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What gives "law" its authority?

If there is no such thing as Divine Law, and societies do not abide by it, how can society not regress into moral relativism?

Posted: June 16th 2007

SmartLX www

You use “moral relativism” as if it were a synonym for lawlessness. I think we are living in the very grip of moral relativism, and chaos has not thus far ensued.

Moral absolutism is not negotiable. Any moral absolutes that existed one thousand years ago would be unchanged today. And yet many of the laws we live by have changed drastically. Slavery is outlawed, revenge is no longer a defensible reason for murder, the practice of witchcraft is legal, a man has far less authority and power over his wife and so on.

A god who took it upon itself to create moral absolutes for us would surely take a position on each of these issues. Supposing that we were closer to these absolutes around Biblical times, for example, we are drifting away from them now. In short, if there are any moral absolutes we just plain aren’t using them.

You will notice, in spite of this, that we live in a better world than that of a thousand years ago. In most of it there is less bigotry, more equality, fairer laws and happier lives for the people. Awful acts are still committed, but the law as it stands is sufficient to condemn them.

The laws changed because people looked at them, consulted their peers, their history and their own consciences and moved them towards what seemed right. Doing so with all of the above in mind tends to produce the best results for all.

Where is Divine Law in all this? Kept in mind and yet left behind. Absolutism must be abandoned for positive change to occur, because it’s always assumed that the status quo is the absolute. Relativism is here and it works. Dig it.

Note: I see a parallel between this common question and the faux-secular concept of intelligent design. If Divine Law is accepted in principle as necessary, a religion can conveniently present its own law as an obvious candidate. In the same way, ID proponents hope to one day present God as the indispensable intelligent designer they currently leave unnamed.

Posted: November 15th 2007

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George Locke

First, let’s distinguish between the law of government and that of ethics/morality. Also, the term authority is sometimes associated with enforcement, whereas the question’s thrust seems to be, “How do we know that the laws we follow are really just, and from where do we get our ideas of justice/right and wrong?” I apologize if you were wondering about governmental law, I’m not going to address it, focusing instead on the related but more abstract issues of morality.

Now to answer the question, I have two responses. The questioner proposes “Divine Law” as an alternative to “moral relativism”. My first response is that this alternative is totally unacceptable. While atheists may or may not be moral relativists, we uniformly reject divine law on the grounds that there is no divine source to provide the law.

Besides, people disagree about what the divine laws are, creating wars, and people who believe they are carrying out the will of God sometimes do horrifying things, both on a massive scale, such as the Inquisition, and on a smaller scale, such as stoning women who wear pants. Not long ago, men and women were guided by divine law to hijack airplanes and use them to attack various US institutions, causing massive devastation, and eventually resulting in war and other problems. These facts do not refute divine law, but they certainly make me very wary. Ordinary criminals can learn the error of their ways, but people who are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their actions can do frightening things.

My second response is a more direct address to the question, “Without divine law, what is the source of our moral compass?”

There are several ethical systems which don’t make specific reference to the divine, the eternal, or any particular religion. One such system, the one that makes the best sense to me, is called 'utilitarianism '. In utilitarianism, the moral worth of a particular action is determined by its utility. Exactly what utility is to mean is not self-evident and must be defined; often the happiness of individuals is the principle. (In my case I value both the liberty and the happiness of individuals.)

An argument for or against utilitarianism won’t really answer your question, so we’ll skip that. What it seems you really want to know is, “Why are liberty and happiness valued, rather than X or Y? How can we assign value to anything at all without guidance from eternal principles?”

There’s no easy answer. Of course the skeptic in me says that even if you think you know the eternal principles, there is the real possibility of error, effectively rendering the 'eternal’ principles contingent.

Dawkins and Harris have argued that traits like altruism and compassion may have been naturally selected throughout human evolution, but that doesn’t mean that they are 'moral’ or 'just’. Part of their arguments is the assertion that altruism and compassion promote the vitality of the species. I happen to value the vitality of the human race, but again I can’t explain why.

Why should I even protect my own life? I don’t really know why I don’t want to die. There are things I want to get done, and death would keep me from completing these projects…

The world is full of people, each of whom has needs and wants. When those needs and wants are left unfulfilled, conflict often arises. Since conflict threatens human life, it is generally 'good’ to help people to satisfy their needs and wants.

Why I value human life I really can’t say, but anything else seems totally inconceivable.

So, I believe there is no perfect answer, just that we have to keep on living as best we can, doing what feels right and lets us live.

Posted: June 19th 2007

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