Is the Bible a suitable candidate for an objective moral standard?

Here is a portion of an exchange I recently had via Facebook with Nigel, a friend of mine. The topic of this section is about whether the Bible can legitimately be used as an objective moral standard.

The problem is, as I pointed out, the Bible can only be considered a universal standard if an individual interprets certain evidence in such a way as to suggest that it is.

Nigel, you seem to be misunderstanding

  1. what is meant by “an objective standard” and how that relates to the ability (or not) of others to
  2. properly understand and
  3. apply that standard. All three are separate issues.

1. Objective standard. If a standard is objective then it does not matter if no one understands or accepts it. Objective simply means that it exists independent of the subject (us). So even if there were no Christians, I would argue that the objective moral standard of Christianity exists and is binding on every person. In other words, the Bible is merely a means by which we know the standard, but it does not, itself, constitute or establish that standard.

2. As for understanding. You seem to also presuppose a deconstructionalist view of the text wherein it is we who bring meaning to a text and not the text that contains meaning independent of our interpretation whereupon it is incumbent on us, the reader, to decipher what the original author meant by any given text. You seem to be following Derrida’s deconstructionalist model when you argue along the lines that since there are many different interpretations of a text that therefore there is no objective definition. I would argue that

3. You also seem to be making the argument that since the application of the moral standard found in Scripture has not been consistent, and has changed over time, that such a change in the application of the objective standard serves as proof that there is no objective standard. Again, this seems to be an outworking of Derrida’s postmodern deconstructionalism wherein it is the subjects that bring meaning to the object and not the other way around. I would argue that we could not talk about a “more proper” application of moral law unless we first presuppose there there exists an objective law in the first place by which to judge applications of it across time. If we reverse this so that application determines the standard then what we are left with is a sort of “might makes right” notion. Interestingly enough, “might makes right” still adheres to an objective standard (a poor one in my estimation) that comes logically prior to the understanding and application.

So when it comes to the question of objective morality we need to address each category separately, starting with the question of

  1. whether an objective standard exists. If it does then we can proceed, if not then all things are relative and subjective. We can live as we please because there is nothing we are objectively beholden to.
  2. how those objective standards are understood. If there is a standard, it must be understandable by those who are to be bound by it. If we say that objective standards exist but that we cannot know them, then how can we really know they exist at all?
  3. how to we apply these objective moral standards? Only after we establish the existence of an objective moral standard and only after we establish the objective means we are to use in understanding that standard can we begin to talk about how that standard is to be applied. The beautiful thing here is that after we have established that an objective moral law exists and how we can objectively understand that law, we can easily correct the application of moral laws as we grow in our understanding of the moral law.

10 responses to “Is the Bible a suitable candidate for an objective moral standard?

  1. You didn't answer the question in the title of your post.

  2. I'll agree the title was a bit ambitious given the scope of the subject and having only dealt with one aspect of it. However I'm curious as to your thoughts on the matter. Do you think the bible is a suitable candidate as a source of objective moral standards? Why or why not?

    • I would say that the Bible is not a suitable candidate but understand that others would disagree.

      I don't see how a book written by men can be deemed to be a standard above men. Because of this the Bible wouldn't be any more preferred as a standard than the Koran or Book of Mormon, or Rushdie's Satantic Verses. And given the many man-penned options for a standard, we are back to it being a subject's choice on what to follow.

  3. "I don't see how a book written by men can be deemed to be a standard above men."

    But that's just it. The claim is not that the Bible, as a book of laws conceived by men, constitutes an objective moral standard. That would be like claiming our nations laws constitute (rather than merely reflect) an objective moral standard. Rather, the claim is that 1. if God exists then 2. objective moral values exist, given those two premises we can 3. know objective moral values exist only as they are revealed to us. In this case, that revelation is the Scriptures consisting of both Old and New Testaments.

    As far as I can tell, to discount the Bible as a valid candidate for an objective moral standard you must either 1. show that objective moral values can exist and be knowable apart from a divine moral lawgiver or 2. demonstrate that the Bible is not a valid revelation (btw this is what I would argue is true of the Koran and the Book of Mormon among others) of God.

    "And given the many man-penned options for a standard"

    You seem to be falling into the same trap my friend Nigel fell into above. Simply put, it is a genetic fallacy to claim that just because there may or may not be confusion regarding the proper interpretation of the objective moral standard (btw both the Koran and Book of Mormon rely on the Bible, they also both claim the Bible is true, and both conflict with it at various points) has any bearing whatsoever on the validity or existence of the moral standard itself.

  4. I fell into no such trap. You asked me to assess the Bible as a source of objective standard and I answered that question. Then you introduced the status of the Bible as lofty, God-inspired revelation rather than just the words of men. If you care to provide convincing evidence of this assertion, perhaps I would change my mind on the Bible.

  5. you would have to prove that it is not an objective standard, rather than him prove it is.

  6. John, not familiar with how the burden of proof works, eh?

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