Sam Harris launched the New Atheism movement. William Lane Craig is a philosopher, historian, and expert debater for evangelical Christianity. Recently, they debated for the first time: video above, audio here.
Below, I review the debate. Other reviews of the debate include: Nathan Schneider, Glenn Peoples, Russell Blackford, Wintery Knight, John Loftus, Randy Everist, J.W. Wartick, Chris Hallquist, Matt Flannagan (2), and more.
The topic is secular morality (as in Harris’ The Moral Landscape) vs. theistic morality. For a longer, more substantive discussion of Harris’ book, see the Apologia episodes on it, to which I contributed.
Craig’s positive case
Craig opens with his standard arguments that without God, there is no foundation for objective moral values, where ‘objective’ means ‘independent of human opinion.’ He does not argue that God exists; that’s not the topic.
I’ve always found this position rather silly, for two reasons. First, ‘objective moral value’ is usually defined as being ‘independent of the opinions or attitudes of a person or persons.’ If moral value merely relates the opinions or attitudes of a person or persons, that is subjective morality. Theistic morality, where morality is defined with reference to the opinions or attitudes of a person named ‘God’, has always been a type of subjective morality. To my knowledge, theistic analytic philosophers only tried to frame theistic morality as ‘objective’ in about the 1980s, when they noticed they could just restrict the definition of ‘objective morality’ such that it meant ‘independent of the opinions or attitudes of a particular species of primate, homo sapiens.’ But that’s, well… kinda shady.
Secondly, even if we run with Craig’s new definition for ‘objective morality’, it is trivially easy to get ‘objective’ morality of that sort without God. Heck, just define morality in terms of the opinions and attitudes of a member of another species, say Washoe the chimpanzee. Since he’s not human, presto! We have ‘objective’ morality according to Craig’s definition.
There are also many standard atheistic moral systems that obligate or recommend actions without calling upon human opinion to do so – for example, hedonic act utilitarianism. This theory says we should do whatever it is that maximizes pleasure. Of course, pleasure is a natural phenomenon, and so we figure out what maximizes pleasure by doing natural science, and we need make no appeal to human attitudes or opinion.
Theories like hedonic act utilitarianism are ‘objective’ not only in Craig’s narrow sense but in the usual, broader sense as well. It’s not just that hedonic act utilitarianism doesn’t appeal to human opinions or attitudes. Hedonic act utilitarianism doesn’t appeal to the opinions or attitudes of any person or persons.
It’s trivially easy to show that God is not needed to get ‘objective’ morality, by Craig’s definition of the term or otherwise.
Moreover, theism doesn’t provide a solid foundation for moral values. As Wes Morriston puts it:
Either God has good reasons for his commands or he does not. If he does, then those reasons (and not God’s commands) are the ultimate ground of moral obligation. If he does not have good reasons, then his commands are completely arbitrary and may be disregarded. Either way, the divine command theory is false.
Craig’s negative case
Craig then makes a negative case against Sam Harris’ position in The Moral Landscape – that morality concerns the well-being of conscious creatures, and that is a matter for science to discover.
First, Craig says that you can’t ground moral values in nature because nature is morally neutral. As Craig puts it, “Natural science tells us only what is, not what ought to be.”
Second, Craig complains that Harris’ approach to morality is guilty of speciesism. This is false. Harris does not define morality in terms of the well-being of humans, nor in terms of what they evolved to judge as being moral. He defines morality in terms of natural facts about the well-being of conscious creatures, which is not guilty of speciesism, and will often contradict the deliverances of our evolved moral intuitions.
Third, Craig complains that Harris has arbitrarily redefined ‘morally good’ to refer to the well-being of conscious creatures. To quote Craig:
Dr. Harris has ‘solved’ the value problem just by redefining his terms. It’s nothing but wordplay. At the end of the day, Dr. Harris is talking about moral values at all. He’s just talking about what’s conducive to the flourishing of sentient life on this planet.
The ‘on this planet’ part is a misrepresentation – Harris makes no such limitation on moral value. But the definitions complaint has certainly been a central topic in atheistic critiques of Harris, too.
Finally, Craig argues that a denial of contra-causal free will makes moral responsibility impossible. Like many naturalists, I think the understanding that we lack contra-causal free will makes moral responsibility more real and compassionate.
Next, we consider Harris’ opening speech.