Peter Kreeft On the Nature of Morality

In the Prager University video “Where Do Good and Evil Come From?”, religious philosopher Peter Kreeft makes so many mistakes that if you blink, you’ll probably miss some. This post points out the most glaring ones.

The video’s overall purpose is, of course, to demonstrate the existence of God by means of the moral argument — that is, that objective morality exists, God is the source of that morality, therefore God exists. But there are explanations of morality that do not depend on God. Kreeft therefore begins by criticizing these “atheistic” accounts (two of which we will look at here), before proceeding to the religious one.

Some atheists appeal to evolution as an explanation of morality. Kreeft rejects this approach by first pointing out that on such a view, morality changes — that is, evolves — over time, and then arguing that if it “can change for the good or the bad, there must be a standard above these changes to judge them as good or bad.” He uses the example of slavery to make the point, reminding us that it existed for most of human history, yet for the longest time “no one questioned it.” (Interestingly, he neglects to mention that one of those who didn’t question it was God. I’m sure this was just an oversight, though.) The idea, then, is that, just because slavery was once accepted, that did not make it acceptable — and so there must be a standard which applies independently of our change in attitudes.

This is a rather strange criticism, however. Those who appeal to evolution as a basis of morality aren’t talking about cultural changes, like the one that took place over slavery. Their point is that human beings evolved to have a particular nature, and that nature determines what for us is right and wrong. But instead of presenting an argument against that, Kreeft presents one against cultural relativism.

Perhaps he just means that the evolutionary account implies change in the long run, and so fails for the same reason cultural relativism does. Unfortunately, he then tries to argue against relativism by claiming that, if you can say that something might be accepted without being acceptable, “you are admitting to objective morality.” This, however, ignores alternatives to objective morality other than relativism. I can say that slavery is unacceptable, by which I mean that according to the standards I accept, it is wrong — even if it is accepted by some. And in saying this, I do not have to claim that the standards I go by are objectively true. In fact, I don’t.

The next explanation for morality Kreeft considers is the attempt to justify it on the basis of reason. Now, I agree that reason isn’t the ultimate source of morality. Kreeft’s way of showing that it isn’t, however, is complete nonsense. He presents two arguments. The first is that, even though criminals use reason to plan and commit crimes, their reason fails to tell them that what they are doing is wrong. But if reason were the basis of morality, that shouldn't be the case.

There are at least three things wrong with this argument. To begin with, it could be that the criminals realize that what they are doing is wrong, and simply don’t care. I’m sure Kreeft would admit that people sometimes knowingly do evil, yet he seems to forget that here. In the second place, if the reasoning they employ has to do with how to commit a crime, it has no more to do with morality than, say, reasoning about mathematics does. If the criminals aren’t reasoning about morality at all, then Kreeft certainly hasn’t shown the failure of reason to tell us the difference between right and wrong. And third, even if the criminals are reasoning about morality, it doesn’t follow that they are reasoning correctly about it. Their failure to conclude that crime is wrong doesn’t show that morality isn’t based on reason, any more than their failure to prove the Pythagorean theorem would show that geometry isn’t based on reason.

Kreeft’s second argument against this view is, if anything, even worse. He brings up the example of people who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and claims they were obviously not doing that as a result of reasoning — for risking one’s life in that manner, he tells us, is very unreasonable. But this is just linguistic confusion. The unreasonableness in this case has nothing to do with right and wrong. If morality is founded on reason, and the right thing to do in such a situation is to risk one’s life, then correct reasoning about it will show that. The fact that that’s unreasonable from the point of view of self-interest is irrelevant.

After having disposed of all atheistic views in this manner, Kreeft presents his case for God as the explanation by uttering the usual nonsense: “there are no moral or immoral atoms, or cells, or genes,” he informs us, therefore morality is non-physical, and therefore it must come from outside the physical universe. At this point, the video is just one obvious non-sequitur after another, so I’ll leave it to readers to see it for themselves.

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.