Christians, the Bible, and Objective Morality

Nick Norelli has made reference to objective morality again. Rather than write a lengthy comment, I thought I’d turn this into a blog post of its own.

Nick’s point, if I’ve understood it, is that there is no objective reality. What God says is good, is good. If God commands slaughtering Canaanites, it is good. If God commands us to love our enemies, it is good. There is no objective standard that we can look to. Whatever God says is good, is good.

This seems to me to be a fundamentally unchristian stance, as well as fundamentally untenable in practical terms as well. I’ll start with the latter point. Unless we have some way of ascertaining with something close to certainty what God wants on every given occasion, then we are left in moral limbo with no way of making decisions. It seems that in the case of the extermination of the inhabitants of cities in Joshua, there was no general guideline that could be followed – in some instances God commanded total extermination of the population and destruction of their wealth, in others women could be forced to become the wives and property of their captors and other spoils of war could likewise be claimed.

If there is such a thing as an absolute morality, on the other hand,then it must be absolute and cannot depend even on the whims of an anthropomorphic deity. (See Eric Reitan’s recent post on the distinction between objective and absolute morality).

And so it is clear that one can either accept an absolute morality and criticize parts of the Bible on that basis, or one can accept that everything God is depicted as commanding in the Bible is moral, and abandon absolute morality.

There is a third option, which recognizes that “objective morality” is not something the Bible itself teaches or encourages one to believe in. Instead, the New Testament defines morality as doing to others what we would want them to do to us in the same circumstance. It is not as though this principle is woven into the laws of physics and can be detected. This simply is morality from a Christian perspective. And the only thing that makes morality objective is when it represents not simply individual convictions and commitments but a societal one as well.

And so perhaps, instead of trying to prove that morality is objective, we should be working to make it objective, if morality is something we are concerned about.

As for Nick Norelli’s view, presumably if he wants his view of objective morality to be objectively correct in the terms that he understands objectivity, he can only sit tight and wait for God to pronounce on the matter. Until such time, I’ll continue to encourage you to do to others what you would have them do to you. And to treat Nick according to that principle, I should end by emphasizing that I understand his desire to have morality be objective and clear cut. But despite the unreliability of human perception, it seems that we do not have a way of getting at answers to moral questions that bypass subjective considerations. But in light of the Golden Rule, perhaps it is a mistake to try.

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  • I admit that it is rather arbitrary on my part, but in James statement, "And so it is clear that one can either accept an absolute morality and criticize parts of the Bible on that basis, or one can accept that everything God is depicted as commanding in the Bible is moral"…..I accept the first point of "absolute morality"…but to expand, I don't believe that EVERYTHING in the bible is God-given instruction. Anyone that believes in the P,D,E,J and redactor sources of the bible (as I do) can't possible believe the bible is 100% God-given instruction. I buy the overall theme, but not the obvious re-writing of history to justify overall bad behavior.

  • Anonymous

    If God created the universe, set the board up so to speak, by what objective standard are you passing judgment?If God exists, he/she can do whatever he/she wants.You disagree with he/she? So what?I'll bet you are "Pro Choice" and don't think it is wrong for a woman to "slaugher" a fetus because the fetus is not, after all, a human being.So tell me you are a Pro Life Pacifist opposed to "mercy killing" and THEN I will give your ideas consideration.Jeremy Mancus, MU at Columbia.

  • I'm a pro-life pacifist opposed to 'mercy killing.' Now what?

  • James, Even when we make a judgment about what we want done to us, isn't that still a relative judgment? We won't all agree as to what we would want, will we? I may like you to leave me alone, when I'm trying to think things throught, while others might prefer to bantor back and forth, as it helps their thinking!The only possiblity of objective as to the Godlen Rule, is when people fail or make mistakes (are human?!) in some way toward you. Then, we all would choose mercy and not judgment.

  • Indeed, Angie, I agree with you – the Golden Rule may be an "objective" principle in the sense that it exists and can be found written in places. But it is a principle that calls upon us to make decisions about morality based on subjective considerations.

  • Steve

    Isn't this just a version of Euthyphro's dilemma? (which has been adequately answered in my view)

  • I seriously doubt God actually commanded the Israelites to slaughter and rape. If that's what the biblical account actually says (I think it does, but Paul Copan seems to disagree) then I think it's there to justify bad behavior. I don't think we have the ability to make morality objective any more than we have the ability to make string theory objective. We can make it universal by convincing everyone to believe in it (just like we can make string theory a universal belief by convincing everyone that it is true), but it still won't be objective. I've always struggled with this concept as a Christian because I seriously doubt the logic behind assigning something as objectively moral (because there's always a feeble human opinion thrown in there somewhere). In the mean time I can try to imitate the character of Jesus because I desire to know and be more like him. In the same way a husband has a desire to know his wife more fully (he doesn't need to appeal to objective morality for this) I can try to know Jesus more fully and be more like him.

  • Good People and Religion "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." -Steven Weinberg (1933-)Why is this so? Because groups that are identified by "God", as a justification to their "cause", are a danger to rationality and diversity. Social psychologists have "proven" how groups are formed and framed around certain boundaries. When these boundaries are framed as "absolute", then we become unconscious of "moral behavior" itself. So, in seeking to protect morality, we subvert it!

  • I feel like I've wandered into a bizarre conversation here, but isn't it the case that in broadly traditional Christian theology, a universal and rational understanding of good is intrinsically connected with the rationality and goodness of God.

  • Doug, Of course for the believer, God is the object of morality because he is the instigator and end of it! This is a supernaturalist view of morality. One "hears" what "God says", which is nothing other than subjectivity.Or one understands through texts or traditions of religion. But, as James said above; on one hand God commands the killing of the Canaanites, and at the same time he commands us to love our enemies….which is it?The way out of this dilemma is the theological task. It is an apology for the Christian God and the Church…but why would one want to defend "group think" and not understand human development as personal, not some spiritual exercise in terms about God! I find that religious wars are not settled by "one upmanship", but only intensifies a resistance and resentment of foreign beliefs. The human person is a universal that though bound within contexts, also has potential of development. This way of thinking understands the human individual as a value in themselves, and not subservient to "group think" or "group protection"…This is not to say that the individual is not benefited by groups, but that groups are secondary "outcomes" of individuals.Families are the only "group" that can really own the right to say that they exist as entities separate from the individuals within, because these should be the responsible culprits of child-rearing. Soceity should hold parents accountable, but not take on the responsibility of the family.Soceity can be healthy or dysfunctional depending on the location and the government that performs its duties. Laws protect the standards that make for a healthy and functioning society, where each member is equal and protected.

  • Anonymous

    Glad to hear you are Pro Life and opposed to abortion, Dr. MeGrath!That's what!Jeremy Mancuso

  • Anonymous

    Nick is 100% correct. Sometimes God tells people to slaughter the infidels. Love,Osama bin Laden

  • For a little perspective, it's useful to remember that the Golden Rule didn't originate with Jesus:“Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” Confucius 6th century BCThere are similar quotations to be found in the writings of ancient Greece (Pittacus, Sextus, Socrates, et alia) and China (Laozi, Mozi) – all predating Christ.

  • This simply is morality from a Christian perspective.– James And even the golden-rule morality was borrowed into Christianity — we did not need a Jesus to teach that. Many said it before and many after. It is not a "Christian" perspective — it is much broader than that.

  • Thanks to both Sabio and Beau for highlighting that my point was not to claim this guiding moral principle solely for Christians – not at all! My point was that it is a Christian approach to morality, not that it is an approach to morality that is uniquely Christian, if that makes sense.I think the fact that ancient and not so ancient people who practiced slavery also had this principle helps to answer Nick's recent comment (before he decided to drop out of the conversation he started) about morality about slavery changing over time. As it happens, his own view, if it is consistent, must be that slavery was moral when God legislated for the practice without abolishing it. But from my perspective, this illustrates that there are shared human moral principles like the Golden Rule, which effectively rule out slavery (no one wants to be someone else's property), but that doesn't mean that the principle necessarily gets applied consistently.

  • Thanks for the clarification, James. Well, stated. I was all with you until you implied that you knew more than God and that slavery is immoral. :-)Atheists sometimes complain about Christians not taking fundamentalists and others Christians to task — well you are helping get rid of that generalization. Thanx.

  • Anonymous

    Of course, sometimes the Secular Government tells women its their right to slaughter their unborn children.But what the heck…Send em all DARWIN AWARDS and let the conservatives have the big familes.Puzzled By Secularists Crying About Morality

  • The word "objective" is overused when it comes to morality. For further explication:

  • Mary

    My view of morality is that God gave me a conscience. Athiests have a conscience too, but they don’t attribute it to God and that is their right to believe that way if they want to. My point is that a moral sense is something inherent in our being, at least for most people.
    Yes I have been influenced by the bible. The Golden Rule is the Gold Standard of morality. Funny how many Christians deny this. But my moral and spiritual sense tells me that if God is good, he would not order his followers to commit evil in His Name.
    I noticed that no where did Nick address your concerns about the morality of God as depicted in the bible. This shows a complete lack of empathy with others, which is the basis of morality in the first place. That cartoon says it all. Why would God give the ten commandments and then tell his followers to break them?
    Quite honestly I think that the attitude that if God commanded people to murder, rape, enslave others, and commit human sacrifice that it was ok has more to do with cultish beliefs rather than true morality. In cults people will do anything that their leader demands even if it means sacrificing their rationality and their morality.
    “Christian values” that condone hatred and violence are not absolute, period. And they are definitely not the basis of true morality. People seem to miss that Jesus said this himself. He tackled the religious majority by pointing out how barbaric and hypocritical their punishments were. Isn’t that the example we all should be following?