God says “Abraham, kill me a son”

In the comments section at The Atlantic there was recently a long and unsatisfying debate, starting here, about whether there is any “objective” or “real” morality without God as the ultimate ground for it. Here are a couple of representative passages:

I believe that there is justice that is more than simply the opinion of whomever happens to be powerful at the time. I believe that there are evils in the world. The Holocaust and slavery were not evil because now we have somehow evolved beyond such acts but because they pull and defy the very fabric of what is real and truly just.


My only contention is that without God, then slavery isn’t evil, it is merely tasteless among certain circles until people’s minds change and it becomes fashionable again. I find such an idea abhorrent. I believe that regardless of what religious or irreligious people think or how humanity decides to vote on the issue, slavery and the Holocaust are truly and objectively evil. Their evil does not depend upon humanity or what ideas we hold. They are evil for objective external and I would claim transcendent reasons.

For myself, I think there are two problems with this line of thought. First, it’s extremely problematic to outsource one’s moral reasoning to God, because there’s really no satisfactory way to show that God’s opinion is better than your own. Second, I think the bolded clause above gets it exactly backwards: notions of “good” and “evil” depend precisely on humanity — on the nature of what it is to be human.

To start off with, even if God thinks something is wrong (or right), so what? That is, why take God’s word for it?

Is it because God is powerful? Because “there is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment“? But that is not morality — it’s mere cravenness. By that logic, what Kim Jung Un decrees to be moral is, for North Koreans, moral, because Kim holds the power to torture and punish them if they fail to meet his standard. That is unsatisfactory in the extreme.

Is it because God is smart? Perhaps God, either because of His greater intelligence or because He created everything (and so has seen the blueprints), has a better perspective on what is good for us than we do. If you believe in God, that is an eminently reasonable position, but it immediately presents a number of problems.

First, how do I know God is smart without verifying His claims for myself? My old Con Law professor, Jonathan Varat, is probably smarter than I am. I’ve come to that conclusion by comparing his ideas to the real world and finding them more sound and more useful than my own on a number of occasions. But that doesn’t mean that I, the less-smart party, can sit back and let Varat take the wheel, because for any given question, it is possible that Varat’s reasoning might, however uncharacteristically, fail, and I might have the better idea. Of course, one might say that it is the nature of God that His reasoning about the world would never fail; He will always have the better answer. But to that I would reply, How do you know unless you are checking His work?

Perhaps God has sufficiently proven His wisdom about the world in [holy book/sayings of prophet], such that it is reasonable to trust Him about everything else. Fair enough. We all rely, at least heuristically, on trusted sources. I use Wikipedia, myself. But trusting a smart person with a lot of knowledge to help you figure out right and wrong is not the same thing as saying that the existence of a smart person is required for there to be right and wrong. It is not required, any more than the existence of physics professors is required for there to be protons. The thing exists, independent of anyone’s knowledge of it. It may be fine to trust God to describe right and wrong, but it is not because of His existence that they are, in fact right and wrong.

If you believe that God created the world, of course, and you think that right and wrong are objective things that exist in the world, then you might say that God caused right and wrong to come into being. In that sense, perhaps right and wrong exist because God exists — but notice that you have included the thing to be proven in the premises of your syllogism: you have assumed that right and wrong are objective things as a part of the world, and God comes in only as the world-initiator. Explaining where right and wrong came from is entirely beside the point — you have already stated that they exist “objectively,” which was the goal of our inquiry in the first place.

Nor will saying something like “God is, himself, the platonic ideal of goodness, from which all other goodness springs” be helpful. For one thing, it’s tautological. If God is morality, and you want to say that morality exists because God exists, then you merely want to say that morality exists because morality exists. Or, at best, morality exists in human affairs because morality exists on some higher plane. But that only pushes all the problems of proof and opinion back a level — who decides that God is good, or moral, or an avatar of rightness?

The answer, of course, is that you do. You, the individual human being, and all of us collectively. In this sense, it is indeed a matter of “opinion.” But then, so is science, and history, and everything else we do to make sense of the world we live in. Each one requires the individual to undertake rigorous investigation and come to his own conclusions — his own opinions, if you will. The real question is, what is the basis of those opinions? Is morality some consistent measurement we can take of the world, some principle that can be consistently applied? And can it be communicated to others, who can also take the same measurements and apply the same principles? If so, then it is as objective as chemistry, and God doesn’t enter into it. The worry, of course, is that it is not, and that our morality is more like taste in music — fiercely debated and passionately defended, but ultimately idiosyncratic.

And so it’s worth asking what we really mean by “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “evil.” The Atlantic commenter says that chattel slavery was objectively evil, and I agree. But what do we mean by that?

It can’t be merely that it causes suffering. A fire ant’s sting causes suffering, but nobody would say that the fire ant’s behavior is “objectively evil.” Rather, what seems to cause us to see things as “evil” is the knowing infliction of suffering. (Or, more broadly, where one could have known that one was inflicting suffering, had one chosen to make the inquiry.) Thus, morality is in fact rooted in something that bridges the objective and the subjective — the human capacity for empathy. To the degree that we can imagine or understand that our actions will cause pain to another, we are committing “evil” when we do them. Thus, part of behaving morally, it might be said, is to make a good-faith inquiry into objective reality. This is what distinguishes moral reasoning from something like mere taste.

It is in exactly this sense, I think, that Jesus told the scribe that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” was one of the greatest commandments. To love my neighbor as myself, I must imagine his suffering with the same force as I feel my own. With regard to American chattel slavery specifically, Lincoln is supposed to have said “Whenever I hear anyone arguing over slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” The idea, of course, is that if one could perfectly understand the suffering of the slave, one would feel morally compelled to oppose slavery.

Similarly, John Rawls proposed that the most moral and just social system would be the one a rational person would select when he could not know into what circumstances he would be born:

Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like . . . . This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances.

Rawls hypothesized that a person creating principles of justice behind such a “veil of ignorance,” as he called it, would be forced to choose a system that would maximize the well-being of the poor, the sickly, and the intellectually limited. Of course, in order to devise such a system, one would have to be able to put one’s self in the shoes of the poor, etc., to see how they might suffer and try to alleviate that suffering. Rawls’s thought experiment spurs us to the empathic inquiry.

The objective inquiry into my neighbor’s subjective experience is, of course, difficult and necessarily incomplete. Moreover, it changes over time, in very much the same way that scientific inquiry changes as we acquire more knowledge about the physical world. Specifically, the empathic inquiry is more and more in tune with objective reality to the degree that its practitioners are able to enlarge the scope of their practice.

This is the fundamental meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan:

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

The Samaritan’s expansive ability to feel compassion for a Jew from Jerusalem, despite the differences between them, is what makes him a moral exemplar. As Jesus tells the lawyer, it’s the Samaritan who is a “neighbor” to the man, the priest and the Levite’s closer biological and social ties notwithstanding. The larger the circle of “neighbors” whose suffering he attempts to understand, the more the practitioner of the empathic inquiry is basing his moral decisions on something “objective,” something outside his own idiosyncratic wishes.

It is true, of course, that he is basing his decisions on someone else’s idiosyncratic wishes. Coming back to slavery: some might wish to be slaves, at least in some sense; in such cases, we would not call slavery immoral. But so what? All that shows is that the general principle has to be formulated a little more carefully to be entirely precise: “Multi-generational, racially-categorized, legally-enforced chattel slavery, not freely chosen by the slaves, for the purpose of economically exploiting the slaves’ labor, was objectively evil.” But our shared biology — including our common fundamental needs for things like security, social acceptance, and self-actualization — probably creates a floor and a ceiling shared by most people, and so in casual conversation it is perfectly acceptable to shorten the above to “Slavery was objectively evil.” The fundamental point is simply that a slaveholder could have made an objective inquiry into whether his slaves suffered as a result of slavery, and in the vast majority of that cases that inquiry would have yielded a moral directive to cease holding slaves.

And so after a lot of debate and a bloody war, we Americans all opened our circle of “neighbors” a little wider, agreeing to empathize with all human beings at least far enough to understand the suffering of slaves, and so to outlaw slavery, seemingly for good. Was this a change in morality? Not really — the objective empathic inquiry was always available, at least in theory, and so slavery was as immoral in 1840 as it would be today. But more people are today able to perform that inquiry, for very much the same reason that more people today are able to understand the germ theory of disease — because the intellectual framework for understanding it has been more widely disseminated in the population.

We could, of course, lose our common social framework for extending the empathic inquiry to slaves, just as we could theoretically forget about the existence of bacteria. But the potential for the inquiry always existed and will always exist, and so the morality of our actions doesn’t really change. Our culpability for failing to conduct an adequate inquiry might be blunted by a compassionate recognition of how difficult it can be to exhibit empathy toward subjects not included in the category of “neighbor” that we inherit from the society around us. But the Good Samaritan shames us all, a little, in that regard. The inquiry is always available.

God can be many things for the theist: a comfort in hardship; a source of long-term retribution and scale-righting; a moving force in history; a wise advisor; a model of compassion and love. But He can’t be the source of morality. We’re all stuck making that determination for ourselves. That shouldn’t make us despondent, though; moral inquiry is not unmoored from the objective reality of the universe, but intimately tied to it. It is, indeed, intimately tied to what it means to be human — allowing for the tremendous variety that that encompasses. The better we understand humanity, the more objectively informed we are about morality.

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2 Responses to God says “Abraham, kill me a son”

  1. Adrian says:

    Well said.

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