Secular Right’s readers have been raising the hoary “without God, no morality” topos again:
The problem with creating a notion of “secular authority” is that you run into . . . the “great sez who?” Eventually, without a belief in a transcendent moral order . . . appeals to authority eventually are futile. . . . Maybe two or three generations can feed off of the inherited patrimony of the civilization without embracing its underlying ethos, but eventually that patrimony gets exhausted and the “grand sez who?” phenomenon sets in.
Would someone please provide an actual example of such endless moral regress without the God trump card? If I may borrow a phrase from my misspent youth, it seems to me that we are “always already” embedded in a moral environment far more complex and sophisticated than the blunt pronouncements of the Ten Commandments (i.e., those not commanding obsequiousness before God). The question of some original source beyond human law and custom for our most basic principles, in my experience, never comes up.
Would someone please provide an example of
a. someone actually claiming that murder, say, (or theft) is fine at all times and places, or
b. someone claiming that murder (or theft) is fine at all times and places because there is no God, or
c. someone claiming that murder (or theft) is fine at all times and places because there is no God, and then being recalled to sanity by an invocation of the Sixth (or Eighth) Commandment?
I have simply never witnessed the need to reference to God to establish the validity of our laws against extortion, say. Real-world moral disputes are more complicated: Is health care a right? Who should pay for it and how much should one group pay for another’s health care? Is economic regulation theft? Is theft admissible to stave off starvation? We answer these questions by drawing on our innate and developed moral intuitions and our society’s legal framework.
Does anyone really believe that Denmark and Copenhagen are going to stop enforcing contract law because they have “exhausted the patrimony” of Leviticus and are uncomfortable invoking God as the source of their commercial code?
During large swathes of European history when religious belief was at its pinnacle, burning heretics at the stake and bludgeoning to death members of opposing sects were considered perfectly compatible with the Ten Commandments. Today, we would disagree, not because we have suddenly discovered that murder is wrong, but because that inevitable human taboo has been fleshed out differently, under pressure from Enlightenment values. In 1608, Pope Paul V ordered that Rafael’s Deposition, painted to honor a mother’s fallen son, be spirited in the dark of night away from its home in Perugia’s church of S. Francesco al Prato. Paul V bestowed it on his nephew, Scipione Borghese, for his art collection. Today, a pope would not secretly purloin an altarpiece painting, not because he has suddenly discovered the Eighth Commandment, but because our conception of the proper scope of papal power has changed.