Judge Roy Moore defends the placement of the Ten Commandments in his court with the belief that God is the basis for the rights enumerated in the Constitution. Of course, this is just one theory about the origin of our rights, and - even though it was accepted by many of the Framers - one has to wonder if it needs to be accepted by everyone. It's not enough that people respect one another's rights, do they also have to adopt a certain theory regarding their origin?
Yes, say Moore and his supporters. The theistic position gets a special place in the court not simply because it's historical, but because it's correct. God is the foundation of our rights, and any other view risks moral relativism.
Now, Moore doesn't mean that God protects our rights; people's rights are violated every day (often, it seems, by God's intervention in the form of earthquakes, tornadoes, cancer, etc.). So, what does it mean to say that God is the "foundation" or "basis" of morality (is morality like a building needing cement)? Or to say that moral norms "derive" or "come from" God (are they like toasters with a country of origin, or letters with a return address)?
The question this talk about a "foundation" of morality is trying to address is this: What makes moral norms true? What makes it true that rape is wrong, charity is good, and wearing red sneakers is morally indifferent? That's the question, and the answer Judge Moore and his supporters give is "God."
But if God is (to use another metaphor) the author of morality, then morality is either a work of non-fiction or a work of fiction: if the former, then God is reporting facts that are independent of God, as historians do when they write history books. But Moore believes that God creates moral facts, rather than merely informing us about things that were already there. So he and his supporters must take the latter "fictional" view, that there are no moral facts beyond what God makes up, and God could have made up ones differently from the one's God actually made up.
But this view is nonsense. Why did God make rape bad, charity good, and red sneakers indifferent? If God could have designed moral norms differently, why do it this way? Why not instead make rape good, charity indifferent, and red sneakers bad? Was God's decision arbitrary? Was it random?
More to the point, to say that "rape would be OK if someone decided it was OK" is moral relativism, whether the "someone" making the decision is you or me, our culture, or God. Moore and his supporters claim to oppose relativism, but they're unwittingly supporting it. Moore's view assumes that rape (along with charity and red sneakers) has no moral qualities until God gives it some.
Let me illustrate a different account of the "basis" of moral norms by considering mathematics. We all know that two plus two equals four. What makes that true? God? No. What makes it true is that it couldn't be false. Two plus two couldn't equal three, seven, or anything other than four. Not even God can change that.
The same goes for moral norms: rape is wrong because it couldn't be right, couldn't be indifferent, couldn't be anything other than wrong. And not even God can change that.
Judge Moore and his supporters - along with many of the Founders - advocate a false theory of the foundation of morality. But I don't hold it against them. They're advocating relativism in the abstract, but because they generally uphold the correct moral norms in practice (rape wrong, charity good, red sneakers indifferent), I'll allow their flawed views on meta-ethics (to use some philosophical jargon).
But, will they show the same tolerance to ethical people who hold different meta-ethical views?
(c) 2003 Alasdair Denvil