I dug up two letters-to-the-editor from days past. The first, co-written with my friend and then-colleague Elizabeth Brake, was submitted to the Opelika-Auburn News on 9 June 2000; to the best of my recollection, it was published.
Bruce Murray [Letters, 5/31/00] tells us that without divine revelation, we cannot know right from wrong. Yet he offers us no reason to accept this breathtaking dismissal of the last 2500 years of moral philosophy.
Do we really need a revelation from a supernatural being before we can figure out that cooperation and mutual respect are better than violence and cruelty? If we can discover through our own reasoning power what the square root of 529 is, why cant we discover through our own reasoning power how we should behave? The apostle Paul himself acknowledged (Romans 2:14-15) that those who have not received the moral law through revelation can find it for themselves through their own consciences.
Murray seems to think that morality is something that has to be handed down by an authority; but this claim betrays a logical confusion. For an authoritys commands merit our obedience only if the authority itself is good. Since an authority must already be good for its commands to count as good, no authoritys commands could be the standard of goodness.
Absent the Creator, Murray opines, all moral claims are equally opinion. But then why desnt he also think that, absent the Creator, all mathematical claims are merely opinion as well? After all, the Bible doesnt tell us what the square root of 529 is. Nor does it tell us what we should think about abortion, or affirmative action, or genetic engineering, or any number of other important moral issues. Should we just remain agnostic on these issues until we receive a special revelation from the Creator? Or should we instead accept the responsibility of reasoning through such issues, weighing the arguments pro and con to see which side has the strongest case?
Why would God have given us the capacity to reason unless he expected us to make use of it to discover the truth? Murray tells us that without divine revelation we are only animals. But as philosophers from Aristotle to Kant have pointed out, what separates us from mere animals is above all the possession of reason,a nd the responsibilities that come with it. In Hamlets words, we were surely not given godlike reason to fust in us unusd.
Roderick T. Long Elizabeth Brake
The second was published in the Auburn Plainsman, 2 November 2000 (back in my partyarch days):
To the Editor:
Do voters deserve to have full information before they make their choice in the voting booth next Tuesday? The Auburn Plainsman doesnt seem to think so.
When The Plainsman covers other kinds of races for student government or Homecoming Queen, for example they cover all the candidates, not just the top two contenders. Likewise, in the past, The Plainsman has tried to represent all sides fairly rather than simply cheering for the dominant faction. But apparently the rules are different this time.
George Bush and Al Gore are not the only candidates for President on the ballot. But although The Plainsman has offered space to representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties for guest editorials supporting their candidates, third-party supporters have been denied equal time.
As faculty advisor to the Auburn Libertarians, I asked to write a guest editorial making the case for Harry Browne, the Libertarian Party candidate, since the faculty advisor to the College Republicans recently had a guest editorial making the case for George Bush.
After I was initially told yes, my editorial was eventually turned down because the Libertarian Party is not one of the main parties.
Instead, The Plainsman published a vague write-up of the Libertarian Party that made it appears indistinguishable from the Republicans. For example, the party was described as seeking merely to reduce the federal income tax (rather than eliminate it), and there was no reference to the Libertarian Partys stand against all victimless crime laws, including drug laws.
Is it really any of the governments business what you choose to inhale or inject into your body? Is your body government property? Moreover, the governments war on drugs doesnt just interfere with the freedom of drug users; it threatens everyone else. The drug war is the governments principal excuse for increasing the invasion of civil liberties.
When government anti-drug programs fail, governments respond by demanding increased powers, by weakening constitutional safeguards against search and seizure, and of course by raising taxes.
Prohibition didnt work with alcohol in the 1920s, and it isnt working with drugs now; it only breeds organized crime and police corruption, as it did then.
Democrats want to control your economic life, through increased taxes and regulations. Republicans want to control your personal life by dictating what you can read, what you can inhale and whom you can sleep with. Both parties seem to think that politicians and bureaucrats can make better choices than you can about the proper use of your mind, your body, and your money.
Harry Browne is the only candidate for President who doesnt claim the right to control your life. If you want to be fully informed about your choices on Nov.7, check out the full details on Libertarian positions at www.harrybrowne.org and www.LP.org. And please vote your conscience next Tuesday.
Roderick T. Long
I think you used the wrong argument against Bruce Murray. Your analogy to mathematics runs up against the problem pointed out by David Hume: There is no way to derive ought statements from is statements.
A better argument would be to point out that Murray can’t derive oughts either. How, after all, does he know that he ought to do what God wills? He has to assume that, assume that the powerful being he believes in is also good, just as you have to assume that your views of right and wrong are for the most part valid.
Even if one grants (strictly speaking I don’t, but I also don’t think it matters) that normative statements can’t be derived from non-normative statements, I don’t see how that weakens the analogy with mathematics. If anything, it strengthens it. After all, mathematical statements can’t be derived from non-mathematical statements either. But no one seems to think that the inability to derive mathematical statements from non-mathematical statements is an impediment to genuine mathematical knowledge, so why should the inability to derive ethical statements from non-ethical statements be considered an impediment to genuine ethical knowledge? (Likewise, no one ever seems to worry that our knowledge of, say, physics is in danger unless statements of physics can be derived from ethical statements.)
Just so. (I do grant that you can’t get normative conclusions from non-normative premises, but as you say, your point here stands regardless of whether that’s the case).
Also of note is that these sorts of arguments from morality are offered as an alternative to relativism, but all they’re really doing is naively taking relativism for granted and adding God to it. It’s especially silly when so-called presuppositionalists do this sort of thing; if only they had some awareness of what they were really presupposing…
So what would you say about the following argument?
1. Lola eats meat.
2. Therefore, either eating meat is permissible or Lola sometimes acts wrongly.
How does it not matter?
Well done, I don’t know what to think of that. Do you think it would be possible to actually decide whether eating meat (or anything else) is permissible without some kind of normative premise?
Roderick, why don’t you think it matters?
Atrium & Stephan,
Because I think we can justify ethical claims without deducing them from non-ethical claims. So the fact that we can deduce some ethical claims from some non-ethical claims is just gravy.