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God made me do it: there has been some interesting debate in the blogosphere over Sam Harris' contention that a divine command theory of ethics manifests "a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude.".

Randal Rauser responded to Harris' contention noting that "if you read through the twenty traits on the Psychopath Checklist you'll find qualities like callousness, shallow effect, grandiose sense of self-worth, and lack of empathy. But you won't find adherence to a divine command theory of meta-ethics among them." Christopher Hallquist rejoins:

"I almost have a hard time believing Randal is serious here. When he talks about "adherence to a divine command theory of meta-ethics," what he means is believing that blowing up a bus full of children is right if that's what God told you to do. That may not be explicitly listed in the Psychopath Checklist, but neither are things like actually blowing up a bus full of children. And being willing to approve of such an act just because you think God approves certainly sounds like something that would require a shocking degree of callousness and lack of empathy."

I plan to address Harris' original charge in a future post. Here I will limit my comments to Hallquist's defence of it. Hallquist suggests that a divine command theory (DCT) is psychopathic for two reasons. First, a DCT entails the following conditional: If God commands you to blow up a bus full of children then you are required to blow up a bus full of children. Second, accepting the truth of this conditional requires a "shocking degree of callousness and lack of empathy" possessing such callousness and lack of empathy is, a of course, a psychopathic trait.

Hallquist has considerable confidence in these arguments. So much so he finds it hard to believe Randal's denial of his conclusion is serious. Note also the rhetorical tactics he uses. The picture of people up blowing up buses full of children brings immediately to pictures of terrorism, sometimes terrorist activities are done for religious motivations, and since 9/11 there has been considerable fear and angst about terrorist acts of this sort. Hence, Hallquist taps deep into people's fears. Moreover, a long meta-narrative going back to the enlightenment contends religion causes wars, is the source of violence and so on, whether that narrative is historically accurate or not is a matter of considerable dispute. However, prejudices of this sort are widely believed and raw in a post 9/11 environment. The fact a position resonates with people's fears, emotions and prejudices, however, does not excuse us from asking whether it is true or rationally defensible. In this case I think a little reflection shows it is not. Hallquist's argument is unsound and, in fact, incoherent. Hallquist's bravado is therefore strongly misplaced.

Let us turn to Hallquist's first premise. A DCT entails the conditional: If God commands you to blow up a bus full of children then you are required to blow up a bus full of children. This conditional is indeed an implication of divine command theories. Undoubtedly that sounds shocking at first but note two important points which Hallquist skims over:

First, this is a conditional or hypothetical statement; it states that if God commanded blowing up buses then blowing up buses would be morally obligatory. Nothing about this conditional entails that God actually ever does, or even could, command such a thing, nor does it entail one is ever rationally justified in believing that he does. It simply states that if this situation occurred then the action would be permissible. It's a well-known point in logic that a person can affirm that one thing would be true if a certain situation occurred without being committed to claiming it ever occurs. It would be true for example that if I had never been born then I would not be writing this post right now, that does not mean I believe I was never born.

Second, DCT entails that blowing up buses is morally obligatory onlyif God commands them. In the context of which these theories are discussed, God is understood as an omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person who created and sustains the universe. To say God is morally perfect is to say he possess certain character traits such as being loving, just, impartial, etc; and that he possesses these traits in all possible worlds in which he exists.

So what a DCT entails is that blowing up a bus of children is right only under hypothetical conditions, which may well be impossible, where a person who was fully informed, rational, loving, just, and impartial would knowingly endorse the action. It's under those circumstances and only under these that a divine command theory entails such acts would be permissible.

Notice also the hypothetical is one where God actually issues the command; the action is actually endorsed by away fully informed, rational, loving, just, and impartial person. It's not a hypothetical situation where someone claims falsely or mistakenly that God did so.

Having clarified the relevant conditional we can now turn to Hallquist's second premise. Hallquist contends that accepting this conditional requires "a shocking degree of callousness and lack of empathy," but this is clearly false. What is being envisaged is not that it's permissible to blow up buses per se but rather the blowing up of buses under certain hypothetical situations: where it is not unloving, not unjust, not based on false information, and not irrational. The circumstances are such where an impartial, compassionate person would knowingly, after a fully rational consideration of the facts, endorse killing. These are fairly clearly not circumstances where one could support the action only if they lacked empathy. By definition they are cases where impartial emphatic concern mandates the action.

Consequently, Hallquist's second premise is incoherent. It affirms that only a person who lacked empathy and was callous could accept killing in circumstances where a fully loving impartial person, (i.e. one who was empathetic) has in fact endorsed it. Far from being a cogent argument, this is a contradiction.

As a final problem Hallquist's argument appears to entail not just that a DCT is psychopathic but that every substantive meta-ethical theory is psychopathic, including all known secular meta-ethical theories. Consider the structure of Hallquist's argument. He notes a DCT entails the conditional that if God commands torturing people as much as possible then it is obligatory to do so. The problem is that an analogous line of reasoning applies to any ethical theory.

Consider utilitarianism: the theory that an action is obligatory if it maximizes happiness and good. It follows from this that if blowing up a bus maximizes happiness, blowing up buses is obligatory. Similar things apply with Kantianism: the view that an action is obligatory if and only if it is categorically prescribed by reason. It follows that if blowing up a bus is categorically prescribed by reason then it is obligatory to blow up a bus. The same is true with virtue ethics, the view that an action is obligatory if and only if, it would be performed by a virtuous person. It follows that if a virtuous person would blow up a bus then blowing up a bus is obligatory. I maintain the same is true of any meta-ethical theory. Let P be any property one considers to be identical with the property of being obligatory. It will be true that this meta-ethical theory entails that if P is possessed by the action blowing up a bus then blowing up buses is obligatory.

If it is psychopathic to claim that blowing up a bus could be permissible even if a perfectly rational, loving, just and omniscient person commands it, then it must be absurd that blowing up a bus could be obligatory if it's required by reason, compatible with virtue, or maximizes happiness. So unless one wants to declare all meta-ethical theories as arbitrary, the claim that these conditionals are obviously psychopathic needs to be reconsidered.

The moral here is that the mere fact a moral theory entails that killing is permissible in certain hypothetical situations does not by itself refute the theory. What is needed are further reasons for thinking it would be clearly psychopathic to endorse the killing in those hypothetical circumstances. This means people like Hallquist and Harris must show both that it's possible for a essentially loving and just God to command something that only a callous unloving person who lacked empathy and could endorse. That seems like contradictory nonsense. The fact that a contradiction resonates with certain fears, cultural angst, and fits with a popular meta-narrative about religious history does not make a contradiction true.

Dr Matthew Flannagan is an Auckland based Analytic Theologianwho researches and publishes in the area of Philosophy of Religion, Theology and Ethics; he blogs at www.mandm.org.nz
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Author:Flannagan, Matthew
Publication:Investigate HIS
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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