Monday, March 15, 2010

Maitzen on Skeptical Theism and Moral Obligation (Part 2)

This post covers some of Stephen Maitzen's arguments concerning the incompatibility of skeptical theism and morality. Part 1 introduced us to the whole idea of skeptical theism. It outlined the dialectical context in which it arises and the problem it tries to solve (evidential problem of evil).

Skeptical Theism leads to Moral Paralysis
As we saw, skeptical theism is based on the following three premises:
  • (11) We have no good reason for thinking that the possible goods we know of represent the entire domain of possible goods.
  • (12) We have no good reasons for thinking that the possible evils we know of represent the entire domain of possible evils.
  • (13) We have no good reasons for thinking that the entailment relations we know of between possible goods and permissible evils represent all such entailment relations.
These are clumsily expressed, but they amount to the following: we do not know enough about morality to say that no greater good arises from particular instances of suffering and pain. Taken together, these premises support the following conclusion:
  • (14) God may have good moral reasons for allowing suffering or pain.
This is a useful conclusion for the theist who wants to reconcile the existence of a morally perfect God with the existence of great suffering or pain.

A number of authors (e.g. Graham Oppy, Michael Almeida and Stephen Maitzen) maintain that skeptical theism is too successful. If we were to embrace it, we would have to embrace a profound scepticism concerning the existence of moral obligation.

To see why they might think this, consider the following scenario. You and a friend are out fishing one afternoon. It is beautiful, balmy summer afternoon. The birds are singing, the fish are biting, life is good.

Suddenly, the weather takes a turn for the worse. A severe gust of wind knocks your friend into the water. He is not able swim. He flails desperately, taking large gulps of water as he does so. If you do nothing, his lungs will soon become flooded, and he will asphyxiate and die.

Here's the key question: do you have a moral obligation to intervene and save your friend's life? Assume, you are a good swimmer, trained in life-saving and that the rescue would be an easy one.

Most people would say that this is about as clearcut a case of a moral obligation as there is. But, argue Maitzen et al, this conclusion is not open to the skeptical theist. They have accepted that God may have moral reasons for allowing suffering, reasons to which we have no epistemic access. Remember, our knowledge of morality is incomplete, fallible and defeasible; God's knowledge is complete, infallible and final. What right have we to assume we should intervene in what could be part of God's greater plan?

These assertions help the critic of skeptical theism make the following argument:
  • (14) God may have good moral reasons for allowing suffering or pain.
  • (15) We often face situations where people are suffering and must decide whether or not to intervene, all the time accepting that our knowledge of morality is imperfect.
  • (16) We can never have an obligation to intervene to prevent suffering (from 14 and 15).
In effect, this argument is saying that skeptical theism leads to a form of moral paralysis. How does the skeptical theist respond?

Skeptical Theist Responses
Maitzen notes that skeptical theists have responded to this argument in at least three different ways. We will give these numbers so that they can be put into the argument map at the end.
  • (17) The moral paralysis argument assumes a consequentialist theory of moral obligation. That is, it assumes we gauge our moral obligations by guessing the likely consequences of our actions. There are other theories of moral obligation that do not face this problem e.g. deontological theories.
  • (18) Moral obligation can survive the uncertainty or scepticism assumed by skeptical theists.
  • (19) God's commands provide us with some access to the realm of value. From these commands we can work out at least some moral obligations.
Are these responses any good? Let's take them in turn.

The first counterargument is clearly fallacious. It is not the fault of the moral paralysis argument that consequentialism is being assumed: this was the assumption of the skeptical theist argument. It assumes that God can allow suffering if it produces some greater good. This is straightforwardly consequentialist reasoning. Skeptical theism does not suggest -- nor does anyone make the argument -- that God has some deontological duty to ensure that certain people suffer.

The second counterargument can be defeated with a counterexample. This is the "Skeptical Tribesman" example (Maitzen's, not mine):
Imagine that a well-armed tribesman walks into a jungle field hospital and sees someone (known to us as the surgeon) about to cut open the abdomen of the tribesman's wife, who lies motionless on the table. It looks to the tribesman like a violent attack, so he sees good reason to intervene and prevent the surgeon from carrying out the attack. But suppose that this tribesman has heard some of his fellow tribespeople talking about the wonders of "western medicine". They say it can heal people of terrible illnesses but that it often involves strange procedures.
In this situation, the tribesman has reason to be sceptical about his usual moral obligations. Given this, can we still say he has an obligation to intervene to prevent the attack? Maitzen thinks not. Given his legitimate doubt, he no longer has an obligation to intervene. He may have a permission to intervene such that he would not be held responsible or punished for intervening; but he cannot be held to have an obligation to do so.

To the skeptical theist, we are all in the same position as the tribesman. And we are in this position all the time. Thus, our doubts about our moral knowledge, eliminate our moral obligations.

The third counterargument also faces insurmountable difficulties. We can take it that the idea is that God has given us commands that define a certain range of moral obligations. This range is unaffected by skeptical theism.

Maitzen points out three serious flaws in this idea. First, we are not very good at deciding what counts as one of God's commands. Indeed, there are disputes over whether certain passages of the bible constitute divine commands. For example, Jews maintain that Genesis 17:10 commands circumcision; Christians argue that this is not the case or that it has been superseded.

Additionally, people who claim to have received God's commands directly are given mixed reception. If they receive a command to give up gambling or drug addiction, they are treated kindly. If they receive a command to torture their children, we are less kind to them.

The problem is that none of the alleged commands are self-authenticating. What usually happens is that we assume we understand what is (roughly) right or wrong and use this as a basis for identifying something as "God's command". This is precisely the type of thing that skeptical theists claim we cannot do.

Second, and similarly, even when we have identified commands, we obey them selectively. This is readily apparent in the existence of a wide range of commands that are ignored. For example, the rules on breeding livestock, sowing seeds, and eating shellfish that are found in Leviticus; or the rules imposing the death penalty on disrespectful children, adulteresses and homosexuals.

It doesn't help to say, as some have, that these commands are specific to the cultural milieu of the ancient near east (ANE). To say such a thing is to presuppose a knowledge of morality that skeptical theists claim we do not have.

Finally, even if we have identified commands, they very often do not provide us with the type of moral guidance we need. The specific commands (such as those on cattle-rearing) are of limited significance. To generalise from them would require an insight into God's purposes that is anathema to the skeptical theist.

More general commands -- such as "love thy neighbour as thyself" -- are often difficult to apply in specific instances. Go back to the drowning friend example. Suppose I hate myself and had been planning to bring about my death through drowning. Does this mean I should leave my friend die? We'd probably say "no": we can't make that sort of decision for our friends. But to say this is to go beyond the ambiguity of the general command.

Let's summarise all these objections so they can be added to the argument map at the end:
  • (20) Skeptical Theism assumes consequentialism; no one argues that God has a duty to allow suffering.
  • (21) Skeptical Tribesman example shows that moral obligations cannot survive the type of uncertainty envisaged by skeptical theists.
  • (22) We aren't very good at identifying divine commands.
  • (23) We often selectively obey divine commands; this presupposes a familiarity with the realm of value.
  • (24) Divine commands do not provide us with the type of moral guidance we need.

In conclusion, it seems as though a skeptical theist must be a moral nihilist.

This argument is mapped below.


  1. John D.,
    What software are you using to make the maps, tables, flow charts and so forth?

  2. What about a "Divine Authority" theory? Something like the Catholics have with the infallibility of the pope, or the Jews have with the authority of the rabbinate. The idea is that God did not only give commandments, he set up institutions that would interpret said commandments and these institutions are infallible (even if not in the sense that they cannot misinterpret god, then in the sense that god's commandment is really that you follow them, not the commandments directly). They can also infinitely expand the commandments (as the Halacha does), set up priorities, and so on - all the problems disappear.

    Yair Rezek

  3. Yair,

    Sorry i never spotted this comment.

    I feel like the skeptical theist would have a major problem with the suggestion that these institutions are infallible. Part of the reason for invoking skeptical theism is that even if no good moral reasons for evil can be located by the most learned and distinguished theologians, it could still be the case that God has moral reasons for allowing the evil to exist. This is because of the fallibility of human reason.

    It would thus seem - to me at any rate, but I'm not a skeptical theist - that a direct, unambiguous command from God would be required to sustain moral obligation.

    My understanding of Jewish Halacha is that the interpretations and expansions are highly contested, so it wouldn't seem to fit the bill.

    But you would know more, of course. I've only read one article on it.

  4. Regarding the problem of moral indecision that one might face in the two examples given in the opening, I have published a response that can be downloaded here.