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home : features : business Monday, July 04, 2005

7/3/2005 4:35:00 PM  Email this articlePrint this article 
Talk of the Town
Exploring the two sources of moral standards

Special to the Courier

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 of.

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:

Revelation (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).

Each has 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 problems.

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 number).

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 leader.


Chuck Kelly is a retired management consultant living in Prescott. His e-mail address is

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