Joseph Spoerl


The Cause of the Moral Law

Our experience of moral obligation makes sense only on the supposition that the moral law emanates from a transcendent source.

The moral law has a cause. It is not self-explanatory. Indeed, insofar as it conflicts with my own self-interest, even at times with my own survival, it is a very odd thing indeed. It cries out for some explanation. Where does it come from?

If the moral law has a cause, that cause must be either natural or supernatural. It either is located entirely in the physical, sensible realm, or it in some way transcends the physical, sensible realm.

If the cause of the moral law is natural, then that cause must be either biological instinct or human custom. E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse opt for biological instinct, asserting that “ethics…is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” Ruth Benedict opts for human custom, asserting that “morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.”

Now if the cause of the moral law is either biological instinct or human custom, then the moral law does not override instinct and custom. The moral law can have no more authority than the forces that shape it.

However, the moral law does override instinct and custom. The instinct of self-preservation dictated that Socrates participate in the unjust arrest and murder of Leon of Salamis, but, as Socrates correctly saw, the moral law overrides instinct. Custom condoned slavery in the antebellum south, but the moral law condemns slavery unequivocally. If Wilson and Ruse were right, then Socrates was a fool, for only a fool would risk his life in order slightly to enhance the odds of his genes surviving. If Benedict were right, then Socrates was also a fool, for only a fool would risk his life for a mere variable custom. But Socrates was no fool. He was a hero.

It follows that the cause of the moral law is supernatural; the moral law somehow emanates from a source that transcends the physical, sensible realm.

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Professor Joseph Spoerl is the fifth profile in the series.

In this interview, Prof. Spoerl talks about how he got into philosophy, some of his work in applied ethics, as well as his recent research on Islam and its history.

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

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