Yesterday I noticed the following retweet from Secular Outpost in my feed:
Dawkins’ question is an example of what I call the “If there is a God then everything is permitted” meme. According to this meme, theism leads to moral chaos because God could command actions that constitute moral atrocities.
I frequently encounter this particular meme. For example, it seems to be lurking behind John Loftus’ argument that I critique in “If There Is No God, Then Everything Is Permitted: A Reader’s Journey Through God or Godless (Part 5)”. One also can find it in the shadows of Bill Paxton’s under-appreciated 2001 film “Frailty“.
But most often one encounters it in pithy statements like the Dawkins tweet. So what’s the best way to respond?
Dawkins obviously thinks he is presenting a dilemma here. I would respond by pointing out that there is in fact no dilemma that is particular to the theist. Insofar as there is a dilemma, it applies to theists and atheists alike. Allow me to explain.
To begin with, we should take note that there are three primary normative ethical theories on offer today: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue theory. The vast majority of theist and atheist ethicists adhere to one of these theories.
With that in mind, it turns out that we can rephrase Dawkins’ pithy challenge in the language of each of these ethical theories.
Deontology. Let’s begin by posing the question to the deontologist. According to deontology, ethics consists of identifying the rightness or wrongness of particular actions as a guide to moral action and thus the moral life. With that in mind, we pose our hypothetical: if you were morally obliged to make your son a burnt sacrifice, would you?
Consequentialism. Next, we turn to consequentialism, a view that invokes the anticipated results of an action as constituting its ethical status. With that in mind, we pose our second hypothetical: if the consequences ensured the ethical obligation to make your son a burnt sacrifice, would you?
Virtue Theory. Finally, we turn to virtue theory, an approach to ethics that shifts primary attention from actions and onto the virtues that characterize the ethical person. With that in mind, we pose our third and final hypothetical: if moral virtue required you to make your son a burnt sacrifice, would you?
If you are a deontologist, a consequentialist, or a virtue theorist, and you’re serious about pursuing the good on the theory, then the proper answer to the conditional is yes. If your moral theory prescribed the sacrifice of your son, then you would sacrifice your son.
Now that every morally serious person is admitting that they’d sacrifice their son if their ethical system required it, we can turn to theism. Assuming the definition of God in Judeo-Christian theology as perfectly good, all-knowing and maximally wise, it follows trivially that if God commands you to perform an action with the desire that you perform the action then you ought to perform it. So yeah, if God directs you to sacrifice your son then you ought to. But this “concession” is a pyrrhic victory for the Dawkinses of the world given that the exact same result applies to the conditional on all major ethical theories.
Of course, the deontologist, consequentialist and virtue theorist is welcome to reply as follows: “But I don’t concede that it is possible that my moral theory would ever prescribe such an action.” This is certainly a way to neuter the conditional.
However, keep in mind that the theist can respond in precisely the same way: “But I don’t concede that it is possible that God would ever prescribe such an action.”
The deontologist, consequentialist, or virtue theorist could also respond like this: “Should my moral theory ever prescribe such an action I would abandon that moral theory.” This is another way to neuter the conditional.
But the theist can also respond in a parallel way: “Should I ever undergo the phenomenological experience of God’s command to perform such an action, I would conclude that I was misperceiving the divine will.” In short, just as the ethical theorist can use the intuitive grasp of moral evil as a guide to assess moral theories, so the theist can use the intuitive grasp of moral evil as a guide to assess putative divine commands.
This means that the Dawkins challenge is not in fact a challenge particular to theists. Rather, it is a challenge to every moral theorist whether they be theists or atheists or anything else, who concedes that the conditional is a live possibility on their moral theory. For those who deny that it is a live possibility, the troubling conditional disappears.