Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What if God commanded murder?

A while back I was invited to respond to an article written last year concerning a challenge to the goodness of the Abrahamic God. This article holds a central question: “If God commanded you to kill your child, would you be morally justified if you were to obey?” He then proposes a trilemma, for which he points out various problems. He then concludes, “no matter how one answers [the question] . . . the notion of an omnibenevolent God seems untenable.” The example he uses is the famous one of Abraham and his only true son (with Sarah), Isaac.

He first runs into the problem that one may answer the question with just anything (by the principle of explosion) if one assumes that the question contains an impossible antecedent. He anticipates this response and says that on the contrary such is not “inconceivable.” The problem is this, however: if one considers God to be morally perfect[1] and the antecedent is not morally perfect, then the question is in fact inconceivable. To say it isn’t is just to admit, in the case of the omnibenevolent God (which the argument assumes in order to show its untenability), that such a God’s commanding the actions is possible, and hence the conclusion is false. My point here is that the worst that follows is that Abraham was mistaken and the Bible is not inerrant (a hefty price, to be sure, but one that is somewhat less than an omnibenevolent God’s existence!).

Of course, he may rightly question whether I would take the above route. The answer is that I would not. So, what are the three options? The first (1) is to answer, “No, because this would be murder.” If we do that, then we accept the premise that a supposedly good God commanded murder (and murder is always wrong). (1) is obviously not a viable option.

(2) is to answer “yes,” we would be morally justified in obeying. However, the reasoning is because what “God commands is by definition good.” He offers a two-pronged critique. I will quote his own words here: “If what is good is that which God commands, then, presumably, He may command and perform any act which, ex hypothesi, must be good, in which case morality may be said to be arbitrary and capricious; entirely contingent upon what God may at any time decree.” The other prong of the critique is to say that God’s commands and the good are simply identical, and thus the question of what “good” is really becomes meaningless for the theist here.

The third option (3) is to say that God is a necessarily good being, and thus it is always good to follow commands given by a necessarily good being. His criticism seems to mirror the second prong against (2) above, followed by supposed counterexamples (i.e., examples of the Abrahamic God behaving in ways different than we would expect an omnibenevolent being to behave).

It occurred to me he did not quite tease out the third option, for it will be this teased-out third option that I will claim. If one will recall, the second option is that of a causal chain: God commands X, X becomes good. This is indeed arbitrary, and it is for this reason I think it should be rejected. However, (3), properly understood, should reverse the causal direction: X is good, God commands X.[2]

The author claims, “To say God is by necessity ‘good,’ and for such a pronouncement to be meaningful, the theist must be able to delimit actions that God cannot perform because they are bad.” The only way I know to take this indicates he thinks we ought to be able to list all the actions God cannot perform before we are able to say God is a necessarily good being, and that I don’t think has been shown. In fact, he doesn’t really argue for it at all. All we mean by “necessarily good” is that he is the ground of objective moral values; it is a part of his nature. That does, by definition, mean there are certain actions he cannot perform, but it does not at all follow that we cannot say God is a necessarily good being without knowing all the actions he cannot do. I certainly do not need to know all of the false answers to 2+2 in order to claim 4 is correct. While it is true that the value of 4 ontologically delimits the number of values that can be sufficient for combining a pair of 2s, it does not follow that we must delimit a list of things it cannot be to know what it is!

However, I think the author’s point is that if we say “yes, we are justified in killing our children if God so commands because God is necessarily good,” that this necessary goodness also necessitates God cannot perform evil. Killing children is evil. Therefore, (3) is not an acceptable answer. However, this just assumes what it seeks to prove. Using words like “genocide,” “murder,” “torture,” and “slavery” is just question-begging. This is because the way we use such words entails morally evil content. Now, if the author merely means to be descriptive of the events, let him use synonyms or sentences to describe them. In many cases, they lose some (or even most) of the force.

Next, he attempts to demonstrate the biblical record contains these atrocities. Aside from ignoring Paul Copan’s critique (which defends the biblical accounts quite well), those who take (3) as an option have plenty of avenues to explore. The argument runs like this:

A. No act commanded by a necessarily good being is evil
B. A perceived command is evil.
C. Therefore, it is either not the case that the command was given or the command was not given by a necessarily good being.

In neither option is the theist committed to saying that holding to an omnibenevolent God is untenable. In the first scenario, possible (and even plausible) solutions include: commands being misunderstood, Biblical inerrancy’s falsehood, the command is not to do evil (in the case of Copan’s defense), God’s not being obligated to extend life, etc. In the second, solutions include: command misunderstood to be from God but from other source, made up command, infused genuine command with meaning to kill all, etc. I don’t even have to pick any one of these (especially since some are decidedly less plausible or palatable than others), but it remains that holding to an omnibenevolent God is not “untenable.”

                [1] Here, moral perfection shall be defined as God’s every action comporting with goodness (though certainly much more developed definitions exist).

                [2] This should not be understood to imply God commands every person to do every good act, but rather that the good “causally informs” the content of the commands. In other words, if something is evil, God will not command it.

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  1. “If what is good is that which God commands, then, presumably, He may command and perform any act which, ex hypothesi, must be good, in which case morality may be said to be arbitrary and capricious; entirely contingent upon what God may at any time decree.”

    Suppose he’s correct. What is good is that which God may at any time decree. Doesn’t he assume that the decrees themselves do not derive from some non-arbitrary source, like an unchanging necessarily existent being? Or is he suggesting a scenario in which, in the absence of a divine command, there literally is no good and no evil?

    Another question which might be raised (and which has famously been raised by William Lane Craig) is what circumstances serve to justify killing. Murder is the unjustified taking of the life of another person, but suppose the killing were justified. Then it is not murder, right? In fact, it would be morally permissible if it were justified. So the atheist question concerns whether you would be justified in killing your child if God commanded you to; one may answer “yes” without committing oneself to ethical voluntarism if one thinks that the presence of a divine command itself serves as moral justification. The atheist would have to show that, necessarily, a divine command is insufficient moral justification, would he not?

    “ However, (3), properly understood, should reverse the causal direction: X is good, God commands X.[2]”

    Does one leave unaddressed the question of why X is good in the first place? One may answer either “yes” or “no” to the atheist’s question. If yes, then God’s benevolence does not appear to be challenged. But “no” assumes objective moral values. Could not the theist divert the force of the question by illustrating that the question is based on premises which assume theism to begin with (via a moral argument)?

    ““To say God is by necessity ‘good,’ and for such a pronouncement to be meaningful, the theist must be able to delimit actions that God cannot perform because they are bad.”

    I enjoyed your treatment of this. To be able to provide an exhaustive list of all actions God could not perform would require a perfect knowledge of moral values. Not only this, it would require knowledge of all future contingencies (some of which might cause an action which would have been morally neutral to become good). To propose that the theist needs to know all this in order to know that God is necessarily good seems incredible. Does he give any argument for this?

  2. Daniel, great points! In fact, most of what you say was the driving reason behind my critique. I found some of article's explanation of the trilemma to be ambiguous (including the question in the first place), but I tried to be as charitable as possible once I read the entire thing. That's the same reason why I pointed out saying things like "God has commanded murder" just presupposes that what has been commanded is evil, which is the point of the question, and hence is question-begging. I think the theist can indeed introduce a moral argument, but that may take one far afield. It's up to preference. I see no problems with taking the objectivity of morality to be found within God's necessary nature.

    He really does not even attempt to give an argument. His treatment of that part is exactly one sentence: the claim itself. He uses it as a springboard for the argument that one of the things God cannot do is command moral atrocities, but the Abrahamic God has commanded moral atrocities. Of course, if one does not already agree with this, he won't agree with the second premise! In fairness, he may not have been saying we need to know all such things God cannot do, but at least one such thing. But I don't think that's quite true either. We may explicate the truth of something and know that whatever is not that truth is false, even if we do not know what exactly that is. For instance, we know that love is good, but suppose we really didn't know what not-love entails. But we know God can't do that (even if it is a non-explanation) precisely because we know that God is love. Hence, rather than what God cannot do informing what he can do, it is really the reverse.

    The author actually comments on this blog from time to time: Aaron. :)

  3. Could you explain this argument in terms that are not so academic? I truly want to understand but am having difficulty.

    1. Hi Teri, thanks for your comments. So sorry it took me so long to reply! I will say that the Christian position should be that God is the foundation for moral values and duties. Because he is that foundation, God can and will only command things that are consistent with his own good nature. So, if God commanded Abraham to kill Abraham's child, it would not be wrong for him to do so. But, how can we call that good? Well, first, God holds the lives of every single person, and he does not owe anyone continued existence. Thus, God has authority over our lives. Second, we ask: how do we work this out in our lives? If we hear voices, should we kill our children? I would answer that Abraham's situation was humanly unique, even for the Bible, and the likelihood God would ask us to do this would be incredibly low. Finally, we must point out that, in fact, Abraham did not kill Isaac, as God commanded him not to. God knew what was going to happen the entire time. I hope that helps! :)


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