While we tend to think of the moral person as a “person of principle”, there is a philosophical position known as “Moral Particularism” which argues that the moral life has little, if anything, to do with following “principles” in the sense of following rules. I think an exploration into their arguments against moral principles would prove illuminating on the nature of biblical law even if one does not accept moral particularism as a positive thesis.
There is a trivial argument against moral principles which isn’t employed by moral particularists, that is, the idea that there are always exceptions to a rule or principle. Whatever the rhetorical force of “hypocrisy” or inconsistency in applying the rules or principles via carve out exceptions or limitations, as a philosophical matter this isn’t the argument pressed by particularists because it may be possible to formulate rule-like principles for carving out exceptions. E.g. freedom of speech except for speech which falsely attacks personally living persons.
The argument which particularists deploy is that whether the presence of a feature in a particular context is good or bad is contingent upon the particular context/circumstances itself. As such, that feature could be a reason why it is bad as it could be why it is good depending on the particular context. Completely opposite “principles” could be generated according to the circumstances. For example, suppose the hedonist postulates that whatever is pleasurable is prima facie good unless it violates individual rights or something. This seems to be a good principle with a principled carved out exception. However consider the scenario where a sadist derives pleasure from the torture of others. The problem here isn’t merely that this falls under the excepted scenario, the problem here is that the pleasure itself is an *evil*, and a reason to judge this feeling an evil because it is derived from the sufferings of other people. It isn’t merely the case that the principle of “pleasure is good” has failed to apply or has been suspended, and that it is an evil because it falls under the exception that a person’s right not to be tortured has been violated, it is the case that *pleasure itself* here is a reason to infer that it is an evil instead.
Here’s another example from epistemology: Suppose there was a principle that prima facie whatever seems red is red. Of course one can draw exceptions to the rule by saying, unless it is not under standard lighting, etc. However, suppose a person suffers from some sort of inverted qualia, that is, in their vision blue objects appear red and vice-versa, then it isn’t merely that the principle has “failed to apply” and the principle is suspended, it is that things which “seems red” is now a reason to infer that it is blue instead. Thus, you can generate completely opposite principles, e.g. whatever seems red is blue, depending on the circumstances.
Moral particularists call this the “holism of reasons”, that is, to draw moral inferences on a particular context requires one to appreciate the particular circumstances at work as a whole. The particular features and circumstances in context can serve as *reasons* for a moral conclusion, but these reasons are not “principles” which can be applied outside of the very particular circumstances in which they arise. In short, the particular circumstances/context is prior to the formulation of reasons for generating moral conclusions. There are no overarching “principles” which applies to particular contexts or circumstances, rather particular circumstances give rise to reasons.
Shifting gears, I would like to discuss here the uses and functions of “rules” and “principles” if they are not to have a “governing” or “imperative” role in the moral life. John Rawls had a pretty interesting paper, “Two Concepts of Rules” where as a lemma to his thesis he discusses at some length the distinction between justifying a rule, system, or general practice, and justifying an individual action falling under the rule/practice. The example he uses here is that of punishment, suppose you ask, why do we punish people? You could give the following reasons for justifying the practice of punishment in general, e.g. deterrence, retribution, communicative, etc. But suppose now you ask, why was Jack punished? You normally don’t justify Jack’s punishment by appeal to reasons which justifies punishments in general, you don’t say that Jack was punished to deter future recalcitrants, you say things like, Jack was punished because he was found guilty in a court of law for breaking this or that law, etc. Thus, there is a difference between justifying a rule/practice in general and justifying actions falling under that practice/rule.
From here he develops two concept of rules: there are rules itself as a system or institution in the general, to be justified in general terms because of the intrinsic value or meaning of the institution, and then there are what he calls “rules of thumb”, or a “summary” conception of rules, that is, the rules are merely a generalisation of inferences in a large sample of particular cases. Thus, if you infer that a is wrong in w case, a is wrong in x case, a is wrong in y case, etc, then you can “summarise” your conclusions into a general “rule of thumb”: a is wrong. However, unlike the “institutional” understand of rules, the “rule” here is entirely parasitic and derived from conclusions in particular cases, it isn’t a “governing” conception, the rules do not stand over and above the particular cases to be “applied” to them.
We are now in a position to discuss briefly the nature of biblical law. We are constantly told that the term “torah” is better translated as “teachings” rather than what we mean by “law” today. Thus, it makes sense to see the “torah” as a body of “rules of thumb”, which contains many cases as a convenient summary and heuristic for generating moral conclusions in particular cases, as such they are more like a pedagogical aid in instruction on wisdom rather than rules which “govern” us. However as the unfolding of Bible and Jesus makes clear, there are cases where “law breaking” can be justified, that one can “break the law” and be innocent. In the end, we are to be governed by the will of God which prescribes the ends and objectives which determines the right course of action in particular cases, rules do not govern but the will of God and his ordained will do. The rules reveal and teach his will via generalisations and case illustrations, but they do not “govern” us.
Ultimately, as Christians we are called to obey a person, God, we are not called to be subject or be ruled by inanimate objects like “the law” or by “principles”.