Why Religious Ethics Need Interpretation


All religions have their codes of ethics. Why then are many bad things done in their name?

 Religions have their code of morality, often found inscribed in scripture or in edicts handed down by religious authorities. Some religious people rely upon scripture or authority without thought. The revealed word, the word of authority, is enough for them and they believe that there is no need for interpretation and, therefore, nothing more can or should be said. The matter is settled for all time. Approached this way, a good person is defined as one who adheres to religious dictates without deviation; questioning the rule is a sign of ignorance at best, dangerous at worst.

 In the Grand Inquisitor section in Dostoevsky’s novel Brothers Karamazov the question is asked, If God is dead, is everything permitted? The Grand Inquisitor‘s question implies that religion is essential to morality in the sense that God is the law giver, and without the majesty of the divine law people would live without care or consideration, doing whatever they wanted, however they wanted. Without religion standing behind ethics, morality would be no more than a preference, that is, discretionary and subjective, a matter of personal choice. This is a powerful and common argument.

 Turn the Grand Inquisitor’s question around, though, and ask, “If God were alive, would you always know what to do?” The evidence of at least the last 2,000 years shows that religious laws are in need of constant interpretation. No matter how many additional rules are added, new situations arise and it is far from certain whether something conforms to or breaks the basic law. For example, let’s consider a commandment: Thou shalt not kill. This seems pretty straightforward. Everyone knows what it means to kill. Or do we? The commandment doesn’t apply to all killing, only to the killing of human beings. It doesn’t even rule out all killing of human beings, as the Bible is full of heroes who lead the Israelites on the battlefield. So “do not kill” applies not to warfare but to murder in other settings. But, even then, it doesn’t outlaw all killing, as the state engages in capital punishment.

 Today the laws of most countries distinguish between degrees of murder. There is premeditated murder, murder in the course of committing another crime, murder of government officials, murder in a fit of passion, accidental murder, and murder in self-defense. Only the strictest pacifist understands the commandment not to kill to mean no taking of human life under any circumstances; only a psychopath thinks that killing doesn’t need justification.

 Religious laws also need interpretation because sacred texts often present rules that are morally problematic. The book of Leviticus, in the Jewish bible, allows a daughter to be sold into slavery, forbids contact with a woman while menstruating, and permits the killing of children who disrespect their parents. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” led to the slaughter of thousands of people in Europe (mainly women) over a 200-year span. The Jewish and Christian bibles can be read in multiple ways, inspiring some to acts of charity, kindness, and justice, while giving others justification to engage in acts of sadomasochism. Charity and justice are ethical goods; slaughter of innocents is a moral abomination. Both examples are contained within the covers of one book. When we make judgments about the uses and misuses of religious laws we employ an ethical standard outside the religious law itself.

 Plato‘s conversation with Euthyphro focuses on the     question of which is prior, ethics or religious rules. Plato convincingly argues that the gods are good because they do what is good. If the gods demand wanton killing, you would say that they are bad or false gods. A god that demands the torture of children can’t be a god worth believing in. Religion may be a strong motivator to be ethical, and it frequently provides guidelines regarding ethical values, virtues, and principles. However, you still need to use judgment.

 Religious ethics are useful as a framework, a starting place, but they are not all there is to ethics any more than religious laws are all there is to religion. You can’t suspend your own judgment and rely upon the letter of the law whether issuing from legislators’ pens or heaven. Laws need interpretation in novel situations, and a person must employ their best judgment when they find a conflict between two or more principles or values.



2 thoughts on “Why Religious Ethics Need Interpretation

  1. Arthur,

    You have taken the words right from my mouth. I have many religious friends that don’t seem to realize that their holy book morality is incomplete. It may be on the right track, but any ethical system which only uses blanket rules is destined to fail. Just like with Kant’s Categorical Imperative, generalizations fail to answer specific questions.

    These sacred texts say nothing of modern moral dilemmas. What should be done about genetic cloning? What about animal testing? What about affirmative action? What about the death penalty? What about legalization of drugs? People will try to find one verse about any of these and then quote it out of context. The truth is that the moral systems set up by these holy books are not only incomplete but they are also outdated. That does not mean that they should be disregarded, but it is, as you said, important to make them relevant and meaningful for our time period.


  2. Pingback: Why Religious Ethics Need Interpretation « Arthurdobrin's Weblog « Ethics Find

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