Tuesday, September 27, 2011

List on Free Will and Determinism (Part One)

I recently had the pleasure of reading Christian List’s new paper on free will and determinism (available here). List seems like an interesting guy. I haven’t read much of his previous work on group agency and epistemic democracy, but what little I have read I’ve always enjoyed. He adopts a formal and technical style which I’m finding more and more congenial and to which I now aspire in my own work.

Still, whatever the merits of his previous work, I wasn’t sure that he’d have anything of interest to contribute on the issue of free will. I say this not because I doubt his capacities to contribute to this field, but because I doubt everyone’s capacity to contribute to it. Having read a fair amount of the literature, it often seems like this issue has been so well-worn, and the analytical paths so well-trodden, that there’s no territory left to explore.

And yet, List’s paper does manage to contribute something. With his flair for the formal and technical style of analysis, List manages to render more perspicuous and cogen, an idea that has lurked in the background of the philosophical debate for some time now. What is this idea? Well, in essence, it is a new theory of what it means to say that an agent “could have done otherwise”. I want to share it with you over the next few posts and critically engage with some of its elements as I go along.

In this post, I begin by discussing the traditional conceptions of “could have done otherwise”, and continue by looking at List’s objections to these conceptions. If you’re a complete newcomer to the free will and determinism debate, I suggest reading this post by way of introduction; if you’re not a complete newcomer, then read on.

1. Compatibilism and Alternative Possibilities
The ability to do otherwise seems central to our conception of ourselves as free and responsible agents. Take a simple, everyday decision as an example: When I choose to make myself a cup of tea — as I often do — it certainly feels (from the inside of my decision-making) that I could have chosen to make an alternative beverage. That is to say, it feels, from the inside, like alternative possibilities are open to me.

The problem is that this aspect of my internal self-conception seems incompatible with another popular metaphysical thesis: determinism. Determinism is the view that physical events are causally connected in such a way that, at any particular moment in time, there is one and only one possible future. Since the ability to do otherwise seems to require more than one possible future, the incompatibility should be obvious.

List, like many before him, wants to challenge this apparent incompatibility. He wants to argue, contrary to the above, that it is possible for both determinism to be true and for us (agents) to have the ability to do otherwise. And he wants to argue his case by sticking to the most challenging (for a compatibilist) analysis of the concept of “could have done otherwise”, the modal analysis.

This implies that there are alternative analyses of “could have done otherwise” that are more favourable to the compatibilist. What are they and why does List reject them? We turn to that question now.

2. Conditional and Dispositional Analyses of Alternative Possibilities
There are two interpretations of “could have done otherwise” that have been championed by compatibilists over the years. List calls them the “traditional conditional” analysis and the “new dispositionalist” analysis. The descriptors “traditional” and “new” are used to indicate their relative ages, with conditionalism having been championed since the early part of the twentieth century and with dispositionalism having arisen more recently. I’m going to ignore these descriptors and simply refer to them as the conditional and dispositionalist analyses.

According to the conditional analysis, to say that an agent has the ability to do otherwise, is to say something like the following:

Conditionalism : If the agent had chosen differently, or had tried to do otherwise, then he or she would have succeeded.

In other words, according to conditionalism, an agent’s ability to do otherwise depends on the antecedents of their actions (captured by the “if” portion of the conditional) being different. So to go back to the earlier example concerning my choice of a cup of tea over an alternative beverage, the conditionalist would (hah!) argue that I could have chosen differently had my preferences been different.

This might seem trivial at a first pass (more on this later), but it also seems highly compatible with determinism. After all, although the determinist will argue that the antecedents of my action could never have been different, this doesn’t prevent the counterfactual statement being true. Thus, although it may be that my preference for tea could not have been different at that particular instance, it may still be true to say that if it had been different, I could have have chosen differently.

So much for conditionalism, what about dispositionalism? According to the dispositionalist, the ability to do otherwise can be parsed in the following manner:

Dispositionalism : The agent has the disposition to do otherwise when, in appropriate circumstances (to be spelt out further), he or she tries to do otherwise.

In other words, according to dispositionalism, an agent’s ability to do otherwise is dependent upon the set of dispositions they happen to have. If this set of dispositions is such that, when circumstances shift or change, they perform different kinds of actions, then it is meaningful to say that they have the ability to do otherwise. Thus, to use the tea example yet again, if my set of character traits and dispositions are such that, when circumstances shift or change, I choose a beverage other than tea, I can be meaningfully said to have been able to do otherwise.

Again, this seems to be compatible with determinism. Although the determinist will argue that circumstances were such that my other character dispositions could not have been exercised at the relevant time, it would nonetheless be possible to say that I have unexercised character dispositions that could be exercised in different situations.

3. Objections to Conditionalism and Dispositionalism
List identifies two sorts of objections to the conditional and dispositional analyses of the capacity to do otherwise. The first sort of objection focuses on intuitively compelling counterexamples. The second sort of objection focuses on a substitution principle. I’ll discuss both, although I’m much less comfortable with the second than I am with the first.

Looking at the counterexamples first, consider the following. Most of us will agree that if a person suffers from a psychological or neurological impairment like tourette’s syndrome, volitional insanity or severe addiction, they will not always have the ability to do otherwise. On some occasions, their condition will compel them to do something. Yet oddly, under a conditional analysis, such individuals — even on the occasions when their impairment is most active — can still be said to have the ability to do otherwise. After all, if their compulsions were different, they would act differently. This seems counterintuitive, and so the conditional analysis seems flawed.

Here’s another counterexample, this time targetting the dispositionalist. Imagine someone trying to act under the most severe possible external constraints. For instance, someone being asked to unlock a bank safe while a group of bank robbers have guns pointing at his head, or someone driving a car and suddenly and unexpectedly experiencing temporary paralysis. In neither case (although the bank robber case seems debatable) would it seem right to say that the person had the ability to do otherwise. And yet, under the dispositional analysis, unexercised dispositions to do otherwise could still have existed. Again, this seems counterintuitive and so the dispositional analysis seems flawed.

Turning to the substitution argument, List first proposes the following test of the adequacy of an interpretation of something:

The Substitution Test : A good test of the adequacy of an interpretation of some concept is to substitute the interpretation for its target and see whether ordinary meaning is preserved.

I won’t comment on whether this is actually a good test of the adequacy of an interpretation since I don’t know. I’ll take it for granted that it is. My beef really lies with List’s application of this test, which begins with the following argument:

  • (1) If the agent does not try to do X, then he or she cannot do X.
  • (2) The agent does not try to do X.
  • (3) Therefore, the agent cannot do X.

Which is the direct negation of…

  • (4) The agent can do X.

To put it more pithily, if (1) and (2) are true, (4) cannot be true. And, according to List, this is where the problem arises. Since (4) is just stating what the agent can do, it would seem fair to replace it with the compatibilist analyses of the ability to otherwise since they are also statements about what an agent could do. One would think that such a substitution would preserve the overall logic of the argument. But as it turns out this is incorrect because the conditional or dispositional versions of (4) would go like this:

  • (4*) If the agent were to try to do X, he or she would would succeed in doing X.
  • (4**) The agent has the disposition to do X when, in appropriate circumstances, he or she tries to do X.

And neither of these statements are inconsistent with (1) and (2). Hence they fail the substitution test.

I have problems with the line of reasoning. Mainly because I’m not sure I follow it entirely and I think the source of my discomfort comes from premise (1). As I read it, this premise is a principle stating a necessary constraint on the abilities on an agent. But for the life of me, I can’t see why I should accept that principle as fairly capturing what it is that constrains the abilities of an agent. Surely, the truth of a principle like (1) is something that is at issue in the free will debate? That is to say, surely (1) begs the question against conditionalist and the dispositionalist?

4. The Modal Analysis
I may well be wrong about this, and to a large extent it doesn’t matter. What’s most important about List’s article is not his dismissal of these old compatibilist theories, but rather his attempt to develop a novel one. And this novel theory is one that accepts the modal anaylsis of “could have done otherwise”. As follows:

Modalism : It is possible for the agent to do otherwise.

The modal analysis depends upon the agent having the outright possibility of doing otherwise when they act. That is to say, at the time of their acting, it is genuinely open to them — irrespective of counterfactual conditionals and hidden dispositions — to perform multiple kinds of act.

This modal analysis is the most challenging for the compatibilist because it seems to require more than one possible future. This, of course, is in direct opposition to the definition of determinism offered earlier in this post.

So List is setting the bar pretty damn high for his compatibilist theory. Can he rise to the challenge? We will find out in subsequent posts.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Morriston on Ethical Criticism of the Bible (Part Four)

(Part One, Part Two, Part Three)

Hello there and welcome to this, the final part, in my series on Wes Morriston’s article “Ethical Criticism of the Bible: The Case of Divinely Mandated Genocide”. Morriston’s article takes issue with the responses offered by several Christian philosophers to the morally troubling passages of the bible.

In part one, we considered Richard Swinburne’s attempt to find a divine justification for the Canaanite genocide; in part two, we looked at Eleonore Stump’s attempt to read between the lines of the bible to find a justification for the Amalekite massacre; and in part three we considered reasons why these massacres should not have been commanded. In this final part, we’ll consider the skeptical theist’s response to these passages.

Regular readers will know that skeptical theism is something I’ve discussed at length before and if you’re interested I’d direct your attention to those posts. Still, I’ll try to make the discussion here as self-contained as possible.

1. What is the Skeptical Theist Response?
The skeptical theist response to the atrocities commanded by God is one of epistemic modesty. They point to our cognitive limitations and force us to admit that we may not always know what is for the best in this world. It could be, for all we know, that the genocide of the Canaanites, or the massacre of the Amalekites, served some greater good.

To make this a little more precise, Morriston points to the work of Michael Bergmann. Bergmann argues that the skeptical theist is committed to a number of key theses about our knowledge of morality, three of which will be mentioned here. First, they are committed to the view that the class of possible goods may include goods of which we are unaware. Second, they are committed to the view that we are unaware of all the possible entailment relations between possible goods and possible evils. And third, they are committed to the view that we may often be incapable of assessing the total moral value of complex states of affairs. By way of contrast, God’s knowledge of all three of these things must be complete. He is omniscient after all.

How can this type of reasoning be recruited in support the relevant biblical passages? At this point, Morriston points to a crucial distinction between the problem of evil and the problem of biblical genocide: it is open to the committed theist to reject the truth of the bible; it is not open to them to deny the existence of evil. Thus, the pressures to resort to the skeptical theist line are much less compelling in the case of biblical genocide than they are in the case of evil more generally.

But assuming the theist does not wish to abandon the bible, how then can the skeptical theist response be helpful? Morriston suggests the following. The skeptical theist can say something like this about the relevant biblical passages:
It is no doubt true that we perceive a lot of disvalue in the divinely mandated genocides, and that we continue to do so even when the divine purposes as revealed in the OT are taken into account. But who are we to say that the apparent failure of God’s commands to achieve all the purposes for the sake of which he is said to have issued them is not explained by something known to God alone…we are not in a position to say whether more or less value overall was realized… (Morriston, p. 15)

2. Responding to the Skeptical Theist
There are well-worn, and I think compelling, responses to skeptical theism. The majority of these argue that the skeptical theses endorsed by the likes of Bergmann can grow legs and wander without welcome into several areas of our epistemic lives. Thus, for example, there are those who argue that skeptical theists must become moral skeptics, or that they must abandon the argument from design, since both moral reasoning and the design argument depend on our ability to reliably recognise what is good and what is bad.

Morriston offers a similar line of response. He argues that if the skepticism embedded in the above-quoted response to divinely mandated genocide in the bible is acceptable, then Christians are forced to accept the possibility that similar commands will be issued again. To make his point, Morriston discusses a news story from 2008. The story told of a government raid on a Mormon (I’m assuming since Morriston subsequently talks about Mormons) polygamist ranch in Texas. The story involved accusations of child abuse and forced marriage. He then asks us to imagine that the governor of Texas calls a subsequent press conference telling us that he has received a message from God telling him that Mormons need to wiped out.

Morriston reckons that most people — most Christians — would think the governor had lost his mind. But now imagine a skeptical theist entering the scene, one that knows the governor well and is confident in his ability to discern God’s will. He could tell us that, true, the plan to wipe out the Mormons may not seem wise to us, but we are not capable of making such a global value-judgment. God knows best, and since the governor has shown himself to know God’s will, we must trust him on this occasion.

Again, Morriston thinks this is absurd. What's more he thinks that most skeptical theists would reject it, possibly pointing out in the process that we’d be wrong to think we can know that the governor has access to God’s will. But then it’s difficult to see why they don’t adopt a similar attitude towards the bible. That is to say, it is difficult to see why they don’t simply think that, in light of the command for genocide, the biblical passages in question are an inaccurate reflection of God’s will.

Morriston closes with a discussion of the proper role of the bible in moral reflection, noting along the way the competing moral messages it contains. Indeed, he notes that some biblical authors seem to be criticising the moral views of other biblical authors. He suggests that modern readers should continue this practice.

I take it that this is Morriston’s attempt to cling to the better parts of religious tradition since he does, despite his criticisms, still self-identify as a Christian. And I can certainly appreciate his call for ongoing ethical reflection on and criticism of important historical texts. However, I simply do not see in this call anything that is particularly religious or, indeed, particularly Christian.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Ethics of Torture (Part Two)

(Part One)

This post is the second in my series on the ethics of torture. In part one, I looked at an article by Catherine McDonald entitled “Deconstructing Ticking Bomb Arguments”. No prizes for guessing the content of that one. In this part, I begin to consider the arguments of Uwe Steinhoff, which are more favourably disposed toward the (extremely limited) use of torture. I’ll be looking at the arguments contained in the following article “Defusing the Ticking Social Bomb Argument: The Right to Self-Defensive Torture”, which, as it happens, appeared in the same journal as Catherine McDonald’s article.

1. The Right to Self-Defensive Torture
In part one, I presented a formal version of the — classic? — ticking bomb argument. Without restating that argument here, the basic thrust of it is as follows: in a situation in which morally unpleasant outcomes are going to arise no matter what you do, you ought to do whatever minimises those unpleasant outcomes; in the ticking bomb scenario, torturing one person in order to save many, is less unpleasant than allowing many to die; ergo, in the ticking bomb scenario, one ought to torture one person.

As popular as this line of argument is, a notable aspect of Uwe Steinhoff’s work is his attempt to offer an alternative pro-torture argument. His argument is based on an analogy between situations in which one has the right to use lethal force in self-defence and circumstances in which torture is used to prevent harm to self and others. The argument can be put as follows:

  • (1) We have a right to use lethal force against aggressors in situations in which these aggressors put our lives (and the lives of others) under threat.
  • (2) In all important respects, the use of non-lethal torture against an aggressor is less morally bad than the use of lethal force against an aggressor.
  • (3) Therefore (probably) we have a right to use non-lethal torture against aggressors in situations in which these aggressors put our lives (and the lives of others) at risk.

How are the premises supported here? Well, premise (1) seems like a widely-accepted moral belief. And premise (2) is supported by the observation that people would generally prefer to live and experience short-term harm, than to die.

As you can see, this is an argument from analogy. It says that A (the right to lethal self-defence) is true in one case; that a second case is similar (in all important respects) to this first case; and so A (or something close to A) must be true in this second case as well. Such arguments are, in the words of argumentation theorist Douglas Walton, defeasible and presumptive. That is to say, their conclusions do not follow with the certainty provided by logical deduction; instead, they follow in a probabilistic and defeasible manner.

What’s interesting about this argument is that its conclusion confers a right on individuals to use torture in self-defence. This is very different from the conclusion of the ticking bomb argument which can be phrased in terms of a limited exception to a widely-recognised negative right (i.e. the right not to be tortured). In other words, Steinhoff’s argument is an inversion of the typical pro-torture argument: it argues from a threshold deontological position, as opposed to consequentialist position. This clever inversion allows him to construct an equally clever inversion of the ticking bomb argument. He calls this the ticking social bomb argument. Let’s see what this is.

2. The Ticking Social Bomb Argument
The ticking social bomb argument is derived from an objection to the standard ticking bomb argument. We encountered this objection in part one. To recap, recall how the ticking bomb argument relies on a consequentialist calculation of the respective merits of torturing one person to save many versus allowing the many to die. Now recall how McDonald, as part of her deconstruction of the standard argument, challenged this calculation on grounds of short-termism. She argued that allowing torture in extreme circumstances would lead to the legitimisation of torture in the long-term, which would in turn lead to the corruption of important social institutions and the dissolution of trust across society.

This is the ticking social bomb to which Steinhoff alludes. He believes its alleged existence results in the following challenge to his self-defensive justification of torture:

  • (4) It is justifiable to prevent a person from exercising their rights if in doing so we will prevent some great harm (or, maybe, achieve some great good).
  • (5) Allowing people to exercise their right to non-lethal self-defensive torture will lead to great social harm (by creating a ticking social bomb).
  • (6) Therefore, we are justified in prevent people from exercising their right to non-lethal self-defensive torture.

Steinhoff identifies (5) as the key to this argument. His goal in the remainder of his article is to suggest that opponents of torture have no good arguments to offer in support of that key premise. He uses the writings of Henry Shue as his main scratching post.

3. If the Shue Fits
Surprisingly for an article of this nature, Steinhoff’s discussion of Shue’s work is remarkably ill-tempered. Now maybe Shue deserves it; and maybe I’d feel the same if I had been trading blows with him on this issue over a number of years (as Steinhoff has), but still I found the whole thing slightly unnerving. Luckily, there is some quality analysis beneath the vituperative language and I’m going to focus my attention on that.

Steinhoff identifies the following passages from Shue’s article “Torture in Dreamland” as containing his most persuasive argument in favour of premise (5), above:

[I]t is simply dreamy to think that all of a sudden we are simply going to stumble upon someone who happens to have the skills to make a man who planted a ticking bomb reverse the direction of his life and assist us in defusing the bomb….Either “torturers” are just thugs who have no clue what they are doing, in which case we need not allow for exceptional cases in which they rapidly and effectively extract invaluable catastrophe-preventing information, or some can have genuine expertise…If we want [such expertise] ready, we need to maintain, even nourish, organizations and networks in which the expertise resides.

Steinhoff provides a formal reconstruction of the argument contained in these passages. But I’m not going to follow his version exactly because I want the reconstruction to clearly support premise (5). So here’s my version of the argument Shue is making:

  • (7) In order to torture someone in a way that will actually retrieve vital information that can prevent harm, the torturer has to be skilled and experienced.
  • (8) Skilled and experienced torturers are available if and only if torture is institutionalised.
  • (9) Institutionalising torture will mean that torture will metastasise instead of being limited to one-off cases.

Ergo, allowing torture for self-defensive purposes creates a ticking social bomb.

What does Steinhoff have to say in response to this argument? Well, he’s quite happy to concede that the institutionalisation of torture — which could involve a system of torture warrants, and professional torturers — would be a very bad thing indeed. Hence, if it were true that effective self-defensive torture required institutionalisation, then Steinhoff would reject it. He just doesn’t think this is true. In other words, he rejects premises (7) and (8).

He rejects premise (7) on the grounds that real-life examples show that a torturer need not be skilled in order to prevent harm. He uses the example of Magnus Gafgen, the German child-kidnapper, to support this thesis. We mentioned this case in part one. As noted there, Gafgen disclosed vital information upon merely being threatened with torture. Now threatening torture has its own problems (as pointed out by Alexander in the comments section to part one) so a more interesting example, also used by Steinhoff, concerns the 1988 kidnapping of Denis Mook in Bremen, Germany. In that case, the police actually did beat the kidnapper and managed to get him to disclose the location of the child. The child was subsequently retrieved alive. Steinhoff argues that in both these cases, torture (or the threat of torture) was effectively used without the need for expert torturers. Furthermore, the German policeforce has not resorted to the widespread use of torture in the wake of these cases. To summarise this as a premise which defeats (7), we can say:

  • (10) Successful real-life uses of torture to retrieve vital information did not require skilled and experienced torturers, nor did they lead to the widespread use of torture.

As against (8), Steinhoff points out that having access to skilled torturers need not require the existence of a torture bureaucracy; it would be enough if such a bureaucracy existed in the past and one had access to its officials. To put it another way, there are probably enough secret police officials out there in the world who, due to the unpleasant histories of the countries in which they lived, were skilled torturers. (I’ve put this point in the argument map below as premise 11).

This then brings us to the end of Steinhoff’s main critique of the ticking social bomb argument. He goes on in the final section of his article to make the point that the child-kidnapping case is a more persuasive instance of the justifiable use of torture than the ticking bomb case, but I won’t get into that here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Ethics of Torture (Part One)

Several years ago — several more than I care to remember — I had to write an assignment on the legality of torture. It was for a class in international human rights law. As a result, it focused largely on the legal side of things, but even back then I was trending towards the dark side and so I included some discussion of the philosophical arguments as well. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, or what my precise conclusion was, but I think it was down-the-line absolutely anti-torture, rejecting the legitimacy of torture even in ticking bomb style scenarios.

I wrote that essay at a time when my political and philosophical views were decidedly more naive and ideologically driven than they are now, and at a time when the torture debates were to the forefront of the public consciousness. As a result, I had a tendency to rush toward the conclusion that other members of my ideological clique seemed to adopt. Sad, but true.

Anyway, since I feel more philosophically mature these days (whether I actually am is a separate question), and since I have to teach a class about arguments in law and ethics pretty soon, I thought I might try to revisit the whole torture debate. As is typical on this blog, I’ll use some articles to guide my analysis, feeling free to speculate and expand upon their contents when I see fit.

First-up for consideration is an article by Catherine McDonald entitled “Deconstructing Ticking Bomb Arguments”, which seemed about as good a place as any to start.

1. The Structure of the Ticking Bomb Argument
Torture is the inhuman and degrading infliction of severe pain and suffering on another human being. It is for many the epitome of the morally bad act. This is a proposition which can apparently be justified on any number of grounds, e.g. “pain is intrinsically bad” “it is contrary to human dignity” and so forth. But is it always and everywhere morally wrong? This is what the ticking-bomb scenario tries to disprove.

The ticking bomb scenario will, no doubt, be familiar to many readers of this blog. Its essential details are as follows:

Suppose there is a large bomb that has been planted in a highly-populated location. Suppose this bomb is due to go off in the near future. Suppose you have in your custody someone who knows where the bomb is planted, but who will not share this information. Suppose there is no other source for this information. Suppose receiving this information could help you prevent the bomb from going off. Now ask yourself, would it be legitimate to torture the person?

The suggestion is that it would be. The reasoning here is based on two key ideas: (i) the quasi-dilemmatic nature of the decision problem posed by the ticking bomb scenario; and (ii) the correctness of moral consequentialism, i.e. the view that one ought to act so at to achieve the best possible consequences. The ticking-bomb scenario is dilemmatic because no matter what one does (torture, or not-torture) there is a morally undesirable outcome. (Illustrated below)

But it is only quasi-dilemmatic because in a true dilemma both outcomes would carry equal moral weight; in the ticking bomb scenario the whole point that one outcome is less bad (the torture) than the other (the deaths of the bomb victims).

This is where the consequentialist principle kicks-in: if one outcome is less bad than the other, then one ought to pick the lesser of the two evils. This leads naturally to the conclusion that torture is justified in this kind of scenario. But we need to be careful about this. Probability estimates need to taken into consideration: only if we think that torturing the person has a reasonable chance of leading us to the required information, would it really be justified.

To put all this in argumentative terms:

  • (1) For any moral decision problem with possible choices C1…Cn, one ought to pick the C that achieves the maximum balance of good over evil.
  • (2) In the ticking bomb scenario one has two possible choices, either one: (a) tortures the person in custody or (b) one does not torture the person in custody.
  • (3) If one tortures the person in custody, one has a reasonable chance of obtaining information that could prevent a large number of deaths; if one does not torture the person in custody, a large number of people will die.
  • (4) Preventing a large number of deaths while torturing one person is less evil than allowing a large number of people to die.
  • (5) Therefore, in the ticking bomb scenario, one ought to torture the person in custody.

No doubt hardcore non-consequentialists will reject premise (1). They will balk at the notion that you should perform a prima facie immoral act merely because it leads to better consequences. Some of them will stick with the absolute prohibition on torture as a result. But because of the quasi-dilemmatic structure of the scenario, these individuals must make their peace with the other morally undesirable outcome. Whether they can really do so is debatable.

Value pluralists are likely to reject premise (4) by arguing that such a comparative exercise cannot be carried out. While I have some sympathy for this position, I don’t think it carries much weight in the present context: if the outcomes can’t be compared in the manner suggested by the argument, then surely we are faced with a tragic choice, i.e. one in which either outcome is morally permissible?

Others will reject premises (2) and (3) of the argument, the ones setting out the factual conditions of the ticking bomb scenario. And it is with these others that McDonald makes her stand.

2. False Assumptions
McDonald’s attempt to “deconstruct” the ticking bomb argument is based largely on the empirical naivety of its proponents. Such proponents recklessly presume that, in the real world, the assumptions of the ticking bomb argument could hold true. McDonald thinks that the real world tells a different tale. Consider the following real-world incidents:

The Shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes : The ticking bomb scenario presumes that we can reliably identify those who know where the bomb is, in advance of the bomb going off. In reality, in preemptive operations of this sort, law enforcement officials c err in the judgment of who is and is not a threat. For example, the London police shot Jean Charles de Menezes multiple times in the back of the head as he was boarding an underground train. They did so because they were convinced he was involved in a terrorist plot (this was soon after the 7/7 bombings). As it turns out, he was innocent. If we were to allow torture, similar errors would take place. Are these errors an acceptable price to pay?
The German Kidnapping Case : This case is often cited by proponents of interrogative torture. It involved a kidnapper named Magnus Gafgen who disclosed the location of a child he had kidnapped after being threatened with torture by the German police. Unfortunately, the child was already dead, but this hasn’t deterred those who wish to argue that torture may occasionally provide important information. The problem with those people, as McDonald points out, is that the example does nothing to prove the informational utility of torture: torture was never actually used in this case, it was merely threatened.
The Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Case: It is claimed that many months of torture in Guantanamo bay led Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to confess to involvement in numerous bomb plots. This again suggests the informational utility of torture, right? Wrong says McDonald. For one thing, the confessions were of dubious veracity (she cites no source for this but I have no reason to disbelieve her), and for another the torture took place over many months. This is not the kind of scenario envisaged by proponents of the ticking bomb argument.

Other cases are discussed by McDonald, but I’m going to cut things short here. What do cases like these really prove? How do they help to undermine the ticking bomb argument? The answer comes in three parts.

The first part is that, contrary to the ticking bomb argument, torture is not an effective means of obtaining information. Thus, premise (3), which claims that torture has a reasonable chance of providing you with the relevant information, is false. So:

  • (6) The information obtained through torture is often dubious, thus torture would not provide you with a reasonable chance of obtaining information that could help prevent a large number of deaths.

There are serious questions to be asked about this challenge to premise (3). For starters, in a situation like the ticking bomb scenario, it’s not clear that you really need to have even a reasonable chance of success: any chance at all may be enough to justify the use of torture. I’m going to leave these kinds of criticisms to the side for now since I hope to cover them in more detail in a future lecture.

The second part is that, contrary to the ticking bomb argument, you are unlikely to face a simple choice between torture and no-torture. Other, arguably more effective options, will be present. This is proved by the German kidnapping case — in which threats were enough — and by other analyses which suggest that traditional interrogation methods are just as effective (if not more so) than torture. This gives us the following direct challenge to premise (2):

  • (7) In any real-world ticking bomb scenario, one will have more than two choices. Indeed, one will likely have ways of obtaining the requisite information that would be more effective than (and at least no worse than) torture.

The third part is that the consequentialist calculation — stated in premise (4) — is flawed. It focuses on the short term benefits of torture; it neglects the long term costs. If torture is ever thought to be morally justifiable, and this thought gets a foothold amongst those in authority, the long-term costs could be great. In every society in which it has been practiced, torture has led to a breakdown in trust, and an increase in fear and intimidation. Thus:

  • (8) The long-term costs of torturing the one person outweigh the short-term benefits of preventing deaths.

Proponents of the ticking bomb argument will respond by saying that it’s ridiculous to assume that their argument would lead to the widespread use of torture: they are only talking about torture in very limited circumstances. McDonald describes this response as being “risible”. She says that “once instituted in one circumstance, the practice of torture invariably expands.

McDonald goes on to ask why, despite it obvious flaws, the ticking bomb argument has proved so seductive. Although this is an interesting topic, I’m not going to cover it here. Instead, I’m going to move on in the next part to consider alternative “pro”-torture arguments. In particular, the arguments of Uwe Steinhoff. Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Morriston on Ethical Criticism of the Bible (Part Three)

What's up with the moral character of the God of Abraham?

(Part One, Part Two)

Welcome to this the third part in my brief series looking at Wes Morriston’s recent paper “Ethical Criticism of the Bible: The Case of Divinely Mandated Genocide”. In this paper, Morriston takes issue with three sets of Christian responses to the more morally troubling passages of the Old Testament.

To recap on the story so far: in part one, we looked at Richard Swinburne’s attempt to justify the genocide of the Canaanites on the grounds that it was necessary in order for God to prevent their spiritual infection from spreading to the Israelites. This justification was found wanting. In part two, we considered Eleonore Stump’s attempt to read between the lines of the Amalekite massacre in order to find a justification for it. Morriston argued that this reading contradicted other aspects of the biblical text.

It was suggested in comments to part two that the situation is more complex than Morriston (or, rather, my summary of Morriston) lets on since other parts of the biblical text contradict what he says and because the commands for genocide may not have been carried through. This may be so, but I think such facts would not necessarily undermine the ultimate point Morriston is trying to make, which is: the ethical authority of the bible, and the character of the deity portrayed therein, need to be challenged.

This point is underscored when Morriston discusses why genocide should not have been commanded by Yahweh. We will go through these reasons now.

1. God’s use of the Israelites as Moral Agents
For starters, let’s concede a lot of ground to the defender of the bible. In fact, let’s concede (contrary to what was argued in the previous two posts) that there were good ethical reasons for Yahweh to seek the eradication of certain national identities from the ancient near east. Even then, a question remains: was God justified in using the Israelites as the agents of this eradication? Wouldn’t doing so lead to the moral corruption of the Israelites? Why not use a natural disaster to wipe out the Canaanites and the Amalekites instead?

These questions have troubled the minds of leading Christian philosophers before. William Lane Craig, for example, in his remarkable defence of the Canaanite genocide, considered these, and not the genocide itself, to be the most important moral issues raised by these biblical passages. Craig is not the focus of Morriston’s attention in this article, but luckily for him Eleonore Stump and Richard Swinburne are also troubled by this issue. And, interestingly enough, they’ve both come up with rather similar solutions (which are, if I recall correctly, also similar to Craig’s solution to the problem). Consider the following comments from Swinburne:

God surely also had a reason for using the Israelites rather than natural measures such as disease to kill the Canaanites, which was to bring home to the Israelites the enormous importance of worshiping and teaching their children to worship the God who had revealed himself to them.

In a similar vein, Stump speaks of the need to bring home to the Israelites the importance of their relationship to God and the importance of God’s moral authority and judgment.

2. Uncovering the Apologist’s Reasoning
There seems to a discernible pattern of reasoning underlining these responses. Let’s try to recover that pattern here. First, consider the formal structure of Morriston’s challenge:

  • (1) For any morally justifiable goal G, an agent ought (“is morally obliged”) to choose the most morally justifiable means M to achieve that goal (premise).
  • (2) The genocide of the Canaanites (or Amalekites) was a morally justifiable goal (premise, granted for sake of argument).
  • (3) Yahweh’s use of the Israelites as the agents of genocide was not the most morally justifiable means to the achieve the goal of genocide.
  • (4) Therefore, Yahweh did not do as he was morally obliged to do (from 1, 2 and 3).

I think this is pretty straightforward. The key point to note is the principle of moral rationality embedded in premise 1. This seems to me like a sound principle of moral rationality, but I couldn’t offer any deeper justification for it here. Premise 2 is probably ridiculous, but we’re charitably assuming it for sake of argument. And premise (3) is justified on the grounds that a natural disaster (or maybe a direct supernatural intervention) could have been used instead. As was the case in previous posts, this conclusion could be used as the basis for further arguments against the bible, but we won’t get into those arguments here.

Now, consider how Stump and Swinburne try to undermine this argument. One could interpret their claims in two different ways. First, one could view them as attacks on premise (3). This seems initially sensible since both are trying to deny that the use of the Israelites was morally unjustified, but on reflection it seems wrong to me. It seems more likely that Swinburne and Stump are challenging premise (1) by offering an alternative principle of moral rationality. As follows:

  • (1*) For any set of morally justifiable goals G1…Gn, and any set of means to those ends (M1…Mn), an agent ought to choose the means to those goals that are either (a) the most morally justified means to those goals or (b) the means that allow them to achieve more than one morally justified goal at a time.

We could call this the “two-birds-one-stone”-principle, although that might be misleading since the principle is broad enough to cover more than one stone and more than two birds. How does it relate to what Swinburne and Stump have to say? Very simply, they are both saying that Yahweh was justified in using the Israelites as the means to achieve genocide because doing so allowed Yahweh to achieve another morally justifiable goal.

In response to Stump and Swinburne, I’d say it’s very much an open question as to whether (1*) is a sound principle of moral rationality. After all, it effectively introduces an expediency exception to (1) and expediency is typically frowned upon in the assessment of moral action. Still, being charitable, I can imagine some expediency exception playing a role in our moral assessment of physical, time-bound agents like ourselves. I cannot, however, see how a similar exception would be open to an omnipotent, omnipresent being like God.

3. Morriston’s Counterargument
Morriston doesn’t engage in the kind of formal reconstruction that I just attempted here. Instead, he opts for a different attack on Swinburne and Stump: he argues that even if the genocidal warfare conveyed to the Israelites the seriousness of God’s purpose and authority, it would still have had further morally disturbing consequences, ones which would outweigh the value of the purposes just mentioned. It would simply reinforce the cruelty and barbarity that was already common among the cultures of that era; it would leave the Israelites desensitised to their violence and lacking in empathy for their fellow human beings.

Stump, ironically, turns this point on its head. She says that because cruelty and barbarism were common at the time, Yahweh’s use of it could not have made the Israelites morally worse than they already were. Thus, there was no moral corruption. But this seems weird. For one thing, it calls into question Stump’s original justification: if genocide is just “business as usual” for the Israelites, how could God hope to convey the seriousness of his authority to them through its use? For another thing, it calls into question our expectations of the divine: surely we would expect those with God on their side to be morally superior in their behaviour?

Stump responds by saying that God is trying to make the Israelites morally superior: he is trying to unite them with himself. He does so partly by giving them a divinely ordained mission and partly by giving their actions a divine mandate. But, as Stump notes, the moral progress is bumpy, to say the least. Even after the genocides, the Israelites fall into the patterns of behaviour for which the Amalekites and Canaanites were condemned. This is understandable, Stump argues: it allows the Israelites to learn from their own failings, to learn what will not work when trying to make a just society.

Morriston summarises Stump’s argument as follows:

Israel needed to practice extreme violence in order to learn that such violence will not make it a ‘good and just and loving people’ fit for union with God

Morriston thinks this does nothing to justify God’s command of genocide. All it says is that the Israelites needed to engage in violence in order to learn from their mistakes. But why did God need to command such violence? It’s not as though the Israelites were particularly squeamish about using violence anyway (as Stump herself acknowledges when she cites many examples of violence on the part of the Israelites that came without divine backing).

Once again we are left looking for a morally justifiable basis for the command for genocide.

There’s one more strategy open to the Christian who is eager to respond to these biblical passages. We’ll consider that the next day.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Morriston on Ethical Criticism of the Bible (Part Two)

What's up with the moral character of the God of Abraham?

(Part One)

This is the second part in a brief series of posts looking at Wes Morriston’s recent paper “Ethical Criticism of the Bible: The Case of Divinely Mandated Genocide”. As noted in part one, the paper takes issue with some Christian strategies for dealing with the more ethically troubling passages in the bible. Last time out, we looked at the Canaanite genocide and Richard Swinburne’s apologia for it. This time out, we’ll consider two further biblical stories and the purported justifications for them.

1. Consorting with the Midianites
According to one passage in the book of Numbers, when the Israelites were encamped with the Midianites at Peor, some of the Israelite men had illicit relations with some of the Midianite women and joined them in the worship of the false god, Baal. It’s a pretty typical tale of theistic infidelity, the bible is littered with similar examples. Needless to say, Yahweh isn’t best pleased by all of this and he sends a plague to kill 24,000 Israelites. As you do.

Interestingly, his wrath abates when a young Israelite named Phinehas impales another Israelite man and his Midianite bride on a spear. Yahweh rewards Phinehas with a covenant of perpetual priesthood — the ANE’s equivalent of tenured professorship, I guess.

You’d have thought that the plague and the impaling would have helped Yahweh to settle accounts with the Midianites, but you’d be wrong. He goes on (Numbers 25:18) to command Moses to “avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites” for what they did in the affair of Peor. This is to be done by harassing and defeating them. Moses dutifully obliges and with the help of his army kills all the Midianite men and all the women who have “known a man by sleeping with him”, with the rest being kept as a reward (Numbers 31:8-18)

Once again, this is all said to be done in an effort to wipe out the spiritual infection (worshipping a false god and so on) that is spread by the Midianites. We covered this notion in some detail in part one. What’s interesting here is the sequence of events and the accompanying rationales. In the earlier passage from Numbers, the Israelites were punished for disloyalty (the plague that kills 24,000). In the later passage, it’s the Midianites who are punished for their role in what happened in the earlier passage. In other words, the Midianites are punished for helping the Israelites to be punished.

2. Is the Punishment of the Midianites Justifiable?
I find this interesting because of the biblical attitude toward punishment that is evinced in these passages. Indeed, Morriston makes this attitude the centrepoint of his criticisms, but to understand them we need to take a short detour into the concept of retributivism.

Now I’m no big fan of retributivism — as you might have gathered from some of my recent posts — but at least defenders of that position bring with them the idea that punishment can only be inflicted on those who are morally blameworthy, and that the most severe forms of punishment can only be inflicted on those who are really morally blameworthy. Typically, this means that those who are negligent or reckless in their wrongdoing merit less severe forms of punishment, whereas those who intend wrongdoing and act with full knowledge of the likely consequences of their actions merit more severe forms of punishment.

Either way you look at it, genocide is a pretty severe form of punishment. In fact, I doubt whether even the most bullish retributivist would ever think it warranted, but let’s (per impossibile) grant that it could be. Even then, the punishment of Midianites seems unjustifiable. As Morriston points out, they didn’t intentionally engage in wrongdoing since they (presumably) were sincere in their worship of Baal. Furthermore, they did not act with full knowledge of the consequences of their actions because they could not have foreseen how Yahweh would visit a plague upon the Midianites. Thus, they could not be eligible for the more severe forms of punishment.

Allow me to summarise this line of thinking, as is my wont, in argumentative form.

  • (1) It is unjustifiable to inflict severe forms of punishment upon those who neither intend wrongdoing, nor act with full knowledge of the consequences of their actions.
  • (2) The Midianites in the affair at Peor neither intended wrongdoing, nor acted with full knowledge of the consequences of their actions.
  • (3) Therefore, it would be unjustifiable to inflict severe forms of punishment upon the Midianites for what they did in the affair at Peor.

I think this is pretty compelling — assuming the presentation of biblical story is correct — and it could be used as the basis for further arguments about the moral character of Yahweh and/or the reliability of the bible. I leave those to the imagination of the reader.

3. The Agonies of the Amalekites
The next story discussed by Morriston comes from 1 Samuel 15. It tells us that Yahweh is going to punish (the actual word used is “paqad”) the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they first came out of Egypt. We are told that they are to be utterly destroyed, and that this includes extermination of the men, women, children, ox, sheep, camels and donkeys (1 Samuel 15:1-5). Quite an extermination, I’m sure you’ll agree. This all hearkens back to an earlier passage in Deuteronomy (25:17-19) in which the Israelites are told that once God has given them rest from their other enemies, and once they have settled in the land of Canaan, they shall “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”.

As Morriston notes, the timeline here is again significant. The divine judgment in Deuteronomy predates that actual command to destroy the Amalekites by several hundred years. The reason for the delay is to give the Israelites time to settle on the land of Canaan. There is no suggestion that the descendants of the Amalekites who were alive at the time of the Deuteronomy narrative had done anything to merit punishment in the interim. This suggests — as is in fact all too common in the bible — that Yahweh is quite comfortable with the idea of punishing those who themselves are not guilty of wrongdoing. Again, this would seem to clash with notions of retributive justice according to which punishment is justified if and only if it is imposed upon the guilty.

Perhaps unsurprisingly some Christians try to avoid this troubling conclusion. Eleonore Stump is one of them. She argues that in issuing the command for genocide (let’s not dress it up) God could have taken into account other facts about the Amalekites. In particular, she argues that the Amalekites might have been on a bad cultural trajectory since the earlier time and that God realised enough was enough. The Amalekite national identity needed to come to an end. Stump emphasises this as a possible reading, not a necessary, of the relevant text.

Morriston declines her invitation to this make possible reading for two reasons. First, although her suggestion is possible — in the sense that it involves no obvious contradiction with the text — it is not plausible. It involves ignoring or downplaying what the text actually says. This is reinforced by his second reason which is that there’s every reason to suspect that God would visit punishment on future generations for the actions of previous generations. For example, the Mosaic Covenant explicitly states that God will do this (Exodus 20:5). Morriston discusses several other biblical passages that support this idea.

Okay, that's it for now. Next time we'll look at what Morriston has to say about the reasons for not commanding genocide.

The Ethics of the Death Penalty (Part One)

As promised last week, this is the first in a series of posts on the ethics of the death penalty. As with the applied ethics posts from earlier in the summer, the series will track closely the essays in the book Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics . This book is organised around groups of “pro” and “con” articles on a number of controversial ethical issues.

First up for our consideration is Louis Pojman’s pro death penalty article. I’ve been reading around the death penalty issue quite a bit recently, and from what I’ve read it seems like Pojman is one of the leading contemporary defenders of capital punishment.

He makes his case for the death penalty by adopting an uneasy alliance of retributive and consequentialist arguments. I say this alliance is uneasy because, as I will suggest towards the end of my analysis, the arguments can pull in opposite directions. This creates something I will refer to as the “Death Penalty Dilemma”.

More on that later, for now let’s just give Pojman’s arguments the chance to breathe.

1. The Basic Contours of the Death Penalty Debate
We need to get some perspective on the death penalty debate first. The death penalty is a particular kind of punishment that is usually reserved for those who have committed the most heinous crimes (the actual number of “capital offences” can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction). Punishment is the intentional infliction of harm (usually with state backing) on another human being, in response for something they have done. Harm is typically deemed to be morally unjustified, but harm done in the name of punishment is different because punishment is thought to be morally justified.

There are two basic positions one can adopt when trying justify punishment. The first is to adopt a retributive justification; the second is to adopt a consequentialist justification. The retributivist claims that harming those who engage in culpable wrongdoing is an intrinsic good, i.e. something that is good in and of itself. The consequentialist claims that harming those who engage is culpable wrongdoing serves any number of morally justifiable ends, such as deterring future wrongdoing, rehabilitating the offender or protecting social order. These justifications have different temporal modes. The retributive justification is backward-looking: it focuses on what the offender actually did and what the most appropriate response to that past action is. The consequentialist justification is forward-looking: it focuses on the future effects of the punishment.

Both types of justification loom large in the death penalty debate. There are retributivists who argue that although other kinds of punishment are appropriate in other cases, death is the only appropriate punishment for certain kinds of wrongdoing. And there are consequentialists who usually argue that killing those who commit certain heinous crimes is the best way to deter those who would have engaged in such criminal activity in the future. That said, there are other consequentialist justifications of the death penalty and these will creep into the discussion.

Anyway, this is just giving you a general picture of the debate and it is illustrated below. Let’s turn now to see what Pojman has to say.

2. The Retributivist Argument
Pojman’s first argument in support of the death penalty is a retributivist one. Somewhat surprisingly, his elaboration of this argument is quite brief. To make up for his brevity, I’m going to spend a little more time outlining the key moves in this argument. I start with a rough-and-ready version:

  • (1) It is right and proper for the guilty to be punished in proportion to their level of wrongdoing.
  • (2) The proportionate punishment for murder (and perhaps some other offences) is death.
  • (3) Therefore, it is right and proper for those guilty of murder (and perhaps some other offences) to be put to death.

A couple of words about this argument are in order. The first premise is just a statement of the retributivist thesis. I discussed this thesis over the course of two posts last week. The second premise is the key normative claim about the proportionality of the death penalty. Note how death is said to be the proportionate response to “murder (and perhaps some other offences)”. This is significant since, in his article, Pojman makes a partial case for the expansion of the death penalty to cover offences other than murder, including, potentially, white collar crimes. The conclusion (3) then follows straightforwardly enough.

When it comes to the critical evaluation of the retributivist argument, two inter-related questions need to be asked. First, how seriously is the proportionality constraint mentioned in (1) to be taken? And second, is death really the proportionate response to murder (and perhaps some other offences)? These questions are inter-related because how we answer the first question will affect how we answer the second.

So let’s turn first to the seriousness of the proportionality constraint. One way in which to take the proportionality constraint incredibly seriously would be to adopt something akin to the biblical lex talionis . In other words, to punish the perpetrator of every act of wrongdoing by subjecting them to the same act of wrongdoing. Thus, if they steal another’s property, they should have some property stolen from them; if they sexually assault someone, they should themselves be sexually assaulted; and if they kill somebody, they should themselves be killed.

Although this interpretation of the proportionality constraint would support the second premise of the argument, it unravels upon closer inspection. Apart from its sheer impracticality (e.g. what do we do with serial killers — kill them, resuscitate them and then kill them again?), there seem to be a couple of good objections to it. First, it seems to have little intuitive support: I, for one, see little intuitive support for the notion of raping a rapist. Now, I concede intuition is not always a good ground for an argument, but since intuition is one of the primary means of justifying retributivism in the first place, it seems appropriate to raise this objection here. Second, this interpretation of proportionality would seem to warrant the creation of a particularly sadistic and socially destabilising network of punishers. This would undermine the moral foundations of civilisation. Finally, this interpretation could only make the death penalty appropriate for murderers, which is not what Pojman wants. He wants to expand the set of capital offences.

So the lex talionis interpretation of proportionality seems like a non-starter. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. There is, after all, something to be said for a proportionality constraint on punishment. I think we could all agree that the shop-lifter does not deserve to be as harshly treated as the serial killer; and that the strength of the punishment ought to be graded in accordance with the gravity of the offence. But saying that says little about the precise form that the punishment should take. And this is key. For the death penalty to be warranted, it must be the case that the proportionality constraint mandates death as the appropriate response to certain forms of wrongdoing. But as we now see, there is no simple way to go from the need for proportionality to the appropriateness of death.

To sum up, in its current form the argument from retributivism is underdeterminative . That is to say: retributivism by itself doesn’t justify the imposition of the death penalty. Something more is needed.

3. Pojman’s Justification of Death
Whether Pojman is aware of this problem is unclear. I suspect he is since he is well-versed in this debate and since the objection outlined above is taken largely from the writings of Hugo Adam Bedau (an old adversary of Pojman’s on this topic). But he doesn’t address it directly in the essay I’m looking at here.

He does, however, say something that could be construed as justifying death over other forms of punishment. Let me quote from the article:

Human beings have dignity as self-conscious rational agents who are able to act morally. One could maintain that it is precisely their moral goodness or innocence that bestows dignity and a right to life on them. Intentionally taking the life of an innocent human being is so evil that the perpetrator forfeits his own right to life. He or she deserves to die (p. 108).

Now there are ambiguities in this passage, but I think it can be interpreted as making the following argument in support of premise (2):

  • (4) Human beings only possess a right to life in virtue of their dignity.
  • (5) Whosoever loses their dignity, loses the right to life (corollary of 4).
  • (6) If a person intentionally kills another, they lose their dignity.
  • (7) Therefore, if a person intentionally kills another, they lose their right to life.
  • (8) Therefore, if a person intentionally kills another, they deserve to die.

This can then be carried on to support premise (2).

There are several questionable steps in this argument. First off, it isn't clear that dignity is what generates the right to life. Dignity is a fuzzy, much-disputed concept at the best of times. When it is reined in and defined explicitly in terms of self-consciousness and rationality (as Pojman does) things are better, but then this definition raises further problems. In particular, it casts (6) into serious doubt. After all, it doesn’t seem likely that by intentionally killing another person, you thereby lose your capacity for self-consciousness and rationality. Also, there seems to be an unwarranted jump from (7) to (8). Look to the abortion debate as a guide. Defenders of abortion will usually argue that the foetus lacks a right to life, but very few (if any) would then argue that this lack of a right to life implies that the foetus deserves to die. At most, they’d say it is not impermissible to kill it. Perhaps those more well-versed in the logic of rights could set me straight about this: would the loss of the right to life imply a duty to kill?

If we take these problems seriously, and I think we must, Pojman’s use of the retributive argument is unpersuasive, at best. Perhaps he’ll have better luck with the deterrence argument. We’ll see in part two.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Morriston on Ethical Criticism of the Bible (Part One)

What's up with the Moral Character of the God of Abraham?

It’s a Sunday so why not look at something in the philosophy of religion? Wes Morriston has a new paper out challenging the remarkable willingness of some Christian philosophers to defend the more morally questionable passages in the Old Testament. I covered one of his earlier papers on this topic a while back. That was when I was relatively new to this whole blogging thing and I figure there’s no harm in taking a second look at the topic.

For those who are interested, the paper I’m using as reference is the following:

On the face of it, the paper is relatively straightforward. Morriston criticises three sets of Christian responses to the passages in the bible in which God seems to condone or command genocide. First, he criticises the likes of William Lane Craig, Paul Copan and Richard Swinburne, who seem to support the biblically cited reasons for genocide. Second, he will criticise the likes of Eleonore Stump, who suggests alternative moral justifications for the genocide. And third, he will criticise the skeptical theist response to these cases.

Unfortunately, the resulting article is a bit messier than that initial description suggests.  The actual discussion doesn't follow the structure set out at the beginning in the logical fashion that I would like, and Morriston sometimes fails to properly specify the nature of his criticism against the various Christian responses. This is something I’ve encountered in several other articles by Morriston, which is a shame since he invariably has good insights into the issues he discusses.

Anyway, I’ll try to follow Morriston’s structure as best I can here, feeling free to elaborate on certain points where I think this helps the overall argument. In this post, I’ll be looking at Richard Swinburne's attempt to justify the Canaanite genocide. Subsequent posts will cover different passages and different justifications.

Note: most of the references in Morriston's article are to the book Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (Oxford: OUP, 2011). For example, the discussion of Swinburne's argument is based on passages from this book.

1. The Canaanite Genocide
Anyone who has been following the philosophical debate over these biblical passages over the past few years will, no doubt, be familiar with the details of the Canaanite genocide. Canaan was, roughly, the land that was bequeathed to the Israelites by Yahweh. The Canaanites were the people occupying that area of land before the Israelites, led by Moses and Joshua, invaded. This was following their exodus from Egypt and their inexplicably long period of desert-wandering.

The genocide is presaged in several passages in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses (acting as always with the backing of Yahweh) tells his people that when the time comes Canaanites are to be utterly destroyed, that they are to “make no covenant with them” and “show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:1-2).

There is, however, a distinction to be drawn between the inhabitants of the nearby Canaanite cities (those given to the Israelites) and the inhabitants of the faraway cities. In the case of the latter, all the men are to be killed while the women, children, livestock and other goods are to be taken as booty (Deut. 20:14-15). In the case of the former, the Israelites are not to “let anything that breathes remain alive” (Deut. 20:16).

Of course, if some are to be believed (namely: Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan), all this reckless talk of extermination is mere hyperbole and not to be taken seriously. We should feel about it much the same as we should when you say that you are going to “kill” your boss following a particularly stressful day at work.

The hyperbole defence is not discussed by Morriston so, if your interested, check out the relevant passages of Thom Stark’s book-length rebuttal of Paul Copan on this. Briefly, as Stark points out, the hyperbolic language in the bible mimics the imperialistic propaganda that was common in the Ancient Near East (ANE). Texts of this sort would have to have been read to (or recited to) the people by the elites who could read and write. It cannot be taken for granted that they would convey it in a nudge-nudge wink-wink manner or, indeed, that it would be understood to be hyperbolic by those who were hearing it. It is more likely that this language was used to encourage tribal or nationalistic loyalties.

There’s a more general point to be made here too. According to leading biblical historians, the genocidal events depicted in the bible are unlikely to have taken place. Morriston and other critics would be happy to accept this view — indeed, I’m happy to believe that most of the bible is fictional. But this would do nothing to lessen the force of the criticisms being made here. After all, the concern here is with the moral character of the being depicted in the bible, and with those who take the moral authority of the bible seriously. If you wish to bowdlerise the biblical text such that it can no longer have a claim to historical accuracy, or reject it’s moral authority completely, then that’s all for the good.

2. Justifying the Canaanite Genocide
Still, there are those who want to have their cake and eat it too; who wish to preserve both the historical accuracy and moral authority of the bible. How do they do so in the light of such seemingly morally abhorrent passages? The basic strategy is to argue that God had some morally compelling reasons for commanding or condoning the acts.

The first variation on this strategy, mentioned at the outset, is to offer an apologia of the moral reasons that are mentioned (explicitly or implicitly) in the bible itself. Richard Swinburne does exactly this when he defends the “spiritual infection” justification of the genocide which is implicit in Deut. 20:17-18:

You shall annihilate them…so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the lord your God.

The abhorrent things that they did for their God are, apparently, twofold. First, they are alleged to have engaged in child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31) and second, they are said to have had a ritualised practice of male prostitution (1 Kings:14:24). Swinburne suggests that these practices constituted a lethal spiritual infection and that genocide was the best cure. He backs this up with the following, rather startling, analogy:

…many people would think it justified to kill people who had an infectious lethal disease and refused to be kept isolated from the rest of the population. Those who think that an infection which leads to spiritual death is as bad an evil as one which leads to natural death will think that there are reasons (though not of course adequate reasons) for the Israelites to kill the Canaanites even without a divine command. (2011, p. 225)

This passage can be construed as endorsing a straighforwardly analogical argument, as follows:

  • (1) We would have prima facie moral reason to kill those with an infectious (physical) disease, if they refused to be kept isolated from the rest of the population.
  • (2) Those with an infectious spiritual disease are in all important respects similar to (perhaps even worse than) those with an infectious physical disease.
  • (3) Therefore, we would have prima facie moral reason to kill those with an infectious physical disease, if they refused to be kept isolated from the rest of the population.

Of course, the “prima facie” clause in this argument is key. As was apparent from the quoted passage, Swinburne thinks these prima facie reasons are not necessarily morally adequate. In other words, the reasons may not be decisive or compelling. What can make them morally adequate? The answer is that God, who has dominion over life, has the moral authority to command us to act upon those prima facie reasons, and that his command would makes those prima facie reasons morally compelling. So we follow up the preceding argument with this:

  • (4) If God commands us to act upon prima facie moral reasons, they become morally adequate reasons for action.
  • (5) Therefore, if God commanded us to kill those with an infectious spiritual disease (who refused to be kept isolated), we would have morally adequate reasons for doing so.

I should note that this is my own reconstruction of Swinburne’s argument. It is based on what I found in Morriston’s article, but you should know that Morriston himself is less formal in his analysis. Assuming my reconstruction is fair, how can this argument be challenged? We turn to that question next.

3. Responding to Swinburne’s Argument
I have several qualms about the analogy Swinburne uses to ground his argument. Most obviously and most importantly, it is not at all clear to me that “most” people would think it justified to kill someone with an infectious disease, even if that person refused to be kept isolated. I’d say we only have reason to kill such a person if all other means of preventing the spread of the infectious disease are unavailable to us. The mere unwillingness of the person to be isolated would seem insufficient. If we had a cure for the disease, then we should use that. If we can persuade the person to confine themselves in the interests of the greater good, then we should do that. If that fails, we should sedate and quarantine the person. Killing them would seem to be permissible in only the most extreme circumstances.

This essentially undercuts the persuasive force of Swinburne’s analogy. There’s no reason to think that the spiritual disease afflicting the Canaanites was so bad that killing them was the only solution. If the problem is that they worship a false god (or group of gods), then surely presenting them with compelling evidence of the true god would “cure” them of their infection?

It also seems to me that the analogy between what we have prima facie reason to do, and what God has prima facie moral reason to do doesn't work. If (under extreme circumstances) we do have permission to kill someone with an infectious disease, then I suspect it is only because we make our moral choices under extreme temporal and physical constraints (lack of resources to stop the spread of infection, lack of time to quarantine etc). God would not operate under such constraints; he would be bound only to the constraints of logical possibility. Thus, I see no reason to think God has even prima facie moral reason to command genocide.

To these criticisms we can add two of Morriston’s.

First, is his claim that Swinburne’s argument proves too much. After all, there are surely plenty of people alive today (perhaps myself included) who suffer from a contagious spiritual infection and who are pretty stubborn about trying to spread it around. Do we have reason to kill them too? Morriston thinks Swinburne has no principled reason to say “no”. (He returns to this point later in the article, and so too shall we).

Second, he points out that even if eradicating a spiritual infection were grounds for genocide, the biblical text itself seems clear that genocide was not fit for purpose. The passage in 1 Kings that Swinburne uses to support the notion that the Canaanites engaged in ritual prostitution refers to a period long after the conquest of Canaan, and it suggests that the Israelites availed of such prostitutes at that later time. Indeed, in the biblical narrative the Israelites seem to repeatedly turn away from Yahweh only to turn back again later when some calamity is visited upon them. Given this alleged waywardness, it seems like genocide was not a good means to God’s desired end.

We’ll leave it there for now. We’ll look at the rest of Morriston’s article later.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Moore on Justifying Retributivism (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second post in a brief series looking at Michael Moore’s article “Justifying Retributivism”. In part one, I introduced the conceptual framework Moore uses to support his justification of retributivism; in this second part, I turn to the actual argument Moore uses to justify retributivism.

Before we start, it’s worth reemphasising what it is that Moore is really trying to justify with his argument. As we saw the last day, Moore takes retributivism to be the principle that we have a moral obligation to punish those, and only those, who are guilty of wrongdoing. Moore interprets this principle in a deontological manner. In other words, he believes that the obligation to punish holds irrespective of any positive or negative effects that the punishment might have. This is partly because he takes punishment to be an intrinsic good. In trying to justify retributivism, Moore is trying to justify this complex of views about the nature of punishment.

How does he do it? That is what we are about to see.

1. The Thought Experiment and the Argument
Moore takes our intuitive judgments about particular cases seriously. He thinks we derive our more general ethical principles via abductive inference from particular judgments. This results in a kind of reflective equilibrium in which our general principles cohere with (are in equilibrium with) our intuitions.

Aiming for reflective equilibrium is probably the most common strategy in applied ethics, mainly because, as David Boonin points out, no other methodology seems to be available. The differences, such as they are, come between those who afford decisive weight to our intuitions and those who afford decisive weight to rationally compelling general principles. Peter Singer would be an example of someone who belongs in the latter camp; Moore seems to belong in the former.

This obviously influences how Moore argues for retributivism. He does so by first developing a thought experiment, asking us to consider our judgments about this thought experiment, and then arguing that only retributivism can account for these judgments. This is an acceptable form of argument, provided one accepts the methodological strategy outlined above.

Let’s look now at the thought experiment Moore uses as the basis for his argument. It is inspired by the story of the Russian nobleman in The Brothers Karamazov . Roughly, the story is the following: there is nobleman who owns a particularly nasty and vicious pack of dogs. On one occasion he commands these dogs to tear a young child limb from limb, and he forces the child’s mother to watch this barbaric act. The question arises: what do we think is the appropriate response to this state of affairs? The suggested answer is: we think the nobleman should be punished.

This suggested answer provides some prima facie support to retributivism, but Moore knows he isn’t home and dry yet (far from it) since alternative theories of punishment might sustain our intuitive judgment about this particular case. So Moore adds a couple of qualifications.

First, we are asked to assume that no purpose other than that of harming the guilty party can be served by the punishment. In other words, we are to assume that the punishment could not serve as a deterrent for would-be wrongdoers - perhaps this is because we are part of an island society that is about to disband or collapse.

Second, we are to consider two variations on the thought experiment: (i) the first-person version in which we ourselves are the Russian nobleman and (ii) the third-person version where we simply bear witness to the Russian nobleman’s act.

What happens when we include these qualifications? Moore thinks we will still think that punishment is warranted. We will think it warranted in the first-person scenario due to our strong sense of moral guilt for what we have done; and we will think it warranted in the third-person scenario due to an appropriate feeling of empathy for the victims. This suggests that our intuitive judgments are strongly in line with the retributivist principle. Furthermore, since no other moral purpose can be served by punishment in this scenario, we are inclined towards the view that punishment is an intrinsic good.

All of this can be crafted into a more formal argument in favour of retributivism. As follows:

(1) We are justified in accepting whatever moral principles and concepts best account for our intuitive judgments about particular cases. 
(2) The principle of retribution and the intrinsic goodness of punishing the guilty best account for our reaction to the two scenarios outlined above. 
(3) Therefore, we are justified in accepting the principle of retribution and believing in the intrinsic goodness of punishing the guilty.

The diagram below summarises most of the above.

2. Charges and Responses
Moore acknowledged that his argument suffers from a number of apparent defects. Five of which have featured in the literature and each of which he attempts to respond to. Some of these criticisms get into larger debates in moral philosophy, but I’ll try my best to summarise them here.

(a)  The Charge of Circularity : A common rejoinder to Moore’s argument is to charge it with circularity. It would appear that his general retributive principle is being sustained by nothing more than a retributive judgment in a particular case. This seems to beg the question as to whether retributivism is justified. Moore notes that there a few different ways of making the charge of circularity, not all of which are compelling. For instance, he thinks it is clearly wrong to think that a judgment about a particular case is literally the same thing as the principle one generalises from that particular case. An alternative way of making the charge is to argue that since the judgment in the particular case is about the desert of the guilty it makes the general principle about the desert of the guilty trivial. Moore rejects this. He argues that the judgment in the particular case is not about desert but, rather, about punishment simpliciter . Desert is the more general concept that helps to explain the judgment about the particular case. 
(b) The Charge of Illegitimacy : Some argue that Moore’s methodology — that of deriving general principles from judgments about particular cases — is illegitimate, that you can only derive principles of this sort from other, more basic, principles. Moore responds by saying that such a charge forces us back into the kind of foundationalist epistemology that has largely been rejected. Now, there are certainly some cogent contemporary defenders of foundationalism, but I think Moore has a reasonably defensible point here. 
(c) The Charge of Subjectivity : Another methodological criticism is to make the point that Moore’s coherentist justification of general ethical principles cannot help us to arrive a objective ethical truths. At best, it can help us to arrive at a subjectively coherent web of beliefs. This gets a the issue of how much weight is to be attached to intuitive judgments in ethical reasoning, an issue I’ve covered in my series on evolutionary debunking arguments. As noted in that series, how seriously this charge is taken depends on one’s metaethical views. An anti-realist is likely to be unperturbed by the reliance on subjective judgments, but a realist might be. 
(d) The Charge of Emotionality : It could be argued that the responses to the particular cases outlined engage the non-rational, emotional faculties — indeed, Moore encourages such an interpretation when he appeals to feelings of guilt and the sense of empathy — and that they cannot then be used to support rational moral principles. This criticism doesn’t take issue with the particular sort of emotions being tweaked by the thought experiments, but rather with the more general use of emotions. This criticism only works if one thinks that the emotions have no cognitive element to them, something which many would now reject. It is also worth bearing in mind that there are some who argue that moral judgments are, properly understood, entirely constituted by emotions. Moore rejects this view so he is inclined to downplay the strength of the connection between the emotions and the moral principles that we derive from the particular cases. He argues that emotions are our main heuristic guide for discovering moral truths, but nothing more than that. 
(e) The Charge of Narrowness : A final criticism of Moore’s argument is that the retributive principle derived from our responses to particular cases like those outlined above cannot be general enough to cover all instances of culpable wrongdoing; it can only cover instances of wrongdoing that are sufficiently similar to those outlined above. This is a problem for Moore since he thinks that the retributive principle undergirds the entirety of the criminal justice system. The response here is complex since it depends on how “wrong” one takes all criminal acts to be. It is, after all, possible that the legal system is too harsh or even outright immoral in criminalising certain forms of conduct. Moore’s approach here is piecemeal. In the case of clear moral wrongs that are also criminal, he thinks the principle will carry over, although, understandably, the strength of the deserved punishment will decrease with the gravity of the wrongdoing. As for acts that are morally neutral or morally good that happen to be criminalised, he thinks the principle will not carry over. So much the worse for any legal system that engages in such arbitrary criminalisation.

This then completes Moore’s defence of retributivism. No doubt the methodology will still seem questionable to many and the conclusion raises further questions: how do we know when someone deserves punishment? Which forms of punishment are proportionate responses to which forms of wrongdoing? And so on. I’ll be looking at some of these issues in the near future.