In the April 7, 2011 debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig regarding whether or not objective morality is possible without god, Craig refused to accept that an objective morality of this type is possible; in fact, he said that if there were no god, objective morality would be impossible. He believes this to such an extent that he believes the use of the terms moral or morality must be reserved to those actions based on belief in and adherence to a god – specifically, the god of the christian faith.
This post will be a direct response to Craig. Debates do not really work with people such as this. They are more concerned with saying as much as they can in favour of their own position, of convincing the audience of the epistemological advantage they have over their opponent, rather than engaging honestly with them. So, Craig, in this post I hope to evidence that we can develop an objective morality in the absence of belief in (any) god. However, before I get into the argument proper, I feel it would be appropriate to discuss what we mean when we refer to ethics and morality.
The terms ethics and morality can be used interchangeably, though use of the term morality is most often associated with the ethical codes of a particular group of people, in particular, religious groups. So in a sense, Craig is right for associating morality with a religious belief, but to say that one cannot be moral, or ethical, without a belief in god is an unfounded utterance and cannot justifiably be made; given my secular nature, I will employ the term ethics here.
Ethics is defined by www.philosophypages.com
as being concerned the evaluation of human conduct, or of evaluating what humans ought or ought not to do in general and in specific contexts. Ethical considerations are responsible for our valuations of right and wrong or good and bad. Ethical considerations govern everything from whether or not it is right or good to murder, to whether or not we should cheat on out taxes, or even if one religious group should be able to enforce their morality, regardless of its contents, upon the rest of a population who do not recognize the authority of those moral principles.
However, Craig argues that without an objective source for these ethical principles, an objective source of god, we who are immersed in the very activities we are trying to assign ethical evaluations too: agents in a subject reality cannot establish objective principles. While I will not go into an in depth discussion of this subject, I do wish to make an argument or two to demonstrate how we develop objective ethical principles.
Because we are not beginning with an assumption of a god who determines our ethics, we will use investigations of the world – what science, anthropology, history, sociology, and other disciplines. Science, for instance, reveals that human activities are causing large-scale environmental degradation – we are running out of top soil; our air is highly polluted; pesticides like DDT are present even in the polar ice caps; and, species are being hunted and fished to extinction – and that unless we change how we conduct ourselves, the earth will become toxic and incapable of sustaining life. Other disciplines like psychology and philosophy demonstrate that an entity that has interests has an interest in staying alive. We also know from these and other disciplines that entities beyond the class of humans have interests, and this includes, at minimum, other great apes and dolphins.
Given that life that has interests has an interest in staying alive, and given that species besides humans have these interests, these interests should determine how we conduct ourselves and interact with or affect the environment. Also, given our knowledge that human activities could result in the death of (nearly) all life on the planet, we must stop conducting ourselves as we have been. We must conduct ourselves in such a way that life can be maintained, if not flourish. Or, if you will, we ought to conduct ourselves in such a way that this planet remains hospitable to life.
Biology and animal psychology reveal that it is not only the human species of which some members are homosexual; other species, like dolphins, also have members who are homosexual. Furthermore, geneticists have discovered a “gay gene” demonstrating that homosexuality is more than the contents of one’s desires or beliefs; it is hardwired into who they are. We know that if we are basing or ethics on what experience and investigation reveal, then we have no justification, that is not arbitrary, to deny homosexuals the right to marry. And having no justification to deny such relationships, it would be wrong to do so. Or, if you will, we ought not to deny the validity of, nor prohibit in any way, these marriages.
These are just two examples, thought of rather on the spot, for how we can develop an objective morality without reference to, or a belief in, any god.
Others have provided arguments for ethical imperatives without making reference to god in their argument, even those who did believe in god. Kant, for instance, argued that for an action to be ethical, you must be able to will it to be a universal law, without this act of universalizing the principle ending up in contradiction. The example, commonly used, is lying. According to Kant we cannot will lying to be a universal law, because if everyone lied, lying would no longer be effective and thus redundant. On the other hand, there is no contradiction implied by universalizing the maxim that no one ever murder any other person. And Kant is but one example.
While this has been a cursory post offering an argument in favour of objective ethics not being reliant upon the existence and nature of a deity, I hope I have been successful in demonstrating my point. I would be open to discussing some of these points in more detail. Thanks for reading.