Climate change seems to have gone a bit thin recently – James has got bored – and its distinctly chilly here, with snow in the air and a most glorious sundog. So lets talk about morality.
Paul is discussing the argument is that atheism, if true, necessarily means that morality is an arbitrary personal opinion sparked by Dawkins on morality, where we find Dawkins agreeing to Ultimately, your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six.
I see no reason to concede this, being an aetheist who believes that rape is wrong and who thinks this isn’t arbitrary. Incidentally, what is arbitrary about evolution isn’t clear: that we have 5 fingers instead of 6 is probably so, that we have two legs rather than three probably not. I’m reminded of Stephen Jay Gould, who pushed the idea of capriciousness with respect to the Cambrian explosion, asserting that of the many radiating types that arose then, it was chance that types-leading-to-us survived, and others died out. But there is no way to know that; perhaps our ancestors were simply fitter.
But back to the subject. Rape is emotive, so lets drop down to robbery, which is less so, but which everyone of sound mind also believes is wrong. Its fairly easy to see why, because its taking something that isn’t yours (as, in a certain sense, is rape). And taking things that aren’t yours is wrong, because part of the contract you agree to when you join society is not to take things without the consent of the person that owns them. And breaking covenants is injustice; all else is just. This is of course the familiar social contract theory of Hobbes from Leviathan; it doesn’t require religion. In Hobbes words:
FROM that law of nature by which we are obliged to transfer to another such rights as, being retained, hinder the peace of mankind, there followeth a third; which is this: that men perform their covenants made; without which covenants are in vain, and but empty words; and the right of all men to all things remaining, we are still in the condition of war. And in this law of nature consisteth the fountain and original of justice. For where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything and consequently, no action can be unjust. But when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust and the definition of injustice is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust is just.
It does require you to believe certain laws or precepts of Nature that Hobbes propounds. You can argue about whether those are true, or necessarily true, but I think its hard to argue that they are necessarily false or rather not-true. And I suppose you could assert that believing in them amounts to a sort of “religion”, even if its not one that the religious would care for.
But the argument that aetheism commits you to no absolute morality is not valid.
Its also quite illuminating in respect to how people view certain laws. Drivers are notorious for not really believing that breaking the speed limit is “wrong”. And they are right, in a sense: it isn’t immoral, its just against the law; what the speed limit is, is arbitrary, and even having one is arbitrary [Update, 2019: this “puzzle” is largely removed when you allow for the difference between law and legislation, a distinction Hobbes does not possess; see Hayek vs Hobbes and the theory of law]. Unfortunately, breaking the law is immoral (err, if you believe Hobbes), so breaking the speed limit becomes immoral too, but only at second hand. Whereas robbery is closer to directly breaking the original compact, and so is far wronger. Some people feel that robbery or vandalism isn’t wrong; generally this is people who think that the social compact has already been broken against them, and so feel no qualms about breaking it back.
Well there you go, that was easy, no?