In “The Bible and the Moral Artist Principle: A response to Jason Thibodeau” I summarized Jason Thibodeau’s objection to God being the divine author of the Bible in terms of a principle I called “Jason’s Moral Artist Principle” (or J-MAP):
Jason’s Moral Artist Principle: a morally upright editor/author would dissociate him/herself from any passages within his/her text which depict him/her as commanding/approving of/ [or] bringing about moral atrocities.
I then rebutted J-MAP by pointing out that “one can certainly … have morally sufficient reasons for failing to correct a false belief that one has commanded, approved of, or brought about a moral atrocity.” It follows from this that if the Bible contains any false attributions of moral atrocities to God, the presence of those false attributions does not constitute a defeater to the belief that the Bible is, in some sense, revelation.
In support of my claim, I provided an example of a morally upright editor/author who does not dissociate himself from passages within his text that depict him as commanding/approving of/ [or] bringing about moral atrocities. The example was the case of Jones who is wrongly charged with rape and murder. In the scenario, Jones responds to this unjust charge by gathering the various charges and other related documents into a collection and publishing the collection. To what end? He recognizes that some will read the edited volume and conclude his guilt, but he believes that others will read it in such a way that they will recognize he has been falsely accused for ultimately spurious and racially motivated reasons. In short, in the long view publication of spurious charges without a defense will serve to vindicate Jones and challenge racism.
Jason offers several replies. To begin with, he states:
“First, nobody is going to get the idea that Jones’ volume is sacred literature. I know that J-MAP is not formulated in terms of sacred literature, but that is what this argument is about.”
This is an obvious red herring. Jason doesn’t define “sacred literature” nor does he explain why being “sacred literature” somehow raises some particular problem. If that is his claim, then he better do away with J-MAP and come up with some other principle that specifies an objection to “sacred literature” in particular. Until he does so, we can bypass that red herring and stay on the main course.
“It is rather difficult to believe that Jones would publish the volume (on the assumptions that he is not guilty and is morally upright) without some kind of repudiation of the charges. It is not difficult to imagine that he would publish a volume that collected the charges and evidence against him and also a considered response to those charges and evidence. But the latter would constitute precisely the kind of disassociation from moral atrocities attributed to the author that JMAP predicts.”
At this point the weight of Jason’s rebuttal consists of his observation that he finds it difficult to believe Jones would do this. That’s it. But that’s not a serious rebuttal. It is simply a statement of personal incredulity.
Alas, that is a good illustration of Jason’s overall objection to the Bible. He starts out with bold, magisterial claims about what any author or editor would or would not do as alleged grounds to reject the Bible. And then when pressed to defend the claim, he retreats to the milquetoast assertion that “it is rather difficult to believe that…” Let me state it once again: declaring that you find it hard to believe that p isn’t an objection to p. It is just a comment on your personal psychology.
Jason then writes:
“The only plausible reason that Jones would publish the volume without a detailed response and repudiation is that the evidence is so flimsy and obviously based on racism that, just by publishing the volume, Jones would win sympathy and be cleared of the charges. However, this is a highly unlikely scenario. Regardless of how obvious it is to Jones that racism is responsible for his indictment, he would almost certainly include, at the very least, a repudiation of the charges in the volume.”
Alas, there’s nothing new here. At this point Jason simply supplements his earlier “it is rather difficult to believe that…” declaration with an additional “this is a highly unlikely scenario”. But Jason provides no evidence to justify his claim as to how likely or unlikely this would be. So once again, we have a mere declaration of personal incredulity.
In addition, these objections that the scenario seems unlikely suggests that Jason doesn’t understand how philosophical thought experiments work. The fact is that famous thought experiments like Hilary Putnam’s “Twin Earth” or Frank Jackson’s “What Mary Didn’t Know” or John Searle’s “Chinese Room” are all “highly unlikely scenarios”. (Indeed, my Jones thought experiment is positively mundane by comparison.) But the “likelihood” of these scenarios is completely irrelevant to the evaluation of the thought experiment. This is because their purpose is to test the adequacy of concepts and principles by proposing examples and counter-examples to those concepts and principles, irrespective of how “likely” they are. And this is precisely what my Jones thought experiment does.
Next, Jason writes:
“If Jones knows that some people will read the book and conclude that he is guilty, then indeed he would be remiss if he did not do something to counteract this possibility. Of course he cannot control the responses of his readers; but he can do everything that he can to facilitate readers reaching the correct conclusion. And if he publishes a book that he knows will make some people believe that he is guilty of rape and murder without any kind of repudiation and response to the charges, then yes, he is not a morally upright person.”
Make sure you understand what Jason has just claimed at this point. He is saying Jones is culpable for publishing the evidence against him knowing that some racists will read the collection and conclude Jones’ guilt. This claim about the moral obligation of the author or editor strikes me as completely ridiculous.
To see how absurd this is, consider a parallel, real-world example which I raised a few days ago: Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. I think Crane’s book is a subtle deconstruction of a war-mongering mentality and the standards of courage and machismo that are often invoked to feed it. I recognize as well that many read the novel precisely in the wrong way, namely as a vindication of the war-mongering mentality and the standards of courage and machismo that feed it. And Stephen Crane was also surely aware that some folks would read his book wrongly. Based on Jason’s response here, Crane is morally culpable for producing a subtle indictment of the war-mongering mentality because he anticipated that there would be readers who would fail to grasp the subtleties of his true message. Following this kind of analysis would quickly prohibit authors from any use of tools like irony, hyperbole, or ambiguity with respect to important moral themes for fear of violating one’s obligations not to mislead any of one’s readers with respect to their moral reasoning. As I said, this is absurd. And it also fails utterly to grapple with the pedagogical power in the use of such methods as irony, hyperbole and ambiguity in communicating one’s points and fomenting moral change in the reader.
Let me add that I do think authors and editors have moral obligations. And if they anticipate their work being misread in whole or in part in morally serious ways, then they will presumably do so only based on morally compensating goods. So if Crane produced a book that includes ambiguity that could yield misreadings, he did so because the correct reading would for this reason be even more powerful. Mutatis mutandis for Jones. And, in the view of the Christian, for the Bible as well.
If you like this article, please consider supporting entrepreneurs in the developing world.