The Moral Limits of Religious Precepts (part two)

In my last post, I dug into the Euthyphro Dilemma, and extrapolated the second prong which states that “What is good is good because it is commanded by God[s].” Having thoroughly discussed the philosophical implications of holding a divine command theorist interpretation of ethics, I will now seek to address the first prong of the dilemma (yes I know I did it backwards, so what?), as well as using the distinction to springboard into a brief analysis of modern religious precepts, and the subsequent weight of their moral worth.

“God[s] command it because it is good”

While seemingly unassuming, this statement bears significant metaethical and theological implications that need to be discussed in order to get our footing for looking into the moral limits. On the other side of the fence from the divine command theorists, those that accept this claim are often referred to as moral objectivists, as they believe that morality has objective truth apart from the authority of God. While I won’t go into the deeper metaethical territory of moral realism, know that individuals who hold onto this theory believe that (according to the ever helpful Wikipedia) ethical statements are propositions with a true or false value– and thus they reject a subjective interpretation of ethics. This is important for religious folks who hold this view, because in order to do so, one must confront a few philosophical roadblocks along the way.

So why would it be troublesome as a Christian to accept an objectivist conception of morality, in light of the objections to divine command theory? Firstly, one would have to accept that due to the existence of moral truth apart from divine command, God’s omnipotence is in question. The notion of an all powerful God is at direct odds with an objective moral standard, as he would be incapable of acting out of accordance with it. By buying into moral objectivism, God is therefore subject to moral law, and no longer the “law maker.” And if you take this further and introduce the omnibenevolent property of God, you’re left with a God that merely acts out of accordance with moral law. But remember, God is also the creator, so we’re left with a case of God having created a rock he himself cannot lift– objective moral standards. At this point, God is seemingly reduced to merely conveying moral law, a moral messenger as it were– a significant challenge to traditionally held notions indeed.

Another interesting angle to approach this issue from is found in scripture, particularly the “Sermon on the Mount,” where Jesus tackles many pertinent moral questions. In Matthew 5, Jesus essentially lays out a sort of “expansion pack” for the moral law found in scripture, and he does so by addressing issues of moral motivation, rather than mere rule-following. Take for example his claim regarding murder: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:20-21).

He later goes on to expound upon other moral issues involving the old law, and hearkens to the congregation to consider their reasons for acting, beyond their mere adherence to the law. What Jesus wanted us to consider were our moral motivations– issues of the heart as it were. In the New Testament especially, many of Jesus’ followers seemed to have this fascinating association between morality, the law, and God’s commands. This attitude was a shock to his contemporaries because any expansion of moral instruction under theological pretenses seemed to bring into question the validity of God’s moral authority. If up to that point morality was incomplete (remember virtually all religious folks back then were divine command theorists), how were any of those who lived prior to Jesus morally accountable? Pontius Pilate, himself not even a Jew, washed his hands publicly in order to absolve himself of any blame for the mob-lynching Jesus subsequently received before crucifixion. There was this idea that physical purity, law adherence, and cleanliness were indicators of moral worth– and I think that this issue has a great degree of relevance in modern times.

So to conclude, if we are to assume an objectivist moral position, and attempt to retain theological notions, what sorts of religious virtues remain morally compelled, and what becomes of ones that bear no moral relevance? The bible is rife with many commandments, some having deep moral applicability, others having seemingly no moral relevance. Remember though, for the divine command theorist, all commands issued by God have the full weight of morality, which means that violating the two seeds per hole rule (Deuteronomy 22:9) is as immoral of an act as any of the other 600-some commandments. When, however, the moral objectivist attempts to morally assess a person who does not adhere to the faith, he must be careful to not construe religious precepts with morality. This applies especially to lawmakers who seek to promote public values, but fail to see the gulf between those values, and their own religious convictions. When lawmakers attempt to prevent access to birth control under a pretense of ‘purity’ or in the hopes of protecting the innocence of women, they often commit this fallacy of equivocating their religious precepts with that of moral values. Granted, most adhere to a divine command theory interpretation, so the distinction between the two is quite muddied in their minds. Ultimately, this is why we need to constantly examine the paradigms we use to justify our moral values. It’s not enough to simply hold a set of moral values, but we must be capable of defending the metaphysical basis thereof, otherwise we risk washing away our entire moral framework, “…like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6:49)

Have a nice day!

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