Is Christian Morality Objective? Part II: The Lessons of Jesus: Imperatives Without Reason

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry detail the moral teachings of Christianity’s primary figurehead. These teachings can be found throughout the gospel stories in Jesus’ sermons, prayers and parables, which are attempts to illustrate certain principles by situational example.

One of the most consistent yet glaring disappointments found in biblical morality, including the teachings of Jesus, is the fact that its precepts are asserted without reason. Just as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5) are asserted without any appeal to reason (e.g., we are not told why one should not steal; we are just told not to), Jesus offers the vast majority of his moral teachings without supporting arguments (i.e., without an appeal to reason) and without reference to any reality-based needs of man they are intended to satisfy. This fact alone disqualifies them from being categorized as part of an objective moral theory, since the development of an objective theory of morality cannot neglect the vital role which reason plays in the foundation of morality and the tie of moral principle to reality. Nor can it ignore the fact that morality and moral principles are not self-sufficient, irreducible primaries which are true “just because” someone says so; moral principles are dependent on prior philosophical foundations (e.g., metaphysics and epistemology), as recognized by Objectivism. [1]

Many religious apologists have attempted to provide reasons for biblical teachings where the Bible itself provides none. Thus today, outside the Bible, we find the assertion of biblical moral teachings as buttressed by theological interpolation which enjoys the benefit of modern philosophical developments. These interpolations are often fortified by groping conjecture about what the authors of those moral teachings may have had in mind when they were first formulated and recorded. The occasion of such extra-biblical interpolation and conjecture, however, does not overturn the fact that the surviving ancient writings pertaining to Jesus and other biblical characters failed to offer any reasoning for many of their moral teachings. Indeed, many of those extra-biblical attempts to invigorate biblical moral teachings with injections of rationalizing supports simply beg important questions. [2]

For instance, one of the primary themes which Christian apologists may emphasize in their defenses of Judeo-Christian morality is the supposedly unchanging character of its foundation: the Judeo- Christian God. An unchanging moral code is one thought to be absolute, apparently regardless of that code’s particular virtues or failings, and therefore superior to the fluctuating and “situationalistic” attitudes often encountered in secular doctrines, which are summarily labeled as “conventional” or “relativistic.” As apologist Erwin Lutzer argues, “If God’s moral revelation is rooted in His nature, it is clear that those moral principles will transcend time. Although specific commands may change from one era to another, the principles remain constant.” [3]

Certainly, the reservation that “specific commands may change from one era to another” is offered to cover the fact that many of the moral teachings found in the New Testament actually represent a dissembling of the Hebraic teachings found in the Old Testament. [4] By reference to those principles which “remain constant,” however, Lutzer no doubt means the one primary principle which underlies all biblical moral teaching, which is: God’s demands are inviolable, and man must do whatever God says, or suffer for eternity. And this “principle” – essentially a threat against man’s right to exist for his own life, a threat against man for using his own independent reason – is the guiding precept of all Christian morality, which will always “remain constant.” The supposed validity of such a principle is simply taken for granted.

That religious ethics proceeds on the basis of threat is undeniable. The question “Why should I obey God?” will ultimately yield the answer “Because if you do not, you will go to hell.” [5] But this tactic makes certain general assumptions about man’s character which are untenable.

For instance, if man must be threatened in order to conduct himself morally, what does this say about his nature? It likely assumes that man will not conduct himself morally out of his own self- interest – which suggests that the moral is inherently against his self-interest, or at least that morality and self-interest are inherently opposed to or incompatible with one another, even though many Christians claim that following “God’s moral plan for man” is in man’s best interest. Of course, the “interest” in their mind is not in terms of living life on earth, but in terms of what supposedly lies beyond the grave after one’s death. This of course only begs the question: If it were the case that Judeo-Christian moral teaching is in man’s best interest, then why would there be any need for the Bible’s threat of eternal torment for “disobedience”? Blank out.

The hint of truth that makes this approach to morality so appealing to religious persons is the fact that man requires a standard to guide his choices and actions, and that his actions have certain consequences. But rather than providing a moral code which motivates one’s choices and actions by the legitimate rewards he can rationally earn and enjoy during his life, Christian morality instead reverses this motivation, and compels men to act out of fear of certain punishment. This is not a values-based form of morality, but a sanction-based form of morality.

By sanction I mean “a physical or psychological means of coercion or intimidation used for the purpose of motivating obedience to a principle of action.” [6] The question here is one of motivation: what determines or guides one’s actions? On a sanction-based form of morality, one’s actions are determined by threats of punishment for failure to perform the expected action. On a values-based form of morality, one’s actions are determined by one’s choice to live and to identify and acquire those values which his life requires. On a sanction-based form of morality, the goal is compliance with someone’s demands, while on a values-based form of morality the goal is the enjoyment of life. These distinctions are not merely a matter of perspective; it is not a mere question of whether the glass is half full or half empty as if one approach were somehow complementary to the other. Rather, the sanction-based approach constitutes a thorough and systematic process of undermining man’s ability – to the point of psycho-cognitive paralysis – to value his own life for its own sake and to govern his choices and actions according to the objective standard of his life’s requirements.

This approach to morality – that man must be threatened into conducting himself morally – completely ignores man’s nature as a being of volitional rationality. Indeed, such a view of morality cannot proceed from the recognition that man is capable of rationality; a sanction-based form of morality is endorsed in spite of man’s potential rationality, i.e., to thwart his rationality and replace it with a mystical code of divine whims. A code of morality which is based on man’s rational nature stresses the importance of values to his life: if a goal is in man’s own best interest, then it is the value of that goal to his life – not the fear of threats – which will motivate him to that action which enables him to achieve that goal. But a mystic code is to be followed regardless of its consequences in the individual’s life. What Rand said of the New Left applies equally to the religious: “They are not pulled by a goal, but pushed by the panic of mindless terror.” [7] This should be of no surprise when we consider the fact that the Bible that “fear is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).

The life-based nature of man’s rational values is ignored when apologists such as Lutzer claim that “God’s moral revelation was given for our benefit.” When attempting to support this claim, Lutzer argues

Though in the short run it may sometimes appear that biblical moral standards are too restrictive, we can be sure that such injunctions are for our benefit because of His love for us. After all, in the long run God knows best since because of His omniscience, He can calculate all the consequences. [8]

 

Here, Lutzer’s argument merely repeats the conclusion he attempts to secure, and nowhere does he show how “biblical moral standards” are beneficial to man. Moreover, we already know that the idea that an immortal God can love man or anything else is incoherent. [9] So this assumption cannot be used as a premise in an argument which is said to be sound.

By acknowledging that “in the short run it may sometimes appear that biblical moral standards are too restrictive,” Lutzer is actually referring to the fact that biblical morality is completely opposed to man’s self-interest (i.e., the virtue of selfishness) and his guilt-free enjoyment of his own life (i.e., his happiness). Religious leaders throughout history have always come down against man’s enjoyment of his own life, and that is at least on of the reasons why “it may sometimes appear that biblical moral standards are too restrictive.” [10]

This is nowhere so apparent as in the Bible’s attitudes against man’s capacity for sexual enjoyment. According to Jesus, for instance, it is morally wrong for a man even to gaze at the beauty of an attractive woman (qv. Matt. 5:28). Paul goes so far as to say that men who are single should “seek not a wife” (I Cor. 7:27), though he gives no reason, not even a bad reason, why they should practice what he preaches. And for those men who are married, Paul says that “he that standeth stedfast [sic] in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin [i.e., refrain from sexual intercourse], doeth well.” (I Cor. 7:37). [11] Again, regardless of interpretation, Paul does not say why, but effectually leaves any “reasoning” for his arbitrary injunctions to later theological interpolation. [12]

Another problem with this approach to morality is closely related to the one already discussed. For if man must obey commandments in order to be moral, then obviously this means that man cannot discover a moral code through his use of reason, because he needs to be told what to do rather than figure it out (i.e., discover and identify his life’s needs by means of reason) for himself. [13] This of course makes man completely dependent on those issuing the commandments, which are the priests and mystics. [14] This naturally elevates dependence as such to the status of a moral virtue, which of course is an egregious affront to man’s life.

This is the call for man to surrender his mind (i.e., his ability to reason), which is his chief value to begin with. For if he surrenders his mind, how can he determine that his life requires values and that he needs to identify and pursue those values, that he’s been duped by mystical indoctrination [15], or that his rights have been violated? Man needs an intact mind in order to determine these things, but if the code of morality to which he subscribes compels him to surrender his mind, then naturally he surrenders his ability to make these determinations. Clearly, blind obedience to arbitrary commandments cannot substitute for reason and objective values. Commands are appropriate for machines (e.g., computers) and dogs, not for men. However, it is no mere coincidence that commands are preferred by those who intend to rule others.

So far, we can see that the denial of man’s rational nature [16], can only lead to a code of “morality” which works against his mind, and therefore against his values. The Bible nowhere defines the concept ‘value’, nor does it acknowledge the crucial role which values play in man’s moral choices and actions. Instead of value, which is profoundly selfish in nature (of value to whom?) [17], the Judeo-Christian view of morality relies on unreasoned commandments, commandments which do not take into account man’s genuine moral needs, nor his rational purpose, which is to live and to enjoy his life. Indeed, because biblical teaching nowhere defines morality systematically, nor does it explain why man should be moral (other than to flee arbitrary threats), its teachings can only amount to a moral code opposed to his existence. According to such a view taken seriously, life is nothing more than a nightmare existence spent on the run from the wrath of the all-seeing ruling consciousness. Fittingly, the only time values are mentioned in illustration of moral principle, is when believers are expected to sacrifice them. [18]

Consequently, as I have argued before, there are many problems with the claim that Judeo-Christian morality is objective in nature. Many (in fact, the vast majority) of the Bible’s moral teachings are offered as self-sufficient primaries, without rational support, without concern for integrating them into the sum of one’s knowledge without contradiction, without reference to an objective theory of values, without relating morality to man’s nature and need for morality. My analysis of Jesus’ teachings which shall follow in future essays will demonstrate not only that Jesus gives no argument for the teachings which his believers try to pass off as moral, but also that those teachings are incongruent with man’s objective moral needs.

Footnotes

[1] See particularly Ayn Rand’s “This is John Galt Speaking,” For the New Intellectual, pp. 117-192; “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 13-35; and “The Good” in Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 206-249.
[2] Additionally, there are no doubt many sects within the fundamentalist movement today which view extra-biblical sources with suspicion. Consequently, they do not accept many of the reasons which some theologians and apologists provide in support of biblical teachings, and may even consider such attempts to be tampering infringement of otherwise divinely authoritative law. This only underscores the fact that there is no unity or unanimity among the many often rivalrous denominations of Christian theism.

[3] Measuring Morality: A Comparison of Ethical Systems.

[4] One source puts it quite explicitly:

Throughout the Church Age, there have been many religious institutions and groups that have advocated the keeping of certain Old Testament laws. The two most popular O.T. laws today are tithing and sabbath keeping. Some groups take the concept so far as to wear fringes on their underwear! We realize that there is nothing wrong with someone setting aside money or time to the Lord, but there is something wrong with using Old Testament laws as the basis for doing so. Christians are to rely on the Holy Spirit for our direction and not the Mosaic Law. (The Old Covenant Compared to the New Covenant, emphasis added.)

 

Most Christians in the so-called “mainstream” of western society do not, for instance, advocate that practitioners of witchcraft be executed for their “iniquity,” even though Exodus 22:18 states “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Some Christians, however, such as those who identify themselves as “Reconstructionists,” do advocate a full embrace of the Mosaic laws as provided in the Old Testament and, in the words of Walter Olson, “reckon only a relative few dietary and ritualistic observances were overthrown” by the New Testament reforms. (An Invitation to A Stoning: Getting Cozy with Theocrats, Reason Magazine, Nov. 1998.)

[5] Many apologists are likely to take exception at my characterization of this tactic as a threat. Indeed, they will affirm that this is the operative tactic underlying Christian teachings, but instead prefer to call it a “warning.” This blatant equivocation fails, see: An Aborted Rise to Challenge.

[6] George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989), p. 298.
[7] Ayn Rand, “From a Symposium,” The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, (New York: Signet, 1971), p. 98.
[8] Measuring Morality: A Comparison of Ethical Systems.
[9] I make this argument in my essay Why an Immortal God Cannot Value.

[10] It should be noted that, by “man’s enjoyment of his own life,” I am not referring to simple, fleeting pleasures, but to the Objectivist conception of happiness as an end in itself. “Happiness is the successful state of life… [a] state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” (Atlas Shrugged, p. 932.)

Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy – a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer. (Ibid., p. 939.)

 

The connection man’s need for morality and his achievement of happiness as a goal in itself is the concept of moral value. This kind of joy is therefore not possible on a sanction-based form of morality which hinges on one’s fears rather than his values.

[11] This teaching of Paul’s seems in principle to conflict with Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 5:32, which states: “whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery.” If Paul thinks it’s good for a man to remain married, yet decree “in his heart that he will keep his virgin,” does that not also drive his wife to “commit adultery” as Jesus cautioned? Indeed, if she wanted to enjoy her life (and I know of no pleasure in life greater than sexual enjoyment), she would surely have to seek out that enjoyment in a partner outside her marriage. Paul would have done well to have restrained himself from writing on these matters until after the Gospel according to Matthew was written, edited, re-edited and published in its final form.

[12] In an effort to supply reason where none was originally provided, some commentators have argued that Paul’s injunctions against marriage acts were reasonable because Paul was expecting Jesus to return at any moment. Hence, the time was short and serious believers, intent on fulfilling Jesus’ “Great Commission” to preach the gospel to the world, had more important things to do with their dwindling time on earth than enjoying the earthly pleasures of marriage. Needless to say, Paul’s expectations seem to have been disappointed.

[13] What facts in reality, for instance, tell us that is it wrong to “seethe a kid in his mother’s milk” (Deut. 14:21)? What facts in reality tell us that a man whose testicles have been damaged or “his privy member cut off” should not be allowed to “enter into the congregation of the Lord” (Deut. 23:1)? What facts in reality tell us that, in an attempt “to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets [i.e., his genitals],” that her hand should be cut off and no one should pity here (Deut. 25:11-12)? (See other examples in Donald Morgan’s list of the Biblical Precepts: Questionable Guidelines.) Obviously, the facts of reality do not tell us these things. Rather, in many of these cases, it appears that someone’s jealousy tells us these things, and men are expected to obey them in order to appease the jealous.

[14] Arguments claiming that we learn these commandments from God directly beg the question, for still we must listen to the claims of men if we are to grant the notion that a God exists any validity at all and in order to determine which God is the “real” God, and which are the false gods. Besides, if we could learn of “God’s will” by some direct, revelatory means (as Paul apparently learned about Jesus – cf. Gal. 1:11-12), then why is it so important that believers “study to show [themselves] approved unto God… rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15)? The whole point of religious morality is that morality is supernatural in nature – and therefore its transmission to men must occur ultimately by means of revelation and man’s “knowledge” of this revelation must come ultimately by faith. A morality which is natural (i.e., based on man’s nature as a living organism and its moral implications) is one which man can discover by means of reason. Faith in revelations need not apply. It is no surprise, then, that religious apologists hold that their oughts cannot be derived from what is, since their morality is wholly arbitrary, i.e., without basis in the facts of reality.

[15] Even mystics who fear losing believers to competing “false Christs” must be concerned about this potential problem.

[16] For the Bible nowhere defines man in the Aristotelian sense as the “rational animal,” nor does it treat him as such, and nor are its doctrines compatible with the rational view of man.

[17] I am assuming the Objectivist view of the concept ‘value’, which is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep” (Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 15). See also the short article on Values at Importance of Philosophy.com and my essay Is Christian Morality Objective?

[18] For instance, in Mark 10:17-22, a young wealthy man approaches Jesus asking “what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” When the wealthy man tells Jesus that he has followed the commandments which Jesus prescribes from his youth, Jesus then says that he must sell all his belongings and give the proceeds to the poor. The episode is followed by Jesus’ condemnation of values in verses 23-25, saying “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” Wealth enables men to achieve independence from others, and Jesus apparently perceived such independence as a threat to his mind-negating devotional scheme.

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One thought on “Is Christian Morality Objective? Part II: The Lessons of Jesus: Imperatives Without Reason

  1. I greatly appreciated your thoughts about Judeo-Christian morality. In debates with my friends who are apologists for this mode of thought, I often try to get both sides to define the terms they use, so we can come to a mutual understanding of each other’s way of thinking. I’ll certainly point them toward this article and see what they feel about it. As a Quaker I can clearly see the need to keep whatever flavor of “Judeo-Christian morality” as far away from becoming the law of the land as possible, yet keeping the spirit of the message alive personally.

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