Craig on Intrinsic Value

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 9, 2009 in Ethics,William Lane Craig

craigWhen I attended the debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig, I came prepared with a question to ask. Unfortunately, I never got the chance, for only Christians were allowed to ask questions! However, a reader of mine submitted my question to the Q&A section of Craig’s website, and Craig responded. Here was my question:

Tonight you’ve argued that objective moral values cannot exist apart from grounding them in the traits and opinions of a particular person. Your choice is Yahweh. That seems like an odd way to get objective moral values, but nevertheless, you’ve elsewhere argued just the opposite: that objective moral values do exist apart from Yahweh.

For example, in your answer to question #61 on your website, you write that abortion is wrong because life has intrinsic moral value: that is, moral value within itself, apart from anything outside it, including the opinions of Yahweh. Is this a discrepancy, or have I misunderstood you?

Craig responded:

Good question! My view is that objective moral values are grounded in God’s character. Love is virtuous because God is loving. This is not incompatible with distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic goods. Something has extrinsic value because it can be used for a purpose. For example, a hammer has extrinsic value because of its utility for human agents. By contrast, persons have intrinsic value in that they are not merely means to be used for some end but are to be treated as ends in themselves. So we might well ask, “But why are human persons intrinsically valuable?” and the answer will be because God is personal.

Today I will not write about whether theistic ethics can be objective, nor about whether theistic ethics is coherent, nor about whether Craig’s theory of theistic ethics is coherent. Instead, I would like to write about Craig’s notion of intrinsic value.

The apparent discrepancy I asked about arose from the definition of “intrinsic” I was using. To me, intrinsic means something like:

belonging to the basic nature of someone or something; essential

By this definition, if human life has intrinsic value, this means it has value belonging to the essential nature of human life itself. If human life happened to exist apart from God, then human life would still have value in itself. Intrinsic value comes from the thing itself, not from any relations it has to things outside itself. So by this definition, Craig would be inconsistent to claim that human life has intrinsic value1 and that objective moral value comes only from God.

But this is not the definition of “intrinsic” Craig was using when he said that abortion is wrong because human life has intrinsic value. No, he meant that human life has intrinsic value in that humans have moral value as ends, not merely as means.

That is, Craig seems to be thinking of “intrinsic value” in contrast with “instrumental value” instead of in contrast with “extrinsic value.” But there are many good reasons to avoid Craig’s account of “intrinsic value,” reasons famously given by Christine Korsgaard in “Two Distinctions in Goodness” (1983), and reinforced by Wlodek Rabinowicz and Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen in “A Distinction in Value: Intrinsic and For Its Own Sake” (2000).

I do not wish to explain those reasons here. I would rather explain them more gradually by way of my Intro to Ethics course. But I have uploaded the papers in case you would like to read them. All I want to say here is that Craig’s claims that (1) human life has intrinsic value and that (2) objective moral values are grounded in God’s character are not inconsistent if you accept Craig’s account of intrinsic value, but they are inconsistent if you accept my account of intrinsic value,2 which I think is the more defensible account.

Hopefully this hints at why a public debate is not the best forum for getting at the truth. How the heck would Craig and I parse all these details on which our arguments depend in a 2-hour debate? There’s no freakin’ way.

  1. Philosophers generally recognize that intrinsic value is a type of moral value. []
  2. That is, Korsgaard’s and Rabinowicz’s and Rønnow-Rasmussen’s account of intrinsic value. []

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Finney December 9, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Hiya mate!

“Hopefully this hints at why a public debate is not the best forum for getting at the truth. How the heck would Craig and I parse all these details on which our arguments depend in a 2-hour debate? There’s no freakin’ way.”

Hmmm no offense but this seems to be your thesis. Why is it at the end of your essay?

Also what makes ya think DR. Craig would debate you? Wouldn’t that be like a singing contest between Timberlake and Bocelli?

Listen, I gotta hand it to you. You’re either a prodigy on the scale of fargin Mozart, or your as nutty as a man who thinks he’s a poached egg. And the more read of ya the more I’m leaning towards the latter.

Put the glue down mate! :D

Cheers!

Jason

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lukeprog December 9, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Jason,

We’ve had some problems recently with someone who sounds just like you pretending to be multiple people all at once. Would you mind browsing my site from your own IP instead of through the proxy site Anonymouse.org?

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Briang December 9, 2009 at 10:04 pm

I’m sorry that they only let Christians ask questions. Did they give an explanation? I’ve watched / listened to a number of Craig’s debates and it seems that that this isn’t standard practice. I know I’ve heard at least some non-Christians ask questions. Although, I can’t recall if how often this happened or if it was in every debate.

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lukeprog December 9, 2009 at 10:07 pm

Briang,

It was a surprise to me; I don’t think that’s the norm at these debates.

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lukeprog December 9, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Jason,

Actually, that last paragraph was an afterthought. It literally wasn’t part of the original post. I added it after publishing the original article.

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Josh December 9, 2009 at 10:45 pm

I think the problem is here: “If human life happened to exist apart from God, then human life would still have value in itself.” I’m not sure Craig would think that’s a meaningful statement… I believe that in Craig’s worldview, you can’t have intrinsic value in the absence of God, simply because you can’t have anything in the absence of God. At least, so his endorsement of the Cosmological argument leads me to believe…

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lukeprog December 10, 2009 at 12:21 am

Josh,

That’s okay. All I meant to do was to illustrate the concept of intrinsic value. Either way, Craig’s notion of intrinsic value is such that the intrinsic value of human beings comes not from itself but from its relation to God, and that is the “old” notion of intrinsic value that (I think) doesn’t work.

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g December 10, 2009 at 1:29 am

Jason,

1. Luke didn’t claim that Craig *would* debate him. But every now and then someone says something like “It would be interesting to see you debate WLC”.

2. I’m glad to see you’ve apparently stopped signing off with the word “Respectfully”, since that was a lie.

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John D December 10, 2009 at 2:45 am

While I can see the Kantian gloss that Craig is using, I thought his implicit definition of intrinsic value was more interesting. What I got from Craig’s response is the following:

Something is intrinsically valuable if it shares in God’s nature. So love is intrinsically valuable because God is loving; and personhood is intrinsically valuable because God is personal.

Is this right?

‘Cos if it is it would seem to put him on a a very slippery slope. How do we know what God’s true attributes are? From revelation? From observing the natural world? From introspecting on the nature of human reason? All of these sources would give us conflicting information on intrinsic value.

Maybe I’m completely wrong about this. In any event, I though Wes Morriston’s paper “What if God commanded…?” was rather good on the point of God’s nature as a source of morality. He suggests that equating goodness with Godness does not rule anything in or out of our moral universe. That criticism may only apply to a command-based ethics though.

http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/wes/WhatIfGod.pdf

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John D December 10, 2009 at 2:49 am

I would say ignore Jason. He’s switched from English condescension to Australian matey-ness, but the gist is still the same.

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John D December 10, 2009 at 2:52 am

Ah, I see the intrinsic-value-as-a-relation-to-God point was already commented on. My bad.

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Supernova December 10, 2009 at 3:06 am

Hey, lukeprog.

I’ve been lurking around to see when you was going to write about this. I must say I was surprised to see he answered the question. For one who is that busy, still finds the time to answer questions to people he doesn’t even know.

What he argues is b/c God is a transcendent and personal being… therefore, makes us intrinsically valuable. Since we are intrinsically valuable(b/c God is personal), than there are such things as objective values, with regards, to the way we interact with one another.

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Kip December 10, 2009 at 8:44 am

My view is that objective moral values are grounded in God’s character. Love is virtuous because God is loving. … “But why are human persons intrinsically valuable?” and the answer will be because God is personal.

Hmm… I wonder how far we can go with this:

Intelligent beings are intrinsically valuable, because God is intelligent? (So, that would include a lot more than just humans, right?)

Vengeance is virtuous because God is vengeful?

Infinite things are intrinsically valuable, because God is infinite? (So, the set of real numbers, for instance?)

Existing things are intrinsically valuable, because God’s nature is to exist. So, pretty much everything, I guess?

Seems like a very flimsy theory of value WLC has come up with.

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Paul December 10, 2009 at 9:03 am

Would someone kindly (Bioshock joke) explain/elaborate on the following -

“So we might well ask, ‘But why are human persons intrinsically valuable?’ and the answer will be because God is personal.”

I don’t know what “personal” means in this context. That God loves his creation? Something else?

Given Dr. Craig’s definition of extrinsic versus intrinsic value – how does this statement translate into people having intrinsic value? In other words, I am reading it as people are just a means to some end desired by God. Humans are God’s hammer.

I think I semi-understand Luke’s comment about instrumental value – but if I created an object, say a hammer, and I really loved it and tended to it would that object then have intrinsic value?

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lukeprog December 10, 2009 at 9:13 am

Kip,

Yeah, those are the kinds of questions I had about Craig’s theory of value. But if he’s explained it in detail somewhere, then I haven’t seen it.

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lukeprog December 10, 2009 at 9:15 am

Paul,

According to Craig, that hammer would now have “intrinsic” value, I think. But I don’t think that’s a good account of intrinsic value. I would say, along with Korsgaard, that hammer has “final” value for you.

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Thomas Reid December 10, 2009 at 9:50 am

Paul,

I don’t know what “personal” means in this context. That God loves his creation? Something else?

I believe he is getting at the concept of Imago Dei. All created persons bear a likeness to God in our capacity for thought, belief, free will, and so on.

Given Dr. Craig’s definition of extrinsic versus intrinsic value – how does this statement translate into people having intrinsic value? In other words, I am reading it as people are just a means to some end desired by God. Humans are God’s hammer.

Well I think the instrinsic value is imputed to human persons as a result of our bearing a likeness to God in some respects. It’s difficult to see how a hammer might bear a likeness to a human person. To get at what I mean here, think about what essential properties they might share.

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Paul December 10, 2009 at 12:04 pm

lukeprog: along with Korsgaard, that hammer has “final” value for you.

If I have time I will try to read Korsgaard book.

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Paul December 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Thomas Reid: Well I think the instrinsic value is imputed to human persons as a result of our bearing a likeness to God in some respects. It’s difficult to see how a hammer might bear a likeness to a human person. To get at what I mean here, think about what essential properties they might share.

I concede the hammer analogy was not good.

Let me ask a different question. If we have intrinsic value because God give us intrinsic value (am I interpreting it fairly?) on what basis is it determined that God has intrinsic value?

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Charles December 10, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Sounds like he’s saying, “We are valuable because God values us.” But that turns the whole meaning of “intrinsic value” on its head!

IMO, he just doesn’t want to admit the inconsistency.

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josef johann December 11, 2009 at 12:21 am

Thomas Reid: Paul,
I believe he is getting at the concept of Imago Dei.All created persons bear a likeness to God in our capacity for thought, belief, free will, and so on.
Well I think the instrinsic value is imputed to human persons as a result of our bearing a likeness to God in some respects.It’s difficult to see how a hammer might bear a likeness to a human person.To get at what I mean here, think about what essential properties they might share.  

Hmm. If that’s what Craig meant, then the existence of God is not necessary for intrinsic value. It could be the case that we do resemble God, but that he happens not to exist.

Similarly, it could be the case that God created us in his image, and then ceased to exist. We would presumably continue being intrinsically valuable, unless for some silly reason we can only be said to “resemble” things that exist at the same time as us.

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josef johann December 11, 2009 at 12:30 am

As a followup on that,

it annoys me how easy it is to come up with one of these defenses of Christianity. All you need to do is parallel each stage of criticism with a series of corresponding negations and suddenly a sophisticated theory of intrinsic value emerges.

Like carving off shavings of wood, they can still assert something that fits the shape of the remaining wood. That’s fine, but in practice, one would expect to see a theory like Craig’s asserted outright, rather than see it emerge in parallel with increasingly detailed criticism.

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Marco December 25, 2009 at 3:15 am

Craig says:
“By contrast, persons have intrinsic value in that they are not merely means to be used for some end but are to be treated as ends in themselves. So we might well ask, “But why are human persons intrinsically valuable?” and the answer will be because God is personal.”

Maybe the concept value is what brings Craig to his sidestep away from your (our) meaning of intrinsically. Value is a word used in a stance an agent adopts towards something. The concept therefore invites us to talk about a person’s or agent’s attitude towards something. If I say that I have intrinsic value, Craig automatically pictures a situation in which I am valued by some person. If there is no one to value me, than I can’t have intrinsic value. I think this is the source of the misunderstanding here. Value can only be in the mind of a valuer.

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Vlastimil Vohánka February 24, 2010 at 1:11 am

Lukeprog,

A minor issue. You wrote: “I never got the chance, only Christians were allowed to ask questions!”

I’m surprised. Do you mean in the whole Q and A section, or since a certain time point in that section (e. g., because up to that point mainly non-Christians asked).

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lukeprog February 24, 2010 at 7:48 am

Vlastimil,

No, it was the whole Q&A section.

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