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Tuesday, December 20, 2016


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Regarding the dropping of an atomic bomb, I have heard commentators use the "pray for a miracle" justication. In other words, the intent is to wipe out the bad guys, say by targeting ISIS, and praying that the innocent survive the attack. My thinking is that this confuses "want" with "intent". I can envision a scenario where something like this could make sense, but not with a weapon like an atomic bomb, since the outcome is almost certain.

My question is for my own learning and understanding. Thank you. And thank you for blogging!


My take on the issue of intrinsically wrong actions is that some actions are intrinsically wrong as long as we include some of the agent's mental states (like what a person intends, or has information about, etc.) in the description action. For example, I hold that torture for fun is intrinsically wrong (at least, when the torturer is human, or similar enough; I'm not sure about radically alien agents, because they might not be moral agents at all), but not that torture simpliciter is intrinsically wrong - just that it actually usually is (by the way, I think waterboarding is torture and usually wrong, though I don't think torture is intrinsically wrong).

On the God issue, many people believe we do know that God exists or does not exist (I believe the latter, as long as "God" is defined in any sense that entails omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection), but leaving that aside, it seems to me that the introduction of God or an afterlife does not prevent raising similar issues.

For example, let's say that Harry Truman had a crystal ball and knew the future with certainty and saw that the Allies would have lost had they not used the methods they used, and that the whole world would have been been plunged into a Dark Age for two centuries, with nearly all (not all) people being raised as Nazis or as slaves coerced into doing evil themselves, never knowing about Christianity, never confessing their sins, etc.

If he still had a moral obligation not to use those methods, then if he chose not to behave immorally, billions of people would end up in Hell as a result. So, by doing the right thing, he would be sacrificing nearly all of humanity either to a life of evil, or worse to Hell, for the sake of doing what is morally right - not even to save his own soul, since he could probably do evil, later repent and confess his sins, and not go to Hell (while Catholicism would consider that sort of calculation also immoral, the option of confessing and being saved from Hell would remain available on Catholicism, even after having planned that, and as long as he sincerely repented).

Granted, according to Catholicism, it would also be their own fault if they ended up in Hell, so it might be argued that Truman would not be sacrificing them, as they can still make choices. But the point would remain that the person making the decision (Truman in the example) would have a moral obligation to take a course of action such that nearly everyone born in the next two centuries would end up in Hell.

There are other complications involving non-Catholic variants of Christianity, or involving Islam, etc., but generally, if what matters most is salvation, one can construct hypothetical scenarios in which an agent can only prevent others from being damned by behaving immorally, or even by damning himself.

By the way: If targeting civilians is always immoral, then what if ancient Israelites targeted civilians (e.g., children, women not involved in the fight, etc.) as commanded in the Bible? Doesn't Catholicism hold that OT Law was obligatory to the people it was intended for? (i.e., ancient Israel, at least for several centuries).

A brief question: I am not sure there isn't a double standard, or at least a different standard, being applied to ethics as opposed to metaphysics in the above. Yes, if the metaphilosophical skepticism is true then we cannot be sure that God exists, but by the same token we cannot be sure that the 'worldly wise' decisions of a political leader are correct either (or indeed that this world exists if that is to be cashed out as a statement about the existence of independent agents). What justification, aside from practical issues of popular support, does the aporia-monger have to advise the leader or anyone else for that matter to save the lives of many as opposed to, say, torturing them for his or her own arbitrary sadistic amusement?

You're welcome, Kurt. Merry Christmas.


I don't see any double standard. One doesn't have to be a metaphil. skeptic to appreciate that some propositions are better known, or rather better believed, than others. Which of the following is better believed:

God and the soul exist


Prudence dictates that for those who are responsible for the well-being of others it is sometimes morally justifiable to deliberately kill the innocent.

To me it is obvious that the second is better believed. Admittedly, the notions of 'better known' and 'better believed' need analysis. Another seriesof posts!

Aporia-mongering? Or your inability to admit that there are insolubilia due to your doxastic security needs?

Dear Bill,

You're right--double effect wouldn't apply in such cases. At least, not as I understand it. Though please bear in mind that I'm no ethicist, I'm just a metaphysician.

A couple of quick replies. First, I strongly disagree with you regarding the status of our knowledge of God and the soul. To be sure, as a good empiricist, I assert that the proper object of the human intellect is the essences of material objects, and hence that we humans naturally grasp the material world more firmly and positively than we grasp the soul or especially God. But we still do (or can) know God and the soul with certainty through the use of natural human reason. And on top of that, we have (or I do, anyway) the certainty of Faith. Second, I am not sure how much I think knowledge of the impermissibility of the direct and intentional killing of innocent human beings depends upon any antecedent knowledge of God and the soul at any rate. Third, I am indeed an opponent of the massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as well as Tokyo and Dresden, and so forth), with this one qualification: it strikes me as possible to reasonably regard a good majority of the civilians who were deliberately targeted in these bombings--at least in the Japanese cases, though probably not the German one(s)--as combatants and hence as legitimate military targets. My brother Chris had a paper about this a few years back, I think in the ACPQ, where he sketched out such an argument. At least, I think that's what he argued. (He had another paper, in the Phil Quarterly, though, where he took a harder line, and indeed ended with "fiat iustitia pereat mundus.")

With all that said, Bill, I can only say that had I been in Truman's shoes, I cannot pretend to say what I'd have done. I don't know what I'd do, were I in the shoes of the policeman who had ahold of the jihadi who'd planted the nuclear device. When I consider how regularly I give in to temptation in rather petty matters, I surely can't claim that I'd live up to my own ideals in such hard cases. Is this a good time for me to point out that our mutual friend Ayn Rand condemns approaching ethics through the lens of "emergencies"? :) But let me note that in the real world, we very, very rarely face such choices. When General Mattis says we shouldn't torture our captured enemies, I agree with him. That's a *policy* I endorse, even if I could imagine a vanishingly rare sort of case where I myself was strongly tempted to violate it. (And cases where I'd be inclined to vote to acquit a soldier who violated it.)

Dr. Vallicella,

Your "according to the prudential wisdom of this world" may be what St. Paul had in mind in 1 Cor 3: "Let no man deceive himself: if any man among you seem to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written: I will catch the wise in their own craftiness. And again: The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain."

The "metaphysics" of Catholicism is not a metaphysics at all. It is revelation. The metaphysics of Aristotle may or may not be useful in understanding in part the mysteries of faith, but in no case does Catholicism depend on it. As to whether or not the "metaphysics" is true, it is obviously true if one believes Christ was God. God is then the certifier of his truth. If one doesn't believe, what we get is what we have: people and rulers who justify murder for any reason they please and can get away with (Nagasaki, Dresden, abortion, cop killing, Islamic terrorism, etc.)

Thanks for the comments, Patrick. I'm just a metaphysician too, and certainly no expert in ethics or metaethics, but my view is that one ought to delve into all of the problems of philosophy and explore their interconnection in order to achieve the proper balance and synoptic vision. Hyper-professionalization and over-specialization are banes of the profession.

Well, it looks as if we have some deep disagreements.

>>But we still do (or can) know God and the soul with certainty through the use of natural human reason. And on top of that, we have (or I do, anyway) the certainty of Faith.<<

I have trouble with the notion of the certainty of faith if this is supposed to be something more than a merely subjective certainty. I think I'll post something on this in connection with Edith Stein, Husserl, and Aquinas. If you have time and desire, you can comment.

It would be interesting to me if you could give me arguments that prove with certainty through the use of natural human reason the existence of God and the soul. I don't believe that this can be done. If you convince me otherwise, I will be much beholden to you. I would love to be certain of God and the soul.

You have a brother who is a philosopher? What's his first name?

>>Second, I am not sure how much I think knowledge of the impermissibility of the direct and intentional killing of innocent human beings depends upon any antecedent knowledge of God and the soul at any rate.<<

My point had not to do with knowledge of God and the soul, but with a commitment to a metaphysics in which these two are affirmed (along with a number of other claims such as that certain acts may irreparably harm the soul's prospects for post-mortem beatitude.)

I suppose what I am assuming is that if an action such as deliberately targeting civilian populations as a means to the end of ending a war is intrinsically wrong, then this tenable only within a theological or Platonic framework. Can you refute this?

I wasn't asking what YOU would do in Truman's shoes or in any other circumstance. I was wondering whether you could refute the idea that torture is justified in some cases.

RP writes,

>>The "metaphysics" of Catholicism is not a metaphysics at all. It is revelation.<<

That's just false. Catholicism treats of meta-physical objects such as God, the persons of the Trinity, and so on. It's being revealed is irrelevant.


I think Plantinga's argument from A-Y in his "two dozen or so arguments" is a pretty good starting point for getting to certainty about God. The point is that there are just so many really interesting arguments that all lead in one direction--theism, or something kind of like it--and that very convergence is itself evidence. Philosophers of my acquaintance often say that the arguments for theism are just really bad (I'm not attributing this to you). In fact, it's nearly a commonplace that there's not much to these arguments. I hold the opposite: in fact, there is no substantive philosophical position for which there is *better* philosophical support than theism. I'm open to the possibility that at least one other philosophical position--namely, dualism--is at least as well supported by philosophical argument as theism. But nothing's got better support.

I realize that's not an argument for theism, it's at best a gesture at an argument for theism. But I think it's worth meditating on.

That said, I find St. Thomas's second way indubitable. I also find the modal ontological argument compelling. The kalam cosmological argument seems pretty much irrefutable. Fr. Clarke had an interesting argument from conditioned being. The fine tuning argument seems pretty worthwhile. At the moment, I'm kind of blanking out on a good article/book to mention that I think does a particularly good job of presenting one or more arguments that I find compelling, but if something occurs to me later I'll email you.

Arguments regarding the soul: again, I find St. Thomas's argument for the substantiality of the soul pretty compelling, but I'm one of the few who does. Another argument that I think I find really powerful (but I'm not sure yet--it's fairly obscure, and while Ed Feser has written a piece defending the argument, I haven't yet read Ed's article!) is James Ross's argument from a piece in the Journal of Philosophy in the early 90's. It's only about the immateriality of thought, not a full fledged defense of dualism, as I recall, but it's an important step. Again, I can't call to mind an especially good summary article in favor of dualism, though I've found a lot of stuff by Charles Taliaferro really helpful.

I'm not sure what you're getting at in the "my point had not to do with the knowledge..." part. I deny that knowledge of the fundamental principle "it is always wrong to directly and intentionally kill an innocent human being" requires a knowledge of God and the soul. Hence, I deny that it needs to be placed into a commitment to a metaphysic that affirms those truths. I think an atheist could be an ethical intuitionist and simply hold that we have insight into these eternal ethical truths. I would say that this position is not perfect--since, among other things, it's not theistic, and theism is true--but it's perfectly intellectually respectable. I think.

I recognize you weren't interested in what my reaction would have been, had I been in Truman's shoes! :) My point in mentioning it was to grant that I feel the pull of what you're saying. To be sure. I would be sorely tempted to violate my own principles in such a case. I can't *refute* the idea that torture might be justified in some cases. I'm not nearly as certain about the impermissibility of torture, as it happens, as I am of the impermissibility of murdering civilians for terroristic purposes in order to achieve a good end. But I can't *refute* the claim that Truman's decision was licit (or, in fact, required). I can only say that it violates the fundamental moral principle that it is always wrong to directly and intentionally kill innocent human beings. And I know that principle to be true.

Convincing? I expect not. I think it's the best I've got, though.

Regarding the certainty of Faith--I look forward to reading your post. Since faith is God's work, not ours, it doesn't rely on us, and is not merely subjective. I think you need to endorse a certain kind of epistemic externalism in order to feel the force of the view, but, then, I do endorse externalism.

My philosopher brother's name is Chris. I've got another brother, JB, who writes poetry.

Thanks, Patrick. Let's continue this.

>>That said, I find St. Thomas's second way indubitable. I also find the modal ontological argument compelling.<<

My view is that while there are good arguments for theism, there are no compelling arguments. I will make my case, with respect to your examples, in separate posts.

You think that it is certain that God exists. Curiously, Galen Strawson thinks it is certain that God does not exist. I say you are both wrong: it is reasonably believed that God exists but also reasonably believed that God does not exist. If knowledge entails certainty, we do not know either way.

Here is my 'attack' on Strawson: http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2015/11/galen-strawson-it-is-certain-that-the-christian-god-does-not-exist.html

Today I'll post something on the 'certainty of faith.'

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