Friday, January 22, 2010

Oppy on Moral Arguments (Part 4): The Argument from Scripture

This post is part of my series on Graham Oppy's discussion of moral arguments. For an index, see here.

The Argument Stated
The fourth argument that Oppy looks at is based on the moral character of scripture. It can be stated as follows:
  • (P1) No mere human being is capable of producing anything that has the moral excellence of such-and-such scripture.
  • (C1) Therefore, such-and-such scripture is the inspired product of the workings of an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god.
  • (C2) Therefore, there is an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god.
This type of argument is very weak, but it can be tricky. Oppy offers a general refutation based on his overarching interest, i.e. can arguments change the minds of reasonable people? Difficulties can arise when believers are willing to go to great lengths to defend a particular interpretation of a particular scripture. Such debates can be dangerous when you do not know a great deal about the scripture in question.

The first objection raised by Oppy is directly related to the point I was just making. Oppy argues that no one scripture, among the many extant scriptures, is so clearly morally superior to the others to justify P1: Each scripture has its moral high-points and low-points. Furthermore, different scriptures would support different conceptions of God. These points alone defeat the argument.

We can go further and point out that there are many moral failings in, say, the bible. Oppy rehearses some well-worn examples (stoning of rebellious children, stoning of adulteresses, ban on handicapped entering a place of worship etc.).

C1 is also problematic. First off, given that the bible offers a mixed morality, the best explanation of it is that it was the product of an agrarian and patriarchal society. Second, even if we grant that there is moral excellence in scripture, there is no reason to think that the best explanation for this is that the scripture is the inspired word of God. Teams of human beings, working over centuries, can produce objects of great complexity and intricacy that are far beyond the capabilities of any individual. This is a plausible alternative explanation.

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