Is Biblical Morality Outdated?

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll

Have the Ten Commandments outlived their shelf life? Some folks seem to think so. Take Harvard professor Howard Gardner.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Gardner asks, “What's good and what's bad?” In times past, he argues, “traditional morality”—by which he means the Decalogue, as well as the Golden Rule—was a sufficient guide to that question, but no longer.

That’s because, as Gardner sees it, traditional morality only addresses how we treat our neighbors: those “150 persons who . . . each of us has evolved to be able to know well.” That was fine in the day when social relations were limited to family, tribe, and village, but it is ill-suited, Gardner argues, for ethical conundrums in a global community.

For instance, questions such as when a journalist should “protect an anonymous source,” whether a lawyer should “defend a client whom she believes to be lying,” or whether a medical scientist should accept research money from convicted felons or use subjects without their consent, are questions that Gardner concludes “traditional texts don't provide reliable answers to,” or even raise.

One wonders whether the good professor has ever read those texts, especially the one that offers some pretty helpful answers not too many pages in.

Not so parochial

For starters, the journalist wondering about his duty to a source could find direction in the book of Numbers: “He must not break his word but must do everything he said.” Likewise, for the lawyer, a passage in the book of Leviticus, among numerous others dealing with justice, could help him understand that competent representation, regardless of innocence or guilt, is a necessary check against unlawful, excessive, or discriminatory actions by the state. Finally, the Mosaic commands against theft and deception speak plainly to a medical researcher considering the use of funds or subjects that are ill-gotten.

It will be noted that none of those “traditional texts” limit moral duty to a tight circle of neighbors whom one happens to “know well.” Quite the contrary, the lack of geographical or temporal qualification signifies their universal and timeless applicability.

And if that weren’t enough, Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan should disabuse anyone of the notion that biblical morality is parochial.

Howard Gardner, who is not so disabused, believes that we need “to create and experiment with fresh approaches” to moral decision-making that are, as he puts its, “adequate to our era.”

As to what those might be, Gardner suggests, ironically enough, the ancient professional codes. Continue reading here.

Continue reading here.


Originally published January 12, 2013.

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