Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What if God Commanded Something Terrible? (Part 4): We Must Obey

This post is part of my series on Wes Morriston's discussions of theistic morality. For an index, see here.

I am currently taking a look at a paper by Morriston entitled "What if God Commanded Something Terrible?". The paper looks at theistic responses to the problems inherent in a divine command theory (DCT) of morality.

Part One set out why it is a problem for DCT-proponents that God could command us to do something terrible. Part Two examined a classic theistic response to this problem: claim that God is essentially good and so could never command something terrible. This response was found to be deficient.

Part Three looked at Robert Adams's attempt to proffer a modified DCT. This modification would allow for DCTs to be the best theories of objective morality, while at the same time allowing us to disobey certain commands. This response was found to be confused.

In this part, we consider the third and final response to the problem with the DCT. This third response "bites the bullet", so to speak. It claims that the DCT is sound and that we would have to obey God's command no matter how repugnant it seemed. Let's see if this response fairs any better than its predecessors.

Torturing Children: Yes or No?
Morriston focuses his discussion on the writings of James D. Rissler*. Rissler argues we should not be so quick to rely on our moral intuitions about certain matters such as child torture. If we can conceive of a God who is omnipotent and omniscience, then it seems possible that He could have moral reasons for issuing abhorrent commands that are beyond our ken. In effect, Rissler is appealing to God's "wholly other" nature, a topic discussed in Part One.

Rissler argues that you may have an obligation to torture a child if two conditions are met:
  1. You are psychologically certain that God has issued this command. This means you have explored all alternative explanations and have found you cannot doubt the veracity and source of the command.
  2. Although you are unable to conceive of a reason for this command, you can at least conceive of the possibility that God has some good reason for it.
It may be that this sets the bar very high since it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which both conditions are met (surely a belief in one's own insanity is more rational than a belief in the command?). But Rissler thinks God, if he exists, could easily satisfy these conditions.

He does, however, envisage one scenario in which it would be impossible to satisfy the second condition. This would be when the command completely undermines all my pre-existing moral convictions. Imagine your moral convictions form a densely intertwined web. If the command is such that is destroys the entire web, it cannot be obeyed; if it possible to jump to some other part of the web while considering the command, it can be obeyed.

It is difficult to say whether or not the specific example of child torture shows that Rissler's exception is easily met or easily dismissed. Morriston thinks that Rissler's commitment to divine transcendence and epistemic humility would make it easy to accept child torture as a possible good.

In short, on Rissler's theory, it is possible for us to have a moral obligation to torture children.

Third Parties
An interesting aspect of Rissler's theory is its implications for third parties, i.e. those not privy to the divine command. Suppose you are psychologically certain that God commanded you to torture your child. Suppose I stumble upon you in the act of torturing your child. What should I do?

Rissler suggests that I should do everything in my power to stop you. I should not be convinced by your testimony claiming divine permission (or obligation) for what you are doing. Rissler's point seems to be that the individual receiving the command is answerable to god, not to their moral community. And that the moral community is entitled to be sceptical because they would not have psychological certitude concerning the divine command.

But here we get into an interesting debate about the rationality of belief. Rissler thinks that the person in receipt of the command is just as rational in following it, as the moral community are in rejecting it. Morriston thinks this is wrong. He argues that the community's beliefs would override the individual's psychological certainty about the command.

To see this point, Morriston asks us to imagine a detailed example involving a man named "Abe". Abe receives a command from God to torture his child. He has his doubts. He talks it over with his pastor and members of his local church. They are all committed believers and cannot bring themselves to accept that God would issue such a command. Still, Abe cannot shake his belief that God really did issue this command and that God may, given his transcendence, have reasons for doing so.

Morriston argues that the community's scepticism would defeat Abe's belief. The reasoning is as follows:
  • Abe is only justified in obeying the command if (a) he psychologically certain that it came from God and (b) God's transcendence makes it conceivable for there to be reason for his issuing the command.
  • Abe's church community share his belief in God, including his belief in God's transcendence. They cannot bring themselves to accept that the command came from God.
  • Thus, Abe has reason to doubt that (b) has been met, his only reason for obeying the command is (a).
This leads into a longer discussion of why Abe's psychological certainty would convict him of irrationality. In short, as Rissler describes it, Abe has no reasons, no evidence, no argument to back-up his belief. He only has the raw psychological feeling of certainty. This would seem to be the very definition of an irrational belief.

Morriston goes further. In such a case, there would not even be a genuine command. A command can only be successful if it is reasonable to follow it. In the scenario outlined above this reasonability condition is not met.

The funny thing is, Rissler's discussion is designed to deal with the difficult biblical passages where God appears to issue abhorrent commands. But as Morriston points out, these scenarios are very different from the ones discussed by Rissler.

In the Bible, Yahweh backs-up his commands with reasons. For instance, the Canaanite genocide is justified by claiming that the Canaanites were guilty of certain practices, e.g having sex during a woman's menstrual period, homosexuality and bestiality.

In these Bible passages, there is nothing transcendent or "wholly other" about God. His reasons are transparent and all too comprehensible by us lowly humans. Morriston pursues this line of argument at greater length in another paper I will be covering.

*I could not find a personal webpage for Rissler. You can find mention of his papers via a google search. 

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