Fifteen years ago I visited Israel and can vividly remember the sight of a rifle-carrying guard on a bus full of school children in the north-east. It brought home to me the reality of religious and political extremism which can drive the ideologically committed to brutal, anti-human acts like attacking kids on a school bus.
School bus hit by Hamas rocket in southern Israel. Credit: 3Sigma Systems
My theologically inclined sparring mate, Matt Flannaghan at MandM, brought that memory back with his recent blog post “Divine commands and psychopathic tendencies.” In the post he’s at his old tricks – going into a frenzy of mental gymnastics to justify divine command theory (DCT) – the idea that if his god commands something then the believer must carry it out – no matter how evil the act commanded. Matt is specifically arguing that DCT implies “blowing up a bus full of children is right if that’s what God told you to do.”
Just that quoted phrase seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the divine command morality of religious apologists.
Where are those “divine commands” coming from?
A non-believer like me has no problem with divine commands. I know a god couldn’t possibly tell me to blow up a bus. No god has ever made any command – good or bad – for a very simple reason that gods don’t exist. And, hopefully, when that day comes that I do hear a voice in my head telling me to do something that evil I will not be silly enough to think the voice is divine and must be obeyed.
Hopefully I would recognise that I had a problem and get some professional help.
Yes, some believers may well hear voices like this – or claim to have heard them when facing the consequences of their actions in a court of law. Usually that raises the prospect of a not guilty due to insanity verdict. Worth a try?
But it’s probably far more common that political and religious soldiers, rebels or terrorists, get such divine commands “passed on” to them by their Imams, Priests, and theological, political or national leaders. You know, the ones directly in touch with their god or the fount of racial, political or national wisdom. Come on!! Think about it. What other way could they possibly get a “divine command?” Why else does their god seem to have exactly the same prejudices and hatred as the messenger?
The soldier, rebel or terrorist may well believe in a god (or nation, or race) which is a divine, “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person” (or race or nation). But that is irrelevant – they should really be looking at the messenger – the leader, priest, imam, politician, etc., who is claiming to speak for their god (race, state or nation). If they don’t they are just transferring these divine properties of their fictional god to the very real (and very human) “messenger.”
When can evil commands be morally “right?”
Matt argues that a divine command to blow up a bus full of schoolchildren is only hypothetical and therefore he has no qualms saying that if he did get such a command he would know it was morally “right.” He doesn’t believe it will happen because his god is a “morally perfect person.” But he is conceding that if his god commands such an act he will have to assume that the particular circumstances mean that in his case blowing up the bus of schoolchildren is “not unloving, not unjust, not based on false information, and not irrational.”
Why? Because his god is an “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person”
But doesn’t that argument create a huge moral minefield for him? As a believer and advocate of DCT he believes that his god is the source of “right” and “wrong.” That if his god commands something (even blowing up a school bus) then it must, by definition, be “good.” Be morally “right.” Who is he to question? Because if he does question the command (supposedly “divine” because the messenger, or the voices in his head, tells him it comes directly from his god), isn’t he attempting to use a different, human, non-divine source for his morality? Hasn’t he just shown his idea that moral truths of “right” and “wrong” come from his god to be a sham.
So someone who accepts divine command morality, either for religious reasons, or for racial, political or national reasons, must accept that, no matter how evil the command seems, it is morally “right.” It must be because it’s divine! So they must follow the “divine” orders.
“Double checking” those “divine commands”
Of course, Matt has managed to fit in another somersault to deal with that argument (after all, that’s what theology is for, isn’t it?). He has set up another moral authority to check the divine commands from his god – just in case! He is appealing to an “impartial, compassionate person (who) would knowingly, after a fully rational consideration of the facts, endorse the killings.” so when he does get commanded to blow up that bus he has another moral authority to double-check with.
Bloody hell, would this be his Priest, his Imam, his national or racial leader? Or would it be another of his gods (because this impartial compassionate person sounds pretty omniscient and impotent to me – after all he is a back-up to check Matt’s god). And come on, Matt, surely the philosopher in you must see that you have set an infinite regress trap for yourself – who is going to be the back-up for your “impartial, compassionate person?” And so on.
Or would Matt’s back-up be his own conscience? Is he going to double-check these “divine commands,” whether they come via voices in his head or the declarations of his religious authorities, by contemplating how he actually feels about them? Even applying a bit of philosophical logic to the situation and coming to a reasoned conclusion?
After all, that’s what the rest of us do. Rely on our intuitions and the feelings they generate about ethical situations. And also complementing our emotional reactions by reasoned discussion and deliberation with our mates and the rest of society.
Hasn’t the world learned from experience what “just following orders” results in?