In “Is rape worse than sacrifice?” I critiqued Crude’s claim that moral atrocity is essentially linked to the infliction of physical and/or psychological suffering on a victim. I did so with the following scenario:
“Three year old Billy is watching Sesame Street and eating Pop Tarts when his father kills him with a gunshot from the back of the head. Billy is killed instantly and thus does not suffer. His father then prepares the body for sacrifice.”
This is a case of a child who is sacrificed but does not suffer. The case is nonetheless a moral atrocity. Thus, atrocity is not essentially linked to the suffering of a victim.
Alex Dalton responded by raising skeptical doubts about the ability of human beings to identify moral atrocities. He says I “never tell us how they are identified essentially though.” And then he asks me “Please elaborate on what makes these instances atrocities.” This is amusing since Alex ends up sounding like a psychopath unfamiliar with this thing we call moral perception. But I know this isn’t true.
I am reminded here of J. Budziszewski’s wonderful essay “Escape from Nihilism” in which he recounts his own conversion from nihilism to Catholic Christianity. You can read it online here. In the essay Budziszewski has a section on “The Stupidity of the Intelligent” in which he reflects on his own tortured attempts to believe nihilism. He writes:
When some people flee from God they rob and kill. When others flee from God they do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex. When I fled from God I didn’t do any of those things; my way of fleeing was to get stupid. Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to commit. God keeps them in his arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all. That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren’t responsible for what we do.
Budziszewski got stupid by attempting to reason that good and evil don’t exist, and thus objective moral responsiblity doesn’t either. And what am I to think when somebody like Alex Dalton acts incredulously toward the notion that we can perceive immediately the inherent evil of some actions?
Interestingly Alex then states “The example of Billy is an atrocity indeed.” Really? And how does Alex know this? Apparently he is able to identify moral atrocities with some confidence after all. So why doesn’t he just answer his own questions then?
At this point things really go downhill. Alex writes:
But suppose Billy was watching Sesame St. and eating pop tarts and God sends an angel to take his life via brain aneurysm to acheive some higher order good. Is this equally an atrocity? The problem with most of Randal’s arguments is that they ultimately undercut his own theodicies.
Here is a good lesson for all of us in how you should think through the implications of your argument before you make it. First a quick response: No Alex, that isn’t the same thing.
One way we can know it is not the same thing is because assuming it is the same thing leads to a reductio ad absurdum. Alex’s parallel assumes a principle like this:
If God can kill a child by inflicting an aneurysm to achieve a greater good then God can command a human being to kill the child to achieve a greater good.
Now I suspect once Alex realizes the absurd implications of this principle he will predictably retort that this is not what he meant. But keep in mind that his angel comment only has relevance if he believes there is a moral parallel between God seeing that x is actualized to achieve a greater good and God commanding a human being to do y to achieve a greater good.
With that in mind, consider this case. In 1963 a UN peacekeeper in the Congo discovered a nun who had been raped, mutilated, tortured, and executed in a church. According to Romans 8:28 God allowed this unspeakable horror to occur for a greater good. If we accepted Alex’s parallel then it would follow that God could have commanded people to carry out this unspeakable crime.
So in a short paragraph Alex moved from expressing skepticism about our ability to perceive moral atrocities, to identifying a moral atrocity with confidence, to offering an absurd moral equivalence between God allowing and God commanding which sows the seeds of its own destruction.
That’s quite an accomplishment!