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.


  1. John D,
    I'm glad to see you're posting again. After you finish with this paper will you also review Morriston's "God and the ontological foundation of morality"?

  2. Hi el ninio,

    First of all, thanks. As for the other Morriston paper, unfortunately I'd say I'm unlikely to get to it anytime soon.

    I did read it when it came out earlier in the year (in fact, I can remember exactly the day I read it because I happened to be flying home from Germany and I recall reading it in the airport lounge). Anyway, the notes I took at the time are in a notebook back in my home in Ireland (I've recently moved to England) and I'm not going to get a chance to look at them for a while.

    Anyway, as far as I recall, I was relatively unimpressed by the article. I don't think it says anything more than what Morriston had already said in his article "Must there be a standard of Goodness apart from God" (which I covered before) or, indeed, what Wielenberg said in his article "In Defence of Non-Natural Non-Theistic Moral Realism" (which I've also covered before).

    If you think this is unfair, and that I missed something important, please let me know and I'll give it another look. This is a topic I'm interested in.

  3. Yeah, now that I've looked over your reviews of the 2 articles you mentioned I think it's fair to say Morriston's paper doesn't bring anything impressive to the discussion.
    I'm sure there are better articles you have read and intend to review. I look forward to reading those reviews.