Moral authority

Many theists see moral positions as being defined by “God’s Law.” They argue for the objective existence of a morality revealed by ancient religious scriptures. However, they have the problem of how to select and interpret scriptures to find moral principles relevant to today’s world. Inevitably different interpretations abound

One comment on a recent posting, overcomes this problem by declaring:

“What relevance does it have that people who profess to be Christians hold differing positions on various moral questions? Since the Bible holds a single position, and contradicts all others, these others are really irrelevant, even if people attempt to justify them using the Bible.”

The fallacy here, though, is that selection and interpretation is required to find this “single position.” This approach inevitably justifies moral positions by authority rather than reason. Anyone can claim their position is the authoritative one and all other interpretations wrong (sometimes even claiming personal communication with their god in justification).

No doubt the Westboro Baptist Church justifies their picketing of the Heath Ledger memorial this way (see also God Hates America and Fred Phelps). Argument for a moral position on the basis of biblical authority can be used to justify any position – from the most benign to the most hateful.

The scientific understanding of morality doesn’t claim an objective “god-give” morality but seeks to understand how humanity’s moral intuitions and todays moral positions evolved. Results indicate that rather than religion being a source of our morals it has become a way of codifying and justifying moral positions that have arisen quite independently.

Pascal Boyer summarises it this way in his excellent book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

Our evolution as a species of cooperators is sufficient to explain the actual psychology of moral reasoning, the way children and adults represent moral dimensions of action. But then this requires no special concept of religious agent, no special code, no models to follow. However, once you have concepts of supernatural agents with strategic information, these are made more salient and relevant by the fact that you can easily insert them in moral reasoning that would be there in any case. To some extent religious concepts are parasitic upon moral intuitions.

So, theists arrive at their moral positions the same way as anyone else. But some attempt to give their position authority by declaring existence of an objective, god-given morality that they have direct access to.

Some theists will reject this research. Their reactions are similar to the way that some reject modern evolutionary theory. They prefer to hold on to a story of “god-given” morality in much the same way as creationists prefer biblical or supernatural explanations of the origins of life and humanity. So, clearly the scientific investigation of morality is going to come under the same sorts of attacks as evolutionary theory currently experiences.

See also
Steven Pinker’s article The Moral Instinct
Jonathan Haidt’s paper The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology
Jonathan Haidt’s Edge article Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.

Related Articles:
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Common values, common action?
Is religion the source of morality?
Morals, values and the limits of science
Christian problems with morality

2 responses to “Moral authority

  1. Yes, the Bible is often read retrospectively (and selectively) to bolster already held beliefs. For example, the issue of abortion and the sanctity of human life; the verses that are commonly used as an argument against abortion are, at best, vague references and at worst deliberately misinterpreted. The GodAndScience website quotes the verses from Exodus 21:22-23 which talk about punishments for people who cause a woman to miscarry during a bit of biffo. The penalty for causing a miscarriage is not the punishment for killing another person but they manage to turn it around to say that “man who induces an abortion or miscarriage is to be punished”.

    One could just as easily use the Bible to justify abortion if you liked. In fact, Exodus 21:22-23 would be my key choice as a support for my argument that the Bible sees a foetus as less than human. (If I were to stoop so low as to use a dusty old book to try to trump reason).

    When the Bible comes into conflict with scientific observations there is always a period of dogmatic resistance which eventually dies off and becomes the laughing stock of Christians and non-Christians alike. Take the case of geocentricism for example; almost all of Christianity was completely behind the argument (based on ego and a handful of verses from the Bible) that the earth was fixed and that everything went around it. Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Christian who wouldn’t find this ridiculous. People’s interpretation of whether a verse from the Bible is literal or not changes in the face of evidence but there is always a lag. The same thing is happening with the issue of evolution, at least half of the Christians I know accept it as fact – albeit tentatively and with a little cognitive dissonance – and I can imagine a time in the near (or distant depending on the influence of the US) future where it’ll be a common joke that people used to think that the earth was created in six days and that Adam was made from mud and Eve from Adam’s rib.

    Using the Bible as if it were divinely inspired only serves as a massive anchor to progress. People who continue to do so run the risk of being continually one step behind and a hindrance to the rest of us.

    I know I sound full of bile but it’s only toward the method of interpretation. I personally agree with many of the teachings of Jesus. But you can agree with them without having to also believe that he walked on water, was born of a virgin and raised from the dead.


  2. I agree, using the Bible for moral and other authority is an anchor to progress. I think there is enough preventing progress without that particular noose around the neck.

    Have just been watching John Haidt’s presentation at the 2007 Beyond Belief Conference. Lot to think about there. It’s clear that we do react to situations on the basis of our moral emotions or moral intuitions and then use reason to justify our reactions. I think we do that with lots of things – after all we evolved to survive and reproduce, not to discover truth.

    However, we do have the ability to reason and this opens up the possibilities for progress. It works in science because this is a social activity – we would have not got very far without that possibility for competition and peer review. So I think we can make use of reason for developing a social morality providing there is the space for the same sort of competition of ideas and testing in practice and against reality.

    We have manged to do this with so many issues in the past (eg. vaccinations, blood transfusion, dissection of dead humans, etc.). Reason enables us to get past our initial intuitive reactions and we now accept them.

    Unfortunately, the appeal to biblical authority as a justification doesn’t enable this discussion, competition of ideas and testing against reality because it doesn’t start with a reality-based justification. It closes down reason and prevents the discussion from proceeding.

    Fortunately, in our more diverse modern society discussion around ethical questions do have a lot more secular input. More and more, input based on biblical and religious authority are considered “out of touch”, and even quaint. The recent comment by the Anglican Church on changes to Easter Trading legislation are an example. There are issues involving working conditions, freedom to shop, lifestyle, etc., around this which the Church ignores. Their arguments involving a god probably resonate with only a minority of the current population – they show a poverty of imagination and a habit of resorting to “authority” rather than putting their minds into gear.


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