William Lane Craig

(...) if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding


  • A common human psychological nature is the root of our shared morality. Whether we wish to bind others to it or not is part of this nature.
  • Even God cannot provide more than that, as even Him saying something is wrong doesn't make it so.
  • (Counterargument) A benevolent and powerful god would not imbue us with moral failings.

The argument from absolute morality argues that God exists because only with God can there be a true morality. It is also known as the Moral Argument, the Argument from Moral Law, or the Axiological Argument (argument from value). Its most famous proponent may be C.S. Lewis, but the argument is at least as old as Kant and is held by numerous apologists, including Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig.

While there are certainly better formulations of it, it would be instructive to present it as a Moral Law argument:

A1 All men are conscious of an objective moral law.
A2 Moral law requires a moral lawgiver.
C There must be a moral lawgiver.

While the argument is deductively valid, the two assumptions expose a deep misunderstanding of the nature of morality that prevades religious thought. It is accentuated by the image of moral law as a judiciary law, but the same problem is immanent in nearly all religious moral thought. Morality is founded on individual's moral intuitions, not on abstract laws or tyrannical fiat.

What Naturalism Says, and Why A1 is Wrong[]

Let us first consider what objective morality means under naturalism. Naturalism does not necessarily claim that there is no objective morality. There are three ways for objective morality to exist under naturalism, but the important one is that morality is based on an objective human nature[1].

Morality can be objective in the sense of being a shared human nature. This is the "same for everyone" aspect of what "objective" means. For a similar example, salt improves the taste of food because this is how humans perceive taste. There is nothing in salted food that makes it taste better scientifically if you don't take human nature into account; but if you do, one can show scientifically, objectively, that salt can improve taste. Almost all contemporary philosophers agree that this is the meaning of morality - this is why naturalistic people refer to themselves as Humanists, as they believe in a shared human morality and value.

It is human nature to perceive the world in three colors, yet there are color-blind people. In much the same way there should be morally-blind people, or people with a twisted morality, under naturalism (or more precisely, given evolution). And indeed, there are. Contrary to the A1 assumption, not all men are conscious of the same objective moral law. As many as 3% of males are sociopaths[2]. There is further evidence that different people balance their moral intuitions (such justice, loyalty, and so on) differently[3]. The truth is that there is no truly universal morality. Christian morality also has varied at different times in history, varies between different sects and even different indivuduals. There is no timeless, universally agreed morality.

It is important to realize that this does not undermine humanistic morality. That there are other creatures out there with a different moral sense does not make your own moral sense somewhat wrong - but it does put it in a new light. For this reason humanistic morality is generally liberal, recognizing that others have other moral inclinations and allowing them to exercise them as long as in doing so they don't interfere with the objective, common, basic human morality.

Humanistic morality focuses on clarifying and sharpening one's own sense of good and evil, as well as on applying it in a complex world. Since most people find self-delusion to be bad, for example, humanism seeks to rid oneself of it. It accepts that there are people for whom that would be incorrect, people who see self-delusion as morally neutral or a virtue at a fundamental biological level - but sees them as morally wrong, as deviant beings that are, in a sense, not wholly human, not fully partaking of human nature. To the extent that they prevent whole humans from exercising their moral nature, they are evil.

Philosophically this point runs counter to the is/ought problem - it is argued that the fact that something is X physically cannot imply that something ought to be X, or Y, or anything. Murder would still be wrong regardless of what the facts of nature are. But this distinction ignores the person's own nature as a creature with specific moral instincts and thought patterns on which he makes his moral judgment. It is important not to make the naturalistic error of identifying what is natural with what is right, but equally important not to make the anti-naturalistic error of not identifying what is right with our biological nature.

But wait - why does the theist insist on a universal morality to begin with? The argument still works, deductively, regardless of how many recognize the objective moral law.

A1' There is an objective moral law.

The above already implies that this is meaningless, a misunderstanding of what morality is, but let us show this more explicitly.

Why Absolute Morality is an Absurdity[]

Now, an absolute moral law never refers to what humans actually do, like what they say or what they think. No, it refers to what they ought to do. But such a law, even if it exists, it irrelevant and unknowable. Moral law is only relevant to the extent human beings are affected by it; some abstract law that doesn't affect the physical world just doesn't affect anything in it, like human thought. Furthermore, it isn't clear why it is "moral" as it has no relation with human morality. You might as well say that there is an abstract law that says how things are "Wright" or "Rong" - empty words that have no relation to human concepts such as "right" or "wrong".

Therefore moral law must be anchored in the moral nature of human beings. It doesn't matter whether this moral nature is due to some transcendent cause or was created by natural causes, such as your genetics and upbringing. (Or both, which is the position more respected theists take - seeing the natural causes as being due to a supernatural cause.)

"Lawgiver" is therefore a very bad word. The important part is not that God gave the law, even if he did, since what matters is not the law itself but rather its relation to human thought. The only meaningful sense of God making a moral law is that he made our moral nature. For example, He might have put in us a moral sense that works to identify what he deems right, or perhaps intervenes by whispering in our mind's ear (that, too, would then be part of human nature - it would be part of human nature in practice to frequently hear God's voice, and in constitution to identify it with goodness).

But what makes this mental faculty morally right, instead of morally wrong? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the god who created us was malicious, and implanted in us a flawed sense of morality, one that says that right is wrong (perhaps we are the devil's handiwork). In what sense would we be wrong? Not in any human sense. "True" morality might as well talk about "Wright" and "Rong" as far as we are concerned, it has no relation to human morality in this scenario. Hence, there can be no absolute morality. Even God cannot provide anything except morality by fiat, by decree. But saying that something is moral does not make it so, and making creatures with that sense of morality doesn't make it any more moral either. Morality is inherently relative - it is dictated by what someone considers right. Even an all powerful and perfectly wise god cannot be morally correct in some absolute sense; He can only be right in respect to His own thinking, which offers no real moral superiority to others' views except under His own morality.

Thus we are left not with a Lawgiver, but instead with a Cosmic Dictator, passing judgment on his own Creation by his own morality. This does not make his morality "right". If it conflicts with human morality, it is wrong by human standards, it is wrong for humans. God's nature is therefore irrelevant to morality.

The Moral Counterargument[]

If God is powerful and benevolent, however, then He would not create us to have a flawed sense of morality. If he tried to create us perfectly but failed, then he is not powerful. But if he created us as he wished but we do not have a perfect moral sense than he is not benevolent. For it was within his power to create creatures that will commit no evil, and instead he wrought great evil into the world.

Let not the theist raised the issue of free-will here. It is irrelevant. The precise detailed of our moral sense do not change our free-will. Our freedom to follow our hearts remains the same regardless of what our hearts tell us is true. The problem is not with lacking freedom to choose evil, it is with lacking ability to know evil.

At the least, we have selfish desires, a capacity to self-delude and rationalize ourselves, and so on - all leading to great injustices. What is worse, in light of God's morality as revealed in the scriptures we have very a very bad basic moral sense too. Any man that looks deep within himself and sheds the philosophically vacuous idea that God defines morality will be appalled by what God does and commands in the Bible or any other scripture; so that at least for any large religion, one can only conclude that if God has indeed implanted us with a moral sense that is contrary to his own. But such a God is evil.

We therefore reached the conclusion that no good and benevolent god can exist. A malevolent or weak one is not, however, ruled out by this argument (for that, others are needed).

Some Conclusions[]

Through A1, the argument works against itself. By requiring a universal moral sense in all humans, it argues against the facts. A perfect moral sense is, however, required by a theology supposing a just and powerful god, so that each and every moral failing by any human being that ever lived is a testament against it. (Not just against a perfectly moral and omnipotent god - against any powerful and fairly just one.) Despite this, a common moral nature is shared by human beings, with predictable exceptions.

A2 is simply wrong, wrought by a mistaken understanding of what morality is. Morality is inherently relative, working on what someone feels is right. It doesn't work like a legislated law, and cannot be thought of in this way.

See also[]


  1. Morality can also be objective in the sense that it is ingrained into the logical structure of the world. To some extent, this is absolutely correct. Game theory, which is ingrained into the logical structure of our world, seems to lead to only certain types of solutions. But evolutionary stable strategies (laws governing behaviour which will fixate in the population) are rarely unique and rarely uniform; there are usually several possible "ecosystems" of solutions, a place for a certain number of parasites and so on. Furthermore, the preferred strategies depend on circumstances, especially on biological issues such as how sex works; the morality of bees is very different from that of humans. The third way is that there may be a moral law of nature. It is possible that there is an objective, as in independent, law of nature that says that humans will judge some thing to be morally wrong (or morally right). If there is such a basic law to nature, science has not discovered it. It appears human thought, including moral thought, is not founded on any new laws of physics. It follows the usual laws that apply to everything else.
  2. Wikipdia says (Antisocial Personality Disorder) that “According to DSM-IV, Antisocial Personality disorder is diagnosed in approximately three percent of all males and one percent of all females.” ASPD is essentially lack of empathy.
  3. See Jonathan Haidt on the difference between liberals and conservatives, for example this paper or this Ted talk. I am not convinced this is a real biological rather than social difference, but it may be, and Haidt appears to be saying it is. See also this NYTimes article for a broader overview of Haidt's work.

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