If the Bible Is Relative, Does Any Objective Morality Exist? [Questions That Haunt]

If the Bible Is Relative, Does Any Objective Morality Exist? [Questions That Haunt] September 10, 2013

Last week, we welcomed back the Questions That Haunt Christianity series with a great exchange on Tuesday and Friday. This week, we dive into to an equally vexing question about the Bible from Chris:

This question has been bugging me for a while. To preface, I consider myself a progressive (certainly ex-evangelical) Christian. My question relates to ethics in general and the Bible in particular. We all assume that there is a particular way that each of us SHOULD or SHOULD NOT act. I.e., we all harbor the notion that some acts are inherently moral or immoral. As a progressive, I don’t consider the Bible itself to be the “Word of God” or some kind of objective moral authority. I consider (as I’m sure many of your readers do) it to be a collection of writings that detail the experiences of the authors with the divine. As such, it is just as captive to subjectivity as the rest of us are.

If this is the case, however, how is it that we are to determine moral decisions? If there is no objective moral authority we can point to in order to determine an ethical system, what are we left with? (These are honest questions I have been wrestling with, as I continue to struggle between determining the possibility of access to SOME kind of objectivity, if that even exists).

You respond in the comments. I’ll respond on Friday. See all of the past questions and answers here.

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  • Chris Baca

    This is my question! Didn’t think it would get picked so quickly!

    To add a little bit to this, I think we all operate as if SOME objective moral authority exists outside of our subjectivity. My desire is simply to find some kind of consistent ethical system. Ever since I’ve come to not regard the Bible as inerrant (though still inspired), it has been extremely difficult to apply any kind of consistent hermeneutic as it relates to moral questions and building consistent ethical systems.

    What I’m most concerned with, obviously, is consistency. I know that we all pick and choose scripture to back our positions up (at least those of us that consider the Bible at least semi-authoritative). I guess what I’m looking for is a rational explanation for why I pick and choose what I do. And if the Bible isn’t an ethics textbook, how can we be consistent in its application.

    • CurtisMSP

      Morality changes over time and place. What was moral in 1400 in Mexico was not moral in 1200 in Germany, was not moral in 2000 in Bismark. Morality is based on people and culture. Moral authority exists in the people and culture that surround each time and place. If you want to determine what is moral in a given situation, you must listen to all of the surrounding people and culture. The consistency lies in the listening.

  • Jake Litteral

    Redifine morality in the context of Well-Being.

    • Chris Baca

      Can you say more on this? What determines ‘Well-Being’? Is there any objective standard by which we can decide what Well-Being consists of?

      • Steven Kurtz

        does there need to be an objective standard of well being? Sam Harris (Moral Landscape) believes it’s like “health”: no definition exists, but the medical profession gets on well without one.

  • John

    Chris, I think what we
    (Christians) are left with is the same thing that all humans are left with:
    each other. Lewis argues that morality, like numinous awe, “cannot be
    logically deduced from the environment and physical experiences of the man who
    undergoes them.” And yet, Lewis assumes a moral law based upon God (an
    objective reality). So I think what happens here for Christians who ground the
    root of morality in God, is that they have to recognize that the best we can do
    is perceive anything about God subjectively. Whether we are getting our
    morality from the Bible, or internal experience (maybe its own type of special
    revelation to the individual), or the community; the individual must
    acknowledge that they are not possessing absolutes. They could be wrong, even
    about a moral question. Humans cannot separate themselves from subjectivity in
    morality because we cannot separate ourselves from subjectivity in anything.
    The best we can do is look around at the sources of authority we accept and
    make our decisions based upon them while acknowledging they may not be accepted
    by others.

  • tanyam

    Maybe the Bible isn’t a textbook on ethics, like one you’d pick up in your philosophy 101 class. I’ve always thought that “Christian ethics” are what theologians do when they take the raw material of the Bible, and pick one or more other systems of thought and try to make something coherent. They look to Aristotle, or Kant, or (pick somebody.) But there is simply not enough coherent ethical thought in the Bible to treat it as if there is. Love, sure, but the devil is in the details.

  • Craig

    On the question of how we should evaluate moral systems/theories, the idea of seeking reflective equilibrium has been mentioned before. Such an approach is plausibly compatible with the existence of “objective” moral facts. And, if the best we can do is to seek reflective equilibrium, then what’s wrong with that? Would this make our theorizing about morality any different from our theorizing about mathematics?

  • Bill Sahlman

    great topic. seems we can hold in one hand a set of “rules” and moral code that changed/shifted over the time of the BIble’s authors, …. and the new vision/trajectory that the Jesus story invites us into.. (namely, in their socio-political context- the anti-kingdom opposed to Caesar; the kingdom of God.)

    That message certainly flipped the moral codes upside down and take life as we know it to another level… to think about others more than ourselves..? a message mainly written to impoverished Jews in the first century and slaves,…. a message of hope/restoration and justice,… without the expected violence and blood shed they would think normal and necessary…

    so… the disciples asked the same question, it seems…
    in my words 🙂
    “Hey, now that we have view to no divisions. all one in this Messiah, this anti-Lord, … how do we live it out? How do we know the way? It seems they were asking for a new set of rules, an updated Torah, so to speak… to live by. But each time they questioned Jesus, he responded…. by telling them a story.

    “So, Jesus, how do we deal with XYZ?”

    “”Once upon a time, there was a man that had two sons, one wanted to bolt with his share of the estate,…”

    So, in this “kingdom of heaven”.. narrative… vision… I wonder… if we can rewrite our rules we choose to live by– by the way our actions affect others…? and then how we react when we miss some of the unintentional consequences on people/planet… still holding the basis of the code as or starting point, but… free to live by a new Spirit, a new breath…… which may invite us at times to put ourselves under even greater restraints — for the good of others?

    The whole Pauline mantra of “I can do anything, but I choose to make myself a …”
    This isn’t very popular. People seem to flock to religious institutions that believe they have it figured out.. and can give them legit code to please G-D… That scares me.

  • Ric Shewell

    To me, this is the can of worms that is opened up when we discover that Sola Scriptura is not sufficient as an authority for anything and everything that the Christian will face. Especially in cases of slavery and divorce, EVERY reasonable Christian has found a basis other than the Bible for how to live out their ethics. So, what is this other Authority, this basis other than Scripture that guides the Christian in ethical dilemmas? Does this other Authority ever go beyond Scripture or even challenges portions of Scripture?

    To me, this other Authority is the Holy Spirit, speaking in real, true, beautiful, and fresh ways. Without the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures alone do not suffice for our ethical decisions.

    But here’s the problem: is the intentions/instructions of the Holy Spirit objective and outside of the listener, or is it subjective to the listener? If it is subjective to the listener, is it trust worthy?

    For me, it’s a both/and. God has revealed Godself as a relational being, we affect each other. God has God’s will/intentions/instructions, but God is also open to us. This makes it muddy, and often we can’t tell whether it’s God speaking a new thing or if it’s just us. But this is a call for courage. Sometimes we’re so afraid of hearing the Spirit correctly, that we just retreat to Scripture Alone, regardless of the consequences.

    It’s scary trying to hear the Holy Spirit correctly. We must proceed with humility and courage.

    • Chris Baca

      Thanks for the reply. I think your response is certainly how I act in relation to my understanding of what ethics is and how it functions in the life of the individual.

      I think my concern lies in the fact that this basically means that we are bound to a type of ‘situational’ ethics. In other words, every moral dilemma becomes a case-by-case decision rather than having an objective standard by which we measure our decisions. I don’t know if this even exists, or whether that’s how God ‘wants it to work,’ so to speak. I guess I’m saying it makes me uneasy (perhaps that’s the point :)…) to not have a standard by which we measure moral decisions – or at least the standard is only available subjectively, in which case many of us can and will arrive at different conclusions on different ethical/moral dilemmas.

      • Craig

        Would you also say that we are bound to a type of ‘situational’ mathematics, where every arithmetical question becomes a case-by-case decision….? Presumably not. But then, what exactly is the difference? It is not as if need the Bible for arithmetic. Why is it that we feel the need for a Bible in the case of morality?

      • CurtisMSP

        Morality should make you uneasy. That is the point. If it did not make you uneasy, I would be worried.

        What makes you more nervous, a man with a gun who is honestly and openly exploring the difference between right and wrong, or a man with a gun whose mind is clearly made up what is right and what is wrong, and he absolutely refuses to change his mind?

        The gun is pointed at you, by the way.

        • Chris Baca

          Thanks for this.

  • Craig

    If anyone thinks that the “objectivity” of moral truths depends upon God, I’d like them to try to explain why this is so. Let’s agree that it is wrong to break a child’s kneecaps for entertainment. How exactly does the wrongness of this activity, or the objectivity of this wrongness, depend upon God?

    • Ric Shewell

      For the ancients, they saw morality on a scale. Rather than saying “this is good” or “this is bad,” they might say “this is better than that.” So, not breaking a child’s kneecaps is better than breaking a child’s kneecaps. But why? For Aristotle and Kant, it was just self-evident, and we could put all actions on the scale of worse and better, but at the one end of the scale is a fixed point: the ultimate good that all good actions are tending toward. Call it whatever you want, many call it God, but most ancients would say that it is fixed, unmoved, objective, by which we can measure all other and lesser “goods.”

      That’s one way to go.

      • Craig

        So, even if we need a “fixed point” for such judgments (I don’t see why we would), the fixed point needn’t have anything to do with God.

        • Ric Shewell

          for them and for many, whatever that fixed point is is God.

          • Craig

            So the fixed point varies from person to person? Where’s the “objectivity”?

            • Ric Shewell

              It doesn’t vary from person to person. Plato and Aristotle say that the point is fixed. It doesn’t move. It is objectively good. Call it God if you want, but it is outside of you. It is objective.

              Obtaining access to that objective fixed point is another matter entirely.

              • Craig

                So what Plato says the fixed point is the same as what Aristotle says the fixed point is? And Kant? And you? I’m still not seeing why the objectivity would depend upon God.

                • Ric Shewell

                  I don’t know what you mean by “God.” Plato was probably an atheist, but made the caveat that this “ultimate good” or “fixed point” is the One God (probably to avoid being killed). Aristotle and Kant obviously believed in God differently, but they agreed that there was an objective reality outside of us.

                  I’m just saying that many pasts and ancient ethicists agree that there is an objective reality apart from us. Many of them call it God.

                  • Craig

                    I believe that rocks are “an objective reality apart from us.” This makes me a theist?!

                    • Ric Shewell

                      If these rocks are the ultimate good by which all good actions are measured from, then, sure, you can call them God.

                      I think your commitment to a non-theistic solution makes our comments talk past each other.

                    • Craig

                      All I’m trying to see is how your supposition of God makes, and is necessary to make, morality objective. I’m not committed to denying this.

                      Presumably I can call rocks “God” even if they are just rocks. But how is this helpful to your point?

                    • Ric Shewell

                      This will be my last comment on this thread. I think it’s beaten dead. It’s the teleological argument. It goes like this:

                      Whereas it is self-evident that one action is better than another action,

                      And whereas the spectrum of goodness cannot continue infinity,

                      Therefore, there must be one fixed good, that which nothing is greater than.

                      There’s the argument for objective morality. Many people choose to call this one fixed good “God.” You don’t have to call it God, I don’t think Plato would have if he had the choice.

                      This does not start with my presuppositions about God, rather it arrives at a conclusion that many seem fit to call God.

                      It’s not the way I see God, but its a way a lot of people go.

                    • Craig

                      Yours is not a good argument Ric. Why cannot “the spectrum of goodness” continue infinitely (like numbers)? Why can’t there be multiple spectra of goodness?

                    • Ric Shewell

                      Okaaaayyy, I’ll bite! Oh, Craig, you know I can’t stay away from you! Okay. First, why one spectrum and not multiple spectra? – Because I’ll just compare which spectra are better than others and do that until all things reside on one spectrum. I can continually reduce actions to one spectrum because I can compare any action with any other action, I can also compare sets of actions with other sets. We can reduce everything to a singular spectrum, but we cannot reduce everything to one singularity because we can compare and evaluate things against other things, therefore they are not the same thing. They reside on one spectrum. That’s all implicit in premise 1.

                      Premise 2, you’ve got a problem with (as do I). Why can’t the spectrum of goodness go on infinitely? Well, how about an analogy? If the sun was infinitely far away, how would you know that you head is closer to it that’s your feet? So the ancients would say that you cannot compare two actions without some ultimate good in mind.

                    • Ric Shewell

                      Also, this isn’t really my argument to defend. It is the teleological argument that is present in Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Plantinga, and others. I got my problems with it, but its not easily dismissed.

                    • Craig

                      You haven’t duly supported your claim that there can’t be multiple spectra of goodness according to which comparative value judgments are made. Perhaps it would help to illustrate the alternative. I can easily say of two apples that one is worse than another; I can also easily say of two oranges that one is worse than another. But in a side-by-side comparison of the apple and the orange, can I say which is better? Isn’t it possible that the standard by which apples are assessed differs from the standard by which oranges are assessed, and in such a way that the two standards don’t allow for a combined, unified metric by which to compare apples to oranges?

                      On your second point, why do you assume that your sun analogy is more relevant than the analogy to numbers?

                      Finally, in this kind of discussion appeals to authority are especially dubious. For one thing, the so-called authorities often make clever but unsound arguments. Moreover, even when they’ve made a sound argument, those who appeal to them all-too-often misconstrue the point of the argument or the argument itself. Better, then, just to pass on the name dropping and try to formulate the sound and compelling argument.

                    • Ric Shewell

                      The number analogy is the same as the sun analogy, both need a fixed point of reference. Infinity is a paradox in mathematics also. But anyway, I can demonstrate that 2 is greater than 1 because of its distance to a fixed point. In the number line, that is 0. 0 is not infinitely faraway from any other number (also, numbers aren’t real and break down logically. For instance, a line is a series of points. What is the distance from one end of a point to the other end of that same point? Answer: 0. A point has no length. How then can points next to each other create a line of any length? If I remove a single point from a line, then I have removed no length, the line is the same length. How can this be? Mathematics is paradoxical, but its the best we got. It is not infallible by any stretch of the imagination).

                      Apples and oranges are not moral actions. Although the idea that I can’t compare them is ridiculous. I need only to choose a standard that applied to both of them, like ripeness or freshness. I could then choose a more general standard that could include other items like meat, cups, scissors, etc. The standard that I choose will need to transcend everything in the set being evaluated. Until we reach a standard that transcends all things and all things then could be compared to each other. For lack of better term, that universal standard is “The Good.”

                      I only appeal to these philosophers because I don’t take credit for these ideas. They are not mine. They are good, but they have problems too.

                    • Craig

                      So, you conclude, on this basis, that there is a highest number? On apples and oranges, it appears that you miss the point. The question is not whether you can compare the two fruit, but whether it is possible that there be separate and legitimate standards for comparing apples, on the one hand, and oranges, on the other. If so, then the further question is whether it is possible that any of these separate standards don’t allow for a combined and unified metric for assessing the value of apples relative to oranges. You’ve got to show something surprising: that such things are impossible.

                    • Ric Shewell

                      I’m saying numbers aren’t real, and there are all sorts of problems using the number line as an analogy. In any case, to do arithmetic with two numbers (whatever they are), they have to be in relation to a number that is unchanging, like zero. The problem with infinity is that if you add to that line or subtract from that line, you have the same line, no point is distinguishable from any other point. You cannot compare any point on that line with any other point since they carry no meaning or length. Until you give an end to a line, a measuring point that gives meaning to all other points, it’s meaningless. Also, numbers doesn’t exist. They are not nouns.

                      I’ll concede this: there are multiple spectra. However, it is reducible. If we end with multiple spectra, then we haven’t finished our work. There is one meta-spectrum on which everything finds a place. But that’s not your question. Let me try to restate your question at the end of your comment.

                      “Is it possible that any of these separate standards prohibit a unified metric for assessing the value of two different things?”

                      You think I have to prove that it is impossible? The burden of proof is the other way. We only need one example of a standard that prohibits the comparison of two things. What is this thing? Until that thing presents itself, we can and do continue evaluating things on one spectrum.

                    • Craig

                      Ric, you are evidently confused. The issue is not whether, as you put it, there is “a standard that prohibits the comparison of two things” (whatever that means–what does it mean for a standard to “prohibit” a comparison?). The question, rather, is why we must think that “there is one meta-spectrum on which everything finds a place,” and why we must think that, on this meta-spectrum there must be a unique highest value.

                    • Ric Shewell

                      I was just trying to reiterate what you wrote:

                      “If so, then the further question is whether it is possible that any of these separate standards don’t allow for a combined and unified metric for assessing the value of apples relative to oranges.”

                      What do you mean by that?

                      “prohibit the comparison of two things” was an attempt to make sense of “don’t allow for the combined and unified metric for assessing the value of apples relative to oranges.”

                      Sorry you didn’t recognize your question in plainer language.

                    • Ric Shewell

                      I’ve already answered your other two questions: why one spectrum and why an ultimate value. Sorry they don’t satisfy you. You haven’t demonstrated why they are incorrect or an alternative.

                    • Craig

                      “If so, then the further question is whether it is possible that any of these separate standards don’t allow for a combined and unified metric for assessing the value of apples relative to oranges.”

                      So this is where I lost you. “Metric” is just another word for “standard.” Take any two standards of measurement. Some of these can easily be combined and unified. For example, a standard for measuring the weight of frogs in ounces can be combined and unified with a standard for measuring the weight of elephants in tons. As such, just as we can say that one frog weighs more than another frog, we can quite easily say that the elephant weighs more than either one of these frogs. It isn’t obvious, however, that all standards of value must be similarly compatible. To go back to the example, it isn’t obvious why the standard for evaluating oranges must be the sort of thing that can be unified with a standard for evaluating apples. Do you understand this?

    • Ric Shewell

      For me, though, I have to ask “why be moral?” Why shouldn’t I break kid’s kneecaps? Maybe I take joy in that kind of destruction. Why shouldn’t I just put my joy before everything else? Society? Why should I care about upholding society? So that I can have a longer life with more resources? What if long life and prosperity mean nothing to me? What if I only care about breaking kneecaps? If breaking kneecaps is my ultimate joy and purpose, there’s very little anyone could say to me that would convince me that it was wrong.

      Someone, like Kant, might ask me what would happen if my actions were universal, what if everyone felt the way I felt about kneecaps? What do I care? Then no children would walk. So? It might affect the procreation of the human race, but that doesn’t matter to me. My ultimate joy, my purpose, my telos is breaking kneecaps. For me, it is the most moral thing to do.

      Obviously that ridiculous, because my purpose, my end goal, my telos is not torture and pain of other for my own joy. Then the question is, “What is my telos?” What is my goal that informs my ethics? Then you have to ask questions about the purpose of the universe. This eventual drifts into the realm of theology. Finally, for me, what you think about God and the purpose of the universe will have effects on your ethics whether or not you realize it.

      • Craig

        For you, then, though, how could God help you to answer the question “Why be moral?” What if you took joy in disobeying God? Or, why must you even concern yourself with joy, or your “telos”?

        • Ric Shewell

          Excellent questions. First, of all, I’m convinced of my faith in God before I investigate ethics, and therefore I cannot do ethics without God. That might be the impasse that stops this conversation before it can go anywhere. I hope you can understand, though. Once I’m convinced that there is a God, revealed in Christ, who is intimately concerned with creation, I cannot carry on any endeavor as though it weren’t true. If God is true, and I am convinced (I believe it), then I cannot just ignore God whenever I want to. So, I don’t need to rely on God because I’m too ignorant or lazy to deal with real problems. I start with God.

          Because I start with God revealed in Christ, I receive and believe that God has intentions, purposes, goals, a telos. So I conform the best I can to live out God’s intentions where I am. I believe that God works with us, not as a tyrant that demands God’s way, but (essentially) rolls with the punches and beckons us towards God’s goal for creation, welcoming our ideas and input.

          This is getting longer than I wanted, but I just mean to say that I start with God, so I have to end with God.

          I think everyone starts with their understanding of God and the purpose of the universe — their theology. It influences their ethics whether they know it or not.

          • Craig

            Because I start with God revealed in Christ, I receive and believe that God has intentions, purposes, goals, a telos. So I conform the best I can to live out God’s intentions where I am.

            But someone can “receive and believe that God has intentions” without attempting to conform to such intentions. I can believe that Satan has intentions; I needn’t think it best to comply with those.

            • Ric Shewell

              If I believed that God was God and still chose not to align with God, then I would not call that “belief.”

              • Craig


                • Ric Shewell

                  Because when I say “I believe in God,” I mean more than “I believe in an impersonal supernatural deity.” I usual say that I believe in God revealed in Jesus Christ. What I mean is that I believe that there is a Creator whose character is to live and act in loving sacrificial ways for creation, has done so in Christ, and loves me. If I believe that to be true, it solicits a particular response: love, gratitude, faithfulness. If I don’t respond in those ways, I don’t think I can appropriately say that I believe. Sometimes, I fail, probably because I don’t believe in those moments. So my constant prayer is, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

                  • Craig

                    Do you deny akrasia generally, or do you make a special exception for the belief in God?

  • CurtisMSP

    Yes. The Golden Rule, or the “ethic of reciprocity” — Love others as much as you love yourself. (For Christians, stated by Jesus in Matt 22:37-39 and Mark 12:30-31). This has been the basis for morality for all humans, and all spiritual traditions, throughout history.

    • Not precisely. The other spiritual traditions phrase it closer to the Buddha’s, “What you find distasteful to yourself, do not do to others.” When followed in that form, it engenders apathy and non-interference. Not love. And love is central to Christian reciprocity. Without love, you get Hindus who shrug their shoulders when disaster strikes, and figure that’s just karma.

      • CurtisMSP

        Precisely speaking, the ethic of reciprocity is expressed in a variety of grammatical forms across history and cultures, including the negative form you mention. I would argue it is the same thing though. We are speaking about a general rule of morality. Specific statements of the rule vary in grammar and structure over time, but the underlying idea is the same.

      • CurtisMSP

        One of the pillars of Hinduism is “ektava”, a sacred oneness that binds all creation together. That sounds to me like full engagement with all creation, the exact opposite of apathy. But it would be best to let Hindus and Buddists speak for themselves.

    • Chris Baca

      I think a case can be made for the Golden Rule as sort of an ultimate standard by which we judge whether and action is inherently wrong or right.

      However, doesn’t this also fall into the category of a subjective standard for moral decisions in particular or ethical systems in general? Surely there are some cases where “Do unto others…” wouldn’t be viewed the same by two different people. I’m just trying to flesh this out, but it seems to have a similar weakness as utilitarian ethics, where the ‘best’ or ‘right’ decision in any given situation is the one that brings about the most good for the most amount of people. The problem is, who determines what is good in the first place? Is it even possible to evaluate any given situation like that, given the complexity of even the most simple decision (should I lie about x, given this will probably bring about better results overall than telling the truth?)?

      Again, I don’t have an agenda here – I genuinely am looking for others’ opinions on this matter. I think the way that I generally hope to make decisions, moral and otherwise, is somewhat based on the Golden Rule. I’m just wondering if this type of thinking breaks down at some point when it comes to grey areas. Are we simply bound to be situational or utilitarian or pragmatic in our thinking? Or is there some kind of objective moral standard that we have access to and can adhere to that says definitively whether something is simply ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?

      • CurtisMSP

        Is there some kind of objective standard that definitively states whether something is “right” or “wrong”? People asked Jesus that exact question on more than one occasion. Why don’t you just read Jesus’ answer in the Bible?

        When people asked Jesus a question, Jesus always turned them back to self-reflection to find an answer. Objective, moral standards are the stuff of law. The law has been tried since before Jesus, and ever since Jesus, and has always, throughout history, been found to come up short. Jesus shows us a different way.

        • Chris Baca

          While I think Jesus certainly didn’t give answers or ‘rules’ in the same way they were given before him, I also think he did give definitive answers about things. There are certainly places in the gospels where Jesus gives definitive answers about right and wrong. They may not have fit the questioners’ expectations, but he certainly gave standards. We could take the Sermon on the Mount, for example. Christians for the last two thousand years have used these teachings of Jesus by which to measure ourselves and our conduct.

          All I’m saying is, I don’t think we can simply say Jesus didn’t give us any standards except the Golden Rule. He obviously thought there were ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actions, and spoke boldly about (some of) them.

          • CurtisMSP

            If you read the Sermon on the Mount as clear teaching about right and wrong actions against which you can measure your own conduct, how does it feel to be assured you can never make it to heaven? (Matt 5:20) And how do you manage to go through your day without eyes or hands? (Matt 5:30)

            There is a lot going on in the Sermon on the Mount, but reading it as a simple list of dos and don’ts means none of us will ever experience salvation. I don’t think that is what Jesus is trying to say.

            Most scholars are now in agreement that it is unlikely that Jesus spoke the entire Sermon on the Mount in one setting. Rather, it is a collection of admonitions, given by Jesus at different times and passed verbally for a couple generations, before someone wrote them down. Writing them down as one continuous sermon is a nifty literary device, but it is unlikely Jesus actually spoke them that way.

            I have no doubt Jesus actually said those things. But reading them as a list of laws is a pretty shallow reading of the text, and takes the teachings completely out of the context of Jesus’ entire ministry.

            Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are very rich, but it is certainly not the shopping list of approved behavior that you are looking for. It is not even part of the list. Listing approved behavior is not what Jesus was doing when he spoke the Sermon on the Mount.

            • Chris Baca

              Sorry if that came across as a miscommunication. I don’t mean to sound as if I think the Sermon on the Mount (or any of Jesus’ other teachings) are simply a laundry list of dos and don’ts. My entire point earlier was that Jesus didn’t always avoid saying whether something was ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ He obviously thought divorce was ‘wrong,’ for example (even though I know we take issue with that in our own society). Lust is another example.

              I guess I’m just wondering whether there are some objective moral standards that we can find in the Bible and conclude to be trustworthy and universal, or do we simply say that those are good teachings, but our entire ethical systems revolve around ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ in which case we are forced to simply evaluate each situation separately, and what is ‘right’ in one situation may be ‘wrong’ in another. If that’s how it must be, I think I can learn to be alright with that. My question is whether there is a universal, objective moral standard which we (particularly Christians, I guess) are expected to adhere to, and how to discover that.

    • Craig

      Does the rule “love others as much as you love yourself” allow a person to favor, at any level, his or her own personal interests, or the interests of his/her love ones, above the comparable interests of others? If so, it might help to explain how. It might in particular help to appease critics. If not, then the rule will only be the basis for a fanatical conception of morality, one which few would accept as legitimate once its implications are made explicit.

  • Objective morality doesn’t exist. It’s all subjective and situational.

    Those who believe in objective morality have simply taken God’s subjective point of view for the circumstances of the ancient Hebrews, and applied it willy-nilly (and inconsistently) to everything. We’ve tried to enact legal codes we can’t enforce, or cultural codes which won’t work unless everyone gets on board. We’ve done so mainly because we like the specific rules we’ve picked and chosen, and not so much because we believe in objective reality: If everyone goes along with it, the universe works the way we prefer, and not “the way things ought to be.”

    The reason the Sermon on the Mount works so well is because Jesus gets to the core of the problem—our rotten attitudes—and gives us a lifestyle to follow which doesn’t fall apart when the other parties ignore it. It works as one morality of many in a pluralistic culture.

    • Craig

      I offer myself as a possible counterexample. I’m partial to the belief that moral truths are “objective” but I don’t even believe that there is a God who has any views, subjective or otherwise.

      I concede that there is a sense in which I like the rules of morality, and that I would prefer a world in which people behaved morally, but what does this show? I also like the rules of logic, of rationality, and of prudence. I dislike certain rules of etiquette.

      • As do all atheists: They have to figure out, for themselves, which moral guidelines will be their rule, and which won’t.

        For us Christians, we’ve concluded Jesus’s rules best reflect God’s thinking. That’s what we claim, anyway; some of us suck at reflecting Jesus’s morality, but he remains the standard. Now, since he’s our standard, does that automatically make his rules objective? Nah. That remains unproven, no matter how much we like Jesus.

        • Craig

          By “objective” do you mean proven? Even across the wide range of ways in which these terms are often used, I would have thought that there can be objective, unproven facts.

          • By objective I mean “true for everyone in all circumstances.” Sure, there can be objective, unproven facts. But one of the easiest ways to prove they’re not objective is to show simple exceptions, and we can do that for every moral “law.” Outside of math and science, it’s nigh impossible to find absolutes… and the only reason folks claim such things are absolute and objective is because they want people to stop thinking so hard, stop arguing with them, and accept their premises.

            • Craig

              Would you concede, then, that there are objective moral statements? (The content of a moral statement needn’t be a principle; it could be judgment about a particular case: “Such and such action is morally wrong.”)

              Also, I’m not as confident as you are that exceptions disprove a moral principle. Exceptions only disprove principles that preclude exceptions. But are all principles like this? Some might plausibly argue that the following is an objectively true principle that accommodates exceptions: A horse is an odd-toed ungulate mammal belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae.

              • Moral statements are value judgments. Not truth statements. Therefore not provable. Only pollable.

                I can say something is good or bad. I can get almost universal agreement (i.e. “Child molestation is bad”). But universal agreement isn’t objective reality… as atheists so often remind us whenever people point out how many Americans believe in God. You wanna prove God, you gotta use truth statements like “A horse is an odd-toed ungulate mammal,” etc. You wanna prove morality, you gotta use truth statements… but it’s a little hard when your goal is to get people to subjectively interpret your stack of facts as desirable or undesirable.

                Hence I’m skeptical anyone can prove the objectivity of a moral statement. But give it a shot. It’d be nice to be proven wrong. Fixed points in the universe would be handy.

                • Craig

                  I remain puzzled by your associations of “objective” with “provable.” Now I am puzzled by your contrast between value judgments and “truth statements.” I think you beg the question if you begin with the premise that moral statements and value judgments are not the sorts of things that can be true or false. I’m also puzzled by why you think that my goal is what you say it is–“to get people to subjectively interpret ‘my stack of facts’ as desirable or undesirable.” Finally, I notice that you’ve shifted the burden in this discussion. You began with the strong assertion that “objective morality doesn’t exist.” I sought a compelling argument for why you take this position. Instead of providing any such argument, you ask me to try to prove you wrong. What a handy maneuver for those who confidently take positions on difficult issues!

                  • I think you’re taking this discussion way more personally and seriously than I am. I’m only here to pitch two cents which Tony may or may not use to make his conclusion, not to get into a debate about epistemology. You’re interpreting my scattershot answers as a flawed debating tactic and malicious intent. The reality is I’m just dashing off answers in between other things. Dude, chill.

                    • Craig

                      No maliciousness or offense taken here–sorry for allowing myself to be interpreted this way. My own view is that confusion on this topic is widespread and thoroughgoing, and that it is only by careful thinking and discussion that such confusion can get sorted out. Sorting it out can be a tedious and time-consuming task, and I can understand if someone doesn’t have the time for, or interest in, doing so.

                    • Well, I’ll be more thorough once I have time. Though likely not here; it is Tony’s blog after all, not mine. Looking forward to his answer though, and I hope he addresses your points better than I’ve done.

  • I believe there is only one principle that serves as the foundation of morality: to genuinely love others as ourselves. However, this brings up the question of how we love ourselves. If we do not love ourselves (seek our own good) then we are not in a very good position to love others (seek their good).
    This engages the important aspect of loving the Father, because once we become aware of the Father’s limitless love for us we are enabled to love ourselves and, therefore, to love others properly.
    So the question in any situation is: what is for the good of the other? (Or personally: What is for my good?). This is not necessarily easy to determine or to execute, but I think it is the foundation of all morality. Legalism and other moral codes certainly are not.

    • Craig

      So if one hates everyone then one complies with the “one principle that serves as the foundation of morality.”

  • Chad E. Graham

    Even if one (assuming the person is Christian in this
    context) does not ascribe to the belief that Scripture is the “word of God”,
    does that mean that Scripture is unable to contain objectively true assertions
    or ethical commands given from God?

    For instance, if I were to believe that Matthew’s gospel
    accurately reflects the historical event and content of the Sermon on the Mount
    (and that the sermon was delivered by Jesus himself); do I not have an
    obligation to also believe that the moral commands Jesus offered are objective
    moral commands? When Jesus said “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a
    brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Mattew 5:22) did he not mean
    this to be an objective moral command? If I believe Jesus is God, and I believe
    that Matthew’s text is reliable source material, in what way can I deny that
    the Bible is (at least in part) an objective moral authority?

  • Seconding the “there are no objective morals” argument.

    This does *not* mean that the age old “anything goes” argument holds. There are good and many reasons why all, or nearly all, human societies throughout history have decided that allowing people to kill whoever they want is not a desirable thing. They just aren’t *universal* reasons.

    I’ve given the analogy of Boltzmann’s discovery that entropy was probabilistic, where previously the inexorable rise of entropy was thought to be absolute. This shift in understanding didn’t make everyday objects suddenly de-age and spontaneously order themselves, but it did offer explanations for strange edge cases that had previously caused difficulty in entropy modeling.

    In the same way, a society operating under relative ethics may look an awful lot like a society that believes it is operating under absolute, objective ethics. It’s in the little things that the difference really stands out.

    • Guest

      *are*. There *are* no objective morals. Yeesh.

  • Jesse

    Now THIS is a good question, @chrisbaca:disqus .

    I’d say you’re right on a few fronts:

    1) the Bible is 80% narrative story, and therefore, ambiguous by nature

    2) as postmodernism has demonstrated, we do have to admit value relativity to some degree.

    But we must be clear here, admitting value relativity is not the same as saying there are no values whatsoever. In all cultures throughout human history, we see varying levels of truth, beauty and goodness, i.e. something in every culture is considered good, something is considered true, and something is considered beautiful.

    Now your question is about morality, but we must understand how values and morals work. As I understand it, morals do not determine values, values form morals. Morality is more or less a system of belief that is taught in order to determine right from wrong (like the ten commandments).

    Although cosmological and biological evolution may be apparently driven by mechanistic processes, cultural evolution is clearly driven by humanity’s quest to improve its conditions. And this quest for improvement is itself driven by that which people consider to be valuable.

    Again, the beautiful, the true, and the good are the fundamental values that have been recognized since antiquity (Plato being one of the first to write about them) as the intrinsic qualities from which all values are essentially derived. Just as a million shades of color can be mixed from three primaries (red, green, blue), so too can a million shades of quality be traced back to these primary values.

    Whitehead writes about the “Eros” of the universe that constantly pulls us toward greater levels of beauty, truth and goodness, which has been defined as “the urge towards the realization of ideal perfection.”

    The ethical system we’re left with? It’s written on your heart. Heed God’s call to bring about greater levels of novelty and recognize the beauty, truth and goodness that grows in the world.

    • Chris Baca

      I don’t have much to say except “thanks.” Good reply 🙂

      • Jesse

        Glad it helped @chrisbaca:disqus

        As far as attempting to find an “ethical system” that jives for you, I
        think a lot of the comments on this post which talk about Jesus’ ethic of love are on target. Jesus calls us to look within, that the law is now written on our hearts. Remember, when it comes down to it, questions of “right” and “wrong” are ultimately fueled by fear. Perhaps a better question to ask is, “what would love have me do?”

  • Jason Rea

    I think the question goes to the heart of how we understand revelation and thus whether we can declare “universal” morality or not. I have found helpful H. Richard Niebuhr’s thoughts in “The Meaning of Revelation”. Here’s a quote that points in his direction: “Though we cannot speak of the way in which the two aspects of historical events [what he calls internal and external history] are ultimately related in the event-for-God we can describe their functional relationship for us. Such a description must once more be given confessionally, not as a statement of what all [humans] ought to do but as a statement of what we have found it necessary to do in the Christian community on the basis of the faith which is our starting point.” (pg. 44).

  • That’s a profound and wonderful question: once we’ve given up inerrancy how can we know things about morality and God?

    I touch on these problems in my definition of progressive Christianity:

    We should consider our moral intuitions as basic truths and ground our theology on the fact that God has to be morally perfect.

    And if I look at all the religious claims out there, it makes sense to me that a perfect God would reveal Himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

    The whole purpose of my blog is to develop a progressive Christian theology which is robust philosophically as well.

    I am myself a permanent and to help other fellow struggling Christians in their spiritual journey.
    I’d be glad to receive critical comments and urging questions to let my thoughts evolve and improve.
    I also try to add a bit of humor to many topics :=)

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Chris Baca

    Semi-related article on the pope:

    “‘Given that – and this is the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the person who does not believe in God is in obeying one’s own conscience. There is sin, even for someone who has no faith, when one goes against the conscience. To listen and to obey it signifies, in fact, making a decision in front of what is perceived as good or as evil. And on this decision the goodness or the wickedness of our actions comes into play,’ the pope said.

    Francis then turned to the question of absolute versus relative truth, and said the terminology required some fine-tuning. ‘To begin with, I would not speak, not even for believers, of an ‘absolute’ truth, in the sense that absolute is that which is unbound, freed from every relationship.’ For Christians, he said, the essential truth is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – which is itself a relationship, a path that requires humility and openness.”


    I just thought his perspective was interesting and worth noting.

    • Craig

      What does Francis assume the conscience to be?

      • Chris Baca

        (I’m just making assumptions here) I’m guessing something along the lines of an inherent sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ given to us by God universally. Though I really don’t know for sure. In this case, we still can’t separate the notion of subjectivity.

        • Craig

          That may well be right. But if there is such a conscience, they why the pressing need for the Bible with regard to moral decision-making? More pointedly, when one’s conscience pulls against an apparent biblical teaching/command, shouldn’t one go with conscience, so understood? If, on the other hand, the conscious is liable to mistake or misinterpretation, then why should Frances give it such status?

          • cajaquarius

            Conscience and morality seem superior today than a thousand or two thousand years ago. Part of why I don’t fully accept the bonobo route. It clearly gets better – perhaps the Bible is more a record of our perfected (or ever perfecting) conscience?

            • “It clearly gets better”

              Do you honestly think that after the genocides, pograms, massacres, atomic bombings, terror famines of the 20th century that we “contemporary” people somehow have more tender consciences?

              Look at what we’ve just been discussing in this country, aerial bombing of Syria, Everybody talks about whether it will have an effect, and nobody questions the morality of raining death down from the sky on civilian cities. We watched it happen on TV to Bagdhad. I probably needn’t mention that a large number of our contemporaries don’t even comprehend how it could be wrong to kill an innocent unborn child.

              In some ways we improve; in some ways we become more barbaric. It’s different, but I wouldn’t call it progress, or any sort of “perfecting.”

              • cajaquarius

                “Look at what we’ve just been discussing in this country, aerial bombing
                of Syria, Everybody talks about whether it will have an effect, and
                nobody questions the morality of raining death down from the sky on
                civilian cities”

                It would seem to me that you are proving yourself wrong here as you, clearly, must be questioning it. Do you thing Roman legionnaires ever sat around talking about the morality of their conquests? If they did there is little to no written evidence of it. Yet today, many question it – even the victors often do. We have atom bombs but lack the will to use them – do you think Alexander the Great, Caesar, Ghengis Khan, or any of the great conquerors of old would have thought twice about employing such a weapon if they had possessed it? If they cared about civilian casualty there are literally no records of it, anywhere (in fact, I think the Hawaiians of old were the very first to even have a human rights in warfare rule set).

                There have always been genocides – now we talk of them. There have always been rapes, the slaughter of common folk, and war crimes – today we punish them or at least try to. The modern media makes the world seem darker than it is but I can assure you that if you look at ancient history (hell, not even so ancient; in some cases, only a few centuries ago) and you see a litany of horrific abuses that simply wouldn’t be accepted today.

                Name any horror of today that you feel we have become worse about and I can give you some factoid from history that will make it pale in comparison. Two thousand years ago, taking women and children as spoils of war was done but today the world wouldn’t tolerate such atrocity. Don’t mistake not noticing for not caring. We have gotten better.

  • Sven2547

    If there is no objective moral authority we can point to in order to determine an ethical system, what are we left with?

    I see this question a lot. This comes up almost 100% of the time when the subject of atheism is discussed, but it applies to everyone, religious and non-religious alike.

    What are we left with?
    Philosophy. Introspection. Principles. Almost anybody can establish basic ideas of right and wrong on gut instinct, without needing stone tablets brought down from a mountaintop.

    Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business.
    –Marley’s Ghost, laying down the thesis of A Christmas Carol

    I find it particularly amusing when people try to tell me that there is an objective, absolute “Christian” moral code (I am not implying that the questioner is making this argument).
    Most Americans who support women’s reproductive choices are Christians. Most Americans opposed to them are also Christians.
    Most Americans who support marriage equality are Christians. Most Americans opposed are also Christians.
    Most Americans who support capital punishment are Christians. Most Americans opposed are also Christians.
    Most Americans who voted Obama are Christians. Most Americans who voted Romney are also Christians.
    Most Americans who support firearms regulations are Christians. Most Americans opposed are also Christians.
    And on and on and on it goes. The more you look at it, the sillier the “objective Christian morality” claim becomes.

  • tkdcoach

    Do you really need an external authority to know right/wrong. How does it make you feel (e.g. when you lied, were rude, etc.). Atheists seem to do very well with this, so maybe the need to validate is the illusion we all need to abandon. Meanwhile, the Bible is a rich resource, but it is not the only one.

  • R Vogel

    I will preface by saying that I do not believe in objective morality. Or perhaps more to the point, I believe that even if it does exist that there is no way for us to know it. But does that leave me in the morass of relativism? Surely not. I am a human being who lives in a society and we have a certain social contract that sets out a range of shared values that we use to judge actions as right or wrong. If I find myself in a society where I disagree about the shared values, such as I found myself in the fundamentalist evangelical church in which I was raised, I leave a find a community more in line with my thinking. These values exist at both the community level and the species level. Murder is almost univerally accepted as evil, since it is inconsistent with the perpetuation of the species if we all felt free to muder each other at will. Slavery used to be at the community level and has made the jump to a virtual universal. Clearly from the BIble we see that this wasn’t always the case. Views about homosexuality are hopefully doing the same. If this alone is not fulfilling, I have always like Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. He does a cool thing here, rather than appeal to a univeral or objective law, he simply says to follow through the implications of the maxim as if it were a universal and if you don’t like the consequences it fails.

  • Lausten

    This is really a question that haunts atheists. It is a reason many people stick with religion, because they believe it provides a moral framework. Most people acknowledge that there are problems with this, such as reconciling the OT and NT god and come up with convenants and what not to explain it. There is also the problem that many other cultures came up with the same “love your neighbor” type ideas that Jesus did.

    To the question of “what are we left with”, the philosophy that seems to be rising to the top right now is basing morality on something like “human flourishing” or “maximizing wellness for all”. There are many problems to work out within that framework, but it’s a great start and the Bible can provide some insight, but it certainly doesn’t have a set of rules that accomplish that. As yet no one has that one set, but democratic societies are working toward them.

    So, we left with each other.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Frans De Waal’s book “The Bonobo and the Atheist” hits this topic very well, and argues very strongly that human morality is innate and comes from the “bottom up” and not top-down. Further research showing evolutionary advantages for altruism and that selfish hedonism literally “stresses” your genes support this viewpoint. I don’t share De Waal’s conclusion of atheism, but one needn’t to see the strength of his viewpoints, and IMO it puts a nail in the coffin of an idea of “original sin” or a literal “Fall.” The evidence shows other high intelligence mammals can tell the difference between right and wrong and perform altruistic actions that provide them no direct benefit (and in many cases they are actually risking their own well being)

  • Jamie Rehmel

    It seems to me that the vast majority of decisions we make have absolutely no basis in anything that we can consider an objective standard. Indeed, most of our behavior occurs at an unconscious level and this has been shown time and time again. Thus, whether or not we have an objective standard to base moral behavior doesn’t seem especially important.

    Indeed, it may be helpful to frame this issue of morality as the difference between a foundationalist (e.g., Plantinga) vs. a web-like structure of epistemology (Quine). In the former system, we may attempt to base our behavior on God or the bible. The reality, however, is that our behaviors are mostly contingent on experience which occurs in community and thus contingent on a communal consciousness. Indeed, even the extent to which you understand the bible, God, or even science, is based on interpretation and thus still maintains a communal dynamic.

    Yet, this does not seem problematic to me. We are complex dynamical systems living within larger complex and dynamic systems and this necessitates a dynamic ethic in order to maintain any semblance of relevance. This is not a foolproof system but there isn’t one. The bible itself is filled with stories of trail, error, and adaptation and the text themselves are marred alterations and incompatibilities. Thus, if God thought it necessary to provide a firm objective standard for all ethics and morality at all times, the divine likely would have done so. Yet we do not have that; instead what we have is emergent behavior based on trial and error, experience, reflection, and adaptation.

    What may prove to be more helpful than an objective standard is life in community with others who generally endorse a similar narrative that we utilize to guide our behavior. Perhaps we believe we were created in the image of God and we strive to reflect that image to the surrounding culture. Therefore, we discern what that looks like within our community and when interacting with those outside of it and use a variety of sources we deem to have some level of guiding authority. Thus, moral standards emerge and, if you want, can serve as some kind of objective standard with (hopefully) some level of flexibility.

    It may also be helpful to know that consciousness itself is a property that emerges from the the dynamic interplay of millions of neurons. Therefore, great things seem to come from close relationships that pool our communal resources for common goals.

    For more on emergence and behavior from a Christian perspective see:

    Murphy and Brown (2007). Did my Neurons make me do it?

    Brown and Strawn (2012). The physical nature of the Christian life.