Foundation of Morality

Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? William Lain Craig vs Sam Harris)

William Lain Craig Argues:

  • If God exists then Objective moral values exist
  • If God does not exist then we have no basis for objective moral values.


Craig says that Harris rejects moral values as platonic. They must be grounded in the natural world therefor ie morality is a biological adaptation, an aid to survival and reproduction.

As Craig quotes Richard Dawkins I wonder if Richard ever regrets writing:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

Craig argues that Sam has redefined good to mean the well being of conscious creatures but why is that good? Why is human flourishing any more significant than the flourishing of wheat or corn?

Natural science tells us what is not what ought to be. If there is no God who or what impresses objective morals upon us?

He says Harris says all of our actions are caused by physical forces. How therefore asks Craig can we be responsible for our actions if they are caused by physical forces?

Craig says that he and Harris share by and large the same ethics, but he is offering Harris a basis for those ethics.


Harris “religion is not an answer…belief in God is not only unnecessary for a universal morality, it is itself a source of moral blindness”.

There are two quantities in this universe. Facts and values.


“We project our own  preferences and desires onto a reality that is intrinsically value free. Where do our notions of right and wrong come from? Clearly they have been drummed into us via evolution. The product of these apish urges and social emotions. And then they get modulated by culture.”

“Value is reduced to the well being of conscious creatures. Consciousness and wellbeing. Here is the only assumption you have to make. Image a universe were every conscious creature suffers as much as it possibly can. If the word bad applies everywhere then it applies here. If we have amoral duty to do anything it is to avoid the maximum possible misery for everyone. All other states are better. There will then be right and wrong ways to move along this continuum.”.

Science he says can address moral questions because they address all the things that effect were we are on this sliding scale. They tell you what makes things better or worse.

(Me – but he has bootstrapped morality with an assumption. Why is that better than someone else’s assumption? What  exactly is welling? Could it just be passing on your genetic material in which case killing other people’s genetic material could be a good thing as in certain species of animals? Are animals given the same weighting in this totalling up of wellbeing?)


“It is not unscientific to say that the Taliban are unscientific about morality”.

Then he asks a key question

“who are you to say someone is wrong. What is someone else has a alternative version of well being, why should we care about others welling”.

There are many ways in which my values can be judged to be right or wrong. Everyone’s opinions are not equal. It is possible to be closed to things that you would want if you were intelligent or knowledgeable enough to know about.

“You might be worried that I have not defined well being”.

Ah, yes I was. But he says it’s hard to define health but we are not tempted to attack the philosophical basis of medicine. Medicine may be based on the premise that its good to make people better. And I agree with it. But I can still ask what is the basis for that premise and people do. That is the very thing being debated.

Science is about values he says. It is based on values ie the importance of evidence. Rational thought etc.

Craig’s rebuttal:

Moral ontology (ground or foundation or morality or moral duties) must not be confused with moral semantics (what does good and bad mean). We can know the meaning of moral terms and the difference between good and evil without being aware that they are grounded in God.

“The issue in not universality (everyone agrees what is right) it is objectivity (something is right independent of our opinion of it).”

We all agree that the flourishing of conscious creatures is good. But in atheism why is that objectively good?


“Dr Harris says that the property of being good is identical with creaturely flourishing”.

Craig points out that Harris; assumption ie “If we have any moral obligation to do anything…” is dubious under atheism.


“puppets do not have moral responsibilities”.


Dr Harris’ rebuttal

Harris  “Well that was all very interesting…”

“What is wrong with spending eternity in hell…the whole point of Christianity is to safeguard the wellbeing of human souls”. He talks about how many children die when their parents are praying for God to help them. “Any God who will allow Children to die and does nothing is either impotent or evil”.

He points to the double standard that God is said to be the origin or morality and yet does so many evil things. “It is not only tiresome when intelligent people speak this way it is morally reprehensible”.

Basically Sam has a go at Christianity but as Craig points out these are red herrings unrelated to the motion on the table. Craig points out that with an atheistic world view there is no basis for good and evil and yet Harris accuses Christianity of being evil.


“there is no reason why there should not be an evil God”.

Craig kind of answers this but I didn’t really understand the full force of his answer. For me, God is just good. Somewhere the buck has to stop and morality needs to be grounded. To say that God could just as well have been evil is to miss what is going on. God is the ground for goodness. There is no other ground on which to stand on where you could judge the goodness or badness of God. God simply is good by definition and nature. To say that God could have just was well been evil is to play with words and swap their meaning. If we say Ah, but God could have been evil then we could make that charge against the basis of morality on which we are standing to make that statement. Ie why is human flourishing good? Objectively?


“Every branch of science must rely on version axiomatic assumptions…you need only assume that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding. If having a value at its core is unscientific then what is it to be scientific”…is the worst possible misery for everyone really bad? Once again we have hit a philosophical bedrock.”

Interestingly enough Sam Harris practices and teaches meditation.

I gave up taking notes because Harris was not addressing the debate question which was

Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?

He was attacking the Christian God as immoral. But of course that presupposes the answer to the question.

So bottom line: Do you think morality is grounded in

  • The mechanics of the material universe ie Evolution – moral good is based on what helps (all or a certain subset of) organisms reproduce.
  • Us –  ie a human assumption, assertion, presupposition etc that human flourishing is just good.
  • An eternal God who just is good.

One of the reasons I think the last is better is because it explains much more than morality. God is the origin of love, consciousness, relationships, meaning and purpose, beauty, the material universe etc…




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