into what I brought up in the first section, where the apologist believes that “goodness” is ontologically equivalent with “god’s nature”, like the relationship between water and H2O.
Normally in a debate, the time constraints let the apologist leave the issue here with them appearing to refute the dilemma. The problem is that this is not at all the end of the exchange, because as philosopher Jeremy Koons points out, the Euthyphro dilemma has merely been pushed back a step.
Essentially Koon’s asks “are the properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, and generosity good because god possesses them in his nature, or does god possess them in his nature because they are good?”
In this case, the apologist is forced to choose the first horn – things like love, generosity, etc. are only good because god possesses them.
This leads to a few significant problems for the moral argument.
The first issue is that by admitting things like love are good only because god’s nature is loving, this entails the following counter-factual is true:
Consider a situation where two humans express love for each other. This expression of love has the same basic motivations behind it, and the same effects on both parties. According to Divine Command Theory if god exists, this can be called good. However if god does not exist, this exact same situation cannot be called good.
In short, Modified Divine Command Theory says that the intentions and consequences of an action have absolutely no bearing on the goodness of that action.
This conclusion is extremely counter-intuitive, and violates our deeply held pre-theoretical moral intuitions. The very same intuitions that apologists need to appeal to in order to justify the idea that objective moral values really do exist.
This puts the apologist in a dilemma. If they want to hold that our intuitions can be good enough to justify belief in objective moral values, then they have to deal with the fact that they must also say those intuitions are wrong about what it is that makes love good.
Brute Facts and Philosophical Primitives
A further problem for the apologist is that what ends up happening is that they merely end up embracing the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma after all. In the end, something is good just because it exists in god’s nature, and for no other reason.
What we see in William Lane Craig’s response to this charge is to say that this isn’t a problem because it is playing on the fact that what morality is at base is going to be what’s known as a primitive. That is an object that can’t be broken down further into other concepts.
This is actually fine, as far as it goes. Many, if not most moral theories will eventually come down to this kind of a primitive as to what makes something “good”. However what often goes unnoticed in debates is that apologists like Craig have just shifted, they’re no longer defending the moral argument, but rather defending their theistic meta-ethical system: Modified Divine Command Theory. The problem is that in making this kind of a defense, the only kind they have available, they open up the fact that they can’t give an argument as to what is wrong with an atheistic account of goodness which similarly terminates into a basic moral primitive.
This is a critique used by atheistic philosopher Erik Wielenberg, which is related to the idea of moral goodness being a primitive.
The idea is that there are simply moral brute facts, in that love “just is” good, and that we don’t require or can’t have a deeper explanation as to why. It’s not a logically necessary truth, but rather a simple brute fact – something that exists that has no explanation.
Apologists who defend a Modified Divine Command Theory can’t really object here, because their solution to the problem suffers from exactly the same issue. The concept that “god has a loving nature” is itself a brute fact!
Notice how there is no explanation as to why god’s nature is loving instead of say hateful. Appeals to gods definition as the “greatest conceivable being” doesn’t help here because you can’t say god’s nature includes love because it is better than hate without already having a concept of moral value that is external to god’s nature. Neither can an apologist appeal to god’s nature as a necessary being. This is because even if Christians conceive of god as having a loving nature in every possible world, there’s no logical reason as to why we couldn’t say god has a hateful nature in every possible world instead.
So if Christians have a moral system which ends in a kind of moral brute fact, why exactly can’t the atheist offer their own meta-ethical account of goodness which terminates in a moral brute fact? This is the basis for Erik Wielenberg’s defense of a non-natural moral realism which takes precisely this kind of view. If true, it establishes a kind of moral realism that is completely compatible with atheism, and it rests on the same kind of “moral primitives” that a modified divine command theory relies on.
But Why Value That?
It's hard to understate the last point, because it serves to highlight the fundamental problem with apologetic objections to atheistic value systems.
Consider this description and supposed refutation of Humanism by Apologist Michael Horner, who cites William Lane Craig in his paper "Evidence for God from Morality":
"Humanism – Whatever promotes human flourishing & survival is good and whatever weakens it is bad. If we want to promote human flourishing, then we ought to live co-operatively OR we ought to follow the Golden Rule. Some people have often said the Golden Rule is the objective foundation for morality.
● The naturalistic humanist has no access to the critical assumption - which is that human beings are objectively valuable.
● Not only is this confusing knowing objective moral values with finding the foundation for those moral values, there is no more obligation to these rules than “if you want this slime mold to flourish, then you should keep the temperature and humidity moderate.” [Craig]
Humans are merely more complex slime that have evolved certain complex features by a completely accidental, impersonal process (unless God was behind it). Therefore, they/we are no more valuable than slime.
Objection: There are different philosophical understandings of what "objective" means.
Answer: Most people are thinking of being able to reason objectively to the right thing to do, given certain basic beliefs like it is wrong to harm human beings, but again they do not seem to understand that they do not have access to that assumption if there is no God and human beings are just accidental arrangements of atoms and that the notion of objective that we are looking for contain the idea of ‘foundation.’"
Notice two things.
First is the idea that just because "humans are evolved via an accidental, impersonal process" we are "no more valuable than slime". This of course does not follow, because humans aren't only describable as things which evolved via an accidental, impersonal process. We have other qualities which provide a relevant difference between us and slime, or any other combination of atoms. Namely, we have the ability to reason, do calculus, poetry, and philosophy. We have the ability to love and form relationships, and the ability to be happy or sad.
An atheist is perfectly justified in giving those attributes as the reason why humans are to be considered more valuable than slime, and there really isn't anything an apologist can say in response to that.
This is because this is the basic philosophical primitive an atheist has for defining value. Contrast this with the apologist reason for why a human being has value: Because they were created in the image of god, and god is simply defined as value.
An atheist can just as easily retort: But why value god? Simply saying that god is defined as value adds no weight to the theists case because we don’t accept that definition.
In both cases, each side has given their definition of value in terms of a philosophical primitive, and it's up to an individual to decide whether or not they think that can account for it. I will point out however that at least the atheist can define value in terms of things that we understand, whereas the theist merely points to some concept of "god" as an additional reference.
Moral Absolutism & Modified Divine Command Theory
At this point I’ve shown that apologists must embrace the first horn of a modified Euthyphro dilemma – to defend the moral argument they must hold that something is good if and only if it is part of god’s nature.
Modified Divine Command Theory entails that moral values are grounded in god’s unchanging nature. In moral philosophy, this entails a deontological view of ethics. This means that moral values are based on absolute principles. A moral absolute would be something like “it is always wrong to tell a lie”, which is a principle we necessarily derive on Modified Divine Command Theory if we believed that god’s nature was inherently truthful.
Deontological ethics isn’t something new, nor is it a form of meta-ethics that is exclusive to theism (see Kant), but at this point even undergraduate philosophy students know the basic objection to this kind of ethical system: What about ethical situations that morally compel us to tell a lie? The textbook example would be lying to the SS officers in Nazi Germany that you weren’t hiding Jews in your house, even if you were.
Modified Divine Command Theory has no way to get around this problem in a principled manner. If god's necessary nature is truthful, then by definition it is always wrong to tell a lie - even to the Nazi's looking for Jews in your house!
One possible answer I've seen was given by Christian apologist Michael Horner (46:45 time stamp), where he describes something called "graded absolutism" which is to say that multiple moral absolutes apply in a given situation, and as such we should apply the greater moral absolute in the situation. He even uses the Nazi example and says he has "no trouble realizing" that the greater moral absolute is to protect human lives.
Horner concedes that this is a controversial response among Christian philosophers, and it's easy to see why. The problem is that if god's necessary nature is the absolute standard of goodness, how can there be any possible gradation of his nature? Is one aspect of his nature to be considered more "good" than another aspect? And even if it could, by what standard are we supposed to be able to determine what that even is? This is especially problematic because in order to do so the theist would have to point to a standard outside of god for determining the priority of moral absolutes. This leaves the theist with seeming no way to resolve even the most basic of moral paradoxes like the Trolley Problem.
Christianity and Modified Divine Command Theory being Arbitrary
So far we’ve seen that Modified Divine Command Theory ends up embracing the first horn of a modified Euthyphro dilemma. What I intend to show next is a problem specific to Christianity, that by embracing the first horn of the Euthyphro even MDCT ends up being just as arbitrary as the original Divine Command Theory.
As stated, a key component of Modified Divine Command Theory is that moral obligation literally is following the commands of a (supposedly) loving god. The technical term for this is “ontologically equivalent”. This means that if we fail to follow god’s commands, then it is specifically a moral failing.
The problem for Christians is that their theology entails that god has issued contradictory commands, specifically between the old and new testament.
The Old Testament has divine commands prohibiting eating pork or shellfish, commands that all male babies be circumcised, and includes provisions on how a married couple may divorce.
Conversely, the New Testament explicitly tells us that it is morally permissible to eat pork, that we don’t actually have to cut off the foreskin of a baby male penis, and that it has always been immoral for a married couple to divorce.
Each reversal on these moral obligations highlights the same problem for Christians:
In each case the act itself must either be good or bad, or in MDCT terms, in accordance with or against god’s nature.
If the act itself is against god’s nature, then MDCT faces an internal contradiction – god would have commanded something contrary to his nature.
This leaves us with the idea that each act is actually in accord with god’s nature, but god commanded that the action be prohibited anyway – meaning at least some of our moral obligations are arbitrary after all.
I want to emphasize that a standard apologetic response to this problem is irrelevant to the charge of arbitrariness. Typically an apologist will say that theologians (not the bible itself!) will divide the law into different categories – the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the judicial law. The theory goes that only the moral law reflects god’s necessary nature, whereas ceremonial laws like the ones describing circumcision or food prohibitions do not.
The issue is twofold – first this is a case of human theologians creating differences that aren’t explicitly in the text itself. If ever there was a case of picking and choosing what to follow, this certainly seems to be it. However even if we grant the distinctions made here, we still have the issue that god commanded the ceremonial law. Since moral obligations just are divine commands, failing to follow any divine command is itself a moral failing. This means that in at least some cases what is morally wrong is in fact completely arbitrary – like not eating pork or shellfish.
The problem gets worse for Christians because one of these commands isn’t a case of something being prohibited and then being permissible. In the case of divorce we have an instance of god in the Old Testament giving guidelines where divorce is permissible, but in the New Testament saying that it has always been wrong. If god’s nature is unchanging, this means that in the Old Testament god has explicitly lied to the Jews about what is and is not moral. Certainly the bible gives us a reason why god told the ancient Israelites divorce was permissible – because their hearts were hard, however this doesn’t solve the problem. Even if he had a morally justified reason, god still told the ancient Israelites that something actually immoral was morally permissible. No matter how you slice it, this is an instance of god lying to humanity, which begs the question of what other things god has lied about in his supposed divine revelation.
This touches on a currently hard problem for theists who embrace what’s known as “Skeptical Theism” as a response to the evidential problem of evil. In short, if god has unknown morally sufficient reasons for permitting seemingly gratuitous evils to bring about some greater unknown goods – the theist has no principled reason to believe god doesn’t have similar reasons to lie to us in order to bring about greater unknown goods. For more information I encourage readers to check out Justin Schieber’s Real Atheology video on the subject.
Distorting our understanding of Goodness
A Christian who believes in MDCT may try to take solace in the fact that while god may have some of our moral obligations be arbitrary, or may even temporarily permit us to do something that is actually evil because it can’t be avoided, at least there is still an absolute standard god cannot cross: God couldn’t actually command us to do something evil.
Here we get into one of the most devastating objections to Christian Modified Divine Command Theory – the fact that god has commanded what we would strongly intuit as moral abominations.
Consider the Amalekite genocide explicitly commanded by god in 1 Samuel 15:1-3. Here god commands that Saul destroy all Amalekites – “men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys”.
For my purposes here it doesn’t matter if you think that somehow the Amalekites (including the children and infants) deserved what was coming, or that the children and infants murdered would go directly to heaven when killed. What is important to note is that if Modified Divine Command Theory is true, then not only do the Israelites commanded to kill children and infants on the basis of their race have an explicitly moral obligation to do so, we must also conclude that such an act is compatible with god’s nature.
But if god’s nature is ontologically equivalent with “goodness” then this means that killing children and infants on the basis of their race is not a morally absolute principle and can in fact constitute a moral obligation under the right circumstances.
The problem is that this conclusion seems to violate our strongly held pre-theoretical moral intuitions that the moral argument requires for premise two to be justified. I mean if my moral intuition that it is always wrong to kill children and infants on the basis of their race is false, then what could my moral intuitions be correct about?
At this point you might think it is a devastating point against specifically Christian or Jewish versions of Modified Divine Command theory, but I’d like to illustrate exactly how pernicious religious fundamentalism is.
Much like how apologists seek to have us re-evaluate our understanding of goodness in order to explain away the Problem of Evil, we can see how strict adherence to Modified Divine Command Theory warps people’s perception of goodness.
Normally when confronted with the idea that “killing children and infants because they belong to a specific race is morally obligatory when god commands it” is such a gross violation of our moral intuitions that it would cause us to question the moral system that leads us to such a conclusion. However, once an apologist is so heavily invested in defending Modified Divine Command Theory, we can see them turn into moral monsters and actually defend the idea that god can command these deaths. Here is William Lane Craig in his own words:
“According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.
What that implies is that God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites when He sees fit. How long they live and when they die is up to Him.
So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.
On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.
All right; but isn’t such a command contrary to God’s nature? Well, let’s look at the case more closely. It is perhaps significant that the story of Yahweh’s destruction of Sodom--along with his solemn assurances to Abraham that were there as many as ten righteous persons in Sodom, the city would not have been destroyed--forms part of the background to the conquest of Canaan and Yahweh’s command to destroy the cities there. The implication is that the Canaanites are not righteous people but have come under God’s judgement.
But why take the lives of innocent children? The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel’s part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deut 7.3-4). This command is part and parcel of the whole fabric of complex Jewish ritual law distinguishing clean and unclean practices.
By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable. It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity. God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.”
-William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Website: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites
Notice the absolute absurdity that on believing the only possible person god could have wrong when he commands the killing of children and infants would be wronging the soldiers he commanded to do the killing.
What’s worse is Craig’s justification for killing the children – because any assimilation of pagan idolatry would be intolerable. However this explanation doesn’t make sense in the case of small children and infants who would have absolutely no concept of pagan idolatry and could then be assimilated into Israelite culture, even if we assume that the parents and older children had to be killed for some absurd reason.
THIS is what is so terrifying about moral theories like Modified Divine Command Theory. It transforms an ordinary and otherwise seemingly upstanding person like William Lane Craig, someone I have no doubt would make every effort to try to save my life if I were sitting next to him at dinner and started choking, into defending the genocide of children and infants as morally obligatory.
I could use other examples of other apologists defending as necessary the slavery codes of the Old Testament which allow keeping non-Jewish people as slaves as personal property in perpetuity, where one is allowed to beat their slave so severely that so long as they recover there is no punishment for the owner. This is also in the Bible with god’s divine commands providing the rules in which these slaves were kept. Christians who hold to MDCT must now accept that “owning another person as your property” is not absolutely morally wrong given their theology.
Modified Divine Command Theory & Moral Obligations
Given the issues outlined above with using the moral argument as a basis for the existence of “moral values”, apologists often turn to talk about how only theism can provide a basis for moral obligations. A moral obligation is something that we “ought” to do – for instance if we see someone drowning and we have the ability to save them, we ought to go in and save the person.
Modified Divine Command Theory claims that our moral obligations and prohibitions are directly constituted by a loving god’s commands.
But this is self-defeating. Because if our moral obligations are constituted by god’s commands, where does our moral obligation to follow god’s commands come from?
Does god issue a command to follow his commands? What about the obligation to follow that command? This quickly falls into an infinite regress problem.
This is an issue because Christianity and other theologies teach that we have a specifically moral obligation to follow god’s commands.
Apologists have an answer to this tricky problem, here’s our favorite William Lane Craig:
“So how does Divine Command Theory derive an “ought” from an “is”? Well, it says that we ought to do something because it is commanded by God. That is deriving an “ought” from an “is.” Someone might demand, “Why are we obligated to do something just because it is commanded by God?” The answer to that question comes, I think, by reflecting on the nature of moral duty. Duty arises in response to an imperative from a competent authority.”
-William Lane Craig, “Does Theistic Ethics Derive an Ought from an Is?” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-theistic-ethics-derive-an-ought-from-an-is
First off, this move doesn’t save modified divine command theory from being self-refuting on the subject of moral obligations – it reinforces it. Notice how the obligation to follow god’s commands doesn’t come from god’s commands, it comes from the nature of authority. So at least some moral duties aren’t constituted by god’s commands – specifically the obligation to follow god’s commands!
A theist may be tempted to say that this isn’t a moral obligation, but a more general form of obligation. I don’t think that works, because then the theist would have to say that a person does nothing morally wrong by failing to obey god’s commands. But MDCT says that specifically our moral obligations come from god’s commands, which would entail a contradiction.
This rather glaring problem aside, I want to move to the bigger picture with respect to the moral argument and moral obligations.
My issue is not so much with what Craig does to define moral duties, or even with the kind of move that Craig is making. While I disagree with how he defines the nature of a moral duty, I think the validity of this kind of move is perfectly fine. We’re very quickly coming up with the kind of “philosophical primitive” kind of issue I highlighted previously with moral values.
The main problem for Craig and other apologists is that by making this move, they undermine the central premise of the moral argument –that moral duties can only exist if god exists.
This is because much like defining moral values as “ontologically equivalent to god’s nature” it’s just as trivially self-serving to define “moral duties” as “arising from an imperative from a competent authority.”
This is actually indicative of a larger problem for MDCT, since Craig admits that the theory violates a famous problem in meta-ethics: the is/ought distinction.
The point here isn’t that MDCT violates the is/ought distinction and therefore it’s wrong. Philosophers have debated the is/ought problem for centuries, and it remains controversial. The issue for Craig and other apologists is that by violating the is/ought distinction in this specific way, they expose themselves as equivalent to other meta-ethical theories that can make an equivalent move by bridging the is/ought gap to serve their basis for moral obligations.
The moral argument is more about apologists insisting on their definition or conception of morality and then pretending that this is the only way to avoid nihilism or relativism.
I've covered how this is not the only conception of morality that can avoid a collapse into nihilism or relativism, and how this conception of morality makes a mockery of our deeply held moral intuitions.
What's more, is that when apologists attempt to defend the theory behind the moral argument, they invariably use methods that can ultimately be used just as well to justify other conceptions of morality that don't require a belief in god.