Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 15: “Can One Coherently Claim that God Commanded the Killing of Innocents?”

Did God Really Command Genocide?  

Accepting DCT doesn’t mean accepting that God commanded the killing of Canaanite noncombatants. The further claim is needed that in very unusual circumstances in the past, God commanded people to kill the innocent for the sake of some greater good. This chapter responds to the charge that affirming such a proposition is incoherent. (The next couple chapters after this one will respond to the claim that even if it is coherent, one can’t rationally claim God has ever issued such a command.)

Can One Coherently Claim that God Commanded the Killing of Innocents?

Several writers have suggested the claim that a loving and just God could command the killing of the innocent is simply incoherent. Cowles, Seibert, and Bradley have all given variants of this claim. They all seem to consider such a command so utterly beyond the moral pale that we can’t coherently claim a perfectly good God could issue it, on pain of our language being implicated in rabid equivocation.

Calling Right Wrong and Wrong Right? Robert Adams’s Version of the Coherence Objection

More careful and plausible versions of this argument have been developed by Robert Adams. The DCT’ist, he writes, must appeal to the fact that God is essentially good. This means there are limits to the commands one can coherently attribute to God. Adams argues it follows that God can’t coherently be called good if what he commands is contrary to “our existing moral beliefs.” But, as one like Bradley argues, the Crucial Moral Principle—that it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings—is one of those beliefs. So we can’t coherently attribute this command to a loving and just God.

A Reply to the Coherence Objection

Adams’s argument is too quick. God can’t issue a set of commands too much at variance with the ethical outlook we bring to our theological thinking, but the phrase “too much” suggests that one can accept a set of commands somewhat at odds with the outlook we bring to our ethical thinking. Adams in fact elsewhere makes the same point, saying we can’t identify moral obligations with God’s commands if what God commands is contrary to “an important central group” of what we consider to be right and wrong. He grants that it would be “unreasonable” to expect God’s commands to “agree perfectly with pre-theoretical opinion.” An ethical theory may give guidance in revising one’s particular ethical judgments, but there is a limit to how far those opinions may be revised without changing the subject.

Adams makes two points that suggest this qualification is necessary. First, while we do have some grasp of what is good and some idea of what is right and wrong, it is clear that our moral judgments can be fallible. Second, our moral concepts are subject to revision. Indeed, Adams accepts the possibility of a conversion in which one’s whole ethical outlook is revolutionized, and reorganized around a new center, though not to a wholesale replace of good with evil.

Such points limit Adams’s conclusion. It’s not that our existing moral beliefs are sacrosanct, but rather that certain types of our existing beliefs serve as a constraint on our beliefs about what God commands. What he has in mind are those ethical beliefs that are so central to our concept of goodness that rejecting them would create a moral revolution of sorts in which good and evil switch places.

James Rissler gives two examples of cases where a purported divine command violates a nonnegotiable belief. The first is where God issues a command to reverse one’s conception of right and wrong or issues a set of commands that negates a large number of moral imperatives that one currently accepts. Second, he suggests that a command might contradict a moral belief sufficiently integral to one’s conception of morality that abandoning that belief would force such a radical revision as to destroy one’s concept of goodness altogether.

The key question, then, is not whether the Crucial Moral Principle is one of our existing moral beliefs, but whether it’s nonnegotiable. Can it be overridden in rare circumstances of supreme emergency? Such as the alternative is, say, tolerating significantly greater evils? To think so is not obviously incoherent. So, taken as a universal, the Crucial Moral Principle about the wrongness of killing innocent people is not a nonnegotiable principle.

Once this is realized, it’s evident that the arguments of Cowles, Seibert, and Bradley fail. The claim that God on rare or highly unusual occasions allows exceptions to a general rule against killing for the sake of some greater good does not violate a nonnegotiable moral belief. Hence one can coherently attribute it to God.

Rauser offers an argument in favor of an absolute prohibition against killing the innocent, which could be used to contest what F&C have argued. Rauser assumes that the command to kill the Canaanites is a command to physically slaughter an entire society, but F&C already argued against this assumption.

But this brings us to Coady’s argument against alleged exceptions to an absolute prohibition on killing noncombatants. Coady notes that the criteria for extreme emergency is “conceptually opaque” and requires calculations that are difficult to accurately weigh in situations where people are prone to rationalize their behavior. For this reason, adopting an absolute rule against killing the innocent will have better results morally than allowing an exception. General acceptance and conformity with an absolute rule will bring about more good than the acceptance of a rule allowing supreme emergency situations.

Nathanson and Donagan make similar criticisms. A categorical prohibition will produce better overall results. What’s more, humans have the pervasive tendency to rationalize and be tempted to apply exceptions when it isn’t legitimate. Escape clauses to traditional morality will cloud moral judgment in the heat or tension of the moment.

F&C have considerable sympathy with this argument. But they make two replies. First, they write, the permissibility of killing noncombatants in some rare cases is not incoherent at any rate. Second, whereas humans are limited in knowledge and moral judgment, in the matter under discussion it isn’t a human being making calculations that allows for the exceptions, but God, who isn’t prone to bias or temptation and is omniscient, making the exception. So it seems perfectly coherent to attribute an occasional command to a good and just God who has some greater good or purpose in mind and is not erroneous in his judgment.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: "The canonised Joshua and Samuel. Lithograph by J.G. Schreine Wellcome V0034403" by Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -