Why Not Ask God for Moral Guidance?
In my previous blogessay I claimed that we can make moral judgments on which religions are really better or worse, and that the source of this moral judgment is transcendent but not supernatural. How can this be? Before I disclose my answer (if you’ve read my book The Science of Good and Evil you already know the answer), what’s wrong with the supernatural answer? That is, why can’t we just ask God? Virtually every believer you know believes that “without God anything goes.” There are three problems with this source of moral judgment: (1) Euthyphro’s dilemma, (2) Silence, (3) No longer applicable.
(1) In his dialog The Euthyphro, the Greek philosopher Plato presented what has come to be known as “Euthyphro’s dilemma,” in which his favorite protagonist—the cantankerous political gadfly Socrates—asks a young man named Euthyphro the following question: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?” The underlying assumption for Plato, as it has been ever since for most theologians, is that moral principles are and must be linked to a God or gods in order to be considered absolute, eternal, and meaningful. Socrates is trying to show Euthyphro that there exists a dilemma over whether God embraces moral principles naturally occurring and external to Him because they are sound (“holy”) or that these moral principles are sound because He created them. It cannot be both.
(2) What if the moral issue is not discussed in the sacred writings of one’s religion? Cloning, stem cell research, and genetic engineering, for example, are not discussed in the Bible, so what are believers to believe about these very real moral issues? One must either attempt to infer from ancient biblical writings something that is loosely related to the modern moral issue, or one must think it through independently.
(3) What if the moral issue is discussed in the sacred writings, but is clearly inappropriate or outright wrong in its moral command? Consider, for example, the many Old Testament moral rules that make one blanch with embarrassment. For emancipated modern women thinking of adorning themselves in business attire that may resemble men’s business ware (or for guys who dig cross-dressing), Deuteronomy 22:5 does not look kindly on such behaviors: “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” An even worse abomination is a rebellious child. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 offers this parental moral guideline: “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”
Death penalty for disobedient children. All in favor raise your hands.
If that isn’t risibly ridiculous enough, here is the Bible’s recommendation on how to deal with women who may or may not have had sex before marriage. According to Deuteronomy 22:13-21, “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and then spurns her, and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings an evil name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her the tokens of virginity,’ then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the tokens of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate.” (For those not accustomed to reading between the biblical lines, the phrase “goes in to her” should be taken literally, and “the tokens of virginity” means the hymen and the blood on the sheet from a virgin’s first sexual experience.) “But if the thing is true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.”
Death penalty for pre-marital sex. All in favor…oops, there won’t be many left to vote.
When slavery was the social norm, it was simple for pro-slavery defenders to point to passages such as those in Exodus 21, which outlines the rules for the proper handling of slaves, for example, “when you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing,” and “when a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do,” and, finally, slave families should be kept together, unless the master gave the slave a wife, who then bore him children, in which case the master gets to keep the woman and children when the slave is sold.
If you are going to claim the Bible as your primary (or only) code of ethics, and proclaim, say, that homosexuality is sinful and wrong because the Bible says so, then to be consistent you should kill rebellious youth, non-virginal pre-married women, and treat your slaves properly. Since most people today would not endorse that level of moral consistency, why pick on gays and lesbians but cut some slack for disobedient children and promiscuous women? And why aren’t promiscuous men subject to the same punishment as women? Those women are having sex with someone, right?
The answer is that in that culture, at that time, men legislated and women obeyed. Thankfully, we have moved beyond that culture. But what this means is that we need a new set of morals, and an ethical system designed for our time and place, not one scripted for a pastoral/agricultural people who lived 4,000 years ago. The Bible and other sacred texts have much to offer, but we can do better.
(Note: This blogessay is a modified excerpt from Chapter 7 of The Science of Good and Evil, which should be read for a fuller defense of my argument here.)