Morriston Missing the Mark

A friend recently asked me to take a more careful look at Morriston’s response to William Lane Craig’s argument for God’s existence from the reality of objective moral values and duties, or, rather, at least to the logic of Craig’s Divine Command Theory account of moral ontology which undergirds the argument. I was inclined to be dismissive, but I indulged the request. I skimmed through the paper, called God and the ontological foundation of morality, focusing on what I thought the relevant sections would be and, sure enough, I found the same clumsy mistakes I expected to find. It agitates me a little not because philosophers never make mistakes or have no right to make mistakes from time to time, but because it looks to me like Morriston’s reading of W.L. Craig, whose view it is the principle subject of Morriston’s analysis to review and critique, is inexcusably superficial. Moreover, Morriston, being a Theist, and a Christian, and a professional and well recognized philosopher of religion, should know better. In the abstract Morriston writes:

“In recent years, William Lane Craig has vigorously championed a moral argument for God’s existence. The backbone of Craig’s argument is the claim that only God can provide a ‘sound foundation in reality’ for morality. The present article has three principal aims. The first is to interpret and clarify the account of the ontological foundation of morality proposed by Craig. The second is to press home an important objection to that account. The third is to expose the weakness of Craig’s case for saying that without God morality would be groundless and illusory.”

I took the abstract as a blueprint or map of the paper, and, paying little to no attention to the first section of the essay (being already familiar with Craig’s arguments), I focused my attention on the second and third sections. Skipping to the second section, I found exactly what I expected to find, Morriston raised the Euthyphro dilemma, or a version of it; “a simple Euthyphro-like dilemma may help to clarify the alternatives here. Is God good because he is loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth ? Or are these attributes good-making because God has them?” (Morriston, 21). Morriston seems to miss entirely Craig’s fundamental point that the paradigm of love, generosity, justice, kindness and so forth is identical to God’s nature. In other words, these attributes, and indeed the attribute  of ‘goodness’ itself along with them, are objectively grounded in God’s Nature. They are good to the extent that they exemplify God’s nature. God’s nature doesn’t happen to be loving, but rather God is identical to ‘Love’ itself. To put it another way, what the Platonist has in mind when considering ‘The Good’ is just identical to the divine nature. This, then, is the suggestion; that God’s nature sets the paradigm of goodness in the same way as the old meter stick in France set the metric paradigm. It follows from this that it is no more possible for God to ‘happen’ to be loving in a univocal sense then it is possible for the ocean to get wet, or for the old meter stick in France to ‘happen’ to be a meter long. Morriston, to his credit, seems to catch a whiff of this insinuation, but dismisses it in one paragraph:

Is there a way to slip between the horns of this dilemma? Well, some theists may wish to say that God is God’s moral nature. It would then be open to them to say that God is the ultimate standard of moral goodness, in which case God’s existence would be required for the existence of goodness. That God is identical to his moral nature is of course entailed by the classical version of the doctrine of divine simplicity, according to which God is identical to each of his attributes, and each of them is identical to all the others. Despite the efforts of some able
philosophers, I have never been able make sense of this doctrine, and to judge from his pronouncements on the subject, neither can Craig (Craig (2007) ). So I won’t pursue that possibility further here.
~Wes Morriston, God and the Ontological Foundation of Morality, 22

While it is true that Craig disagrees with the doctrine of divine simplicity propounded by the great Medieval philosophers, as well as that of the Catholic Church, he also does hold a view of God which allows God to be semi-simple. Craig thinks his view of God is ‘simple-enough’. Granted Craig does not believe that God’s knowledge can never change (or else he couldn’t be an A-theorist about time), but Craig does believe that ‘The Good’ is identical to God’s nature in precisely the same way as the faithful Roman Catholic does.

Morriston goes on, in the third part of his article, to argue, as he promised in the abstract, that Craig’s view (that morality would be groundless and illusory without God) is flawed. Unfortunately he does so, it seems, by simply asserting that human beings are special and valuable:

If one were to draw up a list of things that make us special, it would probably include things like these. Humans are (or can be) self-conscious, capable of rational reflection and deliberation, of making plans and carrying them out. They fall in love, they have children, form family bonds, and care for one another. Some of them write poems or compose symphonies or discover proofs of deep mathematical theorems. Others understand and appreciate those poems and symphonies and theorems. Non-human animals share some, though by no means all, of these characteristics; and none are shared by rocks. So why aren’t characteristics like these – all of which could be
found in a Godless universe – sufficient to make us ‘special’?

Morriston seems to miss the point that our having a universally shared (or at least nearly universally shared) sentiment that these qualities are desirable, does absolutely nothing to make them objectively valuable. Remember that ‘objective’ here means, as Craig has often said before, independent of what anyone perceives or believes. So, Morriston closes the paper by expressing what looks to me like unabashed (and ungrounded) moral realism. Moreover, it looks pretty obviously like speciesism, especially when Morriston claims, in response to the suggestion that on materialism all that happens when a little girl is blown up in an explosion is that molecules are rearranged, that “not all arrangements of molecules are created equal” (Morriston, 25). The standard by which we can discriminate between more or less valuable arrangements of molecules, though, is just blatantly anthropocentric. To his credit, Morriston does offer a response to Craig’s suggestion that the morality developed by human beings in the absence of God would be arbitrary, and to treat it as ‘objective’ would just be to endorse speciesism. However, his response reflects a spectacular lack of comprehension.

To think that there is something special about human morality (according to which slavery is wrong) is to ‘succumb to the temptation of speciesism – an unjustifiable bias in favour of our own species’. Indeed, it is to suffer from ‘delusions of moral grandeur’ (Craig & Antony (2008) ). Well, what if (as Craig suggests) ants were ‘ endowed with rationality’? There’s a
counterpossible for you! If ants were endowed with rationality, they would not be ants. But let’s play along for a moment. If these (very special) ants had a moral code, it might be one that (like that of our ancestors) condoned the slavery of
(equally special) aphids. But so what? Craig’s suggestion appears to be that it would be a ‘speciesist’ mistake for an atheist to hold that our morality (which forbids slavery) is objectively superior to the slavery-permitting morality of these
imaginary ants. But why think a thing like that? Human slavery is not practised in most parts of the world today because some of our ancestors discovered that enslaving other persons is evil. If we reject some of the moral principles of Craig’s imaginary ants, we do so on precisely the same grounds as those on which our ancestors rejected some of the moral principles of slave-owning humans. The only ‘speciecists’ in Craig’s little thought-experiment are the ant-persons who enslave aphid-persons.

What has Morriston done in this paragraph other than reassert unabashed moral realism? Well, underneath it all, he seems to be holding the view that certain qualities are valuable objectively, like rationality, but isn’t that just anthropocentrism running wild again? If his moral realism is grounded anywhere, it is grounded in the accident of mankind’s preferences, but this is to offer us nothing objective at all, at least not in the relevant sense. Even should these preferences be universal, they remain accidental insofar as they are anthropocentric, and man remains himself a cosmic accident.

This all makes me wonder what I was expected to see in Morriston’s critique. If I had spent more time on it, would I really have found any pearl of great price? Morriston doesn’t even seem to understand how Craig is intending to split the horns of the dilemma by adopting a move used by Catholics and others of identifying God with ‘the Good’.

Why are love and justice and generosity and kindness and faithfulness good? What is there in the depths of reality to make them good? My own preferred answer is: Nothing further. If you like, you may say that they are the ultimate standard of goodness. What makes them the standard? Nothing further.
Possessing these characteristics just is good-making. Full stop. Is there some problem with this? Some reason to press on, looking for a ‘deeper’ answer that only theism can provide?

Morriston deserves nothing more (or less) than an incredulous stare. His answer here amounts to nothing more than naked assertion, and even if agreeable it doesn’t take the issue at hand seriously. Love, justice, generosity, kindness, and the likes of such, are valuable for us because of the kind of evolved arrangement of molecules we happen to be, but, apart from our anthropocentric preferences, what justifies calling these properties ‘objectively’ good? Nothing further – nothing further indeed.

It was bothering me so much that this article, in which I was supposedly supposed to find a substantive critique of Craig’s Divine Command Theory (DCT), contained no significant critique or insight obvious to me, that I couldn’t even get to sleep (thus I am still awake, blogging away). I decided to ask the friend who recommended the article, and it seems that what he was impressed with was the following:

The trouble [with Craig’s DCT account] is that this makes it look as if love and generosity and justice and the rest are doing all the work in the proffered account of moral goodness, leaving God no significant role to play.

So long as these properties remain anthropocentric, morality remains anthropocentric, and so long as morality remains anthropocentric moral ‘facts’ do not have an ‘objective’ foundation in reality. They are not valid and binding across all possible worlds (or, in anticipation of the claim that some possible worlds contain no sentient creatures and there are no moral facts without sentient creatures – with which I am not now agreeing but only conceding for the sake of argument – there are possible worlds where the very opposite moral facts than the ones we find to be valid and binding are true, or, I suppose, valid and binding). They are not valid and binding across all possible worlds (with sentient beings) because they are grounded in (and implicitly or explicitly issued from) a contingent and accidental nature, rather than in an incontingent nature which admits not of accident.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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