Monday, September 14, 2020

Moral Arguments from the Bible

Some people appeal to the Bible in giving reasons to support their views on ethical issues.

So, they might say things like this:

  • "The Bible says doing this is wrong, so it's wrong."
  • "The Bible says doing this is not wrong, so it's not wrong."
  • "The Bible says we must do this, so we are must do this: it's an obligation."
Sometimes there are disagreement about what the Bible says or "really says": e.g., some might say that Bible clearly says this or that about slavery, or homosexuality, or eating meat, or abortion, or euthanasia, or the role of women, or polygamy, or capitalism, or being rich, or being poor, or capital punishment, or war, or violence, or anything else, and you can find other people who deny that, arguing that "the Bible clearly says" the opposite. 

But beyond that, these arguments, however, are all always missing essential premises: some logical "filling in" is necessary to make them logically valid, or make such that the premises lead to the conclusion. These premises are these:
  • If the Bible says that doing something - X - is wrong, then doing X is wrong.
  • If the Bible says that doing something - Y - is not wrong, then doing Y is not wrong.
  • If the Bible says that we must something - Z, then doing Z is an obligation: we must do Z.
The problem, however, is that these premises appear to be false, and that nobody really believes these premises are literally true anyway. This is because it seems that there are counterexamples from the Bible to show that they are false. 

There are many lists of Bible verses that make this point: various wrong actions are called not wrong; various permissible actions are called wrong, and we are said to be obligated to do things that we are not obligated to do. (What are good verses that illustrate this point? See that link or below)

What's the upshot? It's that just because the Bible says an action is wrong, that doesn't mean it is. And just because the Bible says an action is permissible, that doesn't mean it is. And just because the Bible says we must do something, that might not be so. 

Sometimes, however, the Bible does give very good, indeed excellent, moral advice: e.g., to love your neighbor as yourself

This is good advice, but the second upshot of the discussion above is that this is good advice not just because the Bible says so. 

Like everything else, there must be good reasons why something is the case. 

Given that, what are the good reasons why we should love our neighbors as ourselves?

And what are other moral guidelines - particular verses and general themes - from the Bible, and anywhere else, that we have good reasons to accept, and which do we have good reasons to reject? Why?

(Note: there is another type of "religious" moral argument that appeals not to the Bible, but to God's commands or God's will. So, the claim is that if God commands doing something, we must do what God commands. This is what's called "the divine command theory" of ethics: what makes, say, wrong actions wrong is that God commands that we don't do them. 

A common response, ever since Socrates, is the "Euthyphro Dilemma" (named that because the reasoning was developed by Socrates in conversation with someone named Euthyphro):
1. Either there are reasons why God would command us to do something, or there are not reasons why God commands us to do something. (E.g., God would have reasons to command us to not, e.g., kick babies for fun). 
2. If there are not reasons, then the command is arbitrary and random. (And so that's not correct: a command to not kick babies would not be arbitrary and random).
3. But if there are reasons, then those reasons are what make the action wrong, not God's commands. (So, e.g., there are Kantian or consequentialist or Rawlian reasons to oppose kicking babies.)
And so it appears that Divine Command Theory is not a correct moral theory. For more discussion, see Because God says so: on Divine Command Theory.”)

Bible Quotes

Edited with an introduction by Michael Huemer.
Translation: New International Version. (Compare: ESVKJV.)

On Punishing ‘Immorality’

Leviticus 20:9

If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death.
20:10If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.
20:13If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death.
Deuteronomy 22:20-1If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.

Exodus 35:2

For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death.

On Destroying Other People

Deuteronomy 7:1-2When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations . . . then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
20:10-17When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. . . . This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.
     However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.

On the Evil of Biblical Law

Ezekiel 20:25-26I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by; I let them become defiled through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the LORD.

On Slavery & Subjugation of Women

Ephesians 5:22-24Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Exodus 21:20-21If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.
1 Peter 2:13Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.
2:18Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.

Leviticus 25:44-45

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.

Jesus, on His Second Coming

Matthew 24:29-34

[T]he sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. . . . They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. . . . I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. [Emphasis added.]


For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

Scientific Errors

(1) Rabbits don’t chew cud.

Deuteronomy 14:6-7

You may eat any animal that has a split hoof divided in two and that chews the cud. However, of those that chew the cud or that have a split hoof completely divided you may not eat the camel, the rabbit, or the coney.
(2) No insects (including grasshoppers) are 4-legged.

Leviticus 11:20-22

All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be detestable to you. There are, however, some winged creatures that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper.
(3) This is only possible on a flat earth.

Matthew 4:8

Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.
(4) pi does not = 3.

1 Kings 7:23

He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim . . . It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.
(5) The earth moves. It does not have a foundation.

Psalms 104:5

He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.

Selected Contradictions

2 Kings 2:11As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
John 3:13No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
Numbers 23:19God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Exodus 32:14Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Ephesians 2:8-9For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith . . . not by works.
James 2:14-17What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? . . . Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Revelation 22:12Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.
(4) (Jesus speaking)
Matthew 5:16Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.
Matthew 6:1Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.
(5) (Jesus speaking)
John 14:27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
Matthew 10:34Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Genesis 32:30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and my life was preserved.”
Exodus 33:11The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.
John 1:18No one has ever seen God.
(7) (Jesus speaking)
John 5:31If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid.
John 8:14Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid.

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