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.


  1. First off, I love your work. Thank you for producing this content!

    One part of your writing I especially like are your argument maps. It's really helpful for me to see the informal, text argumentation expressed in a formal, visual medium.

    What program do you use to make your argument maps? When I try to make some myself using numerous programs, they never come out as good as yours. Reveal your secret, sir!

  2. Hi Chris (or Christopher if you prefer)

    Nice to hear from you and thanks for the compliment.

    Argument mapping is certainly something I've grown to love over the years. At first, I saw it as an unnecessary distraction, and a pile of extra work, but now I think it does genuinely facilitate understanding. I'm glad you are finding something similar to be true for you.

    As for the secret, well, alas, there is no great secret. While there are several professional programs you can buy (like Arucaria or Austhink) I don't make any use of them. Frankly, I find them to be unnecessarily fussy and I find the resulting diagrams to be confusing (Austhink isn't bad though).

    I just use Apple Keynote to create my argument maps, but you could do the exact same thing with Powerpoint if you are a microsoft user. You'll need to create a basic template of numbered circles (using your own preferred coloured scheme) and arrows, but after that it's pretty easy. Just arrange things appropriately for each map you create.

    I think there is good discipline in using keynote (or powerpoint) as it encourages you to put the arguments on a single slide (which prints out as a single A4 sheet). I'm not sure the human brain can handle anything larger than that in one go.