The Moral Limits of Religious Precepts


To kick off my foray into writing short pieces on applied ethics, I thought I’d first look to lesser discussed topics in the field. When one thinks of applied ethics, concepts like animal rights, international aid, and charity normally come to mind. Certainly these phenomena have much more weight in modern times than they have had in the past (Descartes after all had a pretty horrible track record with the animal rights bit). And while these examples of applied ethics have a great deal of importance in the modern moral discourse, I myself have a particular interest in the role religious precepts play in shaping (or perhaps distorting) one’s moral intuitions. This is not likely to be the last post I write that directly confronts the issue of religious dogma’s moral applicability, as I think that it is important to challenge traditionally held notions with firmly established conceptions of moral truth. In doing so, religious practices can be refined to better reflect moral values, while at the same time revealing the limits of ethical systems whose paradigms are hedged on theological grounds.

I usually like to retrace my steps in the metaethics before jumping into criticisms and analysis, so bear with me as I lay out a brief theoretical framework to work with. Religious folks, Christians in particular, usually fall under two broad categories when it comes to their beliefs on the basis for morality. One can start with Plato on this issue, where in the Euthryphro dialogue, Socrates essentially asks, “Is what is good commanded by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by the gods?” What Plato seeks to demonstrate here is that there is a fundamental question for those who couch their moral basis in the authority of a deity. When we try to take either position, clear problems emerge. To start, let’s look at the second half of the “Euthyphro Dilemma”

“It is good because it is commanded by God[s]” 

This is the position held by “divine command theorists,” who hold that the source of morality is in the authority of a deity. For Christians, this position is assumed by both Calvin and Luther, and by a great deal of the Christian population (but not all, as we will see). For divine command theorists, all of God’s commands bear the full weight of moral duty, regardless of the recipient’s own intuitions. A clear Biblical example of this can be found in Genesis chapter 18, where after being told of his plan to smite Sodom, Abraham pleads to God saying,

“Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

Abraham’s moral intuitions seemed to be at direct odds to God’s intentions in this instance, and it drove Abraham to bargain on behalf of those in the city, and to even tell God that destroying Sodom would be “Far from thee.” As it turned out however, none but Lot and his wife were deemed righteous, and the city was subsequently destroyed by God. This story’s full context has a much richer theological interpretation, but the point I’m trying to get out of it is that there are cases in the Bible where God’s commands (which under Divine Command Theory have the full force of moral law) seem to cut against the moral intuitions of individuals.

Another issue with divine command theory that I find to be the most compelling reason for rejecting it, is the tautological problem with having a deity serve as the principal moral authority. If what is good is good because it is commanded by God, then what purpose does praising God’s moral virtue serve? Just reading the first five lines of “Amazing Grace” illustrates this philosophical problem plainly. It seems redundant to make claims praising his moral stature if morality comes from him. Take for instance Psalms 36:6-7 “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O Lord, thou preservest man and beast. How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.” I mean to show that due to this problem in claiming that God is both good, and that what is good is such because it is commanded by god, one seems to strip the significance of his moral qualities to a mere redundancy. Metaphysically speaking, there is a great deal at stake for divine command theorists.

Relating this back to my original topic regarding religious dogma, one can clearly see the advantage holding this position would have if religious law was meant to be upheld to the utmost. Dietary law, rules regarding the planting of seeds, cultural customs, and the like are all in the same camp as moral law under divine command theory. This means that things that seem utterly amoral to nonbelievers have the force of moral duty to the believer. This is why the Christian evangelist is confounded by the secular moralist’s belief that he can be moral without having to appeal to a deity. It is an issue of moral paradigms, and for my next and final post on this matter, I’ll explore how the shift in paradigms can yield troubling problems for religious precepts that lack any conceivable moral force.

Have a nice day!

Stay tuned for part two… (probably tomorrow)

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3 comments on “The Moral Limits of Religious Precepts

  1. Cody says:

    Whether or not morality originates in God seems to me to be at the root of the question, and I think anyone who believes in a God would be inclined to say that yes, the ultimate in morality is found in God. But suppose this means that theists are tasked with searching for and understanding this morality, for man will never comprehend the ultimate morality of God. Like physics, morality seems to be an ultimate set of laws that dictate how things are to be done, and man wishes to carve them into stone—to satisfy his craving for an answer. But we must stay open-minded to changing these laws, our morals, whether collective or individual.

    Of course, this poses a problem for religious doctrine. How sacred is that which is false the next day? Interesting topics Mind Hiker. I await part two.

    • cebower says:

      Good points Cody! My next post is going to further on this idea about the metaphysical basis for morality, and how couching it ultimately in God can prove to be both advantageous for imposing religious precepts, and troublesome for maintaining a sound theology. I’ll try to get it up by the end of the day, so stay tuned! Thanks for the input!

  2. Sherry Martz says:

    Good points Bub..I tend to agree with you.

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