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Saturday, June 04, 2016

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Wouldn't Gen. 9:5-6 have prohibited the sacrificing of one's firstborn? But, needless to say, God's covenant with Noah is prior to the life of Abraham in the Biblical sequence.

"And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.

"Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image."" (Gen. 9:5-6, ESV)

Bill,

I think few Christian commentators have thought that God commanded Abraham to do something immoral. Granted, had he killed his innocent son in other similar circumstances, he would have done something immoral, but in the circumstances he was in, it was not immoral. (Does it even make logical sense to think that a perfect being could command something--all things considered--which is immoral?) Aquinas handles the case by saying that what is in the command against murder contains that which is illicit, but God commanded the killing, so it was licit and would not have been murder (had Abraham gone through with it). Or perhaps God suspends the moral law in this case; if so, Abraham isn't commanded to do something immoral, since the moral law doesn't hold in this case. He's commanded to do something such that in almost all other circumstances it would be immoral.

To your original "Dirty Hands" post, it seems to me to get the problem started one has to suppose that moral reasons are not necessarily overriding reasons. Yet some philosophers hold that that is in fact the essence of moral reasons; it's impossible that one could have a reason which trumps a moral one. Whatever the reason is that's untrumpable in a given set of circumstances, that's the moral reason. Those who reject you (A) would have a very different understanding of morality than someone who thinks that moral reasons necessarily can't be trumped.

Good point, Matt. I would like to hear Argentus respond to it.

Thanks, Tully. There are several difficult questions here.

>>(Does it even make logical sense to think that a perfect being could command something--all things considered--which is immoral?)<<

No it doesn't if 'perfect' includes moral perfection. That would be contradictory.

But this does not seem logically contradictory: God commands what to our moral sense is absolutely impermissible.

>>Aquinas handles the case by saying that what is in the command against murder contains that which is illicit, but God commanded the killing, so it was licit and would not have been murder (had Abraham gone through with it).<<

Kant would respond by saying that it is far better known that it is absolutely impermissible to kill an innocent son than it is known that a being that commands one to do this is God. So the correct response to a supposed divine command to murder would be to address the apparition thusly: You are not God and your command is not divine, but of the devil.

The correct response would not be to say that since God is commanding it, it must be morally permissible.

Here the difference between the modern and the medieval mind is thrown into relief. The modern mind, exemplified best by Kant, hauls God into the dock and says: you prove that you are the Real Thing by satisfying the moral law as disclosed to the practical reason of autonomous man. The medieval mind submits in obedience to the divine sovereign: If God commands killing the innocent, then it can't be morally wrong.

>>Or perhaps God suspends the moral law in this case; if so, Abraham isn't commanded to do something immoral, since the moral law doesn't hold in this case. He's commanded to do something such that in almost all other circumstances it would be immoral.<<

Shades of the teleological suspension of the ethical in Kierkegaard's sense.

This is closer to the question I was raising. Could there be a reasonable and justifiable non-moral trumping or undercutting of the entire sphere of morality, or of some judgments within this sphere, even if moral prescriptions/proscriptions are absolute?

Suppose by torturing the innocent child of a jihadi, a five-year-old girl say, you get him to reveal the location of the bombs that will destroy Washington, D. C. This torture, 'for reasons of state,' would be justified would it not? Not morally justified, but justified nonetheless.

Thinking about this, I thought: Hmmm, might there be trumping 'from above'? That put me in mind of Abraham and Isaac.

Suppose Abraham kills Isaac. Called on it, he says, "I was justified in killing him because the Lord, the creator of the moral law, commanded me to. As sovereign over the moral law, he has the power and the right to suspend the moral law in some cases. And that is what He did in my case. Obedience required of me the sacrifice."

>>To your original "Dirty Hands" post, it seems to me to get the problem started one has to suppose that moral reasons are not necessarily overriding reasons.<<

That's the conclusion I came to. After all, there is a damned good reason for torturing the child or wife of the jihadi, as horrific as that would be, and that reason is not a moral reason. But note that a consequentialist would have a moral reason for the torture. So to get the Dirty Hands problem up and running we need the very plausible assumption that consequentialism is incorrect and that, say, the prohibition against killing innocent humans is absolute: invariant across sets of circumstances and consequences.

Do you agree, Tully?

Bill:

I may be straying a bit from the theoretical question of your original post, but I find the discussion of this particular case unsatisfying because incorrectly stated.

The discussion assumes, throughout, that God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac. Sometimes you say "sacrifice," but even in that case, your clear implication is that of killing. I don't think that's a fair reading of Genesis.

Genesis 22:2 -- "He said to him: Take your only-begotten son whom you love, Isaac, and go the land of Vision, and offer him there, a holocaust, upon one of the mountains I will show to you."

Genesis 22:12 -- "And he said to him: Do not extend your hand over the boy, and do nothing to him: Now I know that you fear the Lord and did not spare your only-begotten for my sake."

It seems clear to me that Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac and that he succeeds, much as a Christian parent sacrifices his son in baptism. Isaac is not killed. Neither is the baptized child. Each is sacrificed.

The language of the second passage is clear -- "you did not spare" means the act was completed. In St. Jerome's Vulgate and in the Septuagint, the verb seems to be in the active mood, not the subjunctive. Abraham is not rewarded merely for his willingness to do what God asked -- he is rewarded because he did what God asked.

I don't doubt that Abraham thought (at least by the time he extended his hand with the knife) that God wanted him to kill Isaac. But what did God think He was commanding? I don't mean to ask "what was God's overall plan," but what was His actual command?

When we consider what it means to have faith in God's command when it seems to conflict with another command, it is important whether God ever in fact commands contradictory things, or whether we just need to know how to listen to Him with wit and discretion.

I know that God gives life and death, and so killing is not wrong for Him. But as a procedural matter, the overriding of universal commands for us is dangerous, as your commentators are pointing out. I don't know about the medieval mind (I'd like to see St. Thomas' words about the case) but I would say "If God commands it, then it can't be killing the innocent."

Bill,

I agree with what you say about Kant though he would agree with me that the Abraham case doesn't show God commanding something immoral, since he seemed to think most of the stories were made up or at least shouldn't be taken as historical accurate accounts. But I haven't looked at the details of that case in his Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason in a long time.

At any rate, I think your account of the Dirty Hands problem is interesting and makes sense as far as explaining what the problem is (e.g. it assumes consequentialism is false, it assumes there are some moral absolutes and they can be overridden, etc.) And though I think the Abraham story does not lend itself to saying that God commanded Abraham to do something immoral, it could be used as an example of how one might think God could do such a thing (e.g. Kierkegaard).

It would probably need to be true that one has no standing moral obligation to obey God. If one did, then one would presumably be doing what is morally good in the Abraham case, obeying God trumping any badness of the pain in the stabbing, the killing, etc. But as (e.g.) Scotus argued, it seems like there are some standing obligations one has toward God in virtue of human nature and the infinitely good divine nature: don't hate God, don't worship idols, obey God, etc.--more generally, render to God his due. Given that, The Dirty Hands proponent would seem to have to relegate the moral to laws governing human-human actions and aver some other normative property to that which holds of humans towards God. When one renders to God his due, what is owed is not a moral obligation. One has moral obligations to humans but some other type of obligation to God. But I'm not sure what would motivate such a distinction. Suppose one springs for a divine command or fiat account of morality wherein all moral requirements are issued by God. God then commands one to sacrifice a son. Well then it's a requirement for one to sacrifice a son and it's not morally wrong. It WOULD HAVE been morally wrong absent the divine command, but as things stand it's not only permissible but obligatory.

Argentus,

"required the establishment of the only base on which the whole edifice could be built: absolute trust and obedience to Absolute Being."

I'm not sure how that squares with your natural law account of the second table of the Decalogue. If that is the only base upon which the edifice rests, then the second table would seem to hold not simply in virtue of human nature, but because God forbid murder, etc.--the natural law being reduced to "obey, trust in God."

Good evening, folks. I am glad to have started a very interesting exchange and now able to take part in it.

I will start by addressing Tully Borland's very good point in his 1:30 PM comment. Natural law, the moral law inherent to human nature and knowable by the natural light of reason, is a unit comprising the whole Decalogue, specifically including its introduction "«I am the LORD your God,...»" (Ex 20:2 & Deut 5:6) as an integral part of the first commandment. For Christians, this point is crystal clear in the abridged statement of moral law by Jesus:

"Jesus answered, «The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.»" (Mk 12:29-31).

Thus, the acknowledgment of Absolute Being, "I Am" (Ex 3:14) in Himself and "He causes to be" (Ex 3:15) for us, Who rewards those who seek Him, is the foundation of moral law.

Since God wants the good of every person (= that he be, and be fully), and since each person is a free agent of his own good and of his neighbor's good, each person must desire and procure his own good and that of his neighbor, which is precisely the definition of love of neighbor and thus accounts for the second commandment in Jesus' abridged version of moral law.

In the ordinary course of events, procuring a person's good starts by caring for his life, health and physical integrity. Now, God knows infinitely better than we do what is the optimal course of action that we can follow to procure someone's good. Therefore, if God tells Abraham «Do X to Isaac», Abraham knows with absolute certainty that doing X is the best he can do FOR Isaac, and by doing X he is optimally fulfilling the commandment ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

In case someone finds this explanation contrived, let's note that God did not ask Abraham to just "kill Isaac", but, as John Detwiler noted, to "offer him there as a burnt offering" (Gen 22:2). Even from a purely human viewpoint, it is wholly plausible that Abraham reasoned that God, being infinitely powerful, when offered at his request an innocent son as a burnt offering, would bring that person back to life in a better, higher, more exalted way. Which is precisely what the Letter to Hebrews says of the event:

"having reasoned (logisamenos) that God was able even to raise him out from the dead, from where he received him also in a figure." (Heb 11:19).

Now, this scenario was possible because Abraham lived before the promulgation of Deut 18:10. After that, we positively know that God will never ask anyone to sacrifice his son or daughter, because God does not contradict Himself. Thus, anyone thinking that he has received such a command from God should promptly seek professional help.

Adressing the first comment by Matt Hart: even within the logic of a literal reading of Genesis' narrative, i.e. assuming the historical factuality of Noah and sons, the memory of God's covenant with them had been lost by the time of Abraham. If people had not kept the knowledge of the one true God, how could have they possibly kept the knowledge of a commandment of His? Moreover when the commandment in question was based on the fact that "for God made man in his own image."

Adressing finally our gracious host's question:

"Could there be a reasonable and justifiable non-moral trumping or undercutting of the entire sphere of morality, or of some judgments within this sphere, even if moral prescriptions/proscriptions are absolute?"

The answer is "no", and the basis for that answer is in my first comment addressing Tully Borland's 01:30 PM comment. The foundation for moral law is adhering to Absolute Being, Who is Absolute Good. Clearly there is no higher good than Absolute Good.

BTW, Catholic-minded readers can find that notion stated in Veritatis Splendor #11 & 99. I mention this only for their sake, not as argument of authority in this discussion.

Tully writes,

>>Suppose one springs for a divine command or fiat account of morality wherein all moral requirements are issued by God. God then commands one to sacrifice a son. Well then it's a requirement for one to sacrifice a son and it's not morally wrong. It WOULD HAVE been morally wrong absent the divine command, but as things stand it's not only permissible but obligatory.<<

That's right on a fiat account. If God commands us to refrain from A then we are morally obliged to refrain from A; but if he decides to command A then we are morally obliged to do A. (Like Stalin reversing himself on what the party line is.)

But here is Kant's point. The epistemic quality of our moral sense acc. to which it is always and everywhere wrong to kill innocent humans trumps the epistemic quality of any supposed deliverance from God. Kant's point is that one ought to discount such an appearance of divine command and write it off as an illusion.

Argentus writes,

>>Adressing finally our gracious host's question:

"Could there be a reasonable and justifiable non-moral trumping or undercutting of the entire sphere of morality, or of some judgments within this sphere, even if moral prescriptions/proscriptions are absolute?"

The answer is "no", and the basis for that answer is in my first comment addressing Tully Borland's 01:30 PM comment. The foundation for moral law is adhering to Absolute Being, Who is Absolute Good. Clearly there is no higher good than Absolute Good.<<

I think you need the premise that the highest, non-overridable good is moral good.

Your answer is a reasonable one. Would you agree that your view has the following consequences:

1. Truman, when he authorized the use of atomic bombs against Japan, was in no sense justified. Not morally justified, of course, assuming a nonconsequentialist approach to morality, but also not justified in any sense that trumps the moral, and this for the reason that there simply is no sense that trumps the moral.

So if someone said that Truman did what he ought to have done, there is no legitimate sense of 'ought' that would make that saying true.

2. There is no problem of Dirty Hands (or else it has an obvious solution). For example, there is no conceivable situation in which a 'reason of state' could override and justify the intentional targeting of noncombatants.

Bill,

I understand Kant's point (and I understand Kant fairly well more generally). And he and every other theist would (or at least should) agree with this: "If God commands us to refrain from A then we are morally obliged to refrain from A; but if he decides to command A then we are morally obliged to do A." Kant just thinks the story is made up and that whatever God would command would already be able to be known a priori.

But you said the following: "Whatever the solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma, it remains the case that God commanded Abraham to do something objectively immoral, even if Abraham did not know it was immoral or believed it was not immoral."

Kant would not agree with that statement. God would NOT command that an innocent human be killed. Like I said, Kant is on my side. The divine command/fiat theorist will say that Abraham--in intending to kill his son--did nothing wrong. And Kant will say that this never happened.

Perhaps one could say that it's made up but, in the fictional story, Abraham does something morally wrong supposing that Kant's account of morality is correct.

BV, I fully agree to both points in your 12:40 PM comment.

The premise of my position is just classical theism. Good is being, and being fully. Nobody can do greater good to you and everyone than He Who causes you and everyone to be. Nobody knows better than Him what is the best you can do for your and everyone's good. Therefore adhering to Him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength is the greatest good you can do for you and everyone.

As there can be no greater good than that which comes from God, there can be no valid reason to act against God's will. In other terms, what always oughts to be done is God's will.

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