There is a common assumption that the existence of exterior rules that are believed to be worthwhile, or that are imposed by force, necessarily implies that those rules must be followed by the individual. More precisely, we assume that an exterior obligation, such as a legal obligation or a divine obligation, necessarily entails moral obligation or ethical obligation.
To understand why this is impossible, we must first make the difference between inter-subjective truths and objective truths. I use these terms because they are more convenient, and most people understand them, but let me specify exactly what I mean.
By “inter-subjective truth,” I mean a proposition of which the truth-value is dependent on belonging to a specific group or groups, outside of which the proposition is plainly false or absurd. An example of inter-subjective truth would be “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are united as three persons in one Godhead.” To a Christian, this proposition is self-evidently true. To anyone else, it is nonsensical.
By “objective truth,” I mean a proposition which can be evaluated by anyone, a universal truth which does not require belonging to a specific group in order to evaluate as true. Propositions such as “what goes up must go down” or “the sky is blue during the day” can be immediately verified by anyone regardless of group affiliation, therefore they are universal. From the believer’s perspective, the trinity proposition I gave is seen as equally objective, but this is an optical illusion, easily dispelled once we look at it from the eyes of a non-believer.
Of course there are grey areas between these two kinds of examples, but I only need the general principle to make the argument: inter-subjective truths are dependent on group affiliation and the myriad of beliefs that such an affiliation entails, while objective truths are accessible to everyone in the same way.
Every belief system, every ideology, every institution, has fundamental premises and attendant beliefs. These premises and beliefs do not have to be explicit. we can, for instance, discuss of the premises of the democratic system without having to rely on what voters or politicians themselves say. We deduce them from analyzing systemic features. To an inter-subjective truth, belief in the group it depends upon is a fundamental premise; just as we can only agree to any proposition if we already agree to its premises, we need to already belong to the group, and agree with its attendant beliefs, in order to agree with the inter-subjective truth.
An obligation is a kind of proposition which pertains to requirements put upon an individual, either by the individual himself (moral obligations and ethical obligations) or from some other source which may or may not involve the individual’s consent (such as legal obligations, divine obligations, work obligations, contractual obligations, social or cultural obligations). I am particularly interested in obligations which are imposed by some exterior determinism, more specifically legal obligation and divine obligation, because it is these which are most commonly used as replacement for morality and ethics, and often as an open attack against morality and ethics.
For example, you might see something which states that “buying alcohol for minors is not just wrong, it’s illegal.” Taken literally, this is an objective proposition, as anyone can verify for himself that it is indeed illegal to buy alcohol for minors, but it seems to me that the statement is actually trying to use illegality as a tool of intimidation or guilt. It tries to establish some further obligation from the fact that the law exists (i.e. it’s not just a moral obligation, it’s a legal obligation too, which presumably commands even more obedience). Now, it is not clear at all that buying alcohol for minors is wrong in a moral or even ethical sense, but the statement of illegality puts all such concerns aside. It is illegal, therefore one should not do it.
In general, when we talk about the law, not only is the capacity to distinguish right from wrong replaced by obedience, but often people will claim that the law outright dictates what is right and wrong, even when there exist laws which are clearly unethical to any thinking person (I am not here referring to the underage drinking laws as, while I believe they are wrong, I do not believe they are self-evidently wrong).
Likewise, one may hear that “homosexuals need to repent from their sins, as God condemns them.” It is not clear at all that homosexuals are in fact reprehensible and deserving of such obligation. The condemnation only makes sense within the Christian worldview, as one must believe that God exists and that God can condemn people, therefore it is also inter-subjective.
So the question is, how does legal obligation or divine obligation translate into moral obligation or ethical obligation? How does a rule that exists within a specific belief system become a universal rule? Let’s look at a fictional attempt to establish this, between a Christian and an atheist.
C: “God says that homosexuals are sinful.”
A: “Uh, okay.”
C: “That’s why you must never commit any homosexual acts.”
A: “Hang on. First, you said God says it. I am not going to dispute that: you’re the Christian, you would know. But now you’re saying that I have to follow this rule. Why?”
C: “Because whatever God says is what you should do. God is the ultimate standard of morality.”
A: “You are welcome to believe whatever you want about God, but I don’t believe in God, so I am not really bothered by any of this. What you think God says has no more relevance to me than what you might think Santa Claus says.”
C: “But God is real, and he will send you to Hell if you disobey him!”
A: “So, might makes right then. That’s ultimately what these things always reduce to, isn’t it? Once again, I understand that you believe that God is real, and that you believe in Hell, but you haven’t proven anything to me. Unless you can prove to me that God is real and how I can verify the validity of God’s commands, all you have to give me is a threat of force. I might be scared by a threat of force if it is real, but acting out of being scared does not mean I accept any obligation as being valid.”
From the unbeliever’s perspective, such attempts are circular and cannot break free from their dependence to a specific belief system. No matter what belief the Christian brings up, it is dependent upon the worldview that generated it. And here is the problem in attempting to transfer obligations from an exterior determinism to the individual: no matter how big a mass of propositions you accumulate as “proof,” that mass remains tethered to the worldview which generated it. Adding up a hundred inter-subjective truths does not, and cannot, produce one single objective truth.
The only way to counter this fact, for the believer, is to try to link the mass of propositions to some objective truth, which can then act as validation for the entirety of it. But this inevitably leads to ridiculous results. For example, some have claimed that acupuncture was “validated” by a study which showed that sticking needles in people at certain places can reduce pain. But acupuncture is an ancient belief system laden with pseudo-scientific beliefs; it is silly to claim that the whole belief system we call acupuncture is validated by someone sticking needles in people. All that the study proves is that sticking needles in people can reduce pain.
If the Christian continued our fictional discussion, he might say something like:
C: “Well, it’s actually easy for you to see that there is a God. After all, can the entire universe, and all the complex things in it, come to exist by chance? That’s impossible. There must have been a designer behind all this.”
There are flaws with the argument itself, and I don’t think I have to point them out. But beyond that, even if we accept the Christian’s argument as valid, we are no closer to validating the whole mass of propositions that came before it. Even if we did discover that there was a designer behind the complexity of the universe, this would in no way validate the whole belief system of Christianity; all it would prove is that there exists some designer that made the universe, whatever that designer is. All Christian arguments which attempt to rely solely on objective truths lack specificity, because they are no longer linked to the specific belief system they are dependent upon; and all the Christian arguments which appear to do the same job but have specificity are always still dependent upon some element of Christianity, such as the Bible or the person of Jesus. There is no way out of this quandary.
The same reasoning applies to legal obligation, for the same general reasons. In fact, if you replace “God” by “the law” and “Hell” by “jail” in the fictional discussion above, you’d get pretty much the result you would get by debating a statist (although, unless one is in a society where homosexuality is illegal, “homosexuality” should be replaced by something else). And you are liable to come up against the same two kinds of arguments: those that are depend on some element, such as democracy or some “service” (such as health care, schooling, roads), and those that lack specificity because they try to lean on some supposedly objective truth (such as the belief that man must be controlled). But it is impossible to go from legal obligation to moral obligation, because no accumulation of legal truths or legal obligations can ever give us a single objective truth.
This whole process also applies to evaluations, not just obligations. You often run into some knuckle-dragger who believes that killing innocent women and children in some pointless foreign war is perfectly valid, or that Noah’s Flood was a wonderful act, or similar genocide-supporting or murder-supporting nonsense, which is just plainly, self-evidently incorrect and evil by any human standard. I have examined in the past exactly how people come to be so mentally corrupt. Now, you can have the exact same kind of dialogue than I described before, with the same kinds of objections. The only difference is that, most of the time, you are taking them by surprise when you ask them to justify their evaluations, because they tend to be implicit. Because of this, their answers are more likely to be just plain insults rather than serious objections.
On all of these points, the believer may try to end the conversation by explicitly stating a threat of force, as I did in the fictional dialogue. The believer may also try to argue that this threat of force is the result of a voluntary or even consensual process (for the State, this is the “social contract” conceit; for Christianity, this is “original sin” and “they chose to disobey God”). Finally, the believer may try to argue that submitting to his authority of choice fulfills some strong inner desire or need. None of these have any relevance to the problem of transferring obligations. They are just red herrings and not worth wasting any time on.
To summarize the argument:
(1) Any moral obligation towards an exterior determinism would have to be objective (to exist independently from group beliefs and language).
(2) Obligations generated by any exterior determinism are inter-subjective.
(3) It is impossible to go from inter-subjective propositions to objective propositions, as any given sum or network of inter-subjective propositions must still remain grounded to the belief system.
(4) Therefore, moral obligations cannot be generated by any exterior determinism.