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. Theistic Ethics and Mind-Dependence

Theistic Ethics and Mind-Dependence


Dear Dr. Craig,

I'm an atheist living in Sweden (there are plenty of us here, as you know!) with an interest in philosophy and ethics, and while I probably disagree with you on a lot of things I very much enjoy your writing and debates. Everyone knows they're in for an intense debate when you take the stand! (There might be a theistic argument here: if God does not exist it's a *miracle* you win so many debates, and therefore evidence of God! I kid, I kid)

I have a question about morality that you'll hopefully be able to answer and clarify your position on. My knowledge of meta-ethics is pretty modest, but I'm actually leaning albeit tentatively towards morality being objective (see, there's at least one thing we agree on!). I'd argue that moral obligation can be objective without God (I won't do that here though), but I'd go even further and say that IF morality is founded in God it is NOT objective. If "objective" means "mind-independent" which might be a rough definition of objective, but let's accept it for now doesn't that make morality founded in God "divinely subjective" rather than objective? Now, perhaps you'd want to object here and say this is a straw man your view is that morality is founded in God's *nature*, perhaps. But if God's nature IS "the good", I don't understand where the normativity comes in. You'll recognize this as the is/ought problem: if God's nature IS in one way and not in another, how does that commit us to the view that we OUGHT to reflect the nature of God in our actions? It certainly seems like we might have prudential reasons to do so (if it were true), but I don't see how we'd have any *moral* reasons (at least not in any stronger sense than what we'd get from basic utilitarianism which I know you reject).

My second question is more directly about your moral argument: if our moral duty is to "reflect God's nature" and God simply IS "the good" (or however you want to put it, I'm trying my best not to straw-man!) doesn't that make your moral argument circular? It seems to me it only make sense because you never define what you actually mean by "moral values and duties" (well, I've never seen you define it anyways!), if we change "objective moral values" to "God's nature" and "duties" to reflection of that very nature, we get:

P1. If God does not exist, God's nature and actions that reflect his nature does not exist. (I agree!)
P2. God's nature and actions that reflect his nature does exist. (I disagree, this is what we're arguing about!)
Therefore, God exists.

That seems to make it circular, cause you're just assuming that God's nature exist in premise two. Maybe you can clarify this!

So, to summarize (I know you like summaries): What's the argument that bridges the is/ought problem above, and isn't your moral argument ultimately circular? (Perhaps you could make a clarified version of your moral argument where you define moral values and duties explicitly)

Stay skeptical, keep educating and keep learning!



Dr. Craig responds:

It’s a pleasure to receive a question from Sweden, Rasmus, as I’ve always so enjoyed our visits and interaction there.

Your first question concerns the objectivity of theistic ethics. I do take the word “objective” to mean mind-independent. Lawrence Krauss once put it well: objective reality is what is still there when you quit thinking about it!

Now comes the tricky part: if moral values are grounded in God, the objector says, then since God is a mind, they are not mind-independent. Granted, they are independent of human minds, but they are not independent of God’s mind. So theistic ethics is mind-dependent and therefore not objective.

The problem with this objection is overkill. For on this view the distinction between mind-dependent and mind-independent realities collapses. Everything becomes mind-dependent. Even things like people, planets, and stars, which are paradigms of objective realities, become mind-dependent, since they, too, depend on God for their existence. But then the intuitive and helpful distinction between mind-dependent and mind-independent realities goes by the board.

This is not a distinction we should give up. There is obviously a difference between the stuff of hallucinations, dreams, and fictions and stuff that was around before we arrived on the scene. Moreover, we can distinguish between idealistic views, like George Berkeley’s, which hold that the perceptible world exists only in God’s mind, rather like a dream, rather than as a spatio-temporal reality created and sustained in existence by God. On Berkeley’s view the world really is mind-dependent, in a way that it is not on classical theism. The sense in which the world is mind-dependent on classical theism is clearly not the same sense in which it is on Berkeley’s idealism.

Similarly, there is clearly a difference between theistic ethical systems that are voluntaristic, like William Ockham’s, and those that are not, like Aquinas’. On Ockham’s view moral values do seem to be mind-dependent in a way they are not for Aquinas, namely, for Ockham God just made up the values that He wants to, whereas on Aquinas’ view moral values are grounded, not in God’s will, but in His nature. It would be grossly misleading to characterize both Aquinas’ and Ockham’s ethical systems as mind-dependent just because God is the ground of moral values for both. We need to preserve a meaningful distinction between mind-dependent and mind-independent realities if we are to properly understand these views.

I’m not sure how this is, in general, to be done. But to take a stab at it, when we say that something is mind-dependent in the sense of being subjective, we mean that it is somehow generated by a mind’s activity; that is, it is either a mental phenomenon (like a pain or a dream) or is made up by a mind (like a fiction or imaginary object). Something that is mind-dependent merely in the sense that its existence entails the existence of a mind doesn’t qualify as subjective. Something that is mind-dependent merely in the sense that its existence entails that a mind exists may still be an objective reality because it is not a mental phenomenon or made up.

Now clearly, moral values are, according to non-voluntaristic theistic ethics, not mind-dependent in the subjective sense. Yes, they entail that a mind, viz., God, exists, but they are not, for all that, mind-dependent in the subjective sense.

You take cognizance of this position but express reservations: “if God's nature IS ‘the good’, I don't understand where the normativity comes in. You'll recognize this as the is/ought problem: if God's nature IS in one way and not in another, how does that commit us to the view that we OUGHT to reflect the nature of God in our actions?

Ah, that’s where Divine Command Ethics comes in! Moral obligations and prohibitions arise as a result of moral imperatives from a qualified authority. As the highest Good--indeed, the paradigm of goodness--God is a qualified authority to issue moral commands. It is God’s commands that thus furnish normativity. These commands are not arbitrary but reflect His perfectly good nature. So God’s nature grounds moral values, and His commands constitute moral duties.

Someone might persist, “But why is God the standard of moral value?” The question is somewhat misconceived. Anyone has the right to present his moral theory and to explain its parameters. Every moral theory will posit some moral ultimate which serves as an explanatory stopping point. The apropos question will be whether that moral theory is plausible, in particular whether its moral ultimate is a non-arbitrary and adequate stopping point. In contrast to atheism, theism has a non-arbitrary and adequate stopping point. For God is by definition the greatest conceivable being, a being which is worthy of worship. Nothing higher could be imagined. Thus, identifying the Good with God Himself supplies a foundation for a plausible moral theory.

Your second question about the alleged circularity of the moral argument is more easily resolved. As I’ve explained elsewhere, when the theist says that God is the Good, he is making an ontological claim, not a semantical claim. He is emphatically not offering a definition of the words “good” or “obligatory” in terms of God and His commands. He takes these words to have their usual dictionary meanings. That is precisely why I don’t offer definitions of such terms. The moral argument isn’t about moral semantics. It’s a metaphysical claim about the grounding of moral values and duties. Semantically, the theist is on common ground with secular ethicists in using ethical terms with their usual meanings. So the moral argument cannot be justifiably accused of circularity or triviality.

Rasmus, a few years ago I debated the prominent Swedish ethicist Torbjörn Tänssjö on God and morality. Here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AdsupGA2tk&list=PL6C81C0224108CEEA

You might find this debate stimulating.