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