One of the ways in which those who defend a religious ethic claim to have an advantage over those who defend a secular ethic is in having something to say to those who might otherwise contemplate evil.
How can you explain to somebody that it is really wrong for them to torture young children? If there is no God and, thus, no supernatural morality, then all you can tell the torturer is that you don't like it when he tortures young children. However, that falls significantly short of the goal of telling him that it's really wrong.
One of the things that follows from teaching somebody that torturing young children is really wrong is that they will then if you can convince them of this, then they will not torture young children.
So, now the religious ethic has two advantage over secular competitors. First, it provides a way of describing the torture of young children as really wrong, and, second, it provides a way to convince somebody not to do that which is really wrong.
Well, actually, it fails on both accounts.
First, it fails to provide an account of something being really wrong because it fails in so many ways to give us an account of what is really wrong. Working on the Sabbath is punishable by death. Not only that, but you also have to give your slave a day of rest as well? One shall not charge interest on a loan except to foreigners? The penalty for rape is to be forced to marry your victim?
Is it really right to punish the children and grand children and great grand children of somebody who has dome something wrong? Is it really right to execute, immediately, any person who tries to convert somebody to another God? Or anybody who gives up a religion for another? Is really right that engaging in a homosexual act should be punishable by death? Is it really right to release a plague that will kill the first born in every family in order to obtain a political objective?
It is permissible to obliterate a city - men, women, and children - if one cannot find 10 righteous men, where 'righteous' is defined, among other things, as a willingness to kill those who work on the Sabbath or who engage in homosexual acts?
How is this supposed to be a guide to what is really wrong?
The Extension of Moral Error
Furthermore, once somebody looks at the religious text and sees all of the things that it gets wrong, they then merely need to extend those attitudes towards the few things that religious texts get right - to theft, murder, and lying among others. It is easy to draw the inference that murder, theft, and deceit are really wrong in the way that working on the Sabbath and charging interest on one’s money are really wrong.
Interpretation and the Introduction of Human Preconceptions
A common retort that I encounter when I give these alleged prescriptions - those not endorsed in the 20th century even by religious conservatives - out of context. As such, I am not delivering the correct interpretation.
However, let us be clear about how context works. What these agents are doing is first taking some ideas of right and wrong and using them as a measure of what scripture says, "in context.". If a particular interpretation of a passage yields a result that the interpreter does not fail, then the interpreter does not admit to being wrong about the morality of act. Instead, the interpreter complains that the interpretation being used is flawed - that a correct interpretation is one that yields the moral answers that the speaker is comfortable with.
However, this does not do anything to explain why a particular act is wrong. In fact, the way this works is that the interpreter simply begins with the assumption that his own prejudices and preconceptions are correct, and scripture is to be interpreted so as to support those assumptions. It is little wonder that he who claims to find such virtue in religion is so strongly motivated to do what the religion tells him to do. Under this cover of "context" assigns his preferences and prejudices to God.
Threat as a Form of Moral Argument
Furthermore, an appeal to religious authority actually does not explain why these things are really wrong.
It provides motivation by offering rewards and threatening punishments. However, these do not explain the wrongness of things.
A kidnapper can tell his victim, "The first time I catch you trying to escape, I will cut off A finger. The second time, I will cut off your hand." This may be effective in getting the victim to decide not to try to escape. However, it is a poor argument when it comes to explaining why trying to escape is really wrong.
Similarly the claim that an all-powerful God is watching over us and will threaten us with permanent torture if we commit the crime of working on the Sabbath or charging interest on our money. For those who believe it, this may be in fact inspire them to refuse any job that requires working on the Sabbath and who never puts his money into a saving account or any interest-bearing securities. However, it fails to provide any explanation at all as to why it is really wrong to do these things.
The people who obey God in these cases are like the victim who obeys the kidnapper. He is not doing so out of an understanding of the really wrongness of the action. He is doing so out of a desire to avoid the consequences of getting caught.
”It works” versus “It’s True”
Still, it works, right? If you can convince somebody not to torture a child or work on the Sabbath because some supernatural all-knowing, all-powerful being will condemn them to eternal suffering, then even though this fails to explain why it is really wrong, you have still saved a child from torture or prevented an act of working on the Sabbath. That is its own justification for these stories.
Well, not really. Not if you want to teach people that it is wrong to "bear false witness" or engage in other acts of deception.
It is important to note that this defense of divine command does not say that "it is true." It says, "It is useful." The reason to convince people that an omnipotent all-knowing distributor of justice is always looking over their shoulder with an eye to permanent punishment is that "it works". It provides those who believe it a reason to obey the commands they are given.
Consequently, one of the moral assumptions that sit at the very heart of this kind of argument is that controlling the behavior of others is a good reason to make claims that are not true, regardless of whether or not the claims are true. It is a recipe for deception as a social tool. It says, "We are not going to pay attention to what is true. We are going to pay attention to what is useful in terms of manipulating others into doing what we want them to do."
So, we end up with all sorts of problems associated with the idea that the scripture and religion have an advantage over secular ethics in giving us an account of what is really wrong. First, it is full of errors. Second, the art of interpretation means that the interpreter uses his own right and wrong to determine which interpretation of scripture is correct and thus assigns his or her own moral sentiments to God. Third, the motive to obey is not grounded on an appreciation of the rightness or wrongness of actions but on fear of punishment. Fourth, the argument is grounded on the assumptions that the merit of a claim is not that it is true but that it is useful in manipulating others into doing that which the speaker wants them to do.
None of these qualities are particularly useful when it comes to creating a fair and just society.
None of them are consistent with the claim that those who profess that morality comes from God that religious ethics provides gives us a better understanding of why anything that is wrong is really wrong.