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Lecture Hop: Is God Necessary for Morality?

 – Photo by CEE

Bwog Theism Bureau Chief James Downie grabbed a stiff plastic chair in Roone Arledge for the first Veritas Forum event. The second event will be tonight at 8:00 PM in Miller Theater.  The third event, which includes Matisyahu, will take place tomorrow at 7:00 PM in Miller Theater. 

The evening began on an odd note, after the moderator, Professor David Eisenbach, remembered that he had a new television show coming out. Called “Beltway Unbuckled,” and appearing on the History Channel in March, Eisenbach asked the attendees to watch the pilot,  promising that “you’ll never look at Abraham Lincoln the same way again.” The audience groaned at the image.

The evening’s question was “Is God Necessary for Morality?” and the first speaker, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, argued no. Kagan instead posited that a self-sufficient morality can be constructed from basic rational desires, such as helping rather than harming others. As to why the belief that evil is wrong is so strong, and where that strength comes from, he admitted that atheist philosophers disagree on answers. Some believe in social contracts between people, others suppose a veil of ignorance, but, more importantly, there is some rational basis under all of it – “the rules of morality are an objective fact, what philosophers refer to as categorical.” Contemporary Civ references would only increase as the night went on.

His opponent, Talbot School of Theology professor William Lane Craig, then took the floor, and began by defining morality: “if by morality you mean certain patterns of action, then no, but if you mean certain things are truly good and certain things are truly bad, then many atheists and theists agree that God is necessary.” Craig argued that without God, then neither objective moral values, moral duties, nor moral accountability exist. Without God, there is no basis for objective values, and humans in fact have no moral worth.

Morality under the atheist view, according to Craig, has only biological worth, and is effectively an illusion, “jerks of sensory perceptions, nothing truly moral. “If life ends at the grave,” he declared, “then it makes no difference whether you live as a Stalin or as a Mother Teresa. There is no objective reason why man should do anything, save for the pleasure it affords him.” One almost expected Epicurus to come out shouting, “SEE! I WAS RIGHT!”

The Q&A session broke down into two parts: the debaters asking each other questions, and audience questions read out by Eisenbach.  Craig asked Kagan: what fundamentally separates human morality from animal morality if there is no larger, God-fueled significance. Kagan replied that “it’s becuase we can appreciate and reflect upon the reasons why it’s harming people,” but Craig suggested that that meaning is self-created, and has no substantive value. Kagan, for his part, took issue with Craig’s equation of ethics being illusory with deeper meaning being illusory. Craig said that, “on a naturalistic view, everything is destined to destruction, and in light of that end, it’s hard to understand how our choices have any moral significance.” But Kagan remained confused, saying “it does not matter to me whether my actions have larger significance; what matters is that they mean something to me!”

The audience questions, though, saw two interesting points of agreement: first, when asked why humans so often fail, both agreed to a basic concept of sin and human fallibility. Kagan even suggested “more moral education” as a way of improving the social contract. Second, the pair agreed that some societies are more morally advanced than others, with Kagan comparing it to some societies being more scientifically advanced than others.

But the evening concluded by once again demonstrating the debate’s fundamental circularity, with Craig repeating that the removal of God removes any substantive value to human morality, and Kagan saying that such cosmic value is not necessary, and human rationality produces a true morality on its. Like so many debates, the answers were hung on interpreting a word in the question, and in this case the interpretation seemed only justified by the debaters’ answers. Nevertheless, the 90 minutes saw a sharp, but never too heated conflict between the speakers, and the Roone audience certainly went home intellectually sated. Especially the Contemporary Civ buffs.

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  • "morally advanced..." says:

    @"morally advanced..." morally advanced has nothing to do with technology. it has to do with one culture or society promoting or enforcing a system where a more moral society can exist. i.e. England pre-1833 more moral than post-legal slavery? or nazi controlled germany vs. present day germany?

    We’re all way too sensitive and easily offended. The speakers and moderator actually explained this in the event.

  • Relativist says:

    @Relativist What exactly was meant by “more morally advanced?” My first reaction is that it’s more eurocentric rabble. I absolutely agree with comment #1 when he said it was offensive. I really hope Veritas isn’t taken seriously.

    Unless we define what is meant by “morally advanced,” it’s a loaded, intellectually dishonest question to ask. Until then, I’m willing to float in the sea of relativity, fuck objectivism.

  • sounds good says:

    @sounds good although the ‘some societies are more morally advanced’ statement is a bit odd. I think you need to clarify whether what was meant was the moral quality of the Social Contract created vs the morality of the people.

    In any case, it seems that one philosopher was arguing that without God, or religion inspired values, there can be no objective basis or platform for morality – no compass. That is bullshit, in my book. There are plenty of bases available to construct an objective moral foundation on

  • fan says:

    @fan I attended the lecture and thoroughly enjoyed it. Both speakers had interesting points, no matter which side you fall on.

    Not a huge fan of the Jesus aspect of the Veritas Forum, but I was down with this event from an academic perspective.

  • holier than says:

    @holier than the fact that this is treated as a serious question is truly a travesty. our positivist friend reveals his affinities to western theology by agreeing with the preposterous and, frankly, offensive claim that “some societies are more morally advanced than other.”
    Cover some lectures worth reading about, bwog, the veritas forum is an academic joke

    1. Wow... says:

      @Wow... So you think that Nazi Germany was just as morally advanced as anyone else, eh?

      Our politically correct school may not want to let down its egalitarian guard long enough to take these issues into consideration, but that doesn’t keep this from being a substantive question that needs examination.

      I applaud the Veritas forum for inviting two men who can and did articulate the typical positions taken by those on either side of this debate.

      As Socrates oh so famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” You can dismiss this as simply religious fanaticism, or you can humble yourself to hear the side of the argument taken by the VAST majority of people throughout history, even if that view does not appeal to the vast majority of our school.

      1. still holier than says:

        @still holier than wow, the straw man argument combined with the nazi comparison really makes for a powerful rhetorical double-whammy, well played sir.
        i’m not necessarily arguing for absolute equivalence between moral systems (relativism), i’m simply saying that creating an analogy between technological and moral advance has troubling implications; i would have been curious to hear what our guest sophists had to say on the matter.
        also, i wasn’t dismiss these speakers as fanatics, i just think that they are silly, and i am glad that i missed their self-important, eurocentric pontification.

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous Huh? You make literally no sense whatsoever. What is troubling with the idea that just as one society might have more knowledge than another about how the world works, one society might also have more knowledge than another about what’s good to do? In what sense is Shelly Kagan a “positivist” here? How does being a moral realist reveal “affinities to western theology”? And why is discussing whether or not moral values require a transcendent basis “self-important” and “eurocentric”?

        2. Your guilty conscience says:

          @Your guilty conscience I sense what truly worries you is that the comparison between a technologically advanced society and a morally advanced society seems to imply that a technologically advanced society IS a morally advanced society- and therefore, an African society that possesses less advanced technology would also be less advanced in terms of morals. This is not truly being implied, however; the association is made in your head.

          That’s the only explanation I can see for calling the concept of being morally advanced “offensive”.

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