Biblical Morality

“Philosophical ethics, true to its Platonic origins, focuses on what we have in common: rationality (Kant), emotion (Hume), or our desire for pleasure and aversion to pain (Bentham). Duty, obligation, sympathy, solidarity – these are the things we share in virtue of our universality. They belong to Man, not men; Humanity, not individual human beings; the unity of the moral world, not its diversity. Even when philosophy focuses on the individual it tends to do so in abstract terms: the ‘unsituated self’ divorced from constitutive attachments to family, friends, community and history. That is what gives philosophical morality its ‘thin’ or context-free character.”

“Biblical morality, by contrast, is far more complex. It emphasises the dual nature of our moral situation. On the one hand, we are members of the universal human family and thus of the (Noahide) covenant with all humankind. There are indeed moral universals – the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, the right to be free, to be no man’s slave or the object of someone else’s violence. The three vignettes of Moses’ life before he becomes leader of the Israelites perfectly illustrate this. He intervenes, first to rescue an Israelite from an Egyptian; then an Israelite from a fellow Israelite; then the (non-Israelite) daughters of Jethro from (non-Israelite) shepherds who are preventing them from watering their flock. Moses recognises the universal character of injustice and fights against it, regardless of who is perpetrating it and who is its victim.”

“On the other hand, we are also members of a particular family with its specific history and memory. We are part of a ‘thick’ or context-bound morality (represented, in Judaism, by the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants) which confers on us loyalties and obligations to the members of our community that go beyond mere justice.”

The Dignity of Difference, p. 49