Moral Intuition, God, and Revelation

Sometimes theistic believers discover an awkward tension between their moral intuitions and the ethical teachings of their religion. For instance, some Christians are uncomfortable with the biblical teachings about women in ministry and homosexuality.1 How should believers think about the conflict between their moral intuitions (roughly: our basic senses of what is right and wrong) and moral teaching that purportedly comes from God?

I will give a tentative answer that gives our moral intuitions weight when determining whether a revelation is from God, but then give three reasons why we shouldn’t expect a genuine revelation to be completely intuitive. 

To begin, suppose God exists. By definition he is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. It might be the case that God has directly communicated some propositional truths to certain individuals which they tell to the rest of the world.2 I’ll refer to this as a revelation. 

Furthermore, suppose we have some reason to believe that a particular purported revelation is genuine (that is, divinely inspired in some sense). Maybe our sensus divinitatis3 is activated when reading it, maybe we are convinced by historical arguments in its favor, or maybe we think it’s written in such a way that no human could write. However, among the moral commands it gives there are several that seem incorrect. How should we handle this? 

The first thing to note is that moral intuitions are not nothing. In fact, Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne thinks we can test purported revelations with our moral intuitions. In his book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, Swinburne lays out four tests to discern if a supposed revelation is genuine. One of them is that a revelation can’t be, “intrinsically improbable on grounds independent of the revelation.” He thinks one way a purported revelation can be improbable is by contradicting our deepest moral intuitions:  

“…a candidate revelation must not contain moral claims incompatible with any clear intuitions we have about what are the necessary truths of morality. If it tells us that rape and lying, murder and theft… are good, then that is good reason for supposing the candidate revelation not to be a genuine one. ”

This makes sense. It seems like we know (based on our moral intuitions) that a morally perfect being wouldn’t commend rape. This is not to say that our moral intuitions are perfect. However, in my view, we should treat our moral intuitions the way we treat our other faculties: accurate unless we have reason to believe otherwise. 

Swinburne makes two important qualifications in the above quote: the moral intuitions in question must not only be clear, they must also be about the necessary truths of morality. Necessary meaning (roughly) could not be otherwise.4 Contrast necessary moral truths like rape is wrong, with contingent moral truths like you should drive on the right side of the road.

So that’s one side of the issue: a genuine revelation will not be extremely morally unintuitive. 

However, there are several reasons why we shouldn’t expect a revelation from God to be completely morally intuitive. 

First, it might be the case that our moral intuitions are wrong. Given our fallible nature, there is no reason to think that our moral intuitions are perfect. We’ve all probably been wrong about moral issues before. So God might give a revelation to correct people’s flawed moral intuitions about ethical issues. 

Second, there are some circumstances where it is impossible for God to give a completely morally intuitive revelation. To see this, consider the position God is in before giving a revelation. If it is directed to many people, there is a good chance they will have conflicting opinions on moral issues. If that is so and God is going to give commands regarding those moral issues it is logically impossible for God to give a revelation that “fits” everyone’s moral intuitions because people have contradictory moral intuitions.5

Third, it seems like the point of a revelation is to tell us something new, something we don’t have the ability to figure out for ourselves.6 As Swinburne puts it, “…the point of a revelation is to tell us things for which we do not already have adequate evidence…” If God gave us a perfectly intuitive revelation, that would be redundant and that seems out of character for a perfect being.7 

In light of these three points, it’s unlikely that a revelation from God would be completely intuitive. 

So if I’m right, both extremes are unlikely: a genuine revelation wouldn’t perfectly fit our moral intuitions, but neither would it contradict them on necessary truths of morality. A revelation from God would be somewhere in the middle.8 

Here’s a possible objection: the Bible has many warnings about the wickedness of the human heart. Therefore, we can’t trust our moral intuitions on some issue as important as testing a revelation. 

I think this response is biblically dubious. Scripture itself tells of a number of people who had clear and correct moral intuitions before any of the Bible was written. Consider Joseph and Job, scripture clearly implies that they had knowledge of right and wrong even though they didn’t have the Bible. 

Also, Romans one speaks of mankind’s knowledge of God and of their moral culpability before him. Presumably this applies to people who don’t have the Bible, since it speaks of people being without excuse and of having knowledge of God, “ever since the creation of the world…” If moral culpability implies moral knowledge, then that means people had moral knowledge before the Bible was written.

I could imagine a skeptic responding to this essay with something like, “God would ‘connect the dots’ to help people understand the reasons for his moral commands. Thus helping people conform their intuitions to his perfectly good will. An unintuitive revelation from an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good being is an oxymoron.”9

This is a good objection that I need to think about more. In order for my essay to be persuasive, I might need to integrate some some theistic responses to the problem of divine hiddenness. 

[1] I realize that the correct exegesis of the relevant biblical passages is debated. I use them as examples because the way the church has historically interpreted those passages contradicts the moral intuitions of many modern people. 

[2] My paraphrase of Swinburne’s description. 

[3] “Sense of divinity”, used by John Calvin to describe mankind’s knowledge of God. 

[4] Swinburne says, “the existence and actions of God can make no difference to what are the necessary moral truths, for since they are necessary truths, nothing can make any difference to them.” Swinburne has a long and sophisticated account of God’s relationship to morality in his book. 

[5] The probability that it’s logically possible for God to give a completely morally intuitive revelation goes down the larger the target audience, and the more moral issues the revelation addresses. 

[6] As far as I can tell, among religions that believe God has given a propositional revelation, it is an infrequent occurrence. God usually lets us discover things for ourselves. This is a good thing because if God was constantly revealing things to us, it would probably reduce the incentive to study, experiment, and debate. Why try hard to learn things if God might reveal them the next day? I might have gotten this point from Swinburne.

[7] I got the basic thrust of this point from Swinburne. He says, “…the point of a revelation is to tell us things for which we do not already have adequate evidence…” He doesn’t elaborate. 

[8] If someone asks, “Where is the line?” I have no idea. This is a rough and tentative sketch.

[9] I got this general idea from Justin Schieber. The “connect the dots” phrase is his too I think.