In a previous post I drew a distinction between Objective Moral Values and Subjective Moral Values before giving a couple of illustrations of the importance of the distinction in Christian apologetics. In this follow-up I want to take matters few steps further by deploying the distinction in a version of the moral argument for God.
Consider these two propositions:
- There are some objective moral values.
- All values are subjective.
Each of these claims has arguments in its favor. (If you worry about the second, bear with me.) The reasons for affirming the first proposition are pretty straightforward. When we reflect on certain moral values that we all recognize, we can see that they hold independently of subjective human factors: personal feelings, opinions, desires, goals, and so forth. Take, for example, the moral value (currently the subject of much public discussion) that sexual harassment is wrong. Suppose that every human on the planet became infected with a disease that brought about a kind of moral insanity, with the consequence that everyone began to think that sexual harassment is good and everyone experienced moral sentiments along those lines. Would sexual harassment cease to be morally wrong? Would that moral value change overnight? (If that example doesn’t persuade you, I’m confident it wouldn’t take me long to identify a moral value that you do take to be objective in the sense I defined.)
The topic of moral values comes up often in Christian apologetics. For example, Christians will argue that atheists cannot account for moral values or that the moral relativism associated with postmodernism is somehow self-defeating. I’ve noticed that in such discussions there’s often confusion (usually on the part of the non-Christian, but not always) about what we mean when we speak of ‘moral values’. Indeed, the term is often used equivocally, without recognizing that there are at least two meaningful ways in which we can talk about ‘moral values’. My purpose in this post is to explicitly distinguish these two senses and illustrate why it’s so important to keep the distinction clear in apologetic discussions.
There are different ways of drawing the distinction, but here I propose simply to distinguish between Subjective Moral Values (SMVs) and Objective Moral Values (OMVs). Subjective Moral Values are moral values subjectively held by an individual person. For example, we might say that Ben has different moral values than Lisa, if Ben holds to Christian sexual ethics while Lisa does not. Thus Ben values (in a moral sense) certain sexual behaviors differently than Lisa. He makes different moral value judgments about premarital sex, polyamory, etc. Clearly there’s a relativity to this kind of moral value: SMVs are relative to subjects (i.e., the subjects who engage in moral valuation) and thus can vary from person to person.
Now contrast SMVs with OMVs. Objective Moral Values are non-subjective moral norms, i.e., moral norms that are independent of subjective factors (beliefs, convictions, preferences, feelings, etc.). OMVs are moral norms that hold regardless of whether anyone knows, believes, or recognizes them as such. People may disagree about what the OMVs actually are, but the vast majority of people take for granted (at least in practice) that there are OMVs. I think most people would recognize parental care for infants as an objective moral norm. Parents ought to care for their infant children. Even if every human being became infected with a virus which caused a kind of moral insanity, such that everyone became convinced that parents ought to neglect and abuse their children, it would still be objectively the case that parents ought to care for their children. Such a virus would disrupt our SMVs, but OMVs would be unchanged. Indeed, OMVs couldn’t be affected by a mind-altering virus, precisely because OMVs are by nature non-subjective; they’re independent of subjective mental states.
So why is the distinction between SMVs and OMVs important in Christian apologetics? Let me give two illustrations.
Having been recently promoted to associate professor, I was invited to give a short lecture at our Fall convocation service last week. The audio of the lecture (“The Atheist’s Guide to Intellectual Suicide”) is now available on iTunes U.
On a closely related note, check out these good thoughts by my colleague Mike Kruger on the current state of public debate over moral issues.
The Guardian has provided Richard Dawkins with a platform to explain why he won’t share a platform with Christian apologist William Lane Craig. Dawkins plays what he thinks is a trump card: the real reason he won’t publicly debate Craig is because — drumroll, please — Craig has defended the “genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament.” It ought to be apparent to anyone who has compared Dawkins’ past debate performances with Craig’s (never mind their respective writings on the rationality of theism) that this explanation is, at best, a feeble rationalization. But that’s not the point I want to make in this post.
Dawkins’ piece reflects his trademark rhetorical devices — condescension, mockery, faux outrage, and a dash or two of genuine wit — but what stuck me most was the complete absence of any moral categories in his criticism of Craig and his views. Dawkins regards Craig’s views as ‘horrific’, ‘revolting’, ‘shocking’, and ‘deplorable’. But none of these descriptors function as objective moral evaluations of Craig or Craig’s God. In reality, they reflect little more than Dawkins’ feelings about Craig and Craig’s God (and the feelings of those who share Dawkins’ jaundiced outlook on the world).
I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, given Dawkins’ published views on the nature of morality. For example, in The God Delusion he rejected and ridiculed the notion that there are moral absolutes. But if there are no moral absolutes, then there are no moral principles that absolutely rule out genocide. According to Dawkins’ moral outlook, then, genocide could be morally justified in some circumstances — just as late-term abortion is morally justified in some circumstances (as Dawkins apparently believes). Isn’t it therefore an open question whether the Old Testament ‘genocides’ were morally justified given the circumstances? Given Dawkins’ own premises, isn’t that question at least worthy of… debate? (I should state for the record that I don’t believe the destruction of the Canaanites was an instance of genocide; I’m just granting Dawkins’ characterization for the sake of argument.)
In the end, all Dawkins has really told us is that he won’t debate Craig because he finds Craig’s views personally offensive. It’s not that Craig’s views are unethical; it’s not that they’re immoral; it’s certainly not that they’re wicked or evil. It’s just that Dawkins finds them extremely distasteful. Dawkins is disgusted — and that’s all there is to it. Even if that were the real reason for his refusal to debate Craig, it would hardly be a compelling one. The only virtue of Dawkins’ dubious explanation, if it can be called a virtue, is its consistency with his moral nihilism.
Update: Here are some entertaining commentaries on Dawkins’ piece: