More can, more ought

I’ve just finished reading Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. He makes a particular point about morality that stands out in my mind. I’ve often pointed out to Christian friends that the Bible lacks clear guidance on many of today’s moral issues, and the reason for this is because the biblical writers simply had no way of knowing that things like abortion and gay marriage would ever be discussed thousands of years down the line.

But Dennett adds to this idea: he suggests that not only are today’s moral issues different, but there are more of them. He begins by noting that moral issues are problems which we have some power to resolve: only if we are aware of, and able to change, a particular situation, are we confronted with a genuine moral choice. As he puts it, if there is no “can”, then there is no “ought”. In the past, when things like global communication and other technology-enabling activities were nonexistent, there were relatively few moral issues we had the power to weigh in on. Our concerns were limited to those that arose within our own family or village. Today, though, we are aware of (and have the power to change) problems such as starving children in Africa – issues that a few centuries ago would have been blissfully absent from our moral radar. As a result, biblical texts written millennia ago are too narrowly subscribed to offer useful advice on these issues.

I’m not sure I agree with Dennett that there has been a profound increase in the different types of moral problems we face today (there are certainly some, of course, like abortion and gay marriage). At the very least, though, there has been a significant increase in the number of moral problems. Therefore, what makes today’s moral landscape unique is that we must deal simultaneously with local and global issues. This certainly complicates matters, since we have to reconsider how we distribute the time and effort we put into helping others.

The Bible is not equipped to provide us with the answers to these dilemmas. I don’t think any text is. While we can certainly still adhere to good overarching moral goals, which can be easily delineated in writing, our final decisions will always require a healthy dose of careful thought and deliberation -something we cannot find in any text.


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