A guest post by Peter Lupu. Comments in blue by BV.
If there are immortal souls, would murder be a grave moral breach?
1) Theists, like their atheist adversaries, consider murder a severe breach of morality. Unlike causing a minor physical injury to another or damaging or even completely destroying their home, car, or other belongings, murder is considered to be an altogether different matter. The emphasis upon the moral gravity of murder compared to these other moral infractions is, of course, justified and the justification rests in large part upon the finality and irreversible nature of the consequences for the victim. We can perhaps put these consequences as follows: once dead, always dead! Compared to those other infractions where we can perhaps assess the damage and convert such assessment into some sort of tangible remedy, we have no clue how to even begin such appraisal of harm when it comes to a matter such as ceasing to exist forever. If death would have been a temporary state, such as a long sleep for instance, from which one returns into being once again, I am certain we would have found a way to assess the damage done and assign suitable remedy. But, of course, death is not a temporary state such as sleep. Or is it?
2) Theists’ hold the following theses: (‘X’ ranges over the set of persons)
(T1) There are souls.
(T2) There are bodies.
(T3) Souls and bodies are different substances: i.e., it is not the case that (X’s soul = X’s body).
(T4) Souls survive the death of the body.
(T5) Mortal beings cannot cause souls to cease to exist (perhaps God can, but we cannot!).
(T6) The soul is the seat of the self: i.e., (X’s self-identity = X’s soul)*.
From theses (T1)-(T6) the following corollary follows:
(T7) It is not the case that (X’s self-identity = X’s body);
[From (T3) and (T6) and substitution of identicals]
(*) It will not make any difference to the argument if (T6) is replaced by a weaker formulation such as: X’s identity is a proper part of X’s soul rather than in terms of strict identity. The current formulation has the advantage that we need not worry how the relation of ‘proper part’ would make sense with respect to non-physical entities such as souls.
BV: I would formulate (T5) as follows: Mortal beings cannot cause souls to cease to exist by physical actions upon their bodies. (Although souls are not subject to physical destruction, they may be subject to spiritual destruction either by the one who is the soul or by another.)
As for (T6), we should distinguish the Platonic-Cartesian view according to which I am identically my soul, and the Aristotelian-Thomistic view according to which I am not identically my soul, but a soul-body composite. The A-T view is not the same as the view Peter sketches in (*).
3) I am going to present here an argument that challenges the theist who holds theses (T1)-(T7) to explain the grounds on which he views murder as an exceedingly graver moral breach than burning another’s house, for instance. In fact, I shall use this very example for the purpose of making my argument.
3.1) But first I wish to make perfectly clear a point so obvious that it need not be mentioned at all. Still, it is better to be safe than sorry. The argument I am about to make does not, nor is it intended to, ascribe to the theist the utterly ridiculous moral view that murder is not different than burning another’s house. Few people really hold such a distorted moral point of view and I am fully aware of this fact. The point of my argument is rather that one who believes theses (T1)-(T7) has no grounds or justification to view murder as a graver moral infraction than burning another person’s house. Since no theists (I maintain) in fact hold the view that murder is morally equivalent to burning another’s house, theists are compelled to explain on the basis of what considerations they deny the commitments that follow from theses (T1)-(T7). Or to put the matter more directly: Since theses (T1)-(T7) entail (I shall argue) that murder is morally equivalent to burning another’s house and (all) theists believe that murder is not morally equivalent to burning another’s house; it follows that theists cannot hold all of the above theses.
3.2) Suppose I set out to burn my neighbor’s house while he is in it and I am successful in my deed and the house is burned to the ground. I do not intend to harm him and so I conjecture that he will have plenty of time to escape the flames; and so he does. While my deed undeniably caused him temporary discomfort and so on, he proceeds to sue me and succeeds to collect funds sufficient to rebuild his house and reacquire all the contents lost in the fire I caused. So my deed, while reprehensible and indeed even immoral, is not a grave moral breach. The reason my deed is not a grave moral breach is because none of its consequences are final and irreversible. My neighbor escaped the fire; the house and its contents were rebuilt and reacquired; and the only damage was that my neighbor was forced to reside for a while in another house, the cost of which was reimbursed to him from the compensation received as part of his legal remedy.
4) Suppose that intentionally and without cause I shoot my neighbor to death. I have committed murder. A theist friend proceeds to charge me with a grave moral breach, one he maintains is completely unlike my previous act of burning my neighbor’s house (example (3.2 ) above). I proceed to defend myself against his charge as follows.
4.1) I point out to my friend the theist that he holds that there are souls, there are bodies [(T1) & (T2)], and that the two are completely different [(T3)]. I also note that he holds that souls survive the death of the body [(T4)] and that in any case mortals such as myself cannot destroy souls and cause them to cease to exist [(T5)]. It follows, then, that by shooting my neighbor to death I have destroyed his body (his soul’s house), but I could not possibly have caused his soul to cease to exist. Thus, his soul escaped his body (the house) and survived my deed. Moreover, I remind my friend the theist that according to his theistic view my neighbor’s self-identity; i.e., the very thing that he is, is identical to (or is a proper-part of) his soul [(T6)] and, therefore, my neighbor’s very being and self-identity cannot be identical to his body, which admittedly I forever terminated [(T7)].
4.2) Thus far I have simply showed to my friend the theist how he needs to view my deed of murdering my neighbor from the point of view of theses (T1)-(T7), all of which he sincerely and fervently holds. Now I proceed to further point out to my friend the theist that, just like in the case of my previous deed of burning my neighbor’s house, my present deed of shooting him to death only caused his body to cease to exist. And just like before, he himself; i.e., his soul which is after all who he really is, escaped unharmed. And, of course, I readily admit that by causing my neighbor’s body to cease to exist, I have caused him considerable discomfort. But, I demand that my theist friend recognize that according to his own views, the discomfort I caused my neighbor by causing his body to cease to exist is not substantially different from a moral point of view than the discomfort I have caused him when I burned his house. After all, in both cases he escaped unharmed: in the burning of his house case, he escaped body and soul; in the murder case, his soul escaped and, hence, so did he himself. Moreover, I observe: if transmutation of the soul from one body onto another is true, then my neighbor’s soul will be eventually transmuted onto another body (another house) and so if there is any harm done as a consequence of shooting his body to death, then it cannot be more than the inconvenience which the interim period of being without a body is liable to cause him. But, how is this result any different than the one caused in burning of the house case?
4.3) Therefore, my friend the theist has no grounds to view the murder case as substantially different from a moral point of view from the burning of the house case. In fact, I maintain, there are plenty of reasons for him to view both cases on a par: namely, since he holds theses (T1)-(T7) and since these theses entail that I have not caused permanent and irreversible damage to my neighbor by shooting him to death, it follows that my friend the theist is committed to view both of my actions as morally on a par. If he wishes to see things differently, then he must abandon one or more of the theses (T1)-(T7). And so I ask him:
“Which one of these theses, my friend, are you willing and ready to abandon in order to consistently maintain that murder is a more egregious moral act than burning a house?”
None of the theses needs to be abandoned by the immortalist, i.e., one who believes we survive our bodily deaths, in one way or another, as individuals. As a preliminary point, Peter above confuses the immortalist with the theist, but it should be obvious that, although theism and immortalism tend to be found together, that is not always the case: McTaggart was an immortalist but not a theist, and some Jews are theists but not immortalists. But apart from what any thinkers have actually held, it is a point of logic that neither entails the other, and each is consistent with the negation of the other.
A. Faulty Analogy. Peter's argument depends on the soul's being to the body as a man is to his house. But no sophisticated soul-theorist would agree to this. Clearly, the relation is far too intimate to be modeled in this way. A man and his house are both physical things, and each can exist without the other. But the soul is not a physical thing, and even though it can exist disembodied, its living body cannot exist without the soul whose body it is. When a soul leaves a body, the body become a corpse. But when a man leaves his house, the house suffers no analogous debilitation. Note also that 'leaving' cannot have the same sense in these two cases. One must resist the temptation to think in a crass materialistic way about spiritual relations. It is true that soul and body are not numerically identical, but it does not follow that they are distinct in the manner of two physical things. Their relation is sui generis; it has no physical model. Connected with this is the important point that the soul-body relation is not a physical relation but a spiritual one. Since the analogy is faulty, nothing can be made to rest on it. Since the soul-body relation is not like the man-house relation, one cannot infer that murder and house-destruction are on a moral par.
B. The Moral-Spiritual Importance of Embodiment. Peter thinks that killing a man is not morally worse than destroying his house if the man has an immortal soul. But this ignores the importance of embodiment for the welfare and development of the soul. On many religious conceptions, the world is a vale of soul-making. The soul is not a static entity but a work in progress, and the purpose of our earthly sojourn is to become genuine individuals and to become worthy of participation in the divine life. The soul progresses or regresses depending on its experiences in the world of time and flux and how it reacts to these experiences. To kill a man might be to terminate or impede his soul's moral and spiritual progress, to remove from him opportunities for moral and spiritual education. Killing him would then be nothing like destroying his domicile. This point alone suffices to refute Peter's argument. For his claim is that the immortalist has no grounds for maintaining that murder is morally worse than house-destruction. To refute the claim it suffices to give a ground which is consistent with (T1)-(T6). I have just done that. Murder is morally worse than house-destruction because murder destroys the possibility of that soul's further moral and spiritual development.
One way to concretize this is as follows, though there are several ways. Imagine a scheme on which a distinction is made between mortal and venial sin. If you die in a state of mortal sin, your soul goes to hell. Suppose a young man is in a state of mortal sin and you kill him. Had you not killed him he would have met people who would have straightened him out. By killing him, you have not merely destroyed his body leaving his soul unscathed; you have both destroyed his body and consigned his soul to hell. On this scheme it is clear that murder is worse than house-destruction.
Suppose you don't believe in hell. You believe that those souls who equip themselves in this life for divine fellowship attain it, and those who have no desire for such fellowship but prefer to remain in Plato's Cave and stay enchained their life long to the paltry amusements there below simply cease to exist when their bodies do. On this scheme as well, murder is worse than house-destruction. For by killing the man you remove from his soul the opportunity to develop to the point where he he would be fit to be admitted into the divine light.
Suppose you accept a reincarnational picture. The same point can be made mutatis mutandis.