The Moral Test …

A few days ago, Adam Lee put up a post disapproving of what he calls “The Abraham Test” and asking theists to answer a question for him:

Going further with this, I have a question for every religious believer, based on the Abraham episode: Do you believe that violence in God’s name is wrong, or do you merely believe he hasn’t personally told you to do violence? If God appeared to you and spoke to you, commanding you to commit a violent act – to murder a child, say – how would you respond?

I commented with this there:

Before I answer your question, I need you to answer this one for me:

If you truly believed with the certainty you expressed in an earlier post about your principles that it would be moral to kill an innocent being EDIT ( in a particular case; it’s not likely to be a general rule) /EDIT, would you do it?

As in your post, I’ll outline what the answers mean:

If you say “No”, in this case you would be saying that you would put your own personal preferences over what in the case of this thought experiment you thought of as being moral.

If you say that your morality would not, in fact, ever demand that, then you are indeed saying that you would have no qualms with violence but don’t think that your moral code happens to advocate it. Which, BTW, considering that you’re Utilitarian-leaning is a bit of a stretch.

If you say that you would do so, then in this case you would indeed commit violence in the name of morality.

When you understand what all of these answers amount to philosophically, then you’ll be ready to understand my answer.

Now, there was no reply to my comment — or, at least, not one that said anything — until this morning, and those answers have lamentably mostly missed the point. Adam Lee has also not responded, and since he was the one who wanted an answer to his question (which he does do on occasion) I’d really like to have him address that so that he won’t quibble over my answer. I also think that this is a topic too big for a comment, and since today is Monday I think I’ll turn it into a post. I also think I’ll E-mail this to Adam Lee if he doesn’t reply to my comment and let him respond how he likes.

Note that in the comment section in general what I said came across as pretty arrogant, which I regret.

Let me first outline what Lee thinks the answers to the questions are and mean:

If your answer is that you’d never commit an act of unprovoked violence against another human being, no matter who told you to do it, then congratulations! You’re a better person than the character of Abraham and possess a more developed moral sense than the author of that story, and you ought to be applauded for that. It’s that kind of rational, humanistic morality that’s led humanity out of the dark ages of bloodshed and tribal warfare fossilized in the pages of the Bible.

If your answer is that you’d reject that command because you’re certain that the god you believe in would never order such a thing, and any such order would have to be a hallucination or a misunderstanding, then you also deserve accolades – though a bit more cautious and tentative in this case. From an atheist’s perspective, it’s worrying to find someone who abstains from violence not because they recognize the intrinsic badness of violence, but merely because they believe it’s not the method God finds most convenient to achieve his goals. Honestly, this answer is a dodge. It ducks the hypothetical posed in the question: If God appeared before you in all his glory, and if he gave you a clear, explicit and unmistakable command to go stone an adulterous woman or strap on a suicide vest – how would you respond? That dilemma is the core of the Abraham test. (You could, of course, say that God recognizes the intrinsic badness of violence, but that would require discarding huge swaths of the Bible.)

If, on the other hand, you would gleefully go out, murder and pillage if God gave you the green light – well, that’s an abhorrent and frightening answer, though it’s one that’s evidently shared by millions of theists in the world today and throughout history. A vast number of atrocities, from genocidal war to honor killing to slavery to child abuse, were and are justified by claiming that it was God’s will to commit all of them.

Now, note the slight of hand on the last one. By the process of elimination, we can assume that the third answer is the answer of “Yes, I would do it.”. But look what it adds in. It claims that “you would gleefully go out, murder and pillage if God gave you the green light”. But in the actual story of Abraham, there’s no indication that he was gleeful. It wasn’t the case that Abraham was going out and doing something that he really wanted to do and, well, now that God says it’s okay it’s time to party! No, he really, really didn’t want to do that. He was going to anyway. The same thing applies to the case of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:30-40 (thanks to Peter White for the reference, even if he didn’t provide it for me). No one involved really wanted to do it, but they did it anyway. And so both of these stories reference obeying God’s commands even when you really don’t want to, which is a far cry from the context that Lee uses to spin this as being abhorrent and frightening.

Which leads in nicely to my answer to the question. For me, the question of whether I’d commit, say, a murder if God told me to reduces to one of two questions, one interesting and in line with what Lee, I think, wants to talk about with that question and one uninteresting.

First, let’s take the common steps:

Taking the definition of God as including all-knowing and all-good, there are two types of theists to consider. There are the ones who think that if God says that something is moral, then it is, and then there are the ones like me that say that what is moral or not is an epistemic consideration and since God knows what it means to be moral then if He tells is it’s moral, then it is.

So we can see from here that both sides have some considerations to get out of the way, first. For the question to be meaningful we have to decide if we know, truly know, that this is God, as in a God all-knowing, all-good, who will not lie to us. If we know it is God, then we have the case where we know that what God is asking us to do is moral, and if we don’t then, well, we don’t.

If we claim that we do not know this, then the question devolves to the uninteresting “If I thought that it might be moral for me to kill this innocent person but didn’t know if it was, would I do it?”

If we claim that we know this, then we know that God is advising the moral action and therefore that in that case morality demands that I kill that person. Thus it reduces to the interesting question I asked Lee: If you knew that killing an innocent person was the moral thing to do, would you do it?

And my morality says, unequivocably, that I ought to. And so either I would or, if I chose not to, I would have to consider myself to have put my own personal comfort over acting morally, and I would have to feel ashamed, guilty and — being Stoic — irrational. No matter how uncomfortable it would make me, no matter how disturbed I might be, no matter how much I really don’t want to do it, reason demands that I act morally, and the failure to do so is a failure of morality and reason. I ought to be a moral person, no matter how much I dislike what it means to be moral.

Contrast this with Lee’s position. He wants people to refuse to kill that innocent person, and pat themselves on the back for being good. But if you’ve paid attention to my reduction, you’ll see that that does reduce to choosing the option that you know is not the moral option; you are not acting morally. And so Lee needs to justify why he thinks that acting immorally is the superior option, without resorting to the cop-out of saying that he doesn’t think that killing an innocent person could ever be moral. At best, he’s taking the same side I am and opening up a new debate about what it means to be moral, and at worst he’s simply dodging the question and refusing to answer whether or not he thinks that the right thing to do is to act morally even if it means killing an innocent person.

And for those who need examples of at least controversial cases, I offer the trolley cases. As I commented at Adam Lee’s site to GCT:

Take trolley cases. Imagine that there is a train heading for five people. You can save them, but only by switching it to another track … where one person — innocent — is standing. Would it be moral to switch that train to the other track and kill that person? Most people, in fact, say that doing so would be moral. So unless you are going to sophistically quibble over “murder”, I think I’ve answered your challenge.

Don’t understand trolley cases? Then you don’t understand modern moral philosophy, and thus need to look up and think about them before talking about morality.

So, that’s my answer to Adam Lee.

4 Responses to “The Moral Test …”

  1. aleanation Says:

    Looks like a sound analysis, good catch on the “slight of hand.”

    I think, in the Abraham story, it is all about faith and obedience, the surrender of your own judgment and will. In the story, it really doesn’t matter whether not Abraham understands why God ordered him to kill Isaac or not, whether he believes that the sacrifice would be just or not. In these modern times, where it is generally accepted that all things should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, the story just doesn’t really “work” or make sense anymore. In my case, as I do not believe in god, the story is just absurd; the dilemma only presents itself to the dogmatic faithful. However, the ideologies at play here cannot be summarily dismissed with a single gesture, as Lee seems to attempt with the paragraph you quoted at the beginning of your post.

    For my part, while I believe that there are many evils in the world far greater than “murder” or killing, I strongly believe that (in the trolley case), hitting the switch would be the wrong thing to do. I think that has something to do with what I would call the “mind your own business” principle, that individuals are responsible for their own survival and fruition. This does not mean that you do not try to help others. However, if five people are standing on a track with an oncoming train, while the one person is standing on an empty track, it seems to me that it is that person who “deserves” to live (this is relative, of course, for an absolute “right to life” is nonsensical). It is up to the five people to dive out of the way. If they don’t, they die. This is how evolution happens. (obviously, this is taking some liberties with the thought experiment, but nonetheless)

    Of course, I haven’t nearly figured all this out yet, as I’m sure you can tell, but those are some of my reactions.

    mmmm food for thought!

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    Well, I think that there is an underlying notion that God is, in fact, a relevant authority. Did Abraham do it only out of fear? Then it is just obedience. But did he do it because he trusts God? Then it isn’t. I think the Bible story aims more at the latter than the former. And if it is the latter, then my kind of analysis works.

    As for your answer to the trolley case, note that it’s always set up so that the people really don’t have the chance to see it coming and get out of the way. So it boils down to a case where you can save them and they can’t save themselves. Any notion of “deserves” in that case seems a bit odd; how can you deserve something that you had little to no role in creating, and have no ability to get out of?

    It’s also a far stronger notion of evolution than most people will accept.

    Anyway, the biggest problem you will have is the problem of finding it moral to not take an action to save lives even if you can with no risk to yourself. Intuitively, most people find that immoral, so you’ll need a good reason to bite that bullet.

  3. aleanation Says:

    Well, part of the point is that that Abraham was faithful, and, as such, he trusts God completely. God is absolute, and thus an order from God is absolute; when an order is received from God, whatever Abraham might have thought about it becomes a secondary matter. It is about sacrifice, bearing the cross, duty. You would imagine that it came down to Abraham asking himself, “so who do I believe: my own moral judgement, or God’s instruction?” He chose the latter, and this is (as I understand it) the point of the story, the act that we are meant to imitate.

    “Deserves” was a shoddy approximation of saying that the person standing on the empty track, unless you interfere, has “won” the game of survival, while the others have lost.

    The trolley case brings up some interesting puzzles about how causality interacts with moral responsibility. On one way of looking at it, if you hit the switch you play a causal role in killing that one person: you killed a person. If you don’t hit the switch, you have played no causal role in the five deaths: you merely witnessed a tragedy.

    On the other hand, if you believe that causal involvement has no bearing on moral responsibility, it breaks down to letting five people die or saving them by sacrificing another.

    I would think that the truth of the matter is somewhere between these two positions, but I am not sure how to go about carving out a middle ground.

  4. Would you commit genocide if you thought it was the right thing to do? « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] My reply was to return this challenge: […]

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