First off, what’s a moral atrocity?
It is the kind of event perpetrated by moral agents such that, if you read about it in the newspaper, you’d naturally exclaim “That’s a moral atrocity!” And by saying that you’d be meaning (among other things) that the event in question is an egregious moral evil which could not plausibly have an adequate moral justification.
For example, you open up the newspaper and read that in the fictional country of Roumidia an entire village was slaughtered by a neighboring tribe of people, infants included. The explanation given by the tribe was that their deity had directed them to consecrate the people of the other tribe to their deity and offer them up as a sacrifice.
Upon reading this horrifying account, properly functioning, minimally moral people would immediately judge the massacre in Roumidia to constitute a moral atrocity. We wouldn’t even dignify their claim for moral justification with a moment’s serious consideration.
This is where things get perplexing, because countless Christians will suddenly shelve the skepticism when it comes to reading accounts of similar atrocities in the Bible. As surely as they dismiss any claim for moral justification to the Roumidian village slaughter, so they dismiss any possible claim against moral justification for things like the Israelite slaughter of the Canaanites.
What do Christians say to explain this curious double standard? Let’s consider a few examples that have appeared in recent days in the blog.
Who are you to question God’s morality you gnat!?
Chris wrote to me: “Are you saying that you are in a position to judge God’s morality? And if so, on what basis?” Now that’s a trump card if ever there was one! Bam! Who are you to question God’s morality, you, you … gnat!
The problem is that this comment completely begs the question. And I do mean completely. The very issue at stake is whether we have reason to believe that God would commit actions like punishing women by orchestrating conditions in which they would cannibalize their children (to take the example that started us off earlier this week). And in response to this Chris basically says that since God did punish people in this way, we are in no place to question him. But of course I’ve been arguing that we don’t have good reason to believe God would punish people in this way, and that means that we don’t have good reason to read the texts straight (i.e. as straightforward, factual accounts of actual past events).
God has no obligations
Walter observed: “The classical theists that I spar with on another site are always stressing to me that God has no moral obligations to human beings.”
That’s another popular response. In layman’s terms: God don’t owe us nuthin’. (Never mind the grammar, you know what I mean.)
Soku offers a good response: “Even if God doesn’t have any moral obligations – a view I’m somewhat attracted to – it doesn’t follow that God’s own nature as The Good itself wouldn’t compel God to treat his creatures in certain ways (which would also *exclude* God treating his creatures in certain ways).”
That’s exactly right. I think it is in fact confused to think of God as having moral obligations, especially if we think of God as the ground of morality as most Christians believe. But to offer that as a response to explain (or explain away) moral atrocities allegedly commanded or committed by God is simply confused. The claim is not that God would never punish women by orchestrating conditions in which they’d eat their infants because he has an obligation to refrain from acting in that way. The claim, rather, is that God would never act in this way because it is fundamentally inconsistent with God’s perfect moral nature.
So dispensing with divine moral obligations is quite irrelevant to the matter.
God’s goodness isn’t our goodness
Walter then added further explanation of his point which was just enough to constitute another explanation:”The classical theists that I engage with seem to want to qualify God’s goodness as something quite different from human moral goodness. They would claim that a perfect Heavenly Father is substantially different from a perfect Human Father….”
This is essentially an argument for moral skepticism. It claims that our moral intuitions are so unreliable that we can’t see how things like punishing mothers by orchestrating the conditions in which they’ll eat their infants is actually a morally defensible way to punish a mother (and the infant).
That’s absurd. The onus is on the moral skeptic to provide some reason to think our moral intuitions are that significantly flawed, all the more so given the heavy dependence on the natural moral law in texts like Romans 1-2.
Playing the meticulous providence card
This is a really popular form of argument and it is well stated byAlex who writes: “How much worse is a God who punishes with child-eating, than a God who has the ability to stop it, but simply allows it to happen? At least with the former, there is some sort of rationale there.”
So we have two scenarios.
Scenario 1: God foreknows and allows the conditions to occur in which a mother cannibalizes her child.
Scenario 2: God foreknows and allows the conditions to occur in which a mother cannibalizes her child for the express purpose of punishing the mother and child.
And Alex is claiming that scenario 2 is preferable because there is at least a reason God allows the moral atrocity to occur, i.e. for the sake of punishment. But there is no such justifying reason in Scenario 1.
In fact, with this argument Alex has gotten himself into something of a pickle. Indeed, by the look of things he’s submerged in a vat of Vlasic’s. You see, this argument assumes that there is something morally problematic about God allowing scenario 1 over scenario 2. From this it follows that God would only allow a moral atrocity to occur if it were a punishment for something.
I take it Alex wouldn’t want to accept that consequence. Thus, he should retract his claim that scenario 2 is somehow preferable because the woman and child are being punished.
Now to the main point. Alex erroneously assumes that in Scenario 1 God would have no reason simply to allow a moral atrocity to occur. But that’s not true. To note the two stand-bys, free will and greater goods. Let’s focus for the moment on the latter. It may be enormously implausble to a person to contemplate what greater goods could possibly come from God’s allowing a woman to eat her infant under extreme conditions of starvation. I agree, that’s a tough one. But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be some possible justifying reasons. Indeed, given the complex webs of relationships that can arise from singular events, it is well within the range of plausiblity to think that an event which is morally atrocious could produce greater good on balance in the world.
However, things are very different when we say that the woman and her child were being punished. I don’t need to spend much time explaining why it is problematic to envision an infant being punished. Imagine for the minute that you saw a mother slapping the bottom of her six week old at the Dairy Queen. Horrified, you ask what she’s doing. “I’m punishing my baby!” she replies indignantly. “The brat spit up all over my shoulder!” Your next move would be to call social services and file a complaint. You don’t punish babies.
Slapping a neonate’s bottom is bad enough, but imagine punishing a baby by orchestrating the conditions where its mother would cannibalize it. That, as you can imagine, is absolutely off the moral charts.
But what about its mother? Could it be morally proper to punish the mother by orchestrating the conditions in which the mother would cannibalize her infant?
Well, there are four main justifications that are commonly given for punishment: incapacitation (i.e. prevention of further criminality), deterrence, rehabilitation and retribution. It seems to me that of these four retribution would be the only remotely plausible explanation.
But remotely plausible isn’t plausible.
And keep in mind that the one undertaking the punishment is also described as “maximally compassionate, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love”.
Newspaper moral atrocities revisted
It is at this point that we return to the moral atrocity in Roumidia. No doubt the Roumidians could proffer a few contorted remotely plausible justifications for their actions. And no doubt you would dismiss those justifications as the most implausible rationalizations.
Perhaps it is time for some exercising of the Golden Rule by turning the same skepticism that you have for the justifications of moral atrocities given in other traditions to those justifications provided in your own tradition.