Many Christians apparently believe that an act like killing and mutilating a child as a devotional act toward a deity can be morally virtuous (i.e. if God commands it, and God can command it because he has commanded it) but raping a child as a devotional act to a deity cannot (because God never would command this). A large number of Christians simultaneously believe (a) that God commanded the Canaanite genocides (which included the killing and mutilating of children) and (b) that he never would command the raping of a child.
Moral Perception Faculty (MPF)
But how do Christians (and others) know that God would never command the devotional rape of a child? Apparently human beings have the ability to intuit (or somehow perceive) the difference between morally atrocious acts and morally praiseworthy acts simply by reflecting on their nature (the more vivid the encounter, the more powerful the resulting conviction; thus, for example, viewing a putative moral atrocity firsthand provides a significantly more vivid assessment of its moral status than reading a firsthand account of one, and reading a firsthand account of one provides a more vivid assessment than reading a clinical definition of one).
Let’s call this ability to intuit or immediately perceive the moral status of certain kinds of actions the “Moral perception faculty” (henceforth MPF). From a theist’s perspective it is thus very plausible to explain the wide amount of visceral agreement on acts like child rape as due not to things like cultural formation, but rather to the functioning of the MPF which enables us to distinguish morally atrocious acts from morally virtuous ones.
The MPF, Child Mutilation and Child Rape
Consider these two act-descriptions first listed in “What God could and couldn’t do“:
(1) the killing and mutilation of a healthy infant as a devotional sacrifice to a deity
(2) the rape of a child as a devotional sacrifice to a deity
As I noted, properly functioning human beings immediately know (2) is a moral atrocity. And if you are a theist it is plausible to believe that they know this from the functioning of something like the MPF.
Here’s the problem. If the Christians I noted in the opening are correct, then (1) is not a moral atrocity. But the moral aversion to (1) is no weaker than the moral aversion to (2). In other words, the MPF seems to produce an indistinguishable aversion to both. And it is only the Christian’s determination to read certain biblical texts in a certain way that enables them, with no small measure of cognitive dissonance, to try and pretend otherwise. (Any Christian who reads of actions like (1) in non-biblical contexts — as in Dena Schlosser’s sacrifice of her infant or Hutus slaughtering Tutsi “cockroaches” — and is not presently in “safe-guard the genocidal reading of the Bible” mode, has an immediate visceral response to those actions as moral atrocities.)
The Faulty Detector Illustration
As I already noted in “If God told you to sacrifice your child, would you?” this kind of view has all sorts of implausibilities and breathtakingly negative consequences for moral epistemology. But let’s set those aside and just assume that this position is true. In that case, it appears that the MPF brings people to believe certain actions are necessarily moral atrocities when they are not.
So if those Christians are correct, it would appear we’ve been fitted with a faulty moral perception faculty.
Now imagine that a crew of home inspectors have been given radon gas detectors to use on their home inspections. The detectors flash a red light when excessive radon gas is detected in the homes. When this occurs the home inspector is supposed to evacuate the home so that the gas can be cleared from the home.
However, unbeknownst to the home inspectors, the radon gas detectors flash a red light when a certain level of carbon dioxide is detected in the house as well. This carbon dioxide poses no health risk however.
With that as a backdrop, consider Mike the Inspector. He has just forced a family to evacuate their home due to excessive radon gas. But, it turns out, there was really just a slightly high level of carbon dioxide.
This situation is bad news for the family who have been improperly put out of their home. But it also leads us to two points.
The Non-culpability of those who follow their MPF
If Mike is simply following his instructions to evacuate the home when the detector flashes red, and the light in fact flashes red, you cannot hold him culpable for doing so, even if the house did not actually need to be evacuated.
Similarly, if human beings have been fitted with an MPF which “flashes red” to signal moral atrocities when there are none (i.e. in the sacrifice of a child for God) then you cannot fault human beings for acting on the input from their MPF and improperly labelling such morally virtuous acts as moral atrocities.
The Problem of the Faulty Faculty
If there is culpability to be apportioned in the case of the improper evacuation, it is directed not at Mike but rather at the designer of the detector who gave him a radon detector that would also flash a warning when detecting carbon dioxide.
Similarly, if there is culpability to be apportioned in the case of the faulty faculty, it is at the designer who provided human beings with an MPF that identifies morally virtuous acts as moral atrocities.
Of course this problem of the faulty faculty can be avoided by simply recognizing that our MPF provide us an accurate moral reading of (1). And that is yet another reason to reject the morally dissonant position defended by many Christians.