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10.8.05

How To Create A Law

Joe Carter has a post up outlining the Axiological Argument for God's existence. He summarizes it as the following syllogism:

1. If God did not exist, objective moral values and duties would not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

(Note that while Carter, as a fan of Pascal's Wager, is not averse to pragmatic/consequentialist arguments for beliefs, he specifically disavows the common pragmatic version of the axiological argument, which states that atheists do not act morally. He also disavows the epistemological version, which states that the content of the objective moral code can't be known without a direct revelation from God.)

Carter has little patience for those who reject the second premise. I think he's a little too quick to dismiss the possibility that one could be a true moral relativist. It's possible that, on the model of sports fandom, one could hold a strong attachment one's own subjective moral code and desire to get others to adhere to it -- even to the point of dishonestly using claims of moral objectivity -- without believing in objective morality. Nevertheless, Carter is right that there is hardly anyone who actually is a moral relativist, and hardly anyone would actually be willing to bite the bullet of becoming relativist in order to avoid accepting the existence of God.

The question, then, is whether the first premise is valid. In comments, Carter clarifies that the first premise is -- consistent with his overall humility with respect to philosophical arguments for God -- a sort of default option. Nobody has produced another plausible explanation for where objective morals come from. I am intrigued by Juergen Habermas's argument that morality is based on 1) the principles that are presupposed by the attempt to debate and persuade someone else, and 2) the principles that would be consented to by all parties affected if they were able to debate them in an "ideal speech situation." But I won't claim to be entirely convinced of that, or any other, explanation. So thus far Carter and I mostly agree.

Where we differ is whether God is an adequate default position. It does seem facially intuitive that law can come from a lawgiver. But I'm skeptical of whether a lawgiver can be responsible for objective law. The law-lawgiver model comes from human society. But in that case, it's clear that the law in question is necessarily subjective -- and indeed, we often point out the existence of the lawgiver in order to relativize the law. A law given by a human lawgiver is merely an expression of his or her will, albeit a will often rooted in a sincere belief that the law is consistent with the objective law. Insofar as pointing out the lawgiver is grounds for accepting the law, it amounts to two possible positions:
1) The lawgiver is powerful, and will punish you if you do not accept the law.
2) The lawgiver is someone we've already decided is smarter than us or has access to more information than us, so it makes sense to trust her or him to have discerned the correct morality.

Under option 1, the real bindingness of the law is beside the point. Force can be used to compel disobedience to anything. The Taliban's soccer-stadium massacres didn't somehow make it objectively morally required that women wear burkhas, though they did make it pragmatically self-interested to do so. Similarly, the fact that God will send you to hell for acting in a certain way does not make it morally binding to not act that way.

Option 2 seems more plausible. After all, God is usually said to be omniscient, so if anyone can discern the objective law, God can. But notice what this does -- it places the existence of the objective law prior to the lawgiving. In this case the lawgiver is not a creator of the law, but rather a trustworthy guide to an existing law. The origin of the law remains unexplained.

A final option might be to reject the human lawgiver model. God, we could say, creates the objective moral law in the same way that he created the objective physical world. This line of argument, however, turns the axiological argument into a special case of the cosmological argument ("if something exists, it must ultimately have been created by a supernatural being"). Thus the axiological argument is just as convincing as the cosmological argument -- which is to say, very convincing for Carter and not terribly convincing for me.

It's important to note here that "where do morals come from?" is a question for which ignorance is an acceptable answer. Compare it to the question of "what conduct is moral?" In that case, we have to make a choice. No matter how uncertain we are about what is right and wrong, we have to provisionally adopt one set of principles or another (even if only implicitly). Life is constantly demanding that we make choices, and without a moral viewpoint, we can't. On the other hand, insofar as Carter is right (and I think he is) to disavow the epistemological version of the axiological argument, the origin of objective morality is not a question that we're forced to take a position on. If it's true that atheists and people who believe in the wrong god can still ascertain what's moral, then there's no reason we can't say "I don't know yet" to the question of where morals come from.

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