Morality and God: Is there a Connection?

 The Lennox-McKaiser Debate

(Listen to the debate here)

Recently, Professor John Lennox debated Eusebius McKaiser in Wits’s Great Hall on the question of the connection between morality and God. Lennox is a Christian and took the affirmative position, while McKaiser is an agnostic atheist and moral objectivist. Although AntWoord and Dialoog have been organising such debates for years, this one turned out to be extraordinary for a number of reasons. Not only is Lennox popular in South Africa, but McKaiser, as a prominent media personality, brought a familiar and eloquent voice to such an important discussion. The genial tone set a wonderful example of how interfaith dialogue can take place, and is a much-needed step toward establishing a gracious-but-frank discussion culture in South Africa.

The short version

Kudos to McKaiser for not losing the debate outright, even though he never really presented an argument for his case. His skill as a debater is evident here, and coupled with the polite manner in which he conducted himself during the debate, he is a formidable opponent. McKaiser’s strategy consisted of shifting the burden of proof to Lennox, and then asserting that his opponent’s arguments are not compelling enough to meet his standards. When cornered with a tight argument such as one about the origin of the universe, he resorts to agnosticism and claims to be ‘perfectly comfortable’ with not having an opinion on the matter. Although this is rhetorically effective and may be wise in certain instances, one doesn’t have this luxury a public debate.

McKaiser is a rare combination of moral objectivist and atheist/agnostic, and claims that there are such things as moral facts that we can know, but that we don’t need God to arrive at them. We only need our reason. He never gave an argument for holding this position, and ended by admitting that he couldn’t.

To be fair, McKaiser did claim to present his argument in a subsequent Cape Times article (post-debate thoughts by Lennox, and the moderator). Curiously enough it was the Euthyphro Dilemma, which is problematic for two reasons. First, it is like trying to prove that rugby is the best sport by undermining cricket. Even if you succeed, you still haven’t said anything about rugby. The Euthyphro dilemma doesn’t present a case for non-theistic morality; rather, it seeks to undermine the basis of theistic morality. But disproving the one doesn’t prove the other. Second, Euthyphro is also widely acknowledged as a false dilemma, and not given serious consideration nowadays.

Lennox presented his stock arguments for the existence of God and the rationality of man, but took a surprisingly non-standard line by accepting that morality can by arrived at rationally. He then argued that human rationality is only possible if God exists. A brain evolved from a mindless process cannot be rational, but is simply responding to chemical stimuli, and can therefore not perceive moral facts. This argument has been used by Lennox to great effect in the past, but he didn’t elaborate enough on it for the audience to follow, and McKaiser (wisely) didn’t ask him to. Rather, McKaiser’s objection was that although God may have been necessary to give us our rationality, he becomes superfluous when we start reasoning towards moral facts. He claimed that God is like our mothers: they may be necessary for our existence, but need not be alive in order for us to be rational. He repeated this analogy in a subsequent newspaper article. Although Lennox didn’t call him on this, it is clearly false on a number of levels, and we can only hope he means this more as a joke than as a serious argument.

Although Lennox could have defeated McKaiser in William Lane Craig-fashion, his approach might not be a bad thing, as a friend of mine observed. The subsequent conversations and good-will, as well as the impact on our culture, may outweigh a ‘quick win’. We need these conversations in South Africa, and Eusebius sets a wonderful example of how this can take place.

Digging Deeper

There were many positive points in the debate, from both sides. However, instead of reiterating them I would like to explore some of the more problematic arguments presented.

Lennox often uses Christian hope as an evidence for God. Eusebius called him out on this, and rightly so. Although McKaiser called it pragmatism, it is essentially the fallacy of affirming the consequent. If the Christian God exists, belief in him would give us hope. True. But we can’t use this to say that because belief in the Christian God gives us hope, he must exist. Put another way: if Bill Gates owned Fort Knox, he would be a rich man. But just because Bill Gates is a rich man, doesn’t mean that he owns Fort Knox. Hope may be a significant consequence of faith, and relevant especially to the question of the problem of evil. But it is not evidence.

Unfortunately McKaiser’s errors in reasoning were much more critical and frequent. Even though he often refers to evidence, empirical proof, propositions, cogency, justification, falsification, verification, and other philosophical terms, he himself doesn’t seem to play by their rules. Instead, he makes naked assertions: statements not backed up by fact, and often in direct contradiction to what was said before. He did this in many instances, but I will focus on his critique Lennox’s rationality argument and his own statements about non-theistic morality.

Rational Morality

McKaiser grants the Christian God for the sake of the argument, but likens God’s contribution to our rationality as equal to our mothers’ contribution to our rationality. Not only is it obviously false, since our mothers are necessary for the explanation of how we came to be, but it fails in at least two more ways. First, God as “Logos” created our and our ancestors’ rational capacities. Our mothers simply bore and begat creatures like them. If I say our mothers aren’t God, most people will know what I mean. On a deeper level, God is Being itself: the ground of being. Ironically, Thomas Aquinas used the mother-example when he observed that our existence (us be-ing) is dependent upon God in a different way to how our parents caused our being. We depend on God the way live music depends on the musician. If he stops playing, the music ceases to be. In other words, we are, because God is: our being is the music of his Being.

McKaiser asserts that “the fact that [God] confers on both you and me the rationality capacity that enables us to reason… does absolutely no work epistemically, because the moral facts… will be able to give an account… without reference to God”. We could rephrase his argument like this: just because Newton gave us the mathematics to describe motion, it doesn’t mean that we have to refer to Newton every time we do the calculations. The calculations speak for themselves. True, but it’s not the same with us and our reason. Newton used his reason to observe and describe something that was already there, helping others to see it too. But he didn’t create the laws of motion, nor our reason . Eusebius tries to apply this to how we know stuff. But the only reason we can know stuff, including moral facts, is because God gave us a rational capacity. So Eusebius is merely disagreeing with Lennox, but his disagreement is not the same thing as a counter-argument.

Eusebius also blurs the line between how we know about right and wrong, and why certain things are right and certain things are wrong (moral epistemology and moral ontology). Most people agree that theft is wrong, but why should we listen to them? The feelings by themselves have no authority over us. Where do these facts come from, and what are they? Are they just concepts floating around? Why do we select some of them, like ‘justice’, or ‘equality’, above others, like “selfishness” or “greed”? Why ought we live by some of them, if there is no God? How do we get from the ‘is’ of the moral fact: ‘theft is wrong’ to the moral imperative: ‘you ought not steal’, without reference to God?

Non-theistic morality

Objective morality says that certain things are right or wrong, regardless of who believes them. It is quite rare for atheists to hold to objective morality – with good reason. You can talk about usefulness or desirability, but without God there is no “ought”. Since McKaiser did his MA on this, I was expecting something new, but I was disappointed. In fact, Eusebius himself admitted that his external examiner from UKZN (who gave him a distinction) should have picked up on the fact that he couldn’t answer this central question. I will let him speak for himself, with quotes in chronological order:


I am a moral objectivist. I do not believe that in order for me to explain to you why rape is morally wrong, I have to make reference to God… Is God necessary, at the level of justification, for explaining the wrongness or the rightness of a particular moral fact?… God can be eliminated as not necessary for the justification… of why murder is wrong.

I’m not a relativist. I think there are such things are moral facts.

Especially when we [in ‘academic philosophy’] speak to non-philosophers, it is really difficult to give you a simple account of moral objectivity… For me it’s very simple. I can look at the world… to sociological facts… that is the kind of ingredient I use as a philosopher to build an account of the rightness and wrongness, desirability/undesirability of certain behaviour between human beings. In general, none of us like pain. In general, we like happiness… we kinda know – human psychology – … we use that, we add a couple of basic principles like consistency in your reasoning… and then it really will take us just more than ten minutes… to make a link between that methodology for arriving at moral facts, and why the constitution has the right to equality in it…

I want to acknowledge – especially for any professional philosophers out there – that much hard work remains to be done.

…It is very difficult to give a really good account of how we go from things we like and don’t like, pain pleasure etc., to saying things like ‘everyone is entitled normatively to equality.’

It doesn’t follow from my own struggles as a non-theistic philosopher trying to give an account of moral facts without reference to God, it doesn’t follow from the shortcomings that project, the struggle of that project, that you’re on stronger turf. No way.

To my mind, this is what an admission of defeat sounds like in a debate entitled Morality and God: Is There a Connection? McKaiser is a worthy opponent, and I look forward to his thoughts on this in future. But there is a reason why the best philosophers in history have failed to bridge the is-ought gap in non-theistic morality, and I don’t think McKaiser is going to be the one to do what they could not do. Without God, there is no “ought”.