A somewhat bizarre news story recently arose where a man tried to create a joke that backfired. His girlfriend had a too cute pug dog, and he taught the dog to do a Nazi salute upon the command “Do you want to gas Jews?” You can read the story here.
The man is certainly guilty of extremely bad taste, but he has also been charged with a hate crime. He claimed he did it as a satirical joke just to annoy his girlfriend, but the court thought differently and convicted him of a hate crime. He may face jail time.
The event brings up a few interesting issues. Not the least of which is where does offensive humor stop and a crime start? Should the intent of a statement be worse than the statement itself? How do we know this man’s true intent when all we have are his words?
I look at this event with a philosophical eye. Let’s say we hold the man truly guilty of a hate crime and think he should indeed be arrested and kept in prison as a menace to society. But what about the dog? The dog was the one actually doing the salute to the offensive statement. Why did the police not arrest them both?
Many atheists tell us that we do not have free will, that humans are moist robots, and that our actions are conditioned responses to stimuli, just more complex versions of the dog being trained to salute. Further, the differences between humans and the dog are time and evolution, with the only differences being in the nature of what is called for in survival. So fundamentally there is not a difference in the man and the dog; both are merely responding to external stimuli.
Indeed, the atheist naturalist tells us that rapists and murderers do what they do because of a causally-closed universe, and that humans are not free agents and cannot originate a cause of their own actions. Therefore both the human and the dog are doing what they do for the same reasons.
How then can it be a hate crime, for the man is not truly hating? If we hold that the man is hating but not the dog, then we have no basic explanation for why this is so.
Of course, we do not lock up dogs for tricks that their owners teach them, and we know that the man should have had more compassion while the dog had no concept of the meaning of the command to gas Jews. For all the dog knew, the man could have been saying “Greep nackle harbing stu.” No society would lock up a dog for a hate crime. The only meaning the dog knew is that if he raised his paw, he got a treat. The ideas behind the words were lost on the dog.
Hate crimes exist because there truly is a meaning in our statements when we talk about gassing Jews or any other hurtful thing. Meaning exists, ideas have consequences, and in this case, widespread consequences of life and death. Further, if we can hate bad enough to be convicted of a crime, then mere non-material ideas have ethical consequences. Why is this so? Because there is an objective moral law that transcends the physical world. Moral laws require a moral law giver. This we call God.