The video above shows the full debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on the subject of objective morality. I’ve just finished watching the debate for the second time and thought I’d give a few notes.
Overall I felt that Harris could’ve been more successful by addressing Craig’s specific points, however Harris explains on his blog that he did this to counter Craig’s tricky debate techniques and so he could get as much of his own positive arguments across. I couldn’t find anything on Craig’s website that summarised the debate, only this Q & A with a reader addressing some parts.
In any argument I think its very important to define your terms and make sure you’re using the same terms as your opponent. There are two key terms that need to be defined:
- ‘Morality’ including good, bad, evil, right and wrong
Craig seems to define morality and good and evil in terms of god, that is the standard to determine whether something is good or evil is god and god’s commands.
Harris defines morality in terms of the well being and flourishing of conscious creatures. That is the standard to determine whether something is good or evil is whether it results in the flourishing of conscious creatures or not.
Craig disagrees with Harris’ definition explicitly and accuses him of redefining terms like right and wrong in non moral language.
Craig defines objective (as in objective morality) as meaning “valid and binding independent of human opinion.” When arguing during the debate he seems to take this to mean that the morality would exist regardless if people were there or not, that is they transcend time and space, I’m calling this Craig’s implied definition of ‘objective’.
Harris doesn’t seem to offer an explicit definition of ‘objective’ during the debate but during the Q&A section he talks about Craig’s implied definition of ‘objective’ being completely meaningless in any sense that we are aware of. In order for something to be ‘objective’ it needs to depend on certain predefined definitions otherwise we can’t even discuss it let alone determine its objectivity.
When talking about ‘objective morality,’ I find Craig’s implied definition to be pretty much meaningless so it is with his stated definition that I will side. However, contrary to Craig, I think that Harris’ definition of morality and right and wrong, good and evil is not only the more useful definition but also the definition that most people already use when they think about those words.
What’s more, as Harris points out during the debate, his definition is actually perfectly compatible with the Christian world view. Christians believe in following god’s word to ‘get close to god,’ ‘avoid hell’ and ‘get into heaven’ and all of these propositions can be measured in terms of the well being of conscious creatures – in fact, the propositions themselves are defined in terms of the well being of conscious creatures, namely humans.
Therefore, despite Craig’s objections, Harris’ definition is far more useful and closely matches what people actually mean when they use the words than Craig’s definition.
If you accept Harris’ definition of morality then you can also reconcile it with Craig’s stated definition of ‘objective’ since the well being of conscious creatures can be determined objectively by science and is not dependent on human opinion.
I think if Harris was able to clearly establish that his definition of morality is far better than Craig’s, he could’ve posed a more convincing argument overall.