Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Antony vs. Craig in Amherst, MA

In this debate Craig leads with the argument that it is impossible for there to be any objective moral truths apart from the (implicitly subjective) preferences of a creator deity and that morality cannot possibly arise in a primate species which exists merely as another branch in a vast tree of life.  He does not show how this follows from any particular view of biology or meta-ethics, but merely assumes that morality must be rooted in a stern and powerful father-figure who threatens punishment for sin and promises rewards for righteousness.  One might suppose that the catchy verse enjoining us to “be good for goodness sake” never made much of a mark on his intellect and conscience.

Craig closes with three challenges to his opponent:

  • Explain the basis of objective moral values
  • Explain the source of objective moral duties
  • Explain how ultimate moral accountability exists

Antony rightly ignores Craig’s challenge during her opening statement, and goes on to elucidate the idea that objective truths about the suffering of sentient beings should be all the facts we need to necessitate moral action.  I did not find her arguments convincing as to the existence of objective moral facts, but certainly they were no worse than equating the naked fear of divine wrath (however arbitrary) with moral absolutes.   Antony lucidly lays out and roundly rejects the idea that moral action must involve submission to a higher power, and recounts the Euthyphro dilemma to the audience in clear terms.  She provides some background on what moral action should be taken to mean and makes the case that only the moral agent who is uncertain of eternal rewards or punishments may indeed be perfectly pious, doing good for the sake of goodness alone.  By the time both opening statements were finished, I was cautiously optimistic that Craig had finally met his equal in a public forum.

In the rebuttal period, Craig chastised his opponent for failing to use her opening statement as a rebuttal period in which to address his three challenges which he made at the end of his opening.  This is a standard Craig debating tactic, which he pulls on most of his opponents, e.g. “…he must first tear down my five arguments, then erect a case for naturalism in their place.”  Presumably Craig does this not because he is unaware of the ground rules of any given debate (he is far too experienced for that) but merely as an attempt frustrate and fluster his opponent with a quick below-the-belt jab.  This tactic doesn’t seem to work particularly well on Antony, who seems quite unflustered as she expertly dismantled most of Craig arguments, pointing out exactly where and how he went awry.

In Craig’s counter-rebuttals he asserts that his opponent had not addressed his arguments (as he always does) but for once his words ring hollow.  They go back and forth for awhile, Antony reasserting that moral action is that which objectively alleviates suffering of any sentient creature, Craig reasserting that moral action can only be defined in terms of obedience to the commands of a Grandly Objective Deity.  They also go back and forth on the Euthyphro for a bit, and Craig tried to sound authoritative as he argued that we can avoid either horn of the dilemma by positing goodness as inherent to God’s character.  Of course, this merely gives rise to a slightly different dilemma, “Is God inherently good because he always desires good things, or does God’s desire for good things make him inherently good?” 


The overall theme of the debate was that naturalists may well identify actions which are objectively good in the sense that they are rooted in objective facts about the world, such as desires thwarted or fulfilled, while supernaturalists have the blessing of being permanently retarded in their moral development, always and ever looking upward like wee toddlers for their moral advice, rewards, and punishments.  Having sustained the argument that only the moral values of a fatherly deity should count, a theist may go on to link those desires to our own individual desires by invoking promises of divine retribution and reward, thus executing a complexly paradoxical philosophical pirouette which allows for one to smuggle the central tenets of ethical egoism into the heart of divine command theory.  I’ve heard something sort of like this at least once before, “If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the shit out of you.”



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