My Debate on the Grounding of Morality

Author Brett Kunkle Published on 05/21/2013

Was I nervous? Yes, absolutely. Of course, this wasn’t my ordinary speaking event. On April 5, about 170 people packed a room at Weber State University, to watch my formal debate with professor of philosophy Dr. Richard Greene. The question: Can there be objective moral values and obligations without God? Each debater had 20 minutes for opening arguments, a 10-minute rebuttal, about 40 minutes of joint Q & A from the audience, and a 5-minute conclusion.

Dr. Greene had home field advantage. He has been teaching classes at Weber State for about eight years and a number of his students came out for the debate. 65% of the attendees indicated on a pre-debate survey that they held Dr. Greene’s view, that morality is best explained without God.

I won’t rehearse all the details of the debate here as I’ve posted the video below, but it was a lively give-and-take and I thoroughly enjoyed it (particularly in hindsight!). Certainly, as a rookie debater—this was my second formal debate in my ten years of work at Stand to Reason—there are areas I can grow in and arguments I can improve. Indeed, I knew I was make some mistakes and drop some balls, and in my immediate post-debate reflections, it was difficult not to obsess over those things afterward. The experience reminded me of what rookie NFL quarterbacks say about the speed of the game and how fast it seems to be moving during their rookie year. However, seasoned veterans will talk about how the game has “slowed down” and how they see so much more now, after years of practice and game experience. Well, as a rookie debater I definitely felt the “speed” of the debate. Lots of things were said, I had organize my thoughts quickly, and then figure out what to respond to and how best to respond.

As I’ve reviewed some of the “game film,” there are several things I need to work on and improve. First, I needed to address more of the details that Dr. Greene discussed. In particular, Dr. Greene threw out a few possible ways he thinks we can have morality without God, mentioning Plato’s view and utilitarianism as examples. I responded to his claim that all he had to show were mere possibilities, but I also I needed to spend a few moments showing how Plato’s view is inadequate to ground morality. In regards to utilitarianism, I needed to distinguish between the meta-ethical foundations of ethics (which was the topic of our debate) from normative systems of ethics. Second, during the Q&A there was a question regarding free will and after my response, Dr. Greene claimed there was no free will (around 1:30:45 in the video). Unfortunately, I failed to hammer him on the incompatibility of determinism and moral responsibility. Third, I really needed to draw the audience’s attention to the fact that Dr. Greene did not knock down my contentions, nor answer a number of the arguments I raised. I think I needed to push him harder in my responses. Well, I plan to go back and watch the entire “game film” a few times and also have some folks help me evaluate. I can and will learn from my mistakes in attempt to improve my debate skills and master the arguments.

For me, the highlight of the debate came from an unexpected source—a group of high school students. The debate was scheduled at the tail end of a Utah Mission trip I was leading for Upland Christian Academy, a Christian high school in Southern California. We had spent the previous four days sharing Christ with Mormons around the Salt Lake Valley. However, all week I was regretting the decision to coincide the mission trip and debate, feeling like my attention was torn between the two. In contrast, the high schoolers kept sharing their excitement about the debate. “That’s nice,” I thought to myself, “but I’ll never do this again!” God needed to change my perspective.

The afternoon of the debate, students helped with set up and created signs to post around campus. During the debate, they sat at the individual tables, collecting surveys from attendees and facilitating questions for the Q & A. Afterward, they helped clean up. When it was all said and done, we returned to our host church for a late night debrief.

But rather than being worn out from a long day, the students were beaming. Their excitement was palpable. They couldn’t wait to discuss the debate. As they shared their thoughts and feelings, it was clear this event was a huge faith-builder. They didn’t just get a behind-the-scenes peek at my debate preparation and nervousness. They didn’t just get to help with debate details, like room setup. They felt like they had just walked side-by-side with me, into hostile territory, and then watched as one of their own Christian leaders stepped up in a public venue to defend the truth of Christianity. And from their perspective, our arguments won the day. Here’s how sophomore Micah summarized it:

[L]ately, the secular world seems to dismiss Christians and Christianity, and theology in general, as an outdated form of science or philosophy. Brett totally proving them wrong was a very fun thing to see. Dr. Greene, the atheist professor, made bottomless and obviously last-minute mocked-up arguments that held no weight. He simply displayed possibilities, rather than giving a real objective moral basis without God.

After hearing from students, I realized the entire endeavor was worthwhile. Studying for countless hours was worth it. Balancing the trip and the debate was worth it. Constantly fighting back my nerves was worth it. It was all worth it to build the God-confidence of those 20 high school students.

Here is video of the debate for your enjoyment!