In “The mutilation of Isaac” I argued that it would have been wrong for Abraham to kill and mutilate his son as a burnt offering. This was in response to Matthew Flannagan’s argument that there is nothing inherently wrong with God commanding a father to kill his child if the father does so knowing that God will immediately resurrect the child. I closed by noting a real life case where a father decapitated his son on the side of an interstate based on what he believed to be God’s command. My concern is to argue that people always have defeaters for any belief that God is asking us to engage in specific violent acts like the killing of our children.
In the comment thread Matt responded with some epistemological analysis:
Randal, I am inclined to think that if you limit your focus to internalist notions like “justification” two problems arise.
First, no counter example is available. It seems to me that the person on the interstate does have a justified belief, that he should kill his son. Of course he is mad, and his belief is produced by a malfunctioning cognitive faculty, it’s unreliable and so forth. But these are externalist factors. This is a standard point about the difference between a justified belief and a warranted belief which I am sure you are aware of. I think Craig alluded to this at the SBL, his point was that a person who killed in these circumstances would be acquitted on reason of insanity, this is because we recognise that while he was delusional, it was not his fault he was delusional and can’t be held culpable for his actions, in other words no violation of doxastic duties were involved in the belief formation.
This is an interesting take on the law. If I read Matt rightly then he is saying that an individual who is acquitted on reason of insanity is acquitted because they acted reasonably based on the evidence they had, evidence which was unfortunately based on delusional starting points. Thus, for instance, a father heard God’s voice to decapitate his son and proceeded reasonably except that the initial belief was based on a delusion. I think there is more going on in a legal acquittal than that but I won’t argue the point here.
Anyway, I am certainly aware of the difference between externalist and internalist epistemological distinctions. For those who aren’t, external factors are those which obtain external to the awareness of the epistemic agent and yet which are component elements of that person gaining reasonable belief and/or knowledge. I myself am an externalist of the Plantingan sort. That means that I believe the externalist criterion of an organism properly functioning is important to justified (or warranted) belief and knowledge. But a Plantingan epistemology does not exclude internalist criteria, particularly in terms of defeaters. My concern is to analyze Abraham’s belief in terms of internalist defeaters for otherwise prima facie justified belief.
Abraham’s prima facie justification (and here I use justification without any necessary reference to doxastic obligations) comes in an immediate way. Just as I perceive immediately the sun’s rising or that God wants me to take that job so Abraham can perceive in an immediate or basic way that God wants him to sacrifice his son.
Today most people accept a background set of beliefs according to which God would not command such a thing, and thus if we find ourselves with the belief we have a defeater for it, thereby preventing us from concluding that the belief could possibly constitute knowledge. Things were different in Abe’s age when it was common to believe that God would demand the sacrifice of the first born.
Abe’s situation is, in my view, similar to that of a white Baptist living in Birmingham Alabama in the 1940s who accepts segregation as part of God’s law. They have beliefs such as that blacks are inferior and should sit at the back of the bus. Most of these beliefs they gained through the testimony of trusted authorities, and these fit into the background segregationist and racist worldview in which they’ve been inculcated. But I want to go deeper and suggest that these individuals, were they to reflect on it carefully, could come to understand that in some way they know that the system of which they are a part is a great evil. Christian ethicists refer to this tap root of moral reflection which makes an individual culpable for their actions as the natural law.
In the case of Abraham I’d argue that an individual could likewise reflect carefully and conclude that their system is likewise errant and that God does not really demand or delight in the sacrifice of firstborn children. And this means, I contend, that Abraham has a defeater to his prima facie belief that God was demanding the killing. Both the man driving on the interstate in 1995 and Abraham shared a defeater for their prima facie justified belief that God was demanding the sacrifice of their son.