Thursday, December 08, 2011

Scripture as a Source of Moral Knowledge

I have sometimes used an analogy that compared a person who viewed scripture as the final word in morality to a doctor who viewed Hippocrates as the final word in medicine.

That hypothetical doctor would be considered entirely and obviously incompetent in the practice medicine in the 21st century. In fact, he would be banned from medical practice - deemed a threat to the wellbeing of would-be patients. He may claim that the writings of Hippocrates were divinely inspired and objectively true - founded on God's wisdom rather than the efforts of fallible humans. However, that would not excuse him from acting on those beliefs in ways harmful to the interests of others.

We have learned a lot in the past two thousand years. A competent physician would be expected to put that knowledge to use for the benefit of her patients - knowledge that cannot be found in and, in some cases, contradicts the writings of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates.

Similarly, a person who holds scripture to be the final word in morality is just as incompetent to practice ethics - and for the same reasons. She, too, has to ignore everything we have learned in the past 2000 years. Her morality would be as primitive in the 21st century as the medicine of Hippocrates. She can rightly be said to be a threat to the well-being of other members of the community.

On giving this analogy some thought, I noted that we can extend it. I can imagine two different sects of Hippocratians. Both hold that the writings of Hippocrates are true and complete. However, only one group holds that the divinely inspired writings if Hippocrates are to be interpreted literally. For this group, any modern claims not found in Hippocrates represents blasphemy that must be rejected.

The other potential group of Hippocratians, in contrast, would hold that Hippocrates is not to be taken literally. They accept the claims of modern medicine, then return to the works of Hippocrates and say, "Here is where Hippocrates talks about radiation treatment for cancer. Here, we have a discussion of how mosquitos carry malaria. Here he discusses types of genetic disorders And over here we have a whole chapter on penicillin and other antibiotics - as well as information on bacteria and other microbes."

These Hippocratians might be able to practice modern medicine successfully - without being a threat to others. However, when we hear them talk about how all modern medicine can be found in Hippocrates this does give us reason to worry, just a bit. When they claim that they can find writings on antibiotics in the works of Hippocrates, what other odd ideas do they have, and how might this impact the way they treat patients? Is this going to distort their interpretation of new medical advances as they are revealed?

The moral equivalent of this species of Hippocratian are those who claim, for example, that all of our moral breakthroughs of the past 400 years of moral philosophy came from Christianity. They make claims such as saying that America was founded as a Christian nation based on Christian principles, and Christianity ended slavery.

Crediting Christianity with the end of slavery would be comparable with actually crediting Hippocrates with discovering a vaccine against Polio - by some modern physician who claims he can see all if the truths if modern medicine in the writings of Hippocrates.

In fact, if these moral truths were in scripture, why did it take 1600 years to discover them? It really would have been nice to find the words of the Declaration of Independence in scripture, and for Moses to have brought down from the mountain, not the Ten Commandments (many of which are not found in law and some of which are explicitly rejected), but the Ten Amendments. The right to freedom if speech and religion are as foreign to scripture as penicillin and radiation treatment would have been to Hippocrates.

One of the ways we can demonstrate the absurdity of the claims made by these hypothetical Hippocratians is by noting that Hippocrates is never the source of any modern medical breakthrough. These Hippocratians always discover these medical truths written in the works of Hippocraties after the fact - after they have been discovered by other methods. Furthermore, even errors, if widely believed, end up being discovered in the writings of Hippocrates.

Similarly, scripture is never a source of moral innovation.

For example, America was actually founded on the principles if the enlightenment. They cam from philosophers such as John Locke who tossed aside scripture and said that we can derive moral facts from an examination of humans in a state of nature. It was this method that revealed that humans, in nature, are equal. None have a natural right to rule or a natural duty to obey. They create governments to secure their life, liberty, and property. If any government becomes a threat to the life, liberty, and property of the people, then the people have the right to alter and abolish it - just like they have a right to alter or abolish any other tool that they create for human purposes, but which becomes a threat to their well-being.

As with an imaginary Hippocretian discovering passages about penicillin after the fact, people claim to find the moral truths on which America was founded in scripture after the fact. This only demonstrates that scripture is an object of creative interpretation. It does not show that scripture is an actual source of moral knowledge.

People who claim that they can get their moral knowledge from scripture deserve to be thought of the same way we would regard a physician who gets all of his knowledge from Hippocrates. If they truly believe that the writings of Hippocrates/scripture represent the literal and complete set if medical/moral facts as written, they are incompetent in the practice of medicine/ethics. If they make Hippocrates/scripture the object of creative interpretation, they may competently practice medicine/ethics, but this does not change the fact that Hippocrates/scripture long ago stopped being an actual source of medical knowledge.


Anonymous said...

John Locke did not derive moral facts from humans in a state of nature. He derived liberty from humans in a state of nature. He derived moral facts from the law of nature given by God.

"The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, who's workmanship they are, made to last during his, not another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy another, as if we were made for another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours."

- John Locke, Second Treatise of Government

Alonzo Fyfe said...


That Locke included a belief that the moral principles he discovered came from God was not relevant to their derivation or use.

Newton also believed that he was discovering natural laws created by God. Yet, nowhere in his formulae was there a variable for God. Atheists and theists alike could follow his arguments and use his formulae to calculate the movement of physical bodies.

A second reason why this mention of God does not impact my argument in this post is because my claim specifically was that Locke did not derive his conclusions from scripture. That Locke mentions a God is perfectly compatible with the fact that scripture did not play any role in his premises.

In fact, Newton and Locke both derived their works from the same tradition - one that started with Rene des Cartes - that held that we can explain and predict facts about the world using premises that came from observation rather than scripture itself.

Indeed, Rene des Cartes applied these principles to the question of whether God himself exists - a form of argument that would not make sense if scripture were assumed to be true as a founding premise.

advenioadveritas said...

While your post is certainly interesting it misses a fundamental issue that even your response to the 1st comment missed, Locke’s appeal to God gave his observations a basis for its worth. He answers the classic question “who sez?”. This is what made his treatise so powerful and usable to the founding of America. The problem with relying on human society for morality is who ultimately says what is right? Based on your argument the atrocities committed by slavery would have been ok since that was acceptable amongst a large portion of society.

I’m not defending the actions of the church, because several people in power throughout history has used divine-right arguments to achieve ends by force; however, you have to recognize that without some sort of unchanging foundation for morality how can anything be said to be ultimately wrong or even conditionally wrong. This was a hot topic of discussion post 9/11 in the New York Times, but it seems to have been dropped now.

Also, your comparison between morality and medicine is faulty. One is based on an ever-expanding knowledge, medicine, the other always appeals to something greater, that to have any weight must be unchanging. Medicine learns new things which helps people; morality, which is the basis of the law must be based on something firmer. If not why do we jail criminals or on what basis would you be outraged for someone stealing your car. What if their morality, and their social group, believed that to be true.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Who says which interpretation of scripture is correct?

You can't get away from human judgment. Even with religion, a human has to judge which religious interpretation is correct. The claim that religion avoids human judgment is utterly nonsensical.

Also, I am a moral realist. Morality is not a matter of opinion, there is a set of facts. Therefore, the comparison between morality and medicine is quite apt. Whether or not a treatment works is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of discovery. Whether a set of moral institutions works is likewise not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of discovery.

currentbaptist said...

I am also in agreement with advenioadveritas that the comparison between knowledge of medicine and that of morality is faulty. If we did base both on the basis of knowledge 2000 years (about the time Christianity recognizes the life of Christ) then there would be a clear distinction between what would have been known about medicine and what would have been known about morality. To use his/her example, to steal something thing would be considered wrong just as it is now. There is still a right and wrong. Although many know this without the Biblical context, Christianity says that its Creator had ultimate good in the beginning. It is an argument of origin, which leads to objectivity rather than subjectivity. We would also say that people and institutions differ on what is morally right or wrong because of sin, bringing evil into this world, which accounts for misguided judgment. There is a problem when these two, medicine and morality, are crossed because it has led to the allowance of abortion, which seems to be riding the slippery slope ultimately leading to "anytime" abortion. Scientists have taken conclusions found in research and made subjective determinations that lead to their own morality. Because the academy has a hold over culture and what is taught in the university, these subjective moral codes are made law.