this article • Print
this article |
|Talk of the Town|
Exploring the two
sources of moral standards
Special to the
After listing some of the inconsistencies
in the Bible on June 13, Al Herron concluded, “If no one knows
what Christian values really are, then I think we should quit
talking about them so much.”
Right on, sort
We should spend much more time talking about
specific Christian (and other) values that we can analyze from
historical perspective and scientific breakthroughs. If you
take a course in business ethics, you’ll likely find that two
basic sources of moral standards exist:
(moral standards as God has revealed them through his/her
spokespersons on earth), and empirical experience (moral
standards determined by scientific, objective human
observation of cause/effect relationships).
its advantages and disadvantages. The good thing about
revelation-based morality is that it removes all dissension.
Once God has spoken, that’s it. You simply can’t argue with
God or his representative on earth. That can make it easier
for leaders to control behavior. If people sincerely believe
that doing certain things will ensure their entry into heaven,
and other behaviors will get them into hell, then at least
some of them will opt to do the right (moral) thing.
If a terrorist thinks he’ll get to heaven and have sex
with 69 virgins if he blows himself and others to bits, well
then, he blows himself and others to bits. Regardless of
whether this actually works will remain a mystery until we’re
all in the hereafter. That may be a longer time than most of
us want to wait. We just might try to interrupt the guy’s
behavior, even if it means violating his religious experience.
Obviously, the quality of results with
revelation-based morality has a lot to do with the competence
of God’s representatives on earth. In addition, you really run
into problems when God’s different representatives disagree
with one another. Just look at the widely varied moral
justifications for different beliefs regarding divorce, birth
control and abortion.
On the other hand, an
empirically-based morality prompts a lot more dissension.
Since no one has God on his side, a person must rely on
argument, logic and reasoning to get society to accept his
moral standard. Of course, that is also its advantage. When
different moral standards clash, people discuss and test them.
A governing body can look at the empirical evidence of its own
and previous cultures, develop theories, compare methods, do
experiments, and evaluate results.
To do it right,
society’s leaders should consider viewpoints from all the
world’s great religious leaders and philosophers, specifically
in the areas of rights, justice and utility. They are
fundamental. Usually their validity is not subject to
argument, and we can apply them to every society since the
beginning of time.
Rights relate to the individual: the
right to the opportunity to make a decent living, for example.
Or to have full, accurate information about important social
Justice goes further and relates to
relationships between individuals, such as equal wages to
every person in a work group doing the same kind and quality
of job. Or, in a negative sense, equal punishment for
equivalent crimes against society.
Utility goes still
further, and involves the greatest good for the greatest
number. For example, the city council shouldn’t pave a road
from the center of town to the mayor’s house in the country,
when poor neighborhoods still have unimproved roads.
Objective application of rights, justice and utility
standards prevents unscrupulous individuals with hidden
agendas from controlling society, simply by referring to their
special contact with the divine. This is why experienced-based
moral standards are superior to revelation-based standards in
government affairs. Revelation can influence experience-based
moral standards (for premises, hypotheses, etc.).
Revelation-based morality specifically rejects any scientific
breakthroughs in our knowledge about the world – and other
humans – around us.
That’s why government must base its
laws and judicial decisions on the objective application of
the standards of rights (of the individual), justice (between
individuals) and utility (the greatest good for the greatest
Of course, an individual can use his personal
revelation-based moral standards to try to improve society –
but by using experience-based criteria, and not the
unquestioned revelation of a specific religious
Chuck Kelly is a retired
management consultant living in Prescott. His e-mail address