Previously, I have reviewed debates between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens, and between Daniel Dennett and Dinesh D’Souza. I also gave one-paragraph reviews of most William Lane Craig debates, and I said I’m not sure Craig has actually lost a debate.
Thankfully, this debate was limited to the question, “Can morality exist without God?”
Kagan starts out exactly as he should:
People have been doing moral philosophy without appeal to God for thousands of years… it’s not at all obvious [to me] what the problem is supposed to be.
This is necessary to reframe the question. “Can morality exist without God?” assumes that theistic morality is coherent but atheistic morality might not be. Kagan’s point is that this might be like asking “Can politics exist without God?” The question itself assumes too much for the theist.
I should say up front, though, that I actually agree with Craig that (nearly) all theories of secular morality are either internally incoherent or else they refer to things that do not exist. But I don’t think any theory of theistic morality is plausible – not even close. Theistic moral theories don’t even “get off the ground,” as far as I can tell.
But back to the debate. One problem here is that the topic of the debate – and the topic Craig always raises in his moral argument for God’s existence – is meta-ethical, while Kagan focuses his research on ethical theory and applied ethics. Here’s the difference:
Kagan’s strategy is a bit awkward. Instead of addressing the problem of the existence of moral value directly, he starts his discussion near the lower-middle of this graphic and tries to work his way up to the actual existence of moral values.
He doesn’t make it very far. He comes to unsupported assertions very quickly:
…I suggested “Don’t harm. Do help.” But there may be nothing at all deeper to be said about what makes those rules the valid rules, it’s just an objective fact about reality that there are these categorical reasons… to behave in certain ways versus others.
When Kagan tries to get any closer to the existence of moral values than this, he settles for John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, the view that moral rules are the rules we would agree to if we were perfectly rational and if we didn’t know what our lot in life would be after we agreed to these rules.
Both Craig and I want Kagan to go much deeper than this. Why are these hypothetical rules we’d give ourselves if rational and ignorant of our lot in life categorical reasons for action? Why not something else?
Craig gives his usual arguments:
- On naturalism, morality is something we evolved to believe in, but not something that exists.
- On materialism, our actions are merely outputs caused by the inputs of DNA and experience, like a puppet on strings. But what moral value does a puppet have?
- Without God to reward and punish good and bad actions, there is no moral accountability or obligation.
Early in the cross-examination round, Kagan showed some of the debate skills that Andrew and I have been wishing more atheist debaters would exhibit. Craig asked Kagan a question, Kagan answered it, and then Craig said, “Okay, I think that’s a good answer for why we wouldn’t regard animals as moral agents… but it seems to me that at best that answer would go to show that rationality… is a necessary condition for moral behavior, but I don’t see that that’s a sufficient condition for moral behavior…” Kagan responds by “calling out” what just happened, as any good debater should:
Okay, the question you initially asked was “How can I explain why it’s wrong for me to murder when it’s not wrong for lions to murder and… [you said] I managed to do that. If we now shift to the question, “So what does it take for wrongness to enter the world, above and beyond rationality, I think the answer might well be…”
Kagan also does exactly what I had hoped he would do. He didn’t just defend atheistic morality, he attacked the assumptions of theistic morality. For example, Craig said, “I’m still not clear as to why [humans] achieve intrinsic moral worth in virtue of having complex nervous systems…” Kagan replied:
If you put it as “complex nervous systems” it sounds pretty deflationary. What so special about a complex nervous system? But of course, that complex nervous system allows you to do calculus. It allows you to do astrophysics… to write poetry… to fall in love. Put under that description, when asked “What’s so special about humans…?”, I’m at a loss to know how to answer that question. If you don’t see why we’d be special… because we can do poetry [and] think philosophical thoughts [and] we can think about the morality of our behavior, I’m not sure what kind of answer could possibly satisfy you at that point.
…I could pose the same kinds of questions of you… So God says, “You are guys are really, really special.” How does his saying it make us special? “But you see, he gave us a soul.” How does our having a soul make us special? Whatever answer you give, you could always say… “What’s so special about that?”
A bit later, Kagan really nails Craig. Craig asks, “On atheism… prudential value and moral value are on a collision course… what it’s prudent for me to do is often in conflict with what’s moral for me to do… but on theism, where there is moral accountability, you can consistently make choices that go against your self interest… for the sake of moral value and moral duty.” Kagan continues the thought:
[But that is] because, precisely, you’ll get it back in the end, so it’s not really in the long term a self-sacrifice at all. That’s the thought, yes?
Craig can only respond, “Well, that’s not how I would put it,” which of course means “Yes, but I’d try to disguise that fact with big words.”
This happens again about 15 minutes later:
KAGAN: There’s certainly one thing that Craig’s theism provides him that I lack. He has a cosmic enforcer, which provides a kind of motivation… I’ve got to hope I can assemble [motivation] here on earth. Although, I can’t resist [a question] about accountability, which I take it is the thought that evil-doers get punished and good-doers get a heavenly reward… I’m not sure how to reconcile that with the belief that Jesus can provide salvation… If it turns out that I can do evil [but] manage to recognize the saving power of Jesus in time, all this accountability stuff is not really [true]!
CRAIG: Well, I mean, no genuine Christian would think like that…
And then Craig changes the subject.
Kagan also lays the beat-down on Craig with regard to animal suffering. The moderator asks, “Do we have a moral obligation to treat animals well?” Then:
CRAIG: I think that here, the Christian… has a tremendous advantage… on a Christian view, God has given us stewardship of this beautiful planet – to care for it, and not to pollute it and ravage it…
KAGAN: Are you a vegetarian?
CRAIG: No, I’m not.
KAGAN: So our stewardship towards animals only goes so far. We can eat them, we can chop them up and wear them.
CRAIG: Yes, yes, but that would be done in ways that I think would be compatible with certain kinds of rules…
KAGAN: So I’m not sure you get the advantage… My view was that what morality boils down to is, “Don’t harm, and do help.” And now the question is, “Can creatures like chickens and cows be harmed?” And the answer is, “Of course they can.” Consequently, I think it’s immoral to harm them. And that seems to me to provide a very strong moral reason to be vegetarian, to not wear leather… it seems to me that our treatment of animals is morally appalling… and that we ought to radically revise the way we live, precisely because they feel pain, they can be hurt, and we’re constantly hurting these creatures!
Unfortunately for Kagan, Craig raises the point I did above, about Kagan’s opening speech:
You emphasize in your own book on The Limits of Morality the importance of having explanations, and not cutting off the search for explanations too soon, and I wonder if you’re not cutting off the search for explanations too soon by simply saying, “Well, I’m just going to regard persons as intrinsically valuable,” but without any further grounding for that.
Kagan responds by saying that he gave a sketch of further grounding: Rawl’s Theory of Justice, but that if this doesn’t satisfy Craig then there are other explanations available and whether they are successful is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, Kagan doesn’t have time to actually defend any of these theories, and in fact I think they all fail (except, of course, for the theory of moral realism that I hold to: desire utilitarianism).
So who won?
This is definitely one of the best debates between an atheist and William Lane Craig. Listen to it when you can. The speakers are, for once, both competent debaters, and both win points for their side. They also cover many topics I couldn’t cover in this short post. Most importantly, their points are actually relevant to one another. This is a debate between two trained philosophers who know when a point is relevant or not, and they know how to pursue only the relevant points.
I don’t know who won. It was a close debate, and a very good debate. I do have some wishes, though:
- I wish Kagan had done even more to attack the coherence of theistic morality.
- I wish Kagan had given a better defense of atheistic moral ontology, instead of talking so much about ethical theory and applied ethics.
But I can’t really complain. Like I said, a good debate.
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