Almost a year ago, Adam Lee raised a challenge to theists based on the interaction of God and Abraham over the sacrifice of Isaac:
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?
My reply was to return this challenge:
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 far as I can recall, I have never seen a credible answer to my question, or even a credible attempt at one.
And this is important, because it seems to me that the whole “empathy-based morality” philosophy is leading at least the Gnu Atheists to answering that question with a resounding “No!”, which I find very, very frightening.
We can, for example, point to Sam Harris’ comments on Divine Command Theory in his debate with William Lane Craig:
Ok, well here we’re being offered—I’m glad he raised the issue of psychopathy—we are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude. It’s psychotic because this is completely delusional. There’s no reason to believe that we live in a universe ruled by an invisible monster Yahweh. But it is, it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the, from the well-being of human beings. It, this so easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. Ok, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr. Craig can s—can say against their behavior, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God. If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.
I almost have a hard time believing Randal is serious here. When he talks about “adherence to a divine command theory of meta-ethics,” what he means is believing that blowing up a bus full of children is right if that’s what God told you to do. That may not be explicitly listed in the Psychopathy Checklist, but neither are things like actually blowing up a bus full of children. And being willing to approve of such an act just because you think God approves certainly sounds like something that would require a shocking degree of callousness and lack of empathy.
Yet as Harris says in the debate, “this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own.” The horror here is in the fact that there may people with a perfectly normal helping of empathy, who would normally never think of hurting a child, but who would approve of blowing up a bus full of children if they thought God wanted it.
This quote isn’t a smoking gun, but it seems to very strongly imply that he thinks that the hurting of children is wrong in and of itself and that empathy should stop you from doing that.
And then there’s Jen McCreight from a few months back:
The reason this statement is so repugnant to liberals is that we base our system of morals on minimizing harm. Oddly I saw no blogs explaining this, probably because Warren’s source of morality isn’t exactly a secret. But I think it’s important to emphasize how repugnant it is to base your system of ethics on some random old book instead of the well being of others. Punching someone in the face causes harm; gay sex does not.
Putting aside that his is based on some random old book just like my morality is based on the random old books of Kant and Seneca, she sets up the idea that it’s based on minimizing harm, and finds his view relating punching someone or committing adultery repugnant because it isn’t based on the “minimize harm” argument, but is instead based on a completely different moral base completely. And the problem here is one that I’ve talked about before: minimizing harm can lead to some very repugnant decisions. And it is McCreight’s comments that, to me, highlight just how important the questions of “Would you commit genocide if you thought it was the morally right thing to do?” or “Would you kill children if you thought it was the morally right thing to do?” are, because if there are cases where the “minimize harm” morality would demand things that most people would find at least very, very difficult then I really want to know whether they will go with their morality, or their empathy.
So, that’s my challenge to, well, everyone who has any kind of defined moral system: Would you commit genocide if your moral code said that was the right thing to do? I don’t want to hear answers like “But my moral code wouldn’t say that!” because those are the equivalent of saying “But God would never ask me to do that!”. I’m interested it what you would do if your empathy and morality clashed, not whether you think that’s actually possible.
And the world of popular culture has given us a plethora of potential examples:
In the Marvel Comics miniseries Secret Wars II, the Beyonder has come to Earth. In his first contact with Earth, he kidnapped groups of heroes and villains and put them against each other in a war to examine Good and Evil. On coming to Earth, he clashes with various groups and kills off the New Mutants, and gives Pheonix incredible power to see if she’d use it to destroy the universe (and was disappointed when she didn’t). At the end of the series, he decides that he really, really wants to try being human and creates a machine to do it. Using it to become truly human, he discovers that enemies like Mephisto won’t let him be, so he recreates the machine so that he would be human but would still keep his power. It is during this transformation — and while he is still a baby — that the heroes come across him. This is their only chance to stop the Beyonder and keep him from doing what he has done in the past, but it would involve killing a baby. The heroes have problems with this … but the Molecule Man does it, believing it the right thing to do because it would minimize harm, as it trades one life — even that of a baby — for the many that might suffer or die at the hands of the rather unstable Beyonder. Was he right to do so? (This is similar to the “Would you kill Adolf Hitler as a baby to prevent the Holocaust?” question, which as alluded to when Pheonix was pondering killing everyone in the universe to stop the Beyonder by Magneto).
In the Wing Commander game “Heart of the Tiger”, the Terrans (read: humans) are fighting the Kilrathi, and are losing. The Kilrathi exterminate and enslave their conquered populations. Both Admiral Tolwyn and James Taggart invent devices that will destroy the Kilrathi homeworld, and Taggart’s device — the Templor Bomb — is deployed against it and destroys the planet, the royal family, and a host of innocents. Was it right to drop that bomb? (This is similar to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, except that in this case the humans are clearly on the ropes and are facing slaughter themselves).
In “Angel”, Jasmine brings peace to the world, at the cost of people losing a significant but not overwhelming part of their free will and her having to kill a small number of people in order to feed. Angel stops her. Was he right to do so?
So, there’s really no excuse for not being able to answer this really important question, summarized really as: would you do something that you found personally heinous or disturbing if you thought it was the morally right thing to do?