Moral particularism is often defined as the view that there are no universal moral principles. This is sometimes defended by appeal to examples, such as that of lying to a Nazi officer. Defenders of moral principles either bite the bullet and insist that lying is always wrong, or revise the principle in question to include clauses such as ‘unless a murderous Nazi is asking questions’.
Nobody knows how many clauses a principle can withstand before it becomes meaningless. Luckily, it doesn’t matter. The real issue doesn’t concern the possibility of true moral generalisations, but whether such principles can themselves provide us with reasons for action. Particularists answer this question negatively, holding further that moral reasoning is hindered by strict adherence to even the best of moral codes.
At first sight, Christian morality seems incompatible with particularism. After all, isn’t one meant to obey the ten commandments, no matter what? Moreover, it is often claimed that they are to be followed precisely because they are divine laws, thereby answering Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma with the thought that things are wrong because God says so, and not the other way around. Be that as it may, Jesus’ own stance comes close to that of the particularist.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus questions certain forms of strict adherence to religious law. His sayings are paradoxical insofar as Jesus seems to reject strict interpretations of the law whilst also stating that even the smallest letter of the Law must be obeyed. At the outset of his Sermon on the Mount, he proclaims:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them […] not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great…(Matthew 5:17–19)
The distinction between letter and spirit is frequently appealed to by interpreters of written constitutions, such as that of the United States. In the case of written human law, all one needs to distinguish between is the precise wording of the document and the intentions of its ‘founding fathers’. The situation in Christianity is more complex. In his Summa-Theologiae St Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between four kinds of law:
(1) Eternal Law; (2) Natural Law; (3) Human Law; (4) Divine Law
The Sermon on the Mount tacitly addresses the relation between (1), (3), and (4). Divine Law in the form of the ten commandments is a distilled approximation of God’s unchanging Eternal Law, the latter being too vast and complicated to endure codification. Eternal Law may be conceived as the spirit behind the letter of Divine Law. When Jesus maintains that he has come to fulfil the Law and not abolish it, he arguably has Eternal Law in mind. If Divine Law is this spirit made flesh, the commandments cannot be ignored. As with constitutional law, however, they can be amended to rule out misguided interpretations. One such amendment is to the Pharisees’ understanding of the Third Commandment (‘Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day’), which Jesus rejects as too strict:
His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread — which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests […] If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent…” […] they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”(Matthew 12:1–12)
Jesus uses terms like ‘lawful’ in two different senses, allowing him to state without contradiction that ‘it is lawful’ to do things that are ‘not lawful’ to do. His loosening of what it means to honour the Sabbath appeals to what God desires us to do in particular circumstances. The same form of appeal leads equally to stricter guidance:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment […] You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart…(Matthew 5:21–39)
Jesus holds on to moral principles, but instead of being action-centred (‘don’t murder’) many of them transform into laws concerning character traits (‘don’t be angry or lustful’, ‘be loving and forgiving’, etc.) As Aristotle suggests in his Nichomachean Ethics, the virtues cannot be perfectly captured by general rules regarding action: ‘be honest’ doesn’t reduce to ‘never lie’. Accordingly, morality cannot be perfectly captured by action-centred commandments such as those of the Torah.
So was Jesus a moral particularist? Not quite. But perhaps his father is.
A version of this essay first appeared in The Philosophers’ Magazine.