Professor and apologist debate spiritual roots of morality

Noted Christian apologist William Lane Craig debated Joe Cruz ’91, assistant professor of philosophy, on the basis of morality in the Thompson Memorial Chapel on Feb. 19. The debate was advertised under two different titles: “Can Morality Exist Without God?” and “Is the Basis of Morality Natural or Supernatural?”

Craig is research professor of philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology and the author of Reasonable Faith and The Logic of Rational Theism. Cruz is assistant professor of philosophy at Williams and co-author of Contemporary Theories of Knowledge. Peter Feudo, associate chaplain to Catholic students, served as moderator for the debate.

During his opening remarks, Craig indicated that he would defend two contentions: first, that if theism is true, then there is a sound basis for morality; and second, that if theism is false there is no objective basis for morality and the only remaining option is moral nihilism. If there is a God, Craig said, then “[His] nature provides the absolute standard against which all morality is measured,”

His commands constitute objective moral duties, and “evil will be punished and righteousness vindicated despite the inequalities of this life.” Craig defined “objective” as that which is true and real independent of all human experience.

Craig then argued that there could be no basis for objective moral values, duties or accountability without God. “On an atheistic view, there is nothing special about human beings. . .Moral values are the byproduct of a socioevolutionary process, and any deeper meaning is illusory,” he said.

Actions like rape, which are generally accepted as immoral, would be “not socially advantageous” but not objectively wrong. Craig also claimed that if humans are nothing more than highly evolved animals, there can be no objective moral duties – and even if there were, they would “seem irrelevant because there is no accountability. If life ends at the grave then it doesn’t matter if you’re a Stalin or a saint.”

In his opening remarks, Cruz emphasized that God and moral nihilism are “not your only options. Even in the coldest universe without a God that you can think of – which I think is this one – people could still be kind, loving and gentle,” said Cruz. He pointed to two traditions in western moral philosophy: the school of Hobbes, Kant and the utilitarians, which holds that morality is “certified by the power of reason,” and the view that morality stems from natural sentiments, to which Cruz himself is more sympathetic.

Cruz criticized his opponent’s definition of objective, noting that under that definition money and culture have no objective existence. As an alternative, Cruz offered that “the operation of reason on our perception” constitutes objectivity.

In defense of the natural sentiments view of morality, Cruz said that “human beings have evolved sentiments for close kin, which have been extended to others [in society],” and that “sentiments judge themselves as morally good.”

“The environmental resource constraints that we have to deal with guarantee morality that is as real as culture and money,” Cruz said. Turning to his objections to theism, Cruz asserted – referring all the while to God in the third person feminine – that if God existed, “morality would be subject to God’s capricious and holy will.” If God had decided that inflicting pain on children was good, he argued, then it would be good only because “God’s will always triumphs.”

In conclusion, Cruz said that a belief in God’s ability to punish transgression in the afterlife leaves us with a morality based on fear. Following the opening statements, which lasted 20 minutes each, the debaters both gave 12-minute rebuttals. Craig first addressed Cruz’s evaluation of theism.

“The good is the moral character of God Himself – the attributes of God are constitutive of the good,” said Craig. He went on to assert that God’s commands are not arbitrary, but that it is “metaphysically necessary” for him to issue those commands. Craig also dismissed Cruz’s statement that belief in God leads to a morality based on fear, calling it “a caricature of the theistic lifestyle.”

Craig then criticized the natural sentiments viewpoint, charging Hobbes, Kant and Cruz with “specie-ism” – a belief in the uniqueness of humans that cannot be justified in the atheistic worldview – and declaring that the natural sentiments theory is “precisely the affirmation that moral values are subjective.”

During his rebuttal, Cruz asked, “Why think that our moral questions only answer to a standard that is transcendent? Why not look to us?”

He argued that “the humanistic view does secure a foundation [for morality]” because “we are accountable to one another – our friends, our family and people in our culture.”

Cruz attacked the theistic view on the grounds that God cannot be held accountable for his actions. If one admits that God is accountable to no one, Cruz said, then there is no reason to reject the humanistic view on the grounds that it does not ensure a sense of moral accountability.

The debaters were then granted eight-minute second rebuttals. Craig first responded to Cruz’s question about God’s moral accountability. He argued that God does not have moral duties because things that we consider to be moral, such as kindness and justice, are his nature.

Craig then articulated more reasons for his opposing the natural sentiments theory. He said that “moral duties become social conventions, like traffic laws, that could easily be reversed.” Thus, Craig asserted, social conventions “cannot be discredited from within” and therefore “we need a transcendent vantage point.”

In his final rebuttal, Cruz reemphasized his assertion that the theistic view leads to an arbitrary morality. “God is identical to the good, but couldn’t God have been identical to something else? . . . Why not think that God is identical to my foot?” he quipped.

Cruz dismissed Craig’s claim that the natural sentiments theory reduces morality to social conventions. Rather, he said, “[morality is] a product of the kind of creatures we are. It demeans my view to reduce it to social convention . . . [it is] not the case that [sentiments] are socially negotiated.”

Cruz and Craig were each granted a five-minute closing statement, during which each summarized his view and made a final appeal to the audience. During a question-and-answer session, students grilled Craig on his definition of God and Cruz on the possibility of differing moral sentiments.

After the debate, students generally agreed that both sides were well argued but that neither debater convincingly discredited the other.

“I enjoyed the debate between Professor Cruz and Dr. Craig,” said Adrian Dowst ’04. “Each did a good job arguing his side, though the rhetorical styles used by Dr. Craig and Professor Cruz were as different as the positions they supported. I think each debater le
veled good criticism against the other, but that Dr. Craig and Professor Cruz didn’t adequately respond to these attacks. In general, I believe you left with the opinion you came in with (theistic, atheistic, or undecided), but that certainly doesn’t mean it was a waste of the evening.”

The debate was sponsored by the Williams Christian Fellowship, the Williams College Debate Union, the philosophy department, the religion department, the Feast, the Muslim Students Union, the Newman Catholic Association, the office of the chaplains, and the office of the deans.