Did William Lane Craig smear Sam Harris? A response to Chris Hallquist

Posted on 01/11/13 52 Comments

In the discussion thread for my article “Would you want an atheist for a neighbor?” R0c1 took issue with my suggestion that William Lane Craig was worth reading. He pointed to Chris Hallquist as one who had persuaded him that “Craig is not a trustworthy source of information on the subjects he debates.” And he provided a link to an essay by Hallquist. I appreciate Hallquist’s work here, and I think he has clearly established that Craig sometimes speaks incautiously and sometimes says things that are inaccurate. But I don’t think the essay establishes that Craig is so unreliable a resource on the matters he addresses that he cannot be read for profit. Indeed, I think that aspects of Hallquist’s analysis reflect that one-sided case building procedure which arises from motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. To illustrate my point I’ll focus on the section of the essay where Hallquist critiques Craig’s interaction with Sam Harris.

The section begins with Hallquist quoting Sam Harris in his debate with Craig:

“We are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude… it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the, from the well-being of human beings. It, this so easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. Ok, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr. Craig can s—can say against their behavior, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God. If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.

“Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr. Craig, or all religious people, are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own.”

Hallquist then comments on this excerpt:

“You can debate the words “psychopathic” and “psychotic,” but otherwise what Harris says is an indisputably accurate description of Craig’s moral view.”

I have a degree in English literature so I’d like to think I have some ability to find the topic sentence of a paragraph. And in this case the main point seems to be that Craig’s moral belief is “psychopathic and psychotic”. So when Hallquist says we can debate the use of those words he’s saying we can debate the charge itself which is to say we can debate the substance of the whole paragraph.

Harris could have said that Craig’s beliefs evince a denial of moral knowledge which constitutes a case of self-imposed moral retardation. This would be a strong charge but it would also be a defensible one. But instead he invoked a charge which is both emotional and, based on the evidence provided, inaccurate. More on that in a moment.

Hallquist then quotes Craig’s response to the Harris charge in a post-debate debriefing:

“[Harris] also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things. Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting. It is absurd to think that Peter van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr. Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic. Uh, this is simply, uh, below the belt.”

Is Craig’s description of Harris’ comment in this excerpt uncharitable or misleading? I don’t think so. Harris says that Craig’s moral view was psychopathic and psychotic and Craig repeated that charge and pointed out that it was “stupid”, “insulting” and “absurd” .That seems like a fair commentary.

So I am completely at a loss to explain Hallquist’s roaring moral indignation to Craig’s response. He writes:

“This is a disgusting smear against Harris, and I am sickened and angered every time I think about it. Harris explicitly said that he was not saying what Craig insinuates he was saying.”

Why is Hallquist “sickened” and “angered”? He doesn’t say but I take it he’s referring to Harris’ appended caveat: “Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr. Craig, or all religious people, are psychopaths and psychotics….” But Craig never said that Harris said he was a psychopath. Rather, Craig accurately describes Harris’ charge that his view is psychopathic. Harris never retreats from that claim. He simply clarifies that having a psychopathic tendency is not sufficient to make one a psychopath. And this is indeed true. Psychopathy is diagnosed based on scoring Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist of twenty traits. Evincing one trait isn’t sufficient to make one a psychopath.

So then let us ask: Does Craig’s ethical view evince at least one psychopathic trait? Unfortunately for Harris, the answer is a resounding no. If you read through the twenty traits on the Psychopathy Checklist you’ll find qualities like callousness, shallow effect, grandiose sense of self-worth, and lack of empathy. But you won’t find adherence to a divine command theory of meta-ethics among them.

This means that Harris was clearly incorrect to accuse Craig of having a psychopathic trait in virtue of the meta-ethical theory he defends. And that’s no small error. It’s not far off falsely accusing somebody of having a “pedophilic tendency”. So where’s the outrage at this smear of Craig?

Hallquist might reply that Harris wasn’t intending to charge Craig with scoring high in one trait on the Psychopathy Checklist. He was merely speaking rhetorically when he called Craig’s views psychopathic. But that’s hardly a defense of Harris. Here’s the dilemma for Hallquist: Harris’ psychopathic charge is either both false and grossly incompetent or it is a cheap, immoral smear on Craig’s person which is intended to win rhetorical points. Since Harris seems to be a very competent individual — he is, after all, one of the four horsemen of the atheistic apocalypse — I am going to assume that he wasn’t that grossly incompetent. And that means that he was probably invoking the charge of psychopathic tendency as a smear which, as I said, is immoral.

Let’s summarize things so far. Our story begins with Harris smearing Craig. Craig responds by accurately describing (and protesting) the smear. And Hallquist then accuses Craig of smearing Harris! How’s that for ironic?

This is serious business, this matter of Harris smearing Craig and Hallquist distorting his whole account of the situation. It convinces me that Harris and Hallquist were both uncharitable to Craig’s views. But this hardly means I’m going to say I won’t read Harris or Hallquist anymore. Nobody’s perfect, and each of them clearly got swept up in the moment and let their prejudices get the best of them. But we can still read them and benefit from them just like we can still read and benefit from Craig despite his own imperfections.

 

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  • AdamHazzard

    You’re assuming Harris’s claim is that adherence to a divine-command ethos is psychopathic. (For instance, when you point out that “adherence to a divine-command theory of meta-ethics” isn’t a symptom of psychopathy.)

    Contrarily, I assumed Harris meant that the divine-command ethic itself is analogous to psychopathy (for its “total detachment from the well-being of human beings” and because it “rationalizes the slaughter of children”) — quite a different contention, and hardly a “cheap, immoral smear on Craig’s person.”

    In other words, Harris wasn’t calling Craig mashugana, he was calling the divine-command ethos mashugana. The distinction is right there in Harris’s topic sentence: He’s characterizing “a moral attitude” for its implications, not a person who holds it.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      “I assumed Harris meant that the divine-command ethic itself is analogous to psychopathy….”

      Your interpretation is incoherent. It wouldn’t be the theory which is psychopathic (or analogously psychopathic) but rather the holding of the theory. Hare’s criteria are only psychopathic as mental states that characterize individuals. There is no meaning to saying that they are psychopathic traits apart from minds. But congratulations for demonstrating how implausible motivated reasoning can get in presenting a contrived defense.

      Moreover, there is no analogy between meta-ethical theories of moral value and moral obligation and any of the twenty points on Hare’s checklist. So basically you’re trying to defend Sam Harris by embracing the “ignorance and incompetence” horn of the dilemma.

      • AdamHazzard

        A moral theory that detaches the idea of goodness from any benefit to humanity and attaches it to obedience to alleged “divine commands” justifies behavior that is analogous to psychopathy. (Whether you agree with that contention or not, it seems absolutely clear that this is the point Harris is making.)

        “Implausible motivated reasoning” better describes the attempt to divert an attack on an idea by portraying it as an attack on a person.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          On your view, Harris is claiming that any meta-ethic which does not adopt a species relativistic account of moral value and moral obligation (where that species is Homo sapiens) is psychopathic. On this account Plato and Aristotle’s ethical theories, and virtually all that come after them, are analogously psychopathic. That’s a completely crazy claim.

          • AdamHazzard

            Yes, that would be a completely crazy claim. It’s also a bizarre mischaracterization.

            The claim is that a divine-command ethos offers moral justification to acts that in any other context we would call psychopathic.

            But we weren’t discussing whether Harris’s claim was true; we were discussing whether he had “smeared” Craig.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              “The claim is that a divine-command ethos offers moral justification to acts that in any other context we would call psychopathic.”

              That’s not the claim you gave in your last comment. In your previous comment you said “A moral theory that detaches the idea of goodness from any benefit to humanity and attaches it to obedience to alleged “divine commands” justifies behavior that is analogous to psychopathy.” Except for species-relativistic accounts of meta-ethics, no meta-ethical theory does what you propose in that sentence. Now you offer a new claim which concerns not meta-ethics but normative ethics. When it shifts to normative ethics it becomes irrelevant since Craig’s divine command theory is a meta-ethical account.

              So you’re still left saying that Harris is incompetent and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

              By the way, Dawkins has denied that either good or evil exist on several occasions. Is his view psychopathic as well? Or does that only work for theists?

              • AdamHazzard

                Are we still talking about whether Harris “smeared” Craig?

                Any answer to the question of whether the commands of God are morally obligatory will go beyond meta-ethics to normative ethics. The distinction Harris is making might be better illustrated with a parable:

                An atheist and a divine-command theorist are approached by someone who says to them, “God is telling me to kill my child. Am I crazy?”

                The atheist doesn’t hesitate. “Yes! You need to seek help immediately!”

                While the divine-command theorist shuffles his feet and says, “Well, that depends. Is your name Abraham?”

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  So let’s see, you started at meta-ethics. Then you shifted to normative ethics. Now you’re talking about psychological diagnostics?! Adam, you’re all over the map.

                  Listen, meta-ethical theories are not psychopathic and they’re not “anaologously” psychopathic anymore than a philosophical theory of love can itself be “pedophilic” or “analogously pedophilic”. And so to invoke a charge of psychopathy is a shameful attempt to obscure the relevant issue by invoking a rhetorical insult.

                  Like I said, Harris did the wrong thing, and Hallquist did the wrong thing by defending his behavior. But let’s be honest with ourselves. We’re all guilty of similar behavior in our lesser moments. So let’s call a spade a spade and get on with our day.

                  • AdamHazzard

                    The parable isn’t about “diagnostics,” it’s about about the divine-command theorist’s inability to rule out the necessity or “goodness” of someone killing their child on the perceived command of God. But by all means, yes, let’s get on with our day.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Now you’ve shifted from psychological diagnostics to moral epistemology. These are all separate issues and are quite distinct from theories of meta-ethics.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      Randal, every definition I’ve seen of “divine command theory” is roughly equivalent, so let me quote Wikipedia’s:

                      Divine command theory is a meta-ethical theory which proposes that an action’s status as morally good is equivalent to whether it is commanded by God. The theory asserts that what is moral is determined by what God commands, and that to be moral is to follow his commands.

                      Under that definition, the divine-command theorist’s inability to rule out the necessity or “goodness” of someone killing their child on the perceived command of God is very pertinent indeed.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Adam, the fact that one holds a divine command meta-ethical theory of ethical value or ethical obligation (or both) completely underdetermines one’s normative ethic, one’s moral epistemology and one’s psychological diagnostics.

                      For example, one could be a divine command theory ethicist and believe that God’s command across all possible worlds is that the killing of innocent childred is always wrong (except, perhaps, in forced situations like a fetus that threatens the life of the mother).

                      You certainly can raise separate objections to Craig’s moral epistemology and his normative ethical theory. And I’d probably be very sympathetic with some of those criticisms. But those would be completely different issues from his meta-ethic.So we’re back once again to Harris either as ignorant or deliberately misrepresenting Craig’s views. And we’re back to saying that Hallquist was quite wrong to be offended at Craig. His critique should have been directed toward Harris.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      That’s a telling turn of phrase — under divine command theory, one could “believe that God’s command across all possible worlds is that the killing of innocent children is always wrong.”

                      But that means the goodness is not inherent in refraining from killing children; the goodness is inherent in obeying God.

                      And while such a person certainly could hold the belief you describe (that God commanded the killing of children to be wrong), one could equally well hold that killing children is good if it is commanded by God. And this isn’t some distant philosophical abstraction. It describes events (killings committed by people who are certain that God commanded their acts) that happen in our world on a distressingly regular basis.

                      Which is what Harris was saying.

                    • Tim

                      Adam,

                      Randal’s obviously valid point is that it’s not “psychopathic” in any sense of the word (analogously or otherwise) to be a divine command theorist and that Harris was indulging in a cheap smear against Craig when he said as much.

                    • Tim

                      If all Harris “was saying” was that some divine command theorists have demonstrated themselves capable of engaging in psychopathic behavior then not even Craig would object to that, but that’s not what Harris “was saying.” Rather, Harris “was saying” that it’s psychopathic to be a divine command theorist, which is plainly ridiculous.

                    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

                      As an aside, while a divine command theory of ethical value is possible, it seems odd, even on the assumption that God exists, to say that God commands something to be morally valuable. It seems it would be more natural to say that God values something and it is valuable. In other words, the more natural verb in this context is “value,” not “command.”

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      It seems to me that a divine command theory of moral obligation is more plausible than a divine command theory of moral value. However, the latter may not be quite as implausible as it looks at first blush if we keep in mind that language is being used analogically here. It is not as if the claim is that God literally performed a speech act which thereby constituted the moral value of various acts and states of affairs.

                    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

                      I don’t know if I can agree that the language of divine commands is being used analogically here. I thought the whole point of Divine Will Theory and its variants (such as Divine Desire Theory, Divine Intention Theory, Divine Motivation Theory), was to emphasize that that deontological properties are grounded in God’s will, without requiring that God’s will be expressed in the form of commands.

                • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

                  Sam Harris aside, I love the parable. I just blogged it. It would be most interesting to learn if divine command theorists feel this is an accurate representation of their views.

                  • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                    I would accept that divine commands constitute moral obligations but not moral value. And based on my views I’d automatically conclude that the person was cognitively malfunctioning.

                    Bill Craig would also believe that the person was cognitively malfunctioning since he doesn’t believe God would command this anymore.

                    Are there some divine command theorists who might be unsure. There may be, but if so then their lack of conviction is not because they’re divine command theorists.

                    As for the atheists, it is trivially the case that no atheist would think God was commanding it since they don’t believe in God. The deeper question is how many atheists would think it is an objective moral evil (i.e. that it is morally evil irrespective of what any human being thinks about the event) that the child would be killed under those conditions.

                    As a result, I don’t find this illustration providing any illumination to how anybody’s metaethical theory relates to their normative or applied ethical theories.

                    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

                      Randal,

                      “And based on my views I’d automatically conclude that the person was cognitively malfunctioning.”

                      I don’t know your views, so I’ll write about this in the third person. If a person is a divine command theorist, by definition that person believes that divine commands are a necessary and sufficient condition for moral obligation. If that is an accurate summary of DCT (and I think it is), then the parable seems on the right track. The only relevant question is whether purported divine commands came from God.

                      In the case of Bill Craig, you write, “Bill Craig would also believe that the person was cognitively malfunctioning since he doesn’t believe God would command this anymore.” I’m not sure the parable can be dismissed so quickly (or easily). This seems to take us back to the ending of the parable, which has the theist/divine command theorist trying to identify which God issued the command. You seem to take this just a tiny step further by raising the question, “If it is purported to be a command from the Christian god, what’s the likelihood that the command really did come from the Christian God?” It seems like the parable is still reasonably accurate. Or have I missed something?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “It seems like the parable is still reasonably accurate. Or have I missed something?”

                      Imagine if I told a story where a Republican and a Democrat are walking down the street and pass a homeless person. The Democrat shakes his head and says we need to raise taxes on the rich. But the Republican takes the man, buys him lunch, cleans him up, and helps him start a small business. Would you think that was a helpful exploration of the contrasts between Republicans and Democrats? Of course not. You can tell any story and slot in the right “atheist” and the right “theist” to do what you want to make your point.

                      The scenario seems to think that divine commands come to people willy nilly out of the blue like “Go get me a beer from the fridge.”

                      I think divine commands, which are reflective of God’s perfect moral nature, come to us primarily through a form of general revelation which we grasp through moral perception (or moral intuition). Moral perception is not infallible, but that is a problem everybody must face. I read scripture through the lenses of this God-given moral perception and within scripture I read Jesus voice and life as the authoritative norming norm. His command for us to take up our cross daily in lives of self-abnegation and service are reflective of the divine nature.

                      So let’s say that there are rumblings of genocide in a troubled region. The atheist is swept up in the emotional fervor as he joins the chanting mob that we need to purge the land of “outsiders”. In contrast, the Christian believes he has a moral law written on his heart (Romans 2:14-15) which was embodied in the life of Jesus and which affirms that genocide is always a moral atrocity and that he must defend the weak and oppressed at all costs.

                    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

                      Contrary to what you suggest, however, this parable does not assume that “divine commands come to people willy nilly out of the blue.” The reference to Abraham should have been a clue. If we modify the parable to clarify that the divine command theorist is either a Jewish or Christian theist, then there is nothing “willy nilly” about the parable for the simple reason that the Old Testament teaches that God, in fact, commanded Abraham to kill Isaac.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Like many Christians I don’t think God would command devotional child killing. So I would have a defeater to any such claims. I make that case in several places. For example:

                      http://randalrauser.com/2012/08/what-god-could-and-couldnt-do-a-conversation-with-jerry-shepherd/

                      http://randalrauser.com/2010/11/an-update-in-the-wake-of-atlanta-plus-a-bit-on-rape-and-child-killing/

                      What about Christians who believe God did command the sacrifice of Isaac? All the Christians I’ve ever spoken with who took that view believed it (“it” being the Akedah) was an exceptional prolepsis of atonement and thus God would never command such a thing now. So they would also have a defeater for any such claim.

                    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

                      Did Abraham have a defeater when he got the command from God? If not, why?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      If Abraham had properly functioning moral perception he may have had a defeater to the perceived command. But that defeater may have been suppressed based on a plausibility framework in which devotional child killing was considered a viable cultic practice in properly relating to divine beings.

                    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

                      “If Abraham had properly functioning moral perception he may have had a defeater to the perceived command.” This strikes me as an ad hoc reply. Jewish and Christian theism hold that Abraham was created in the image of God. If that is so, Abraham’s “moral perception” was created by God. And if that is so, then we have reason to expect that God would have designed his moral perception such that he would recognize the authenticity of divine commands, even including seemingly abhorrent ones.

                      As an aside: I take it that you add the qualifier “perceived” to “command” because you either deny the historicity of the account or you are at least skeptical about it?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “This strikes me as an ad hoc reply.”

                      Why? The fallbiilty of moral perception is a fact no moral objectivist can deny straight from the Nazis down to the rationalizations Bob invokes to justify “borrowing” a stapler from work.

                      As for your aside, Christians disagree about the extent to which the account is historical. My arguments aim to provide reasonable grounds for a Christian to conclude that regardless of whatever else they say about the Akedah, they have reasons internal to and consistent with their Christian faith to believe that God didn’t ever command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

                    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

                      “Why? The fallbiilty of moral perception is a fact no moral
                      objectivist can deny straight from the Nazis down to the
                      rationalizations Bob invokes to justify “borrowing” a stapler from work.”

                      I think you may have misunderstood me (in turn because I may not have been very clear :) ). I agree with you that people’s moral perceptions are fallible. The fact that we have fallible moral perception hardly exhausts what we know about the reliability of moral perception, however. We also, apparently, have fallible moral perception regarding apparently divine commands. While I agree with you that the fallibility of moral perception is no problem for moral objectivism, it is a problem for divine command theorists. Why, if theism plus the divine command theory is true, would God allow us to have a fallible moral perception regarding His own commands? What possible morally sufficient reason could there be for allowing that state of affairs to obtain? Prior to examining the data, theism plus the divine command theory “predicts” that people will, at least, accurately perceive God’s moral commands.

                      This is what I mean when I say that it is ad hoc to suggest that Abraham may have had a defeater for his belief that God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “Why, if theism plus the divine command theory is true, would God allow us to have a fallible moral perception regarding His own commands? What possible morally sufficient reason could there be for allowing that state of affairs to obtain?”

                      I don’t see why the divine command theory of moral value is relevant to this. The divine command theory is intended to provide a general account of moral obligation, not one that applies merely to a subset of divine directions like “Go become a missionary in China”. And in that respect you could drop the theory altogether and simply ask why God allows human beings to misperceive their moral obligations whether or not those obligations are constituted by divine commands.

                  • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

                    Well a cursory reading of both Adams, Quinn, Craig and Evans would make it pretty clear the parable is not an accurate representation of there views.

                    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

                      I agree because the authors you mention are modified divine command theorists. I took the parable to be about (unmodified) divine command theorists (aka voluntarists).

          • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

            AddamHazzard’s claim (about Harris’ view) required two conditions for a moral theory to justify behavior that is analogous to psychopathy:

            1. It detaches the idea of goodness from any benefit to humanity.

            2. It attaches the idea of goodness to obedience to alleged ‘divine commands’.

            I’m not entirely sure how you construct ‘species relativistic’ accounts, but in any event, an account that meets condition 1. but not condition 2. would not meet the proposed criterion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ashetalia-Staatz/100001792695528 Ashetalia Staatz

    Morality is subjective, not universal. Craig’s take could have flown a hundred years ago. However, times have changed. Now it sounds almost psychopathic in its cruelty.

    I think Harris was simply outraged. He was pointing out the cruelty in the words, not making an official diagnosis. You’re finding excuses for deflection. What Craig said was by contemporary standards of morality psychopathic. That doesn’t mean Craig himself is a psychopath.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I think Craig’s defense of biblical genocides is terrible and I’ve repeatedly critiqued such defenses in print. But the way you critique such views is through careful, reasoned argument based on the strength of powerful moral intuitions. You don’t do it by invoking emotive epithets that merely obscure the real issues. When Harris called Craig’s views psychopathic he set aside the precision rifle in favor of the musket. And if there is ever a time where we need to be precise in our language it is in a formal debate.

  • christthetao

    “Since Harris seems to be a very competent individual — he is, after all, one of the four horsemen of the atheistic apocalypse . . . ”

    Your argument seemed pretty logical until you said this. :- )

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Maybe I drank too much of the village atheist Kool-Aid.

      • Ray Ingles

        Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to be atheists who coined that ‘four horsemen’ cognomen…

  • AdamHazzard

    This has turned into an interesting discussion, and I wish I had time to follow it more closely. Alas, I don’t, but I’ll throw out one more comment and let others knock it down or build on it if they wish.

    Harris appears to be claiming that a divine-command ethos can lead to a chain of reasoning that justifies self-evidently wrong behavior, viz:

    1.Obeying the commandments of God is the highest good.

    2. If I become aware of a direct commandment of God, it is good to obey it.

    3. I am completely convinced that God wants me to detonate a bomb in the lobby of a Hilton Hotel.

    4. Therefore it is good that I commit this act.

    Self-evidently, some people do reason this way. Harris is deriding divine-command theory for endorsing the first premise, which he sees as unnecessary, untrue, and enabling.

    Randal objects that this takes us out of the realm of meta-ethics (the premise) into normative ethics (what exactly would God have us do?), epistemology (do I really know this is what God wants?) and psychology (am I crazy?). As Randal correctly points out, “the fact that one holds a divine command meta-ethical theory of ethical value or ethical obligation (or both) completely underdetermines one’s normative ethic, one’s moral epistemology and one’s psychological diagnostics.”

    But this is true only if our knowledge of God’s commandments is incomplete. Under divine command, perfect understanding of the will of God would translate into a completely determined system of normative ethics. (Which, under free will, we would nevertheless have the option of disobeying.)

    And if we cannot know God’s commandments with certainty, divine command not only does not but cannot have anything persuasive to say about normative behavior.

    In other words, a universe in which divine command defines the good but divine commandments are hidden is indistinguishable from one in which there is no divine command. It connects us to no “objective” morality, and it leaves believers in the same position as non-believers: forced to work out practical behavior based on fuzzy moral intuition, elementary concepts of fairness, a necessary dollop of abstract reasoning, and a full measure of empathy and altruism.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      “Harris appears to be claiming that a divine-command ethos can lead to a chain of reasoning that justifies self-evidently wrong behavior”

      This is true of any ethical (or meta-ethical) theory! Consider the deontologist who cannot lie to the Nazis that Jews are hiding in the basement, or the utilitarian who hangs the innocent man to quell the mob.

      “Under divine command, perfect understanding of the will of God would translate into a completely determined system of normative ethics.”

      I’m not familiar with any divine command theorists who make this claim.

      • AdamHazzard

        It’s my claim; I don’t attribute it to divine command theorists. Consider:

        If an action’s status as morally good is equivalent to whether it is commanded by God, we can only know an action to be morally good to the degree that we know it was commanded by God. If our knowledge of God’s commands were perfect, we would know the moral status of any action. If our knowledge of God’s commands is imperfect or unreliable, our knowledge of the moral status of any action must therefore be imperfect and unreliable.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          “If an action’s status as morally good is equivalent to whether it is commanded by God, we can only know an action to be morally good to the degree that we know it was commanded by God.”

          That’s incorrect. You can know that p is wrong without knowing how you know p is wrong or what it is that constitutes p as wrong. Thus, you could know, for example, it is wrong to rape without knowing that a divine command across possible worlds constituted our moral obligation not to rape.

          • AdamHazzard

            But suppose I don’t know whether a proposed action, p, is morally wrong. (Often enough we find ourselves in such an ambiguous position.)

            Presumably, God knows whether p is right or wrong. If my knowledge of God were perfect, I would share his knowledge of p’s moral status. I would know whether p was morally wrong.

            If p is morally good, then it’s commanded by God (by definition), and I’m obliged to obey. If p is morally wrong, then it’s countermanded by God (bey definition), and I’m obliged to refrain.

            But because I don’t have perfect knowledge of God’s opinion on the moral status of p, I’m forced to accept the apparent ambiguity and resort to other means in an attempt to resolve it. I’m also forced to acknowledge that whatever answer I arrive at might be wrong, which becomes a factor in my final decision.

            Thus even under a theory of divine command, no objective knowledge of morality emerges. As I said previously, “a universe in which divine command defines the good but divine commandments are hidden is indistinguishable from one in which there is no divine command.
            It connects us to no “objective” morality, and it leaves believers in
            the same position as non-believers: forced to work out practical
            behavior based on fuzzy moral intuition, elementary concepts of
            fairness, a necessary dollop of abstract reasoning, and a full measure
            of empathy and altruism.”

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              “even under a theory of divine command, no objective knowledge of morality emerges.”

              No, that’s wrong on two counts. To begin with, you’re conflating objective knowledge (which I take to mean knowledge of objective moral facts) with infallible knowledge (that is, indefeasible or foolproof knowledge of those moral facts).

              Regardless, you’re right to recognize that a meta-ethical theory of moral value does not in itself determine one’s theory of moral epistemology. But then I never suggested otherwise.

              • AdamHazzard

                But I’m not talking about whether a “theory” determines another “theory.” I’m making the assumption (for the sake of argument) that the moral status of any act is determined by divine command, and I’m trying to investigate the real-world consequences.

                One of those consequences is: if our knowledge of divine will were perfect and infallible, then we would have perfect and infallible understanding of the moral status of any act. (I can’t imagine you disagree.)

                In that case, by virtue of having such knowledge, both our normative ethics and our moral epistemology would be completely determined.

                Thus, if our knowledge of divine will is not perfect, we can have only imperfect understanding of the moral status of any act. (Which certainly appears to be the case.)

                Therefore, we can appeal to divine command neither as a moral justification for an act nor as a means of understanding its moral status. The idea simply has no traction. In other words:

                Even If the moral status of an act is fully determined by divine command, a fallible understanding of divine will forces us to fall back on other ways of determining goodness. No person who claims “divine command” as a rationale for his behavior can be taken seriously, and the idea of human obedience to divine will as a virtue is nonsensical.

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  • Edward

    This debate is so unreal

    The pros and cons of this debate have no meaning at all unless devine-command can be shown as real. So the real question is… “How can one judge if devine-command is true and real?”

    Just because someone uses the definition (devine command) doesn’t make it anything more than pure speculation unless it can be verified as a real thing. People hear God talking to them and how would we know if this is just hallucination or a real occurance.

    Why debate, ever so carefully, a concept that has not yet been grounded into reality as a certainty? Genocide has often been committed in the name of God, but this does not mean that the Divine commanded it to be so.

    The debate reminds me of how the head can mislead us and take us down pathways, or make new pathways, that lead nowhere. The heart makes a better master than a servant; and the head makes a better servant than a master. If the heart didn’t incite this debate then it is merely mental exercise.

    In that case the exercise may stall off dimensia as we get older but it still remains unreal if Divine Command cannot be shown, by some criteria, that it is really and truly a divine experience.

  • Pingback: AdamHazzard’s Quick Parable Comparing Atheistic and Divine Command Theoretic Metaethics()

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  • kuz

    “grandiose sense of self worth” – As in, this billions-of-years-old universe was created just for me?

  • Robin

    This article is the very definition of a straw man argument. The author makes no attempt to respond to Sam Harris’s actual charges but instead plunges into an irrelevant and pedantic discussion of what “psychopathic” means. Congratulations, you won—you tore that straw man to shreds!

    This transparent evasion of the issue is a typical response from the religious when they don’t want to answer the hard questions, those that force some uncomfortable introspection.

    So what about the actual argument that Sam Harris was making? If a Christian blows up a building because God told him to, what is your view? In order to make your impending evasion more difficult I will list out the choices in black-and-white.

    1. The voice in his head was not really God. But how do you know? If two people hear God giving them instructions, where one is violent and one is charitable… what criteria can you use to tell which (if either) really came from God?

    2. The voice in his head really was God, instructing the Christian to blow up the building, killing innocent men, women, and children.

    Do you now praise the blowing up of the building? As Sam Harris said, “There is absolutely nothing that Dr. Craig can s—can say against their
    behavior, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that
    they’re praying to the wrong God.”

    Cue the “God works in mysterious ways” statement in 3… 2… 1…

  • manicstreetpreacher

    Sorry to weigh in so late
    with this one but following my own blogging sabbatical, I have finally got
    round to reviewing the Craig/Harris clash as well as assessing
    Craig’s misrepresentation of Harris’ written work.

    MSP