Lesson 2: Dissecting Moral Theories

Now let’s apply what we’ve learned to evaluating two very different moral theories — one religious, one secular. The assessment of other influential theories will have to wait until the Comprehensive Module.

 

The Ten Commandments Theory (TCT)

No one knows how many people accept the Ten Commandments theory of morality, but there are plenty of people who say they do. We mean people who insist that the TCT is the sum total of their morality, a self-contained moral code that needs no additional theoretical underpinnings. (There are many others, of course, who say that the Ten Commandments are just guidelines that help us fill out a larger moral theory.) The question is, is this beloved theory plausible?

The first thing to note is that the TCT is a type of religious theory of morality called the divine command theory (DCT). This is the view that an action is right if God commands or wills it. In other words, certain actions are right or wrong because God says they are, for he is the author of the moral law. The TCT is a legalistic version of the divine command theory in which God’s commands are spelled out in rules stated clearly in scripture or made plain in nature. Another version of the DCT says that God’s commands are expressed not in a set of unbendable rules, but in the dynamics of each moral situation. Christian ethics, though it can take many forms, is usually construed as a type of DCT in which the commandments are those of Christ’s teachings, especially of the injunction to “love thy neighbor.”

Now, if the divine command theory is unfounded, so is the Ten Commandments theory. And the DCT is in trouble. The main problem is that it is not consistent with our experience of the moral life. We can ask this troubling question: Are actions right (or wrong) because God says they are, or does God say they are because they just are right (or wrong)? If the DCT is correct, then what God says goes. If he says that torturing innocent children is right, then it is right. If he says that raping and killing your neighbors is right, then it is right. But this notion is implausible. Our experience of the moral life suggests that some actions are just wrong, and it is hard to accept that wrong actions could become right just because God commands it to be so. Many religious people reject the divine command theory on these grounds.

Those who accept the DCT have offered counterarguments to the above, but the theory cannot be rescued. (We will discuss these counterarguments in more depth in Module 3.) And if the DCT is a failed approach to morality, so is the Ten Commandments theory.

Another serious problem with the TCT is that it conflicts with our considered moral judgments. As we noted, the Commandments are absolutist — they allow no exceptions. A rule is a rule, and the impact that following the rules might have on a person’s well-being must not be taken into account. Say a terrorist steals a nuclear device and threatens to blow up a major city, killing millions of people. The only way to stop this catastrophe is for you to break the commandment against killing and murder the bomber. According to the TCT, killing the terrorist — even as a means to save the city — would be wrong because the Ten Commandments explicitly forbids such actions. But this view seems unsupportable.

The news about the TCT gets worse. The Ten Commandments theory — like all moral codes — is unworkable. Moral codes have sets of rules that are inherently vague. They cannot, therefore, offer much help to people who need specific answers on specific cases. The Commandments say, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” But does this mean that children should honor their parents even if their parents abuse them? What if the father or mother is criminally insane? Does the rule apply to stepfathers? foster mothers? the parents of test-tube babies? The intent here is just not clear.

In addition, plausible moral theories are supposed to help us resolve moral dilemmas, but the TCT (like other moral codes) cannot do this. When two commandments or rules conflict, there is no way to remove the conflict without appealing to a moral theory that is outside the scope of the Ten Commandments. We’re commanded not to kill and not to steal, but what if the only way to avoid killing someone is to steal? Or what if the only way to avoid killing a hundred people is to kill just one? We’re told not to bear false witness, but what if by bearing false witness we can save the lives of a thousand innocent people? The Commandments give rise to many conflicts like this — but can’t resolve them. These failings make the TCT a poor theory of morality.

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