Is God Necessary for Morality?

Posted: August 9, 2012 by Amy Hall in Do the Right Thing, God is Real

Continuing on the same topic, here’s a debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan on the question, “Is God necessary for morality?” If you’re interested in hearing more, Wintery Knight links to more debates on atheism and morality, along with a paper by Dr. Craig, here.

  1. This is a good debate. Unlike many people I’ve seen Craig debate, like Atkins, Kagan is a real challenge. His book debate with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is another good one.

  2. Kevin Walker says:

    I most certainly agree with you Kyle. Kagan was one of Craig’s tougher opponents I think. Tougher, but it made way for a much, much richer discussion of the issues involved. And yes, the book with Sinnott-Armstrong is also very well done on both sides in this same way. I learned very much from both of those sources.

  3. Thanks for the link. William Lane Craig had some post-debate comments in one of his newsletters here:

    After a week at home, I was off again to New York to speak at a Veritas Forum at Columbia University. Columbia is on the western edge of Harlem, just north of Central Park. Its campus is a lovely oasis in the midst of big city ugliness. Like the other Ivy League universities, it was originally founded as a Christian institution. On the face of the old library the inscription states that Columbia exists “for the advancement of the public good and the glory of Almighty God.” In the campus chapel above the altar are inscribed Paul’s words, now ironically so appropriate, “Whom therefore you ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you” (Acts 17. 23)!

    On the first evening I debated professor Shelly Kagan of Yale University on the question “Is God Necessary for Morality?” Actually, this was not a debate but a dialogue. After we each gave our opening statements, we had a very substantive discussion. Kagan has Christian colleagues at Yale, like Robert Adams and John Hare, who defend moral values and duties based in God, and I was struck by the respect with which he treated the view. He surprised me by not arguing for his own view of ethics, which is a radical consequentialism. He holds that if torturing a little girl to death would somehow result in greater overall good as a consequence, then that is what we should do! Instead he defended a social contract view of morality, according to which our moral duties are whatever rules perfectly rational people would agree to as a way of governing society. I responded that this makes morality a human convention, rather than objective. Kagan also affirmed in our dialogue that he is a physicalist and determinist. I charged that determinism strips our actions of any moral significance. We also disagreed over the importance of moral accountability. I claimed that the absence of moral accountability on atheism makes morality collide with self-interest and robs our choices of significance, but Kagan maintained that we don’t need a sort of cosmic significance in order for our moral choices to be significant. All in all, we had an affable and substantive exchange which fairly presented the alternatives.

    One feature of our dialogue that pleased and surprised me was how clearly the Gospel emerged in the course of our conversation. Talking about moral values and accountability led naturally to the subject of our failure to fulfill our moral duties and how to deal with that. I was able to explain our need of God’s forgiveness, moral cleansing, and rehabilitation. Kagan then asked me how Jesus fits into the picture. That gave me the chance to expound on Christ’s atoning death and the fulfillment of God’s justice in Christ’s bearing the penalty for our sin. I was gratified that the Gospel could be shared so clearly and naturally with the students present.

  4. And more from here:

    I did respond briefly to Prof. Kagan’s view… but I didn’t press the point because our hosts with the Veritas Forum had made it very clear to me that they were not interested in having a knock-down debate but a friendly dialogue that would foster a warm and inviting atmosphere for non-believing students at Columbia. The goal was simply to get the issues out on the table in a congenial, welcoming environment, which I think we did.

  5. Erik says:

    Wintery Knight – thanks for locating the follow up comments from Mr Craig and posting them here, it’s nice to see his additional commentary. As for the dialogue, I am pleased to see these types of discussions happening in this format (dialogue vs debate). While it is important that we do engage in debate, it seems too many discussions are reduced to name calling and elevated emotions that seem to undermine the discussion. When we can discuss our differences in a reasoned, rational and truthful way, I believe we are more effective. In this case, both Mr Craig and Mr Kagan did a fine job presenting their positions without degenerating into name-calling. I certainly feel I’ve learned something from both sides and that I now have a better understanding of the Atheist point of view concerning morality, which can help me to better prepare in discussions with Atheists in the future.

  6. Grundy says:

    I really don’t know if people would come to the conclusion that morality comes from God if people like Craig weren’t there to do it for them.