I recently listened to the debate between William Lane Craig and Arif Ahmed which took place at Cambridge University a few years ago. One of the points of contention was the moral argument and specifically whether there are objective moral values.
I noticed that Luke Muehlhauer on his website ‘Common Sense Atheism’ was full of praise for Ahmed’s response to Craig’s moral argument and he has not been alone in doing so. He says:
“His response to Craig’s moral argument, in particular, is perfect: “Dr. Craig says that objective moral values exist, and I think we all know it. Now that might pass for an argument at Talbot Theological Seminary, and it might pass for an argument in the White House, but this is Cambridge, and it will not pass for an argument here.””
During this debate this response evokes applause from some in the audience (it’s hard to tell how many but some do as the recording shows) and it’s not hard to think of many plausible reasons why. It is certainly a wonderful rhetorical flourish given where the debate is taking place.
Now perhaps we should go back to Craig’s opening statement on the moral argument to see if Ahmed passes the test of representing his opponent fairly?
Once he has stated his famous syllogistic argument Craig does indeed state that “deep down” everyone recognizes that there are objective moral facts [13:50]. For the record I think that Craig is mistaken on this point. Neither do I think that everyone knows there are objective moral facts and neither do I agree that this makes an argument. So I am not sympathetic to this point. However… Craig did not finish there. He gives two other reasons.
Craig then states that there are no better reasons for denying the reality of objective moral values than there are for denying the reality of the physical world. As I have pointed out in previous posts on the moral argument this is a move many atheist philosophers also make when defending moral realism. They think it is the default position (just as there being a real world is) and that the burden falls upon the non-realist to make their case. Unfortunately it appears Ahmed missed this and made absolutely no mention of it in his response. I have noted this quotation in a previous blog but it’s worth raising again here given Ahmed’s remarks about Cambridge. Here is an atheist philosopher agreeing with Craig’s view that moral realism (that there are objective moral facts) is the default position and non-realism is the revisionist theory:
“Moral judgements express normative claims about what we should do and care about. As such, they presuppose standards of behaviour and concern, and that we might fail to accept or live up to. Normativity, therefore, presupposes fallibility, and fallibility implies objectivity. Of course, this presupposition could be mistaken. There might be no objective moral standards. Our moral thinking and discourse might be systematically mistaken. But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable. In the meantime, we should treat the objectivity of ethics as a kind of default assumption or working hypothesis.”
(David Brink, ‘The Autonomy of Ethics’ in
‘The Cambridge Companion to Atheism’ ed. Michael Martin, 2007)
Please note the irony in that this quotation comes from no less than the ‘Cambridge Companion to Atheism’! Also worthy of note is that Brink’s classic defense of moral realism called ‘Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics’ was actually published by Cambridge University Press in 1989.
Then Craig gives examples of actions which all of us tend to think are objectively wrong (an argument from moral experience):
“Actions like rape, cruelty and child abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behaviour – they’re moral abominations.”
Now there are, in my opinion, some other reasons for holding to moral realism other than the ones Craig gives but was Ahmed fair in his appraisal? It appears to me not and here are four reasons why.
Firstly, either through neglect or deliberate misdirection, he presented an unfair summary of Craig’s case for moral realism. He focused on one tiny phrase and failed to address the other points. Craig had given a reason for thinking moral realism is true in that no-one appears ready to argue that rape is morally ambiguous and judgements about it are individual preferences / subjective. This is surely what Ahmed would need to do in order to give reasons for thinking moral non-realism is true and yet he does not do so.
Secondly Ahmed gives absolutely no reasons whatsoever for thinking that moral non-realism is true! After having publicly chastised Craig for not giving good enough reasons for thinking moral realism is true (based on a poor summary as I have noted) he then gave absolutely no reason whatsoever why someone should be a moral non-realist. A saying about kettles and pots comes to mind.
Ahmed holds to a version of moral non-realism which he also did not defend anywhere in the debate. Ahmed was interviewed by ‘Rationalhub.com’ in the November of 2012 and he stated that his “sympathies” lie with John Mackie’s ‘error theory’. Error theory is a cognitivist (moral judgements are truth-apt), non-realist metaethical theory which holds that all moral judgements are false.
In the phil papers online survey conducted in 2009 Ahmed described himself as “leaning toward” moral realism.
Since this survey can be updated at any time, however, I cannot state when Ahmed considered himself as leaning toward moral realism. All that can be known is that at some point between debating Craig and today that Ahmed has leaned toward moral realism (unless he made a mistake when completing the survey of course). Since I have found nothing which suggests Ahmed has changed his mind since his interview of November 2012 I will take Mackie’s view to be his current view. Whatever Ahmed’s non-realist proposal was while debating Craig it will remain a mystery since he never defended it explicitly and this is ironic given his attempted lecturing of Craig’s debate etiquette.
Now as I listen to Ahmed’s second reply to Craig on the moral argument [which begins @ exactly 1 hr in] it appears that Ahmed perhaps WAS leaning toward moral realism at the time this debate took place. This is because he replies by suggesting that “even if” he was a moral non-realist he could know that any moral theory which defends sending children across a minefield as objective good is wrong! (This view would be incompatible with being an error theorist as I will point out later.) But in claiming that certain things are not morally right (under any circumstances – since he gives no circumstance when it could be right) he is claiming that certain things must be morally wrong transcendent of time and cultures but then he is committed to moral realism (or, at least, leaning toward moral realism which his phil papers survey confirms he has held to at some point). So it still appears that Ahmed is very sympathetic toward moral realism and if that is the case then he appears to be playing devil’s advocate in the debate rather than seriously doubting one of the premises of the argument.
In his debate with Glenn Peoples on the show ‘Unbelievable’ which took place in October of 2010 Ahmed again described himself as sceptical of moral realism and he took the view, in that debate, that there are no moral facts because he did not see sufficient empirical evidence for there being moral facts (which is, frankly, a most bizarre reason for doubting moral realism and one which most philosophers would not adhere to).
I am not claiming Ahmed is discredited because he has changed his view, or because he holds to a very radical and minority non-realist ethical theory by following along with Mackie. What should be noted is that Ahmed appears to think the burden of proof lies on the realist and that his own version of moral non-realism requires little, if any, justification in order to be taken as rational. This is a double standard especially when one considers that there are far more professional philosophers who are convinced of moral realism than there are professional philosophers who think Mackie’s error theory is correct. Ahmed has not faced the burden of his own epistemic duties.
PS. The ‘Pro-Life Humanists’ website has an article written in May of 2013 which claims that philosopher Arif Ahmed is pro-life. Ahmed might explain this by claiming he is only “concerned” about the amount of abortions taking place on a practical basis but one would be left wondering how concerned he could possibly be if he would denounce the claim “Late-term abortions permitted on the basis of a lifestyle choice are wrong.” as false (which he would have to do as an error theorist)! One also wonders whether the Pro-Life Humanists would be as keen to have him gives talks on this subject if that view became known.
PPS. It’s also hard to see how Arif Ahmed’s support for the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain is consistent with his version of non-realism.
Thirdly, as Craig himself noted in his first reply, Ahmed cannot possibly simultaneously claim there is such a thing as objective evil and be a non-realist about morality and he cannot use what he obviously sees as factually wrong behaviour endorsed by divine edicts from the Old Testament as evidence against God unless he is affirming there are moral facts and therefore moral realism is true. Certainly now that Ahmed is an error theorist he must be committed to the view that all moral statements are false and therefore it is false to say “If God commands the killing of innocent people that is morally wrong.” Of course, that does not mean Ahmed would have to think it were right either but what he cannot do is insist that any moral evaluation about God’s morality is true.
Fourthly, if the argument that epistemic duties are objective therefore moral duties are also objective works (as I suggest it does in my blog ‘A Case for Moral Realism’ and which many philosophers think is a good reason for thinking moral realism to be true) then Ahmed’s suggestion that Craig failed to meet certain objective epistemic duties also erodes his claim that there are no objective moral duties.
Arif Ahmed has received huge praise from atheist laymen on how he dealt with Craig’s moral argument. I have, by contrast, offered four reasons why such praise appears quite empty and, in my opinion, demonstrates the shallowness of thinking on ethical matters by many atheist laypeople.
I seriously doubt that most atheist laypeople hold to Mackie’s error theory (or even know what it is for that matter) since most of them like to use arguments which presuppose moral realism in order to doubt the existence of God [that is to say they often employ arguments based on the idea that there really is objective moral evil and that Yahweh is guilty of such evil]. It might be of interest to such atheists to learn that Ahmed’s view is that all moral statements are false. Notice that at 1 hour into the debate Ahmed says this:
“I move on now to the second the argument I gave concerning the idea that religious belief would warp our moral values. And here Dr. Craig believes he’s caught me in a bind because he says that, well, I said I didn’t believe in objective moral values so how can I say, for example, that sending Iranian children across a minefield is objectively wrong? I needn’t say anything of the sort! As far as this argument goes all I need to say is the following: Even if I didn’t believe in objective moral values what I do know is this; if there are objective moral values they aren’t ones that are going to make something like that right. So if God exists those things are objectively right therefore God doesn’t exist.”
But now that Ahmed is an error theorist he cannot possibly use such an argument since he thinks that all moral pronouncements are false. It should also be quite obvious that it certainly does not follow that if moral realism is true and that divine command theory is the best basis for moral realism that things like sending children to their deaths in minefields is moral. That simply does not follow at all and Ahmed makes no argument for why it would follow either.
Ahmed gave a sermonette just before this [c.58 minutes] by saying that talking about morality was not a game and that academics should not play parlour games. This appears to be quite a hollow chastizement now since it is the error theorist, and not the moral realist, who would have problems with moral declarations about the rightness or wrongness of the holocaust (I pick that because Ahmed uses it). A Christian theologian has suggested that any decent theodicy needs to be one which could be given at the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp. I think the same is true for moral theories. I think moral theories should be able to be given, without embarrassment from such a place. Would Ahmed really be able to stand there and claim that the truth claim “This was morally wrong.” is false? Reflection on these matters might give some atheists a moment of pause before claiming Ahmed destroyed the moral argument as many of them are inclined to do.
NB. All references to time above come from this upload of the debate:
Here is the debate between Arif Ahmed and Glenn Peoples: