The William Lane Craig-Sam Harris debate promised to be a better affair than last week’s Craig-Krauss debate, and it did not disappoint. It is my contention Harris, overall, did little better than Krauss.
The debate format was as follows: each speaker, beginning with Craig, had a 20-minute opening speech, followed by 12-minute rebuttals, eight-minute rebuttals, and five-minute closing arguments. The topic was: “Is God the Foundation of Good?” or “Is supernaturalism or naturalism the foundation of Good?”
As expected, Craig trotted out the moral argument behind the usual premises, with slightly different emphases. Craig made two contentions: 1. If God exists we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties, and 2. If God does not exist we do not have a sound foundation for these. Craig pointed out Harris was actually in complete agreement as to the existence of objective moral values. He also pointed out that God’s existence or non-existence is irrelevant to the debate. That is, positing God’s nonexistence is wholly compatible with belief in both of Dr. Craig’s contentions.
In support of (1), Craig brings in “perfect being theology.” If God is the perfect being, then it follows he is also morally perfect, so that his nature is the locus or grounds of that which is good. This accounts for moral values. To account for duties, Craig mentions these are derived from values rooted in God’s nature in the form of commands, or Divine Command Theory.
In defense of (2), Craig questioned the worth of humans, both collectively and individually. He mentioned the usual line about atheism’s being true means morality is really just a behavioral byproduct of evolution and not at all obligatory. Craig aptly pointed out that saying one ought to do something in order to achieve human well-being doesn’t answer, in a non-question-begging way, how this well-being grounds morality. It’s like saying “If you want to be good at growing corn, do such-and-such.” He also mentioned the “is-ought” fallacy, along with the ought-implies-can problem of naturalistic objective ethics. The best line of the night, in my opinion, was when Craig mentioned those who act immorally are doing nothing more than acting unfashionably; “The moral equivalent of Lady Gaga!”
Harris’ opening speech brought with it a concession of objective moral values’ being a societal construct. Harris mentioned these values are known through a common-sense epistemology. While Craig would likely agree (and did) that moral values are known in a variety of ways, I really wish they would have entered into the problems of such well-being utilitarianism (which Harris even mentions in the Q & A portion). For instance, if saving the life of Jim by jumping on a bomb is something you might do, yet you hold to this theory of maximizing well-being, what should you do? Suppose the world might be robbed of some great good (like an unborn descendant of yours who cures cancer) upon your death, but Jim’s death is relatively irrelevant. Or suppose the reverse. Which one is right? The problem is that if ultimate maximal well-being of human society is the objective standard, then not only is one action over another preferable, but obligatory. If you want to act in accordance with your moral “ought,” then you ought to do whichever of these is better. But you have no idea! Any extra moral standard is an arbitrary fiat: if you don’t know, save his life. But in that case you may save the life of a monster and so bring about lower well-being than before. That you didn’t know doesn’t absolve you of committing a moral evil. We may say you should not be punished (if you survive), but nevertheless you have done wrong.
Harris came off as accommodating, even friendly, in this first speech. He conducted a thought experiment whereby he says to imagine the worst possible world of suffering and pain, and asked if we have an obligation to relieve some of it. If yes, he contends, then human well-being is at the heart of the matter. It is here Harris gives his only real argument for his position, namely:
1. Moral values and obligations are mind-dependent in their grounding.
2. Minds are nature-dependent.
3. Therefore, moral values are nature-dependent.
Neither Craig nor Harris ever address this argument directly again. Craig does go on to point out free will and how no moral obligation can be placed on one who does not have this will, thus indirectly addressing the second premise. Harris provided no account for why we should believe minds are naturally-dependent, and while I believe a mind is necessary for moral truths and facts, it doesn’t at all follow that because minds exist, moral values exist. The problems raised with respect to what Craig said seem to surmount this. But there is a further problem. The way Harris framed this was in terms of necessity. If humans did not exist and the moral platonic realm is rejected by Harris, then there is both a possible world and an actual time in the actual world where moral values do not exist, even though they are posited as necessary!
In Craig’s rebuttal, he pointed out Harris had confused moral epistemology with moral semantics; Craig was not claiming if religion is false, “good” has no meaning. He illustrated this point with the concept of “light.” People knew how to speak about light and what it does (semantics) long before they understood what it really was (ontology). In the same way, people can know the good even if they do not know the ontological foundation of that good. Craig again pointed out the issue of God’s existence is a red herring with respect to Craig’s two contentions.
In response to Harris’ argument about “worst possible suffering,” he asked what makes human well-being good? This is precisely the question under debate, and Harris takes it as axiomatic. However, Craig pointed out Harris’ usage of “bad” throughout the opening speech is really non-moral. For example, when one says “you’ve made a bad move in chess,” no one takes it to also mean you’ve done something evil. He went on to give several examples of non-moral good: “the sun feels good, I’m good at basketball, that’s a good way to kill yourself, etc.”
Craig’s most powerful critique of Harris’ view that the property of being good is identical to the property of well-being is this: if rapists get well-being from inflicting pain, then there is a possible world in which the continuum of well-being is not an objectively moral landscape, and the peaks or high points of well-being could be occupied by people we call evil. But in the actual world then these are not identical; identity is a necessary relation. Since the law of identity says no entity or property is the opposite of itself in any possible world, if there is a possible world in which the rapist (who does what is evil even on Harris’ view) receives well-being, then there is a world in which well-being is not identical to good. In this case, then it is actually true (on pain of a violation of the law of identity) that the good is not identical to well-being in this actual world either.
Harris’ rebuttal was a strange, 12-minute diatribe where he offered literally zero arguments for his position. I do not mean he offered zero arguments which I found compelling or good. Just zero arguments altogether. He spent the time presenting the problem of evil and criticizing Christian particularism, both of which were irrelevant to the debate. Harris started to look angry during this portion of the debate. He also seemed to have given up the actual debate topic from here on out.
Craig pointed out that not only were no arguments offered for the naturalistic hypothesis, but that no criticisms of any of his arguments were offered as well! Craig did refer the audience to look into the critiques of Harris through Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster?. Craig contended the point of Christianity was not eternal well-being, as Harris alleged earlier. Rather, the point is to worship God on account of who he is! Harris had mentioned in his diatribe that Christians are lunatics, and Craig dismissed this as “stupid and insulting.” I don’t know that I would have said it was “stupid,” but Craig did not come off very mean-spirited (but rather annoyed).
In Harris’ second rebuttal, he accused Craig of misrepresenting him, but did not offer any explanation. Harris defaulted to claiming that if you grant him certain axioms, then his account of morality is true, in much the same way as logic or math. The problem is that people generally don’t view morality to be transcendently true based on “nothing;” further note what this is asking the audience to do: just take his word for it. Take it on faith. He relies on objective morality’s being true, but then his argument just begs the question!
In Craig’s closing, he pointed out that none of his arguments had been addressed throughout the entire debate (which is truly astounding). He also mentioned that taking objective morality on faith doesn’t get us atheistic objective grounding of morality, it just gets us morality itself! We literally have no reason to believe naturalism can account for morality’s being objective.
In Harris’ closing, he again attacks Christian particularism. He states that Craig’s arguments could be given to any God. At this point, however, he’s virtually conceded the topic (and by extension, that a morally good God exists); he’s just demanding to know which one. Both Krauss and now Harris seemingly admit to deistic views in implication; it’s just the Christian God they don’t like (along with others, no doubt).
The Q&A was not particularly interesting except for one gentleman who claimed God had appeared to him and told him homosexuality was OK. It was obviously a non-serious (and irrelevant) issue to see what Dr. Craig would say, and he wouldn’t have any of it, thankfully.
In summary, while there were times Harris scored rhetorical points (i.e., one-liners against God), these weren’t arguments. The arguments he did make were unfortunately completely irrelevant to the topic. Craig’s arguments were clearly better, and I suspect many clear-headed atheists would agree that on some kind of theism, morality may be grounded, and without theism, there’s no reason to think morality really is objective.
 There’s also the issue of the well-known “utility monster,” or even a race of such monsters. The idea is that there is a race in the galaxy of super-beings whose well-being is inextricably linked to destroying other races and causing them pain and suffering. Now suppose there are more of these beings than all other beings in the galaxy combined. On an account of ultimate well-being, not only is human suffering and misery at these monster’s hands permissible, but it is also obligatory. It is no escape to claim humans have a special place in objective morality in this case; that’s purely arbitrary (and supports subjectivism more than anything else).
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