Craig–Taylor Debate:
Is the Basis for Morality Natural or Supernatural?

Opening Statement
William Lane Craig

Over the years I have had many occasions to quote and comment on Prof. Taylor’s work in my own writing, and it’s a distinct honor to be sharing the platform tonight with him.

Now I want to say at the outset that I agree thoroughly with him that the question is not whether we can be good without God. I don’t think that’s a disputed issue tonight. Rather, the important question is the sub–issue: Is the basis for morality natural or supernatural? And I’m going to defend two basic contentions in tonight’s debate: (I) that supernaturalism provides a sound basis for morality, and (II) that naturalism does not provide a sound basis for morality.

Look with me at that first basic contention, that supernaturalism provides a sound basis for morality. In support of this contention I’d like to make two points:

(1) If God exists, then objective right and wrong exist. God’s own holy and perfectly good nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. His commands flow necessarily from His own moral nature and constitute for us our moral duties. In the Judeo–Christian tradition, the whole moral duty of man can be summed up in the two great commandments: first, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your strength, with all your soul, with all your heart, and with all your mind," and second, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On this foundation, we can affirm the objective goodness of love, generosity, self–sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectively evil selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression.

(2) Because, according to supernaturalism, man’s life does not end at the grave, all persons are held morally accountable for their actions. Evil and wrong will be banished, righteousness will be vindicated. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, and we shall see that we do live in a moral universe after all. In the end, the scales of God’s justice will be balanced. Thus, the moral choices that we make in this life are infused with an eternal significance. We can, with consistency, make moral choices which run contrary to our self–interest and even undertake acts of extreme self–sacrifice, knowing that such decisions are not just empty and meaningless gestures. Rather, our moral lives have a paramount significance.

It’s noteworthy that Professor Taylor, in his writings, agrees that supernaturalism provides a perfectly coherent and sound basis for morality. In his most recent book, Ethics, Faith, and Reason, he writes, "The idea of moral…obligation is clear enough, provided reference to some lawmaker higher…than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations…can be understood as those imposed by God. This does give a clear sense to the claim that our moral obligations are more binding upon us than our political obligations…."{1} Unfortunately, Professor Taylor seems not to believe in God, and so he shuns a supernatural foundation for morality. Nevertheless, he admits that if God exists, then the foundations for morality are secure. Thus I think that we can agree that supernaturalism provides a sound foundation for morality.

What a contrast that—when we turn to naturalism and look at my second major contention—naturalism does not provide a sound foundation for morality. Naturalism does not match supernaturalism in supplying the necessary conditions for successful moral foundations.

(1) If naturalism is true, objective right and wrong do not exist. Again in his writings Professor Taylor agrees with me on this score. He argues that when modern man abandoned God as the foundation of morality, he lost all basis for saying that objective right and wrong exist. Taylor writes,

The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well.... Thus, even educated persons sometimes declare that such things as war...or the violation of human rights, are ‘morally wrong,’ and they imagine that they have said something true and significant.
Educated people do not need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion.{2}

He concludes, "Contemporary writers in ethics, who blithely discourse upon moral right and wrong and moral obligation without any reference to religion, are really just weaving intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning."{3}

I couldn’t agree more. Without God, there is no objective right and wrong. As Professor Taylor says, it’s just conventional. Thus if naturalism is true, it becomes impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as morally wrong. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous, and so in the course of human evolution it has become taboo. But there is nothing really wrong about raping someone. If, as Professor Taylor states, moral rules are, "nothing but the customs…that this or that culture adopts over the course of time,"{4} then the nonconformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more morally wrong than being uncultured. Nor, by the same token, can one praise brotherhood, equality, or love as good. It really doesn’t matter what values you choose, for there is no right and wrong. Moral good and evil do not exist.

(2) If naturalism is true, there is no moral accountability for one’s actions. Even if there were objective moral values under naturalism, they’re irrelevant because there is no moral accountability. If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. As the Russian writer Dostoyevsky rightly said, " If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted."{5} Given the finality of death, it really doesn’t matter how you live. So what do you say to someone that concludes that we may as well just live for self–interest, live just as we please, for pleasure? Perhaps Professor Taylor would say to him that it’s in his best self–interest to adopt a moral lifestyle. But clearly that’s not always true. We all know of situations in which morality runs smack in the face of self–interest. That’s called temptation, right? Moreover, if one is sufficiently powerful, like a Ferdinand Marcos, or a Papa Doc Duvalier, or even a Donald Trump, one can pretty much ignore the dictates of conscience and live in pure self–indulgence. Acts of self–sacrifice become particularly inept in a naturalistic worldview. [tape unintelligible] but pure self–interest. Sacrifice for another person would just be stupid. Thus the absence of moral accountability in the philosophy of naturalism makes the virtues of compassion and self–sacrifice hollow abstractions. Naturalism therefore fails to match supernaturalism in supplying the elements necessary for any sound moral foundation.

Now Professor Taylor says that we don’t really need [tape unintelligible] right and wrong, moral accountability, to have sound moral foundations. He says each person should just try to develop his virtues in order to be happy. But is this really adequate for sound moral foundations? I don’t think so, and so consider with me three objections specifically to Taylor’s view.

(1) Taylor’s so–called virtues are really completely amoral. We have a tendency, when Professor Taylor talks about virtues, to think that he’s talking about moral virtues, but in fact he’s not. As he says in his book, what he means by a virtue is really just a skill. A virtuous person is someone who can do something exceptionally well. But this raises two problems:

(i) A person can be very skillful at cruel and hurtful practices. For example, on Taylor’s view, it makes sense to talk about a virtuous torturer. Dostoyevsky once wrote, "People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beast. A beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel."{6} There are people who are exceptionally skilled at torturing their victims, who invent creative, fiendish ways of inflicting pain, of keeping their victims lingering in pain as long as possible, rather than granting them the release of death. On Taylor’s view, such a person is a virtuous individual. He is exercising his creative intelligence. And as Taylor reminds us in his book, creative intelligence can be exhibited in "virtually any activity."{7} He says that "any activity can be done badly or well, and are always done best when not done by rule, rote, or imitation, but with successful originality."{8} Upon reading these words, I was reminded of a statement by Richard Wurmbrandt, who was tortured in communist prisons. He wrote,

The communist torturers often said, ‘There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do whatever we wish.’ I have heard one torturer even say, ‘I thank God in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflicted on prisoners.{9}

Most of us would say that such a person is morally evil, but on Taylor’s amoral view of virtue, he is actually a virtuous man, which is absurd.

(ii) Because Taylor’s virtues are amoral, no one is morally obliged to become virtuous. Because we naturally tend to think of virtues as moral virtues, we tend to think that this is how we should become. We should be loving, generous, kind, and so forth. Even Professor Taylor lapses into language of moral duty. On page 50 of his book, for example, he speaks of one’s obligation to oneself to become virtuous. But that’s self–contradictory. On his view, you have no moral obligations to yourself or anybody else. The decision to be loving, creative, and interesting, rather than selfish, lazy, and boorish, is utterly arbitrary. The decision to become a Mother Teresa rather than an Adolph Hitler is rather like the decision to go to McDonald’s rather than Burger King.{10} It’s just arbitrary. But I think that most of us recognize that we should be virtuous rather than unvirtuous, and that’s precisely what Professor Taylor's philosophy does not allow us to say.

(2) Christianity offers us a better virtue ethics than Professor Taylor’s. Virtue ethics are part and parcel of moral philosophy, but I think that the Christian version is better than Professor Taylor’s in two ways.

(i) Christianity affirms the reality of moral virtues. On Taylor’s view, remember, virtues are amoral, rather like a skill. But the Christian view is that virtues are qualities that we should acquire. For example, Augustine defined virtue as rightly ordered love—that is to say, valuing things according to their true worth in the right order of priority.{11} Similarly, Aquinas defines virtue as a habit, acquired by the mind, to live rightly.{12} Notice how both of them connected virtue with moral duty. To live rightly, to fulfill your moral obligations, you must be virtuous, and thus one should become a virtuous person—something Professor Taylor’s philosophy does not allow us to say.

(ii) Christianity recognizes the reality of religious virtues. Taylor says that because man is distinctively rational, virtue lies in maximizing his rationality. But what this overlooks is that man is just as religious as he is rational. In his Eudemian Ethics Aristotle describes the ideal life as "the worship and contemplation of God."{13} Taylor simply passes over in silence the religious dimension of Aristotle’s ethics. But Aquinas picked it up and recognized that in addition to the traditional moral virtues, there are religious virtues like faith, hope, and love. Taylor’s version of virtue ethics is based on a truncated view of man and ignores the religious dimension of life; and so, I think, is tragically incomplete.

(3) Taylor’s virtue ethics are morally repugnant. I’m sorry to have to say this, but I think it needs to be said. You wouldn’t tell this from his opening speech, but Taylor’s vision of the virtuous man is one who is proud, intelligent, and self–centered. Just listen to what he writes: "Genuinely proud people perceive themselves as better than others, and their pride is justified because their perceptions are correct."{14} "By and large, most people are rather ignorant, stupid, insensitive—in a word, ‘weak’—that is, inferior."{15} He says that "the weak, seeing that the superior want to rule, invent restraints upon them in the form of moral rules. The very first principle of this morality is that all people are equal."{16} Professor Taylor disagrees. He writes, "A proud person does not pretend to an insincere equality with others who are inferior, that is, who are meek, foolish, or silly."{17} "Some people really are better than others, and therefore count for more."{18} "A person is not worthy of esteem just by the fact of being a person, but rather by the fact of being a person of outstanding worth, which is something quite rare."{19}

Well, how does this tiny minority of superior people relate to others? Taylor says, "The proud person creates his own morality."{20} He knows that [tape unintelligible] a superior person will be generous to a friend not because he cares for the friend, but so that the friend will be in his debt and thus obliged to return the favor. In the index of his book, Professor Taylor speaks of Aristotle’s justified contempt for inferior persons. For example, Aristotle described a slave as "a living tool."{21} Similarly, in describing Stoic ethics, Taylor says, "You help the suffering, not for their sake, but because [it]…is essential to a noble life."{22} He says you’re "not trying to do something for the other person, except incidentally."{23} Instead, you’re really trying to improve yourself. Taylor specifically contrasts this with Jesus’s story about the good Samaritan, which was meant to illustrate the principle You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Taylor ridicules the teachings of Jesus, as holding that the poor, the weak, the ignorant, the stupid are the most important people on Earth and most favored by God.{24} Of course, what Christianity really holds is that because all persons are created in the image of God and are loved by God and are persons for whom Christ died, all are equally precious in God’s sight. A person’s worth doesn’t lie in his talents or accomplishments or skills, but on God’s unconditional love for him. This principle came to be embodied in the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s immortal words, "We hold these truths to be self–evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Professor Taylor’s denial of this principle lies at the root of racism, chauvinism, Nazism, and a host of other social ills. As one reviewer put it, Taylor’s ethics of elitism is "profoundly objectionable, and even sinister in its implications."{25}

Thus I think Taylor’s virtue ethics are incapable of rescuing naturalism from its fatal flaws, and therefore I think we can conclude my two contentions: (I) supernaturalism does provide a sound foundation for morality, and (II) naturalism does not provide a sound foundation for morality.


{1}Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1985), pp. 83–84.

{2}Ibid., pp. 2–3.

{3}Ibid., p. 7.

{4}Ibid., p. 57.

{5}Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. C. Garnett (New York: Signet Classics, 1957), bk. II, chap. 6; bk. V, chap. 5; bk. XI, chap. 8.

{6}Ibid., p. 220.

{7}Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason, p. 118.

{8}Ibid., p. 119.

{9}Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1967), p. 34.

{10}A point made effectively by J. P. Moreland in Does God Exist? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), p. 124.

{11}Augustine City of God 15.22.

{12}Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1a. 2ae. 55.

{13}Aristotle Eudemian Ethics 1249b 20.

{14}Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason, p. 100.

{15}Ibid., p. 43.


{17}Ibid., p. 104.

{18}Ibid., p. 65.

{19}Ibid., p. 104.

{20}Ibid., p. 105.

{21}Ibid., p. 66.

{22}Ibid., p. 50.


{24}Ibid., pp. 23–24.

{25}Michael Durrant, review of Ethics, Faith, and Reason, in Philosophical Books 27 (1986): 60.

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