Category Archives: Morality

Is the Golden Rule Unique to Christianity?

Some Christians mistakenly believe that Jesus was the first person in history to express the ethical precepts taught in the Golden Rule. Many of the things Jesus said and did were unique in history, but we must also remember that Jesus’s intent was to fulfill the Hebrew scriptures. Much of what Jesus says and does are then based upon the words already recorded in the Old Testament. In addition, the Bible teaches that God has etched the moral law into the heart of every man (Rom 2:14-15) , so that nobody can claim ignorance of it. Therefore, it would be surprising if an ethical maxim like the Golden Rule had never been uttered by anyone before Jesus. So what is the history of the Golden Rule?

Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), writes about the Golden Rule:

This maxim is a commonly accepted basis of human civilization, and has been expressed in other contexts throughout history in both positive and negative forms. Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca (4 BC– AD 65) expressed the principle positively, ‘Let us show our generosity in the same manner that we would wish to have it bestowed on us’ (De Beneficiis 2.1.1), while Chinese philosopher Confucius (551– 479 BC) stated it negatively, ‘Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you!’ (Analects 15: 23; for other examples, see Betz 1995, 509– 16).

The precept appears to have been a common theme in Judaism at the time of Jesus. Tobit gives a negative form of the principle, ‘Watch yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. And what you hate, do not do to anyone’ (Tobit 4: 14b-15 NRSV). Hillel the Elder, an authority on Jewish Law (c. 70 BC– AD 10), supposedly held this motto, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.’ In the only text in the whole of rabbinic literature that attributes the saying to Hillel, the Elder goes on to say, ‘That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn!’ (b. Šabb. 31a; see Alexander 1997, 363– 88).

Wilkins goes on to address the criticism that Jesus is adding nothing new to the Golden Rule with his teaching.

Critics have denied the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching because this Golden Rule has been expressed in other contexts throughout history. Although the basic idea can be found elsewhere, Jesus’ expression of the Golden Rule represents a more demanding interpretation of love of one’s neighbor than was normal among other teachers of the time (France 2007, 284). Jesus’ teachings were significant because of the authority with which he taught as the Son of God who has come to fulfill the Law (5: 17– 20; 7: 28). Whereas other expressions of this saying indicate ethical aspiration, Jesus declares that the Golden Rule is the normative manifestation of his followers’ discipleship.

#5 Post of 2015 – Is God Subject to Justice?

Skeptics of Christianity sometimes claim that either God is subject to an external standard of justice and morality, or else whatever God arbitrarily says or does is the standard of justice and morality. Both of these choices are a problem, however, for the Christian.

If there is an external standard of justice, then God is not the ultimate being. There is a moral law that is greater than him. The Bible, however, rules that out.

If God can arbitrarily decide what is right and what is wrong, then justice and morality become meaningless because even though it is wrong to kill an innocent person today, tomorrow it could become OK, if God willed it to be. This idea, however, seems ludicrous as well.

The Christian answer to this dilemma is that God’s very nature is the Good and the Just. In other words, the moral law is built into God, and because God will always act according to his nature, the moral law will never change, and is thus not arbitrary. God is not subject to an external standard, because the standard is God himself.

Did God Bless Rahab for Lying?

In Joshua chapter 2, Rahab lies to the king of Jericho by telling him the spies had already left the city and that the king’s men could track them down and capture them as they returned to the Jordan River. In reality, Rahab was hiding the spies on the roof of her house.

The Bible records that her family was spared by God in Joshua 6, and the New Testament speaks glowingly of her actions in Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25. How can this be when she clearly lied? Isn’t it always a sin to lie?

Christian thinkers have struggled to deal with this conflict for millennia. Today, there are two positions which garner the most support. Theologians Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, in The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation, explain the two main options for dealing with this passage.

Some argue that it is not clear that God blessed Rahab for lying. God certainly saved Rahab and blessed her for protecting the spies and assisting in the overthrow of Jericho. However, nowhere does the Bible explicitly say that God blessed Rahab for lying. God could have blessed her in spite of her lie, not because of it. . . .

Others insist that Rahab was faced with a real moral conflict. It may have been impossible for her to both save the spies and tell the truth to the soldiers of the king. If so, God would not hold Rahab responsible for this unavoidable moral conflict. Certainly a person cannot be held responsible for not keeping a lesser law in order to keep a higher obligation. The Bible commands obedience to the government (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13), but there are many examples of justified civil disobedience when the government attempts to compel unrighteousness (Ex. 5; Dan. 3, 6; Rev. 13). The case of the Hebrew midwives lying to save the lives of the male children is perhaps the clearest example.

In summary, the biblical text never explicitly commends Rahab for her lie, so maybe Rahab is commended for her faith in God, despite her lie. Another option is that Rahab acted on the higher moral command (save the lives of the Israelites) over the lower command (do not lie) when she was presented with a situation where two moral laws were in conflict.

Steve Jobs on Abortion and Adoption

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

I’ve been reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and came across one of the saddest cases of moral confusion I’ve seen in a long time.

Jobs is in his mid-twenties and is sleeping with a girl named Chrisann Brennan. They aren’t married, of course, because Jobs wasn’t interested. As long as he could have sex with her whenever he wanted, why would he marry her?

At some point, she gets pregnant and announces it to Steve. What is his reaction? Below is a quote from the biography:

There was no discussion of marriage . “I knew that she was not the person I wanted to marry, and we would never be happy, and it wouldn’t last long,” Jobs later said. “I was all in favor of her getting an abortion, but she didn’t know what to do. She thought about it repeatedly and decided not to, or I don’t know that she ever really decided— I think time just decided for her.”

Not only was he sleeping with a woman not his wife, but when he got her pregnant, his solution was to kill the baby because it might inconvenience him. But listen to what Brennan says next:

Brennan told me that it was her choice to have the baby: “He said he was fine with an abortion but never pushed for it.” Interestingly, given his own background, he was adamantly against one option. “He strongly discouraged me putting the child up for adoption,” she said.

Let me spell this out for you. Jobs was OK with Brennan killing the child, but he was adamantly opposed to Brennan putting the baby up for adoption!! What is especially cruel about this is that Jobs was himself adopted by wonderful parents who basically gave him everything he ever wanted.

In his twisted mind, it would be better for a person to be dead than be adopted. Make sense to you? I hope not.

Did the Israelites Steal from the Egyptians?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Some Bible critics claim that God commands the Israelites to steal (plunder) from the Egyptians in verse 22 in Exodus 3. How could God command theft?

The context around verse 22, however, makes it clear that the Israelites were to ask the Egyptians for valuable items that they could take with them into the desert. The Egyptians were paying back the Israelites for the mistreatment they endured.

It is certainly lawful for someone to be repaid for crimes committed against them, and this is exactly what happened when the Egyptians willfully gave their possessions to the departing Israelites.  They certainly did not steal from them.

Why Don’t We Trust Atheists?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Atheists often complain that they experience prejudice directed at them by theists. Theists, they claim, accuse atheists of being immoral because atheists have no transcendent standard of morality. There is a level of distrust, at least for some theists, that exists.

So why do some theists worry about the ethics of atheists? Is this worry warranted?

Recently I finished a book written by Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. In this book, Ariely chronicles numerous psychological studies intended to discover how human beings react to a wide range of situations (very similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow).

Ariely is very interested in business ethics and he reports on several experiments that shed some light on human dishonesty. Based on these studies, Ariely concludes that “when we are removed from any benchmarks of ethical thought, we tend to stray into dishonesty. But if we are reminded of morality at the moment we are tempted, then we are much more likely to be honest.”

He goes on to recommend that the ethical crisis he sees in America can be turned around by people regularly reading the holy books which codify their moral values. This is because his research shows that those people who are reminded of their moral values frequently act more ethically.

There is nothing new here that hasn’t been recommended by great thinkers for thousands of years. Moral virtue is a practice. You don’t just wake up every day and act with high moral integrity. It takes effort.

Herein lies why I think atheists are not trusted. Theists wonder, “When is the atheist reading his holy book?” Never, because he doesn’t believe in holy books. Is the atheist regularly being reminded by a pastor how he is supposed to behave? Is he studying the words and deeds of moral saints? No and no. These things usually happen in religious gatherings which most atheists avoid.

Speaking personally, I don’t go more than a week without reading or hearing about moral duties and virtues because I am reading the Bible and listening to godly men and women teach the moral precepts found in the Bible. I am also watching men and women of great moral character at my church every week. I am soaking it up.

Now, before I get a bunch of nasty comments, let me say that I know many atheists who are decent, law-abiding citizens. I even know some atheists who go above and beyond to help other people. So this is not meant as some kind of blanket indictment.

But, I am asking some hard questions of atheists. If you are an atheist, when are you soaking up moral teaching? How are you learning to be virtuous? Who is challenging you, week after week, to act with the highest integrity and morality? These are important questions for you to answer. The Christian who goes to church and reads her Bible regularly has a real advantage over you.

Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Apply to Evolutionary Ethics?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

One of the most popular, but misguided, challenges that atheists fling at theists is Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma. I have written about why this is no dilemma at all for theists in other blog posts, so I won’t cover that ground again now.

Philosopher Matt Flannagan, though, has introduced a new wrinkle in this debate. Flannagan argues persuasively that the Euthyphro Dilemma is actually a serious problem for those who argue that morality is the product of evolution.

In an article in the Christian Research Journal (vol. 36, number 01), Flannagan specifically challenges the position of Jerry Coyne, a biologist and outspoken atheist. Flannagan claims that “Coyne’s own secular account of morality falls prey to the Euthyphro dilemma.” Here is Flannagan:

After claiming that moral obligations cannot be constituted by God’s commands, Coyne offers an alternative: morality comes from evolution—humans evolved a capacity to instinctively feel that certain actions are wrong.

This position is pretty standard among many atheists that I speak to, so Coyne serves as a useful proxy for the wider atheist crowd. How is Coyne’s account susceptible to the Dilemma?

Plato’s question [in his dialogue Euthyphro] is equally applicable here. One can ask, “Are actions wrong because we have evolved a disposition to condemn them, or do we condemn them because they are wrong?” If the latter is the case, then actions are wrong prior to, and hence independently of, evolution, and so ethics is independent of evolution.

So how does Coyne avoid this problem?

To avoid this implication, Coyne must adopt the first option: actions are wrong because we have evolved an instinctive disposition to condemn these actions. The problem is this option makes morality arbitrary. Couldn’t evolution have produced rational beings that felt that infanticide and theft were obligatory or that rape was, in certain circumstances, OK?

As Darwin himself noted, “If men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.”

So option 1, for Coyne, is also very troubling because now morality is arbitrary, based on the randomness of the evolutionary lottery.

Coyne is left with either affirming that 1) morality existed prior to and independent of evolution, or he must affirm 2) that morality is really just arbitrary because moral values could have turned out very differently. Now that’s a real dilemma.

#6 Post of 2013 – Can We Know Moral Values Without Knowing God?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Clearly the answer must be “yes.”  In fact, the apostle Paul teaches this very truth in the book of Romans. There are some moral truths that can be known without a person ever acknowledging God’s existence. In fact, the world would be a complete disaster if everyone had to agree on the existence and attributes of God before anyone could know moral truths.

But it seems that atheists often think that Christians are making this claim. They think that Christians are saying a person cannot be moral or know right from wrong without believing in God. No Christian thinker of any stature has ever said this, though.

When Christians present moral arguments for God’s existence, or when they argue that moral values cannot exist unless God exists, they are making a very different point. David Baggett and Jerry Walls explain what is going on in their book Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality:

[I]t might seem inconsistent to argue that moral truth is dependent on God if we can know it without even thinking of God. This alleged inconsistency can be dispelled if we recognize, as numerous classical thinkers have pointed out, that the order of being is different from the order of knowing. That is, the order in which we come to know things might be different from the order in which things exist, or have come to exist.

The order of being has to do with metaphysics and the order of knowing has to do with epistemology. Christian arguments about God and morality are almost always about metaphysics (the order of being) and not about epistemology (the order of knowing). Baggett and Walls add:

Certain moral truths might be as evident to us as anything can be, but may still leave unanswered the question of where morality came from. Likewise, the foundations of morality might be at a greater distance from us in terms of immediate knowledge than morality itself. This is a fundamental distinction, but one that is often missed, resulting in needless confusion.

Baggett and Walls point out that many atheists just seem to completely miss this distinction:

Recent books defending atheism have perpetuated this confusion, unfortunately, but not surprisingly. For instance, Richard Dawkins seems to ignore this distinction when he asks, “if we have independent criteria for choosing among religious moralities, why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the moral choice without the religion?”

Nobody disagrees that we can gather a bunch of people from different worldviews together in a room and agree on a basic set of moral values.  This simply is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the question of where these moral values come from. Answering this question is what atheists need to work on.

#8 Post of 2013 – Do Moral Disagreements Mean There Are No Moral Facts?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Moral realists believe that there are real, objective, moral facts. For example, a moral realist would say that it is a moral fact that raping for fun is wrong. Moral anti-realists disagree and would say that there are no moral facts. Statements such as “raping for fun is wrong” are not true or false in the sense that other facts are true or false (e.g., the statement, “the earth revolves the sun”). Moral statements merely express individual or cultural preferences which are completely subjective.

To prove their point, moral anti-realists often argue that the way we know that there no objective moral facts is that individuals and cultures differ in their moral values. One culture is supportive of female genital mutilation and another one isn’t. These disagreements, they argue, prove that moral values are not facts that are true or false, in the same way that scientific facts about physics, chemistry, and biology are true or false.

This argument seems obviously flawed to me, and “New Atheist” Sam Harris agrees. Harris dislikes moral anti-realism almost as much as religion. Here is Harris in his book The Moral Landscape:

I am simply saying that, given that there are facts— real facts— to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice.

What about the fact that there is no consensus on some moral issues?

Another thing that makes the idea of moral truth difficult to discuss is that people often employ a double standard when thinking about consensus: most people take scientific consensus to mean that scientific truths exist, and they consider scientific controversy to be merely a sign that further work remains to be done; and yet many of these same people believe that moral controversy proves that there can be no such thing as moral truth, while moral consensus shows only that human beings often harbor the same biases. Clearly, this double standard rigs the game against a universal conception of morality.

The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: one person can be right, and everyone else can be wrong. Consensus is a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.  There are surely physical, chemical, and biological facts about which we are ignorant or mistaken.

Although I disagree with Harris on virtually every other subject, he is right to chastise moral anti-realists. The fact that moral disagreements occur no more disproves the existence of moral facts than disagreements in biology disproves the existence of biological facts. It simply does not follow that a lack of consensus on a subject means that there are no facts about that subject.

How Does Christian Metaphysics Ground the Good? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In parts 1 and 2, we spelled out how classical Christian metaphysics is able to identify the good for human beings, and thus provide a sturdy foundation for Christian moral realism. Moral values and duties really exist and they transcend time and place.

In a previous series of blog posts, we looked at why Sam Harris’s metaphysical naturalism utterly fails to identify the good with anything transcendent. It will be instructive to compare Harris’s identification of the good with the Christian identification of the good.

Recall the difficulties with Harris’ identification of the good.  First, he falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy.  Harris identifies the brain states that constitute human well-being with the good, but G. E. Moore has persuasively argued that natural facts about the world (e.g., brain states) cannot deliver values, on metaphysical naturalism.

For a Christian theist in the Aristotelian–Thomistic tradition , the naturalistic fallacy is simply not a problem.  On his metaphysics, values are built into the world, and the good is located in formal and final causes.  Edward Feser elaborates in his book Aquinas:

A gap between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ could exist only given a mechanistic-cum-nominalistic understanding of nature of the sort commonly taken for granted by modern philosophers, on which the world is devoid of any objective essences or natural ends.  No such gap, and thus no ‘fallacy’ of inferring normative conclusions from ‘purely factual’ premises, can exist given an Aristotelian–Thomistic essentialist and teleological conception of the world.

Harris’ next difficulty is his assertion that moral values can conceivably reverse in the future.  Cruelty and cheating could possibly become good if neuroscience can deliver feelings of well-being to individuals who are cruel and who cheat. Even worse, Harris concedes that rapists, liars, and thieves could occupy peaks on the moral landscape that are equivalent to peaks occupied by saints.

Although he believes that these scenarios are highly unlikely, his metaphysics allows for the possibility.  For Aquinas, no such scenarios are possible because the good is located proximately in a fixed human nature and, ultimately, in the unchanging nature of God.  Moral values, therefore, can never be reversed in the future, and the goodness of rapists, liars, and thieves can never be equivalent to the goodness of a saint.

Harris’ final difficulty is his belief that it would be morally good for human beings to be sacrificed for the well-being of a vastly superior alien race.  Here again, Aquinas would disagree.  The good of human beings is located in the human nature given us by God, and there is nothing in human nature that would lead us to believe we are designed as sacrifices for an alien race.

Instead, we are designed by God, in his image, as living, free creatures with intellect, will, and passions.  To be used as sacrifices for super-aliens runs counter to the purposes for which God created us, and is, therefore, clearly not good.  Natural law theory affirms our deepest moral intuition, that to be abused by superior conscious beings would be morally wrong, contrary to Harris’ bizarre reasoning.

So what can we conclude from this analysis? It should be abundantly clear that Harris’ naturalistic metaphysics leads him to a completely inadequate account of the source of moral values.  The well-being of conscious creatures fails to provide an unchanging, transcendent ground for the good.  The good is apt to be different for each person, depending on what gives him feelings of well-being.  Although Harris emphasizes that human evolution and the common laws of nature should produce moral values that are more or less constant, the fact of the matter is that nothing in Harris’ metaphysics guarantees what seems completely obvious to all of us: moral values are transcendent.

Christian metaphysics, as expounded by the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, does provide a grounding for moral values that supports our most deeply held moral convictions.  Moral values are based upon human nature and the ends toward which it points.  The finite goods of human beings – health, virtue, pleasure – are the same for Sam Harris and Thomas Aquinas.  However, Aquinas can affirm these as eternally fixed by God, whereas Harris can only affirm them as transient byproducts of purposeless physical processes.  The gaping metaphysical hole in Harris’s moral landscape, then, is the Being of pure actuality from which every good thing comes.  Without God, man is truly a conscious creature of no consequence.  To quote Aquinas, “God alone constitutes man’s happiness.”