Is Biblical Morality Outdated?

All Things Examined

Annex_-_Heston_Charlton_Ten_Commandments_The_05Have 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.

Professional codes

Gardner points out that the codes of the ancient professions (e.g., the Hippocratic Oath) address the duty of care to any person, “whether friend, foe,” neighbor or not. The extended circle of concern, as he sees it, makes those codes a more fitting ethical standard in an era of globalization.

At the same time, he acknowledges that actual adherence to those principles, either in word or spirit, is in little evidence among modern professionals. Some things he finds personally troubling include the following:

‘The lost lawyer’ . . . who is no longer concerned with the health of the community but only with the wealth of his employers, generally large corporations . . . the once-solo practitioner physician (‘Marcus Welby’) who is now ‘managed’ by the business school graduates of the health maintenance organization; the once ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washington’ politician now under the thumbs of the most wealthy donors; the once selfless ‘Mr. Chips’ who serves his own careerist interests rather than those of the discipline, the college or the students.

To Gardner this suggests the need for “trustees” who are bestowed with “the privilege of maintaining the standards of an institution or profession” along with “common spaces” to facilitate public input and discussion.

How those “trustees” would function differently from a board of ethics, he does not say. And, given that you would be hard pressed to find a profession, corporation, government office, or municipality that doesn’t have one (why, even the city of Chicago does!), that need has little to commend it.

Rather, it seems that our real necessity is not for a new and improved decision-making process, but agreement on the defining principles for moral judgments and ethical policies.


Is “outing” an anonymous source, using stolen money, or taking bribes and kickbacks wrong because trustees, or a board, say they’re wrong? Or are they really wrong? Which brings us full circle to Howard Gardner’s opening question, “What's good and what's bad?”

Consider “customer care,” an ethic that the business world has been dialed into for the last couple of decades.

In principle, “customer care” is a good thing; it certainly has a noble, almost philanthropic, ring to it. But it can (and often does) do little more than cloak a company’s self-interest: “If we take care of the customer, the customer will take care of us.” And it can (and often does) result in what is best neither for the customer nor the company.

My wife works for a retailer whose work ethic is summed up in three words: Delight the Customer. What that means in practice, is that the customer can use out-of-date coupons for purchases; receive price adjustments on a sale items that were bought at full price yesterday, last week, or whenever; or exchange a bag of dirty, worn clothes purchased five years ago for a shopping cart full of new ones.

In short, employees are to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy, even if it means giving her, free of charge, the blouse she throws down on the counter in a huff, because she had to wait an insufferable five minutes in the checkout line. That actually happened at one store.

“Delight the Customer” is a self-defeating ethic that results neither in delighted customers nor a sustainable company. It creates petulant consumers who are increasingly demanding—like a spoiled child who is never satisfied, but ever-grabbing and testing the bounds of his parents’ resolve.

What’s more, it results in increased costs that must be offset by higher prices or lower quality (neither of which is particularly delightful to customers), holding the line on price, which is detrimental to company health, or reducing production costs with sweat shop labor—good for the consumer; not so good for the laborer —or reducing employee wages that are already at or near the legal minimum.

The way to better business ethics is found, again, in those timeless—not timeworn—“traditional texts.”

A better standard

For example, an entrepreneur’s duty to conduct commerce in a fair and just manner follows from the Levitical command about using just scales, weights, and measures. Likewise, his duty to conduct truthful marketing, advertising, and packaging follows from the Mosaic command, previously mentioned, against deception, and another command, two verses down from that, against cheating.

Those are but a few of the passages offering guidance about the duty to customers, whether they live next door or across the globe. Others address the ethical treatment of employees, the environment, and animals, and all debunk the notion that biblical morality is local morality.

In fact, the biblical principles of freedom, justice, and the dignity of man are the foundation of the Western rule of law from which industry regulations, labor laws, and professional codes of conduct ultimately derive.

Beyond what is legal, the “Eleventh Commandment”—to love others as Christ loved us—is a sure guide for the person who genuinely wonders, “What’s good and what’s bad?”

So no, Mr. Gardner, it is not a better standard of ethics that we need in these modern times, only better submission to the standards that we’ve had . . . for some time now.

Image copyright Paramount.

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at centurion51@aol.com.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


So are the Ten Commandments even on the shelf of Christians, today?
The head of a denomination spoke at our church over a decade ago. He took out a ten dollar bill and offered it to any child or student who could cite them in any order or form. When he put it back in his billfold he noted that he had been unable to give it away in any churh he had visited.
Is Biblical Morality Outdated?
Obviously, yes. We don't need a Harvard prof to tell us. Just look at Christians.

How many Christian kids know the Ten Commandments? (Or how many parents, for that meatter)


BreakPoint Columns