The External Guarantor
A Christian reader wondered in a comment on That Special Glow how atheists believe in “objective absolute moral standards/truths” and asked if I could elucidate. Being short of time, I noted that it’s a large subject and gave a sort of place-holder answer. He expanded on his own view: “The point about objective truths and religious belief is not that we only believe these things because we are believers and thus taught to believe them, whether or not they are right, but that this is an assurance that these standards/truths/rights are, indeed universal and always apply.” Now it’s my turn to wonder. I wonder how that works. Because in fact it seems to me that it doesn’t. It seems to me there is no assurance that moral standards (the commenter actually said ‘objective truths’ in the second comment, but he started off with moral standards/truths, which is a confused way of putting it, since it’s not clear if he’s talking about moral standards and moral truths, or moral standards, and, separately, truths; at any rate, I take him to be talking primarily about moral standards [or moral truths], so I’m addressing that) are universal and always apply. If there were such a thing, I don’t think religious belief would provide it, but I don’t think there is such a thing in any case.
The truth is (and this is a general point about the [widely-held] view, not a specific one about my interlocutor), I think the invocation of an external guarantor of this kind is just lazy, in the same sort of way that Barthes’s cited views are lazy: it’s an evasion of argument. If you want to make a case for a moral view, if you want to try to convince someone else to agree to a moral view, it’s a lot easier and simpler to say ‘god said so’ than it is to offer reasons; but the ease is precisely what’s wrong with it. It’s easy because it’s empty, and because it’s empty, it doesn’t do the work it is thought to do. It amounts to a hollowing-out of content, leaving just a shell of words behind, and using the shell of words to compel assent. But what we need is the content. Why should I persecute or refrain from persecuting homosexuals? Why should people have or not have certain rights? Why is assisted suicide acceptable or unacceptable? Why is torture acceptable or unacceptable? You have to offer reasons, and furthermore, once you have offered them, there is no guarantee that anyone will accept them. They’re necessary but not sufficient. Saying ‘because god’ is an escape from both of these irksome conditions – the effort of giving reasons, and the frustration when people don’t accept them. ‘Because god’ is, therefore, frankly just a cheat, and it ought to be more widely recognized as such, because to the extent that it’s accepted as valid, that just undermines rational discourse ever more.
The idea seems to be that the ‘assurance’ that moral standards are universal and always apply is added on to other reasons for adhering to them. But what is it that is added? What is it that provides the assurance? I don’t see it, myself, for one reason among several because the moral standards have conspicuously changed over time, and are still highly contested to this day. If god were a provider of assurance, then why would there be change over time, and why would there be disagreement? Why does it all seem to be so fallible? And if it is fallible, in what way is it assurance?