Universal Moral Law
What is morality?
Morality is a system of values and principles that provide individuals with methods to differentiate right actions from wrong actions. Moral systems can be informed by religion or pure logic and philosophy.
The most ancient and simple form of morality is the divine command theory, which states that an action’s moral rightness or wrongness is determined by God. If God says it’s bad to kill, then it’s bad to kill simply because God declared the act of killing to be morally wrong. This view assumes that there is no universal moral law that follows logical principles – God’s arbitrariness is justified by his divinity. I, personally, reject this theory for many reasons that fall outside the scope of this post.
I accept the view of theologians and philosophers. God’s commandments are not arbitrary. They are rules that acknowledge realities about universal moral law (universal moral law that reflects God’s omniscience). Universal moral law uses “law” in the “physical law” sense, not in the legal sense. Laws that govern the physical realm, such as the law of gravity or Newton’s First Law of Mechanics, can be easily empirically observed. The framework of universal moral law is not as easy to discover as the framework of a physical law, but we do have a wealth of evidence and a wide variety of tools that can help us decipher universal moral law, AKA ‘Heaven’s Morality.’
Why do we need to care about universal moral law? Isn’t the Bible all that we need to live morally? The answer to that is a resounding NO. Your first reaction to that answer may be “BLASPHEMY,” but hear me out.
The tools that we have are the Bible, our faculties of reason and our moral intuitions. The Bible provides MANY prescriptions on how to live morally, but it was written for an ancient audience and it does not address MANY moral quandaries that twenty-first century Christians face. For example, the Bible does not address STEM-cell research, transsexual individuals, nuclear weapons, the role of government in caring for the poor, criminal justice system reform, rectifying gender inequality, climate change and many other moral issues.
If we start with the Christian assumption that the Bible is a vessel of God’s wisdom, we can use it as the foundation for our understanding of universal moral law. Imagine that universal moral law is a puzzle. Every moral prescription provided in the Bible is a small puzzle piece. These puzzle pieces, taken together, complete much of the puzzle (Golden Rule, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill, care for those in need, give to the state what the state is due, respect your parents and many others). Nevertheless, much of the puzzle is incomplete. We need to use our moral intuitions, our faculties of reason and scripture to fill in the gaps. We must extrapolate from the lessons of the scriptures to predict what the framework of universal moral law is – to approximate what the full picture looks like. That is how we use the Bible to inform our moral decisions as twenty-first century humans.
Moral Philosophy 101
Let’s examine a few well-known schools of moral philosophy to see how well they align with scripture. Any undergraduate student that takes an introduction to philosophy class learns about two types of moral systems: utilitarianism & deontology.
Utilitarianism is the more intuitive approach. Its operating principle goes like this: when deciding between one or more actions, take the action that increases welfare (utility) the most and/or decreases harm (disutility) the most.
For example, imagine that you were the President and your National Security Advisor told you that a nuclear weapon was being smuggled into the United States and the CIA and FBI have apprehended a suspect that knows the whereabouts of the bomb. The suspect refuses to divulge any information. Your National Security Advisor tells you that she is confident that intelligence officers can extract information from the suspect by torturing him and, as a result, prevent a domestic nuclear catastrophe.
You’re a utilitarian, so you decide that violating the suspect’s human rights (+ harm/disutility) is justified because of the harm that it will prevent (—harm/disutility). [+ < —]
Deontological ethics, on the other hand, classify an action as right or wrong based on defined rules. The consequences of an action are considered irrelevant. The important thing, according to this view, is not the outcome of an action, it’s the intent of the individual – are they acting out of a sense of duty to moral law?
The most form of deontological ethics is Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative.” Its formulations include:
- Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
o For example, it’s impossible to make stealing a universal moral law because the concept of stealing involves private property. If everyone is allowed to steal whatever they want, the concept of private property is meaningless – it can’t exist.
- Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
Using this second formulation of the categorical imperative, imagine that you’re the President again. You’re in the same situation as described above and have to approve the suspect’s torture. If the suspect is tortured, he will be treated as a means to an end. Torture violates a person’s human rights (means) to save other people (end). It does not respect a person’s dignity as an end in themselves. Because of this, you would not approve the torture session.
The Biblical Pieces of the Moral Puzzle
The types and styles of moral imperatives in the Bible are varied. It is not possible to make all of the moral commands in the Bible fit into the framework of one moral philosophy. For example, you cannot say that “the Bible is a utilitarian document” or “every command in the Bible stems from the Categorical Imperative.” Also, there are many other schools of moral philosophy (virtue ethics, pragmatic ethics, etc.). Nevertheless, I would argue that there is much more evidence in scripture for a deontological school of moral philosophy than there is for a utilitarian school. Take these verses:
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
God has commanded us to love one another. Moral rightness involves following that command (rule). This is deontological.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”
To me, this is a rebuke of human intuition. Utilitarian moral reasoning is very intuitive and we all use it. Most people think that it’s okay to kill one person to save the lives of a thousand, but there’s no justification for that rationale in scripture.
“Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.”
The Golden Rule is a great example of the categorical imperative. It involves treating people as ends in themselves. We are commanded to treat people well REGARDLESS of the consequences and REGARDLESS of whether welfare will be maximized.
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
We are commanded to abide by the principles of charity and humanitarianism, regardless of the consequences and regardless of whether the situation is hopeless. I can see echoes of Kant’s Categorical Imperative in this verse as well.
“Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.”
Once again, God’s morality seems to be deontological in nature. We are called to act in a certain way based on established principles. No where in the Bible does scripture command us to predict consequences or conduct moral calculus. It calls us to live by a code of principles.
I tried to search for verses that support a utilitarian school of moral philosophy, but I couldn’t find any (that does not mean that they don’t exist).
The purpose behind this exercise is to find a moral framework that approximates universal moral law AND that gives us a tool to help us make moral decisions. Often in modern life, we have to ask ourselves: “Based on the principles and logic laid out in the Scriptures, what should I do in this particular situation?” Unless we’re in a situation that is explicitly referenced in the Bible (pieces of the puzzle that we HAVE), we must utilize an approximation of universal moral law. Even if the moral decisions that we face everyday can’t be found in the Bible, we are still called to live by the Bible’s principles. Fidelity to that obligation entails utilizing our moral intuitions, our faculties of reason and the Scriptures. Even if we can’t fully comprehend heaven’s morality, we must try to understand as much as we can.