how narratives ground human value

Most of us agree that human life has intrinsic value. But how are we to explain this fact? What is it about human beings that grant them greater worth than slugs, or rocks? And if this fact can be given a true explanation, would that explanation be able to fit with just any worldview?

Some people believe that naturalism has a hard time accounting for the intrinsic worth of human beings – that it lacks some important metaphysical resource for getting the job done. Indeed given that the ‘decline of religion’ is often cited as the cause of a widespread existential uncertainty in regards to one’s own value and purpose, it might be safe to say that this view of a dischord between naturalism and human value is intuitively felt on some level by many. But what is the lack in naturalism supposed to be?

Consider the following from William Lane Craig;

“If theism is false, why think that human beings have objective moral value? After all, on the naturalistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time (Reasonable Faith, third edition, page 173).”

I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I also think that naturalism cannot adequately account for the value of human beings, and that Craig has given the correct explanation as to why. That said, I’ve very sympathetic to the naturalist who is unconvinced that her worldview harbours such an unattractive failing. After all, Craig’s explanation is hardly a sustained and carefully laid out argument. There’s no clearly structured argument demonstrating this poverty within naturalism. Craig’s comments will ring true with those who share his intuitions on the matter, but he hasn’t given much to persuade anyone else. If we can more carefully explore the issue it will be good to do so.

As it happens I think that given the standard philosophical methodology, anyone who wants to subject claims like Craig’s above to caferul critical scrunity will find that it’s very hard to pin-point where the alleged problem with naturalism is supposed to be. Or at least, it’s hard to pin-point why the problem is uniquely a problem for the naturalist. This is something I myself found; although I had a strong intuition that there was a problem, when I set about analysing what it was, I struggled to make sense of it. Now, however, I think I understand why it seems so hard to explain the problem with naturalism. It’s because we have been trained to approach the problem ontologically.

What advantage is Christianity supposed to have over naturalism? Our instinctive response is to compare the different accounts of what human beings are in terms of their composing substance on these two worldviews. Traditionally Christian theists have viewed human persons as embodied souls, whereas on naturalism humans are purely physical entities, or at least emergent on physical entities. Is this supposed to be where the significant difference lay? Certainly it would be easy to read that kind of thinking into the sorts of things Christians might say on the matter. After all it’s common to hear people say that the problem with naturalism is that humans “are just a bunch of chemicals.” But I think that would be the wrong way to read those sentiments.

It’s incredibly hard to make sense of human worth as a matter of what sort of stuff humans are made of. How exactly is it supposed to make a difference in terms of worth whether human persons are immaterial beings or material beings? Would a jellotine being be of more value than a being made of rock? There doesn’t seem to be any sensible way of judging things in this manner. Of course, some might argue that unless human beings are immaterial souls, then we could not possess rationality or freedom of the will. But that would be to argue that human worth is down to human capacities, and not really the substance of our existence after all.

To view the issue in terms of capacities is another tempting move, one that again thinks fundamentally in terms of the features of what humans are, or have, as features of their being. But this too is problematic. If we think that human worth boils down to our rationality, then how do we avoid saying that the worth of a person is determined by their IQ, or something equivalent? Humans are not equal in terms of their mental ability, but they are surely equal in terms of worth. Additionally, why would rationality of all things give humans worth? The brain is surely impressive, but why favour that organ over any other? On what grounds? Freedom of the will is just as inexplicable as a foundation of worth. How does the proposition “humans have freedom of the will” entail “humans have instrinsic moral worth”? That logical jump there is inexplicable. Moreover the intuitive sense of the problem with naturalism doesn’t seem to focus on these aspects. No doubt there are many folk who think that naturalism also struggles to explain human rationality and free will, but these are surely distinct topics from the question of value. Certainly I don’t think these factors feature in my intuition on the matter.

So then, what is the answer?

Narratives.

The advantage Christianity has over naturalism is that Christianity provides a narrative which gives human beings an important role. On Christian theism the world is created and given to humans to rule over, the creator takes a special interest in their affairs and even steps into their history to rescue them from their sin. On Christian theism creation is to a certain extent about human beings. The significance of being made in the image of God for human value is not in its signifying that humans have particular capacities, or are made from certain materials, but that humans have an important role in the great cosmic drama that God has penned. Caparably, on naturalism humans have no such special role. The universe isn’t about human beings in any sense. If anything, humans are a sort of after-thought of an unintentional process. Go back and read’s Craig’s quote again in these terms and see if it doesn’t make more sense.

This, then, is the first problem of human value for naturalists: naturalism cannot provide a plausible narrative which gives human beings any prominence. This I think correctly drives the intuition that naturalism is at odds with human value.

But there is also a second problem for the naturalist. Obviously, the fact that we can tell a narrative about human beings does not entail that such a narrative is true. And the second problem for the naturalist is that no naturalistic cosmic-narrative could ever be true, simply because on naturalism there is no cosmic story-teller. Sure, it’s possible that naturalism as a mere metaphysical doctrie could be true: it could be true that there are no supernatural beings or anything of the like. But it’s impossible for a naturalistic narrative of the universe to be true. Stories are about things, but a naturalistic universe cannot be about anything because there is no intentional narrator behind it.

Naturalism, then, doubly fails to account for human value. Human value requires a true cosmic narrative that is to a great degree about human beings, but naturalism cannot have any true cosmic narratives, and even the false ones we could make fail to give human beings any prominence.

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Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God

For a while now I’ve been dissatisfied with William Lane Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God. Or more to the point, (seeing as I suspect that the argument is actually sound), I’m dissatisfied with how he normally defends the argument. I want to use this space to explain what I see as his method’s shortcomings. However, a caveat I give is that I’ll be critiquing Craig’s defence as I’ve come across it in his debates and online material. Craig is no fool and charity requires acknowledging the possibility that he does things differently in his scholarly published works, or that I’ve simply misunderstood the argument. At any rate, for what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on the matter.

The form of the argument he typically gives is this:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
(Source)

The first premise is the one I want to concentrate on. As a material conditional, it is false if and only if the antecedent is true and the consequent is false. That is, the premise is false if God does not exist and moral values and duties do exist.

Presumably there are a number of atheists who think that is precisely how things are. They think that atheism is true and that this fact does not affect the existence of moral duties and values whatsoever. Not every atheist is a “subjectivist” about moral values and duties. So how does Craig aim to convince these atheists, or other folk who think this atheist position is not absurd?

From what I’ve seen, Craig defends the first premise by examining various naturalistic accounts of ethics (naturalistic as in non-supernatural, not naturalistic in the more technical sense used in metaethics) showing that they fail to account for, or “ground”, objective moral values and duties. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Craig’s critiques of these accounts are on the money. We’ll ignore any problems we might have with his criticisms or any quibbles we might have with his understanding of “objective” etc. If we’ve successfully put such worries aside then, we’ll be willing to explore the thought that, as Craig claims, there are no plausible naturalistic accounts of how it is that objective moral values and duties can exist.

The question that springs to my mind at this moment is “so what?” Perhaps there is no successful naturalistic account of these important ethical features to hand. Are we to think that a plausible naturalistic account could never be formulated? What stops the atheist from saying, “that’s right I don’t have a plausible naturalistic metaethical account, but I know intuitively that there are objective moral values and duties. I don’t need to explain how something is so to know that it is so. Perhaps we will know how it all fits together in the future.” As far as I can tell an atheist would be perfectly within their rights to say that. Showing that there is no adequate naturalistic account of values and duties available is not the same as showing that objective values and duties can’t exist given naturalism.

As such it seems to me that Craig either needs to do more to defend the first premise, or argue for a weaker conclusion, such as “theism is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.” To adequately defend the first premise he needs to, by my understanding, give an analysis of the necessary conditions for the existence of objective moral values and duties, and demonstrate that, necessarily, atheism cannot meet those conditions.

clarifying end-relative meta-ethics

One meta-ethical theory (or cluster of theories) claims that “ought-conditions” are fundamentally related to ends, or goals. I think these approaches are on to something, however there is a need for clarity. While I think the truth values of normative propositions might be conditional on end-relative facts, I don’t think that normative propositions necessarily refer to ends as part of their semantic content.

If normative propositions necessarily referred to ends as part of their semantic content, then all normative propositions would look like the following:

“In order to get to the other side of town, one ought to take the tube.”
“In order to cherish life, one ought to not destroy it.”
“In order to respect the elderly, one ought to give up their seat on the bus for them.”

Or to make it agent-specific,

“In order for Sally to get to the other side of town, she ought to take the tube.”

If all normative propositions necessarily look like this, there are no coherent normative propositions that are simply:

“One ought to X.”
“Sally ought to X.”

There are two problems with this. For one, these propositions sure look coherent. There might be mystery surrounding why any propositions of this kind are true, but that’s not a semantic issue. You’d know, at least roughly, what I meant if I said it. We talk in this manner all the time. Plainly, these propositions are coherent.

The second problem is that the first kind of normative propositions given above do not actually tell us what we ought to do. Imagine approaching a wise moral teacher to ask what you ought do to with your life, and receiving a response like “well, in order to X this, you must Y, and in order to S, you must T. And in order to do…” You’d reply “well yes, there are lots of goals I could pursue. But what should I actually do?” These kinds of propositions just aren’t that instructive morally. A moral theory limited to only those propositions will be rather inadequate.

Therefore while normative propositions might have truth-values that hinge on certain end-relative facts, normative propositions do not refer to such facts out of semantic necessity.