Dan Baras on the Absolute Authority view

Dan Baras (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) has recently published an excellent paper, “A Moral Argument Against Absolute Authority of the Torah” in Sophia. The reason I want to describe its contents and arguments here is because I think that it would be a useful essay in philosophy of religion courses, and possibly in introduction to philosophy and elementary ethics courses. The paper was recently made freely available for a week-long online symposium organized by the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

Although Baras takes Orthodox Jewish views on the authority of the Torah (here, Bible plus Talmud) as good examples of the Absolute Authority view, Baras argues against any view on which a collection of texts is taken to have absolute authority, so it would presumably cut against textual absolutism in any religious tradition (page 2, footnote 1).

Baras is also not arguing against religious practice and belief, nor even against following the prescriptions and rules codified in the Torah (page 3). Baras is not even arguing that the authors of the texts should be blamed for promoting the texts, nor that the norms are worse relative to prevailing norms in the area at the time (page 11). Baras argues specifically against Absolute Authority view (page 4):

Doctrine of Absolute Authority: Whenever there is a course of action φ such that the Torah prescribes that you φ, that is a conclusive reason to do φ. (And conversely, whenever there is a course of action φ such that the Torah prescribes that you do not φ, that is a conclusive reason not to φ.)

Baras argues against the Absolute Authority view as follows (page 5):

  1. The Torah includes norms that we strongly judge to be immoral.
  2. If the Torah includes norms that we strongly judge to be immoral, then it does not make sense to treat the Torah as an absolute authority.
  3. Therefore, it does not make sense to treat the Torah as an absolute authority. (From 1 and 2)

Premise 1 is supported with examples from the Torah (Bible plus Talmud). Premise 2 is defended by exhaustively considering four kinds of bases for accepting an authority, and then arguing that, given our knowledge of this Torah’s origins, none of these bases can support accepting the Absolute Authority view. Independent of the plausibility of these premises, in my estimation, this argument will definitely get students engaged. I am eager to see how it goes and report back!

One thing that struck me was that the motivation for arguing against this view. Baras argues that this doctrine leads people to a kind of refusal to admit the alleged ethical wrongs in the Torah:

What bothers me, and has motivated me to develop this argument, is the inability that I find among my religious peers…to state clearly that they reject the passages from the Bible and Talmud in the next section, as well as many others that are similarly morally appalling.

I really appreciated Baras’s sharing of autobiographical details that are relevant to, and motivate, the philosophical content. It is refreshingly honest to see this acknowledged explicitly.

This motivation is part of the reason why I think this piece would be useful in facilitating discussion. A lot of students in the States, at least in my experience, come from religious backgrounds where something in the neighborhood of an absolute authority view is accepted. This causes tension between our deeply felt ethical convictions and the norms with which many of us grew up.

This tension raises tons of interesting and engaging philosophical questions about the nature of texts, the conflict between ethical beliefs and obedience to longstanding rules, and active cognitive reflection on our own beliefs. At any rate, the article is careful and interesting, and I highly recommend to those interested in the topic that they give it a look!

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