When the king died, Philip fell at his rival’s feet begging to be spared.
“Spare you? I never intended to harm you.”
“But, the lawgiver is dead, and with him his laws.”
His rival shook his head.
“Murder will always be wrong; the King just happened to get that right.”
One of the first things you’ll be asked if you come out as an atheist is ‘how can there be any morality without a God?’ This isn’t to be confused with the claim that religion is a good source of morality (that one can learn to be a moral person from the teachings in Holy books), rather it’s a much stronger claim that morality is dependent on there being a God. The reasoning is something like: Without a God to determine what is right and wrong, there would be no right and wrong; anything would be permitted. So, they then argue, because certain actions are obviously wrong (murder and rape for instance) there must be a lawgiver and that lawgiver can only be God.
Now, all of this rests on a very big assumption: that moral laws require a lawmaker. Leaving aside whether we think that there is some sort of objective morality and assuming for the sake of argument that there is, it’s not clear that we need to make this assumption in order to make sense of it and; what’s more, this assumption carries a pretty large theoretical burden. Let’s take those two points in turn:
First, why should we think that morality needs a lawgiver. Let’s suppose that there are moral facts: It is wrong to murder, it is wrong to rape, it is right (or good) to protect the innocent. What is it about these facts that means they need a lawmaker, a being to make them right or wrong, good or bad? Might moral facts not be like mathematical facts? That ‘2+2=4’ is necessarily true, it doesn’t require anyone to make it true, it just is; conceptually it could not fail to be. Perhaps moral facts are like this: necessarily true and independently discoverable. Do we really need anything to determine that murder or rape is wrong? Couldn’t we think that it is just conceptually wrong? There doesn’t seem, at least, that there being moral laws necessitates a moral law giver, just as mathematical facts don’t necessitate the existence of a mathematical law giver.
Second, if we do make the assumption that moral laws require a moral lawmaker we will be taking on a great deal more than we might realise. If murder is wrong only because God has made it so, then we need to accept along with that thesis the fact that i) nothing is intrinsically immoral; ii) (hence) humans are incapable of discovering the moral nature of actions (they need to be instructed); and iii) God could have made murder and rape morally right.
Intuitively (i) is something we ought to reject: murder and rape are abhorrent deeds, it seems incredible to suppose that they could ever be anything other than wrong by their very nature. What’s more, by accepting (ii) we are seriously damaging our conception of humans as moral beings: If humans only ever act morally because they have been instructed to, then there is a clear sense in which they are failing to act as moral agents (properly so called). In order to act morally you surely need to be acting because you recognise that a certain action is morally right, not because you recognise that God (or whatever lawmaker you adhere to) says it is right. A dog can follow commands without understanding them completely, to be a moral agent you need to be doing more than just following orders.
Finally, (iii) looks like a serious concession: It seems inconceivable that rape could ever be morally right, however if God is the lawmaker then it could well have been morally praiseworthy. It’s not enough to simply respond that God would not make murder or rape wrong,as that would be to admit that such actions are inherently wrong and that God is merely responding to their intrinsic properties; if that were the case then God wouldn’t need to make murder and rape wrong, and so we wouldn’t have explained moral facts by the existence of God.
So, far from explaining morality elegantly, pointing to God looks like it will end us up with more questions and uncomfortable commitments to swallow. If rape is only wrong because God made it so, then there is nothing intrinsically bad about it, and it could have been a morally good act. If God could not have made rape good, then it is wrong independently of his lawmaking (he would be subject to moral facts in his lawmaking), in which case we don’t need him to endorse the idea of a lawmaker (and God is a rather large ontological burden to take on for zero gains).
Right, I think that’s quite enough for today. Food for thought at least. See you tomorrow, pip pip!
(TL;DR: If moral laws require a moral lawmaker then rape could have been morally praiseworthy; if rape could not have been anything other than wrong then we don’t need a lawmaker.)