Imprecatory Psalms Are Horrible Models for Christian Prayer

Imprecatory Psalms Are Horrible Models for Christian Prayer

The imprecatory psalms also have value for Christians today in reminding them of God’s holy hatred of sin, evil, and injustice. Christians not only petition for the judgment of the wicked but also for sin and evil to be expunged from their own hearts.

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C. S. Lewis and 8 Reasons for Believing in Objective Morality

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The cornerstone of the moral argument is the existence of an objective moral standard. If there really is a standard of right and wrong that holds true regardless of our opinions and emotions, then the moral argument has the ability to convince. However, apart from the existence of such an objective standard, moral arguments for God’s existence (and Christian theism) quickly lose their persuasive power and morality as a whole falls to the realm of subjective preference. Although I could say a fair amount about what the world would be like if morality really was a matter of preference (consider The Purge), the purpose of this article is to provide reasons for believing in objective morality (or “moral realism,” as philosophers call it).

Because of his continued focus on the objective nature of morality throughout his writings, and due to his unique ability to communicate and defend this concept in a clear and compelling manner, I will rely heavily on the thought of C. S. Lewis below. As I’ve read through a number of Lewis’s books, I’ve identified eight arguments he raises in favor of objective morality. Below is my attempt to list these eight arguments and offer a few thoughts of my own concerning each.

1)    Quarreling between two or more individuals.[1] When quarreling occurs, individuals assume there is an objective standard of right and wrong, of which each person is aware and one has broken. Why quarrel if no objective standard exists?

By definition, quarreling (or arguing) involves trying to show another person that he is in the wrong. And as Lewis indicates, there is no point in trying to do that unless there is some sort of agreement as to what right and wrong actually are, just like there is no sense in saying a football player has committed a foul if there is no agreement about the rules of football.[2]

2)    It’s obvious that an objective moral standard exists.[3] Throughout history, mankind has generally agreed that “the human idea of decent behavior [is] obvious to everyone.”[4] For example, it’s obvious (or self-evident) that torturing a child for fun is morally reprehensible.

As the father of two children, a daughter who is five and a son who is three, I have noticed that even my young children recognize that certain things are obviously right or wrong. For example, while watching a show like PJ Masks, my children can easily point out the good characters as well as the bad ones – even without my help. In short, the overwhelming obviousness that certain acts are clearly right or wrong indicates that an objective moral standard exists.

3)    Mistreatment.[5] One might say he does not believe in objective morality, however, the moment he is mistreated he will react as if such a standard exists. When one denies the existence of an objective standard of behavior, the moment he is mistreated, “he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair!’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[6]

Sean McDowell relays an example of this when he shares a story involving J. P. Moreland taking the stereo of a University of Vermont student who denied the existence of objective morality in favor of moral relativism. As Moreland was sharing the gospel with the university student, the student responded by saying he (Moreland) couldn’t force his views on others because “everything is relative.” Following this claim, in an effort to reveal what the student really believed about moral issues, Moreland picked up the student’s stereo from his dorm room and began to walk down the hallway, when the student suddenly shouted, “Hey, what are you doing? You can’t do that!”[7]

Again, one might deny the existence of an objective standard of behavior through his words or actions, but he will always reveal what he really believes through his reactions when mistreated. (Note: Here at moralapologetics.com, we do not recommend you go around and mistreat others, as that wouldn’t be a moral way to do apologetics. See what I did there? Rather, we are simply bringing up the mistreatment issue as a way of exposing a deep flaw within moral relativism.)

4)    Measuring value systems.[8] When an individual states that one value system is better than another, or attempts to replace a particular value system with a better one, he assumes there is an objective standard of judgment. This objective standard of judgment, which is different from either value system, helps one conclude that one value system conforms more closely to the moral standard than another. Without some sort of objective measuring stick for value systems, there is no way to conclude that civilized morality, where humans treat one another with dignity and respect, is better than savage morality, where humans brutally murder others, even within their own tribe at times, for various reasons.

 

To illustrate this point, Lewis says, “The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each means merely ‘The town I am imagining in my own head,’ how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood at all.”[9] In the same way, if there is no objective moral standard, then there is no sense in saying that any one value system has ever been morally good or morally bad, or morally superior or inferior to other value systems.

5)    Attempting to improve morally.[10] Certainly, countless individuals attempt to improve themselves morally on a daily basis. No sane person wakes up and declares, “My goal is to become more immoral today!”[11] If there is no absolute standard of good which exists, then talk of moral improvement is nonsensical and actual moral progress is impossible. If no ultimate standard of right and wrong exists, then one might change his actions, but he can never improve his morality.

If there is hope of moral improvement, then there must be some sort of absolute standard of good that exists above and outside the process of improvement. In other words, there must be a target for humans to aim their moral efforts at and also a ruler by which to measure moral progress. Without an objective moral standard of behavior, then “[t]here is no sense in talking of ‘becoming better’ if better means simply ‘what we are becoming’ – it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as ‘the place you have reached.’”[12] 

6)    Reasoning over moral issues.[13] When men reason over moral issues, it is assumed there is an objective standard of right and wrong. If there is no objective standard, then reasoning over moral issues is on the same level as one arguing with his friends about the best flavor of ice cream at the local parlor (“I prefer this” and “I don’t like that”). In short, a world where morality is a matter of preference makes it impossible to have meaningful conversations over issues like adultery, sexuality, abortion, immigration, drugs, bullying, stealing, and so on.

7)    Feeling a sense of obligation over moral matters.[14] The words “ought” and “ought not” imply the existence of an objective moral law that mankind recognizes and feels obligated to follow. Virtually all humans would agree that one ought to try to save the life of a drowning child and that one ought not kill innocent people for sheer entertainment. It is also perfectly intelligible to believe that humans are morally obligated to possess (or acquire) traits such as compassion, mercifulness, generosity, and courage.[15]

8)    Making excuses for not behaving appropriately.[16] If one does not believe in an objective standard of behavior, then why should he become anxious to make excuses for how he behaved in a given circumstance? Why doesn’t he just go on with his life without defending himself? After all, a man doesn’t have to defend himself if there is no standard for him to fall short of or altogether break. Lewis maintains, “The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.”[17]

Although the eight reasons provided above do not cover all of the reasons for believing in objective morality, it is a starting point nonetheless. If any of the reasons above for believing in objective morality are valid, then the moral argument for God’s existence (and Christian theism) has the ability to get off the ground. In fact, if there are any good reasons (in this article or beyond it) for believing in an objective moral standard, then I think God’s existence becomes the best possible explanation for morality since such a standard at the least requires a transcendent, good, and personal source – which sounds a lot like the God of Christian theism.

 

 

 

 

Stephen S. Jordan currently serves as a high school Bible teacher at Liberty Christian Academy. He is also a Bible teacher, curriculum developer, and curriculum editor at Liberty University Online Academy, as well as a PhD student at Liberty University. He and his wife, along with their two children and German shepherd, reside in Goode, Virginia.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid. In the appendix section of The Abolition of Man, Lewis provides a list that illustrates the points of agreement amongst various civilizations throughout history. See C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 83-101.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sean McDowell, Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2006), 45-46.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 43, 73. Also see Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.

[9] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13-14.

[10] C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 3-4.

[11] Even if someone’s goal is to become more immoral, he still needs an objective standard to measure the level of his badness.

[12] Ibid.

[13] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 54.

[14] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 10.

[15] C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 2-3.

[16] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 8.

[17] Ibid.

Suffering: Richard Dawkins Contra Jesus

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Suffering: Richard Dawkins Contra Jesus

Tom Thomas

In touching on the issue of suffering, the Neo-Darwinist poster boy Richard Dawkins famously states in his book River Out of Eden, ‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.’ He goes on to note in the wake of tragedy that people are obsessed with asking, ‘Why, oh why, did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child?’ Why did my innocent child go blind?  Why was my mother taken from me?[1] 

The issue of suffering, pain and distress bedevils us all.  It has been ill-engaging humankind’s most profound thinking from earliest days.  How do we think regarding suffering?  This brief post does not pretend to address adequately the issue of suffering.  However, considering the two polar opposite bents of the Neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ is thought-provoking and illustrative.  We see the stark tendencies of the current majority view of the scientific and educational community against that of Jesus Christ.  Both Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ, for different reasons, eschew probing the ‘why’ of suffering.  Nevertheless, their contrasting ‘takes’ on suffering is clarifying.

Begin with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Most importantly, he is anxious to ward us off from asking ‘why’.  Suppressing the asking of ‘why’ is vital to his conception of suffering.  Lamenting that people have ‘purpose’ on the brain, Professor Dawkins almost chastises the human predisposition for seeking ‘purpose’ in suffering.  In passing, this strikes one as odd coming from a scientist. The very principle of science under which Professor Dawkins subsumes his study of evolution and upon which Bertrand Russell prominently elaborates is that science itself has a purpose, to form an accurate image of the world.

The necessary presupposition of this Neo-Darwinist’s conception of suffering is we must not read purpose into a universe of ‘blind physical forces and genetic replication’.  The universe is precisely as we should expect it.  Namely, it seeks the maximization of DNA survival into the next generation. As long as DNA and genes get passed on, says Dawkins, ‘it doesn’t matter who or what gets hurt in the process…Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything…Nature is neither kind nor unkind.  She is neither against suffering nor for it. It only matters as it affects the survival of DNA.’  Tragedy is as equally meaningless as good fortune.  The universe has ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’!  Though a critic can argue the survival of DNA is indicative of ‘purpose’, the Neo-Darwinist insists there is no purpose in suffering!  Suffering is simply the ‘by-product of evolution’.

            Now consider in absolute contrast Jesus’s illumination of suffering.  The book of Hebrews picks his view up when it says he (Jesus) ‘who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross’.[2]  This interpretation derives from Jesus’ own words.  He likened his death to a woman’s labor in birth.  He said, ‘When a woman is in labor, she has pain…But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.’[3]  There is no denial but recognition of the reality of pain and affliction.  No question.  A woman suffers in labor. Just last week, my daughter Karissa went into hours of intense labor finally giving birth to a beautiful, healthy son Beau. Women say ‘labor’ is their hardest physical activity – ever! One mother described it as feeling like her insides were being twisted, pulled and squeezed out!

            Labor is intense agony a woman must endure.  Similarly, Jesus’ cross had to be ‘endured’.  ‘Endured’ means he had to stand his ground before the cross’s tribulation.  He held out against the physical pain and the psychological humiliation.  He did not abandon the cross to escape the suffering.  England’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, resolutely held out against the continuous, Nazi bombing raids on England.  He famously quipped, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’  The Neo-Darwinist and Jesus agree suffering is a given and something through which one must go.  Neither Richard Dawkins nor Jesus Christ contemplates life without suffering.

            The world-shattering contradistinction between Jesus and the Neo-Darwinist and everybody else is that for Jesus suffering is teleological.  Contrary to Richard Dawkins’ notion, suffering has ultimate purpose!! Suffering is not a wasteful by-product. It labors to a meaningful end.  Counterintuitively, for Jesus suffering finally results in joy! Admittedly, a hundred seeming contradictions leap to mind.  Nevertheless, there is a deep, universal principle promulgated here. Hours of excruciating labor leads to the beautiful, seven pounds of beauty and joy a mother holds in her arms.  Labor’s painful memory fades as the presence of one’s child brightens.  The torture of a Roman cross is unimaginable; yet, persevering agony finally results in joy.  Jesus’ joy is the profound sense of happiness of obtaining by ‘his own blood’ eternal salvation. Any repentant sinner who has saving faith may now have everlasting fellowship with God! 

            Is all suffering a Neo-Darwinist waste, a useless by-product, or, might it be, as Jesus claims, useful?  Is it meaningless, or purposeful? Does suffering only matter to affect DNA survival, or is it to be endured till ultimately blossoming into joy?


[1] My references to Richard Dawkins’ view of suffering are taken from the fourth chapter of his book, Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life: Science Masters Series. New York: Basic Books, 95-135

[2] Hebrews 12: 2

[3] John 16: 21

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

How Kantian Ethics Helps to Demonstrate the Attractiveness of Biblical Ethics: Part I

INTRODUCTION

Few ethical systems have been as influential or as hotly debated in Western philosophy as the one proposed by Immanuel Kant. Kant, living when reason was king in eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe, proposed what he considered to be the one true ethical system—a system rooted in pure reason, without recourse to grounding morality in God, that sought to explain universal moral truth.[1] This paper will argue that Kant’s ethical system, despite grounding morality purely in reason and in light of its own philosophical failures, contains significant insights that serve to illuminate the philosophical attractiveness of key biblical ethical principles.

To accomplish this, I will highlight three important objectives of Kant’s ethical view and compare them to three critical principles of a biblical ethic. Kant emphasizes (1) the existence of objective and universally-binding moral values and duties that require an intrinsic “Good” to ground objective morality; (2) the principle of “moral worth” that incorporates insightful appeal to the role of motive in ethics; and (3) the belief that humans have inherent value. Kant’s justification for these three contentions will be juxtaposed with the rationale for the biblical ethical principles that (1) God Himself is the intrinsic “Good” that grounds objective morality; (2) moral worth is found in honoring God by willing and acting in accordance with God’s will; and (3) God provides a superior basis for ascribing value and respect to human beings.

After briefly explaining Kant’s ethic, I will first show how Kant, in spite of his exclusion of God from morality’s foundation, offers several key insights that help to establish the tenability and attractiveness of these biblical principles. Then, I will demonstrate how Kant’s ethic fails to accomplish his own desired objectives and how a biblical ethic succeeds. Note that, for the purposes of this paper, a “biblical ethic” refers to a general Christian ethical approach that draws upon the Bible and minimally includes the three biblical principles identified above. Certainly there are a variety of nuanced positions that a Christian ethicist might hold, but this paper will defend these three particular ethical principles that are widely recognized as biblical.

 

KANT’S ETHICS

Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, Germany, and he lived there until his death in 1804. A crucial influence on Kant that was especially formative to his ethical thought is the Enlightenment thinking that was occurring in Europe. The Enlightenment, at its height in Europe during Kant’s lifetime, led to an explosion of scientific progress that brought about a wave of confidence in human reason, and this spilled over into philosophy. Kant was a staunch defender of the Enlightenment ideal of human autonomy and the lofty capabilities of human reason.[2] He viewed the Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred tutelage.” By “tutelage,” Kant means “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.”[3] He encouraged people to stop blindly following the traditions of others and claimed that the “motto of enlightenment” is: “Have courage to use your own reason!”[4] Indeed, as we will see, autonomous human reason (i.e., our ability on our own to use the mind’s conceptual schemes to generate knowledge) is the very foundation of Kant’s ethical theory.

For Kant, reason exists in the human mind prior to and independent of experience, and it ultimately produces the basis for objective moral truth. Kant spurned the idea put forth by empiricists like David Hume that all synthetic knowledge is a posteriori. While empiricists were arguing that morality is a human construction based entirely upon human experiences, feelings, and desires, Kant was insisting that “there really exist pure moral laws which entirely a priori (without regard to empirical motives, that is, happiness) determine the use of the freedom of any rational being, both with regard to what has to be done and what has not to be done.”[5] These “pure moral laws” that reason produces are “imperative” and “in every respect necessary” because they are rooted in reason and not contingent upon human experience.[6]

But how does pure reason produce “necessary” moral laws that are objective and universally binding? Kant’s answer is that reason alone produces an intrinsic “good” that serves to ground objective morality—the “good will,” which is the rational faculty that recognizes moral duty. This “good will” is not an instrumental good that merely produces other goods; rather, “it is good only because of its willing, i.e., it is good of itself.” Even if circumstances should not allow the good will to be put to use, it would still be intrinsically good and would “sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that had its full worth in itself.”[7] The good will is the only good “which could be called good without qualification.” As such, the good will is able to discern what Kant considers to be the “supreme principle of morality”[8] that serves to generate our moral duties—the categorical imperative (CI).

Although Kant considers the CI to be one cohesive principle, it comprises three formulations. The first formulation is the Principle of Universal Law. It states: “I should never act in such a way that I could not also will that my maxim should be a universal law.”[9] If reason dictates that we could will that a maxim should be applied universally, then it becomes our moral duty to act on that maxim; conversely, if we could not rationally will to universalize a maxim, then it is our duty not to act on it.

It is important to see that Kant’s CI is intended to generate duties that are morally obligatory and not optional or contingent upon the desires of any person. Kant contrasts the idea of a “hypothetical” imperative with his concept of a “categorical” imperative. A hypothetical imperative “says only that an action is good for some purpose,” but the CI “declares the action to be of itself objectively necessary without making any reference to a purpose.”[10] Kant provides a number of examples to illustrate how the Principle of Universal Law reveals to us our moral duties independent of desire. In one example, Kant describes a man who needs to borrow money but does not have the means to repay what he needs to borrow. The man is considering accepting the following maxim: “When I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know I shall never do so.” Kant argues that when the man applies the Principle of Universal Law to this maxim, the man will discover that the maxim cannot be universalized and is, therefore, morally wrong. It cannot be universalized, Kant says, because that would make “the promise itself and the end to be accomplished by it impossible; no one would believe what was promised to him but would only laugh at any such assertion as vain pretense.”[11] Thus, regardless of what the man wants to do, reason dictates that his objective moral duty is to reject that maxim and not make the lying promise. If everyone in such a situation made a lying promise then a contradiction would result because the man’s goal of obtaining a loan would not be possible. Kant wants to say that it is this contradiction and not the consequences of undermining loans that makes reason demand the rejection of this maxim.

The second formulation of the CI is called the Principle of Ends. It states: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” Kant upholds the inherent value of humans on the same basis that he argues for objective morality—pure reason. Kant argues that humans, as “rational beings,” are by nature “ends in themselves” and “objects of respect.”[12] This is because every person “necessarily” thinks of himself as a valuable end in himself because he has a “rational nature” that grounds value—nothing can be valued without rational beings to do the valuing.[13] This argument of Kant is sometimes called the “regress” argument because “by regressing on the condition of value, it is possible to derive the intrinsic value of rational nature itself.”[14] The second formulation of the CI ensures that no maxim that devalues a rational person can be acceptably universalized.

The third formulation of the CI is the Principle of Autonomy. It states: “Never choose except in such a way that the maxims of the choice are comprehended in the same volition as a universal law.”[15] Given the first two formulations, it is clear that Kant’s theory has no need for a transcendent being to generate moral law for humanity. In this final formulation, Kant emphasizes that the good will of a rational being is sufficient for determining absolute moral law. Humans have the autonomous ability to legislate moral values and duties. In fact, Kant holds that God Himself, along with all rational beings, can only be good by adhering to the CI. He declares, “Even the Holy One of the Gospel must be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before He is recognized as such.… But whence do we have the concept of God as the highest good?  Solely from the idea of moral perfection which reason formulates a priori.”[16]

Another concept that is especially critical to Kantian ethics is “moral worth.” For Kant, “moral worth” means moral praiseworthiness. An agent’s action has moral worth if it is in accordance with duty and the agent is motivated to do the action out of duty. This means that the motivation of an agent is critical, and Kant even asserts that an action done out of duty that is contrary to one’s natural inclination results in the “highest”[17] moral worth of all. Kant regards it as unthinkable that subjective feelings could have any bearing on moral motivation. While Kant thinks God, who lives up to the moral law perfectly, gives us hope that the moral law can be perfectly fulfilled, he at the same time does not allow such hope to be our motivation for being moral. Rational duty must be our motivation in order for our action to have moral worth.[18]

Having briefly surveyed the core points of Kant’s ethic, we will now examine how the three key principles of a biblical ethic identified previously are plausible by comparing them to Kant’s ethic. We begin by seeing how Kant’s ethic offers positive insights that support the tenability and attractiveness of these biblical ethical principles.

INSIGHTS OF KANT’S ETHICS

Kant’s ethical system offers a number of insights that help to reveal the soundness of a biblical ethic. Consider the first biblical principle that objective and universal moral values and duties exist, and that God is the intrinsic good that grounds their existence. This traditional view sees God as the basis of objective morality such that the truths of morality are found in God and are fully independent of all human opinions and beliefs. The Bible portrays God as the very foundation and standard for universally-binding morality. Support for this concept can be gleaned from numerous biblical passages. We are commanded to be holy because of God’s holy character (Lev 19:1-2). God is maximally holy (threefold repetition of “holy”) and exposes our sinfulness (Is 6:1-5). Jesus states that “no one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18). God alone is the standard. Although Kant rejects the idea that God grounds morality, he does correctly recognize the reality of objective morality and the need for an intrinsic “good” that must provide some ontological basis for it.

There is great wisdom in Kant’s passionate rejection of all ethical systems that cast morality as a human construct that is relative to the desires of individuals or the whims of culture. Morality must be objective and universal to be truly normative, and normativity is a seemingly necessary feature of any adequate ethical system. Moral relativism, if true, would make moral criticism impossible such that morality would fall apart. Kant recognizes this and harshly condemns ethical relativism for making morality out to be a “bastard patched up from limbs of very different parentage, which looks like anything one wishes to see in it.”[19]

Kant appears to be correct that objective morality must be grounded in an intrinsic “good” that has “its full worth in itself.”[20] He saw that if there is no objective good that serves as the incorruptible standard of moral perfection, then the subjectivity that unacceptably destroys the prescriptivity of morality cannot be avoided. As C. S. Lewis rightly argues, “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard.... You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality.”[21] Plato recognized this as well when he postulated the idea of a “Good” form that serves as the objective basis by which anything can be called good. Plato saw that the “Good” must exist independent of all appearances and human conventions. Recounting the words of Socrates in Plato’s cave allegory, Plato writes of this “Good” as that which is the ultimate “cause of all that is right and beautiful,” even though we often see it in only a distorted way in this world.[22] As long as morality is truly an objective reality, as it apparently must be, then both Kantian and biblical ethics are correct in affirming an intrinsically good moral standard as a foundation.

Kant also provides perspicacity concerning the second principle of biblical ethics by affirming that moral worth depends on our motives and not just our actions. As discussed previously, Kant only allows for an agent’s action to have moral worth if the action is in accordance with moral duty and the agent is motivated to do the action out of moral duty. Similarly, the Bible indicates that God is concerned not only with our actions but also our motivations and our will. God does not merely base the moral worth of a person’s action on whether the act itself is in accordance with His commands; rather, the motivation of the agent to act in a God-honoring way is also critical. For example, the Apostle Paul writes that God wants us to “will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). The scribes and Pharisees “do all their deeds to be noticed by men,” and Jesus condemns this motivation (Mt 23:1-12). Even good works, such as prayer, must not be done with a wrong motive (Mt 6:1-6). All food is acceptable to eat, but if one is convinced that eating a certain food is wrong and does it anyway, he is morally guilty (Rom 14:14, 23). So, in Scripture, the action done by a person is not the only thing that is significant in terms of moral praiseworthiness; one’s motivations and reasons for acting matter greatly.

Louis Pojman rightly points out that the benefit of an ethical system that accounts for motive is that “two acts may appear identical on the surface, but one may be judged morally blameworthy and the other excusable” depending on the motive of the agents carrying out the acts.[23] Kant captures this truth, and he realizes that one’s commitment to his moral duty will sometimes require him to contradict his natural inclinations. For example, Kant’s contention that “love as an inclination cannot be commanded” is theologically insightful and attractive.[24] While some critics find such dutiful love to be cold and uncaring, Kant is surely correct that love for others must be more than a feeling that we are either inclined or disinclined to have if love is truly a moral duty.[25] In the same way, biblical ethics involves the command to love others—even one’s enemy—regardless of inclination (Matt. 5:44).

Finally, Kant’s agreement with the third biblical principle that humans are inherently valuable and deserve respect is also intuitively attractive. Although the next section will explore the difficulties Kant has in justifying the value of humans independently from God, Kantian and biblical ethics share the advantage of being in accord with the nearly universal sense most people have that human life is valuable. As Burton F. Porter notes, it is “difficult, if not impossible,” to deny our moral sense that there is something valuable about human life, and denying that human value is an objective reality “runs counter to our most basic feelings.”[26] While this widely-held moral sense that humans have value does not prove that humans really are valuable, any ethical theory that is in accord with such a prominent aspect of our moral experience is to be preferred. With these insights of Kant in mind, let us now examine how the shortfalls of Kant’s ethic highlight the greater tenability of the three specified biblical principles of ethics.

 

Notes: 

  1. John E. Hare, The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God's Assistance, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). Though it is not clear, Hare thinks Kant might have believed traditional Christian doctrines (see pp. 38, 48). God is important to Kantian ethics in that He ensures that virtue and happiness align and that the moral law can be perfectly fulfilled; however, for Kant, we will see that moral law springs from reason. God is not its source.

  2. R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 94.

  1. Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?,” in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 85.

  1. Ibid.

  2. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: In Commemoration of the Centenary of its First Publication, 2nd ed., trans. F. Max Müller (London: Macmillan, 1907), 647.

  1. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 647.

  1. Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 10.

  1. Ibid., 8-9.

  1. Kant, Foundations, 18.

  1. Ibid., 31-32.

  1. Ibid., 40

  1. Kant, Foundations, 46-47.

  1. Ibid., 47.

  1. Evan Tiffany, “How Kantian Must Kantian Constructivists Be?,” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 49, no. 6 (December 2006): 540.

  1. Kant, Foundations, 59.

  1. Kant, Foundations, 25. Kant sees the “highest good” as the conjunction of virtue and happiness. Notably, he thinks only God can bring about such a condition; however, God is only good by perfectly living up to the CI as demanded by reason.

  1. Ibid., 15.

  1. David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (Oxford: University Press, 2016), 265-266.

  2. Kant, Foundations, 44.

  1. Ibid., 10.

  1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2001), 13.

  1. Plato, Plato’s Republic, trans. George Maximilian Anthony Grube and C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 189.

  2. Louis Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 11. For example, it seems that a man who helps an elderly lady across the street to impress his friends should be judged as less morally praiseworthy than a man who does this same action out of a sense of moral responsibility.

  1. Kant, Foundations, 16.

  1. Julia Driver, Ethics: The Fundamentals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 86.

  1. Burton Frederick Porter, The Good Life: Alternatives in Ethics, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001), 85.

God’s Goodness and Difficult Old Testament Passages

Old Testament passages dealing with slavery, the status of women, and the destruction of peoples such as the Canaanites and Amalekites have seemed morally problematic to both Christians and non-Christians. These passages, among others, are difficult because they portray God as seemingly condoning and even commanding actions that are, at least on the face of it, immoral. They are thought to be inconsistent or at least in tension with the claim that God is omnibenevolent and morally perfect. A variety of responses have been given with respect to such morally problematic passages. One response, the Concessionary Morality Response (CMR), includes the claim that portions of biblical morality are concessionary insofar as they (i) fall short of God’s ideal morality for human beings; and (ii) are instances of God making allowances for the hardness of human hearts and its consequences in human cultures. My purpose in this essay is to consider the plausibility of the Concessionary Morality Response as a biblical and philosophical component of a defense of God’s perfect moral character.[1]

First, however, consider something which C.S. Lewis once said about the doctrine of hell. In his book The Problem of Pain, Lewis says that "There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.” I find myself in a similar position with respect to some of the passages at issue in this essay. I would prefer that they not be in the Bible, because as Alvin Plantinga observes, these passages “can constitute a perplexity”[2] for followers of Christ. Moreover, if I came across such passages within the sacred writings of another religion, this would at least initially be a reason for me to reject the claims of that religion. Nevertheless, these passages are present in the Scriptures, and as morally and intellectually responsible followers of Christ we need to deal with them as best we can.

I will set aside several other explanations that have been given for how we are to deal with these perplexing passages. Perhaps some of the following possibilities described by Plantinga are correct:

….how bad is the moral and spiritual corruption, blasphemy, infant sacrifice, temple prostitution and the like attributed to the Canaanites? Maybe it is worse, even much worse, than we think. (Earlier Christians may have been closer to the truth than we are presently inclined to think.) If so, perhaps God’s sentence upon these people is perfectly just. What about the infants and children? Perhaps, as William Craig says, they are spared a life of degradation and sin. Furthermore, Christians, of course, believe that our earthly career is a mere infinitesimal initial segment of our whole life; perhaps the suffering of these children is recompensed a thousand fold.[3]

Some of the other explanations of these passages include the view that they fail to accurately report God’s commands, that the passages include metaphoric and hyperbolic language, or that they are to be read in some allegorical manner. Though I am open to some of these options, I want to set them aside and focus on one particular response, the Concessionary Morality Response.

 

What is CMR?

As I stated above, CMR includes the claim that portions of biblical morality are concessionary insofar as they (i) fall short of God’s ideal morality for human beings; and (ii) are instances of God making allowances for the hardness of human hearts and its consequences in human cultures. But what is a moral concession, in this context? In what follows, I will define a divine moral concession as “God allowing, commanding, or performing actions which he would prefer not to allow, command, or perform, all things being equal.” My focus is on actions God performs and commands, rather than what he allows. I want to bracket discussion of the more general problems associated with the existence of evil and focus on the actions and commands of God, rather than human beings.

CMR is one aspect of a defense of the view that Yahweh is morally perfect, in spite of the tension this produces when considered alongside the passages at issue. CMR is sometimes discussed as including the assumption that humanity has made moral progress over the millennia, and that the reason certain perplexities appear in the Old Testament is that the Ancient Near East was especially inhumane and corrupt. I have no objection to offer here, but I am somewhat skeptical about sweeping claims concerning human moral progress. It is more accurate to say that we have progressed in some ways, and regressed in others. With this qualification in mind, I now turn to the biblical basis of CMR.

 

Biblical Basis for CMR

There is a strong biblical case to be made that God makes moral concessions. Consider the following passage from Matthew 19:

3Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” 4”Haven't you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

7”Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”

This is a clear example of God allowing an action because of the hardness of human hearts, even though the action (divorce, in this case) falls short of his perfect moral standard. It is important to note that God is not merely allowing us to misuse our freedom of the will, but he is also making a moral concession in the divine law because of the hardness of human hearts in his instructions to Israel through Moses. God morally concedes but does so for our good, given our character and choices at any particular moment in history and within a particular culture. In the case of divorce, the concession was for the sake of the woman’s welfare, so that she could avoid poverty and shame which would have been the likely result of divorce in the Ancient Near East.[4]

Another element of the Biblical case for God engaging in moral concessions comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches about the fulfillment of the Law, and how the ethic of the Kingdom is more demanding than the Law (Matthew 5):

21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”

38"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.”

43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

In each of these instances—and others in the Sermon—we see a pattern in which Jesus states “You have heard it said that…but I tell you….” The law says x, but Jesus says go beyond x in ways that require a deep inner moral and spiritual transformation. It is generally not too difficult to avoid murdering others, but it is relatively much more difficult to refrain from being angry with one’s brother. The salient point is that there is a progression in the standards of God for human beings as his character and moral standards are more fully revealed over time. And if there is a progression of moral standards from time t1 to time t2, then it follows that at t1 God is making a moral concession to human beings. There is much more to say with respect to the Bible and these issues, but I will assume in what follows that there is a sound Biblical basis for the claim that our omnibenevolent God can and does make moral concessions as He relates to human beings.

CMR and God’s Moral Perfection

It has seemed to some that the following two propositions are inconsistent with each other:

(1) God is morally perfect.

(2) God commanded the Israelites to destroy the Amalekite and Canaanite men, women, children, and livestock.[5]

What CMR does, in part, is harmonize these two propositions by adding a third:

(3) God makes moral concessions due to the hardness of human hearts and corrupt nature of human culture.

Moreover, in order to fully grasp the import of this response, a further substantive claim must be made:

(4) Moral perfection does not entail immediate benevolence.

(1)-(4) are logically consistent propositions. Before continuing, it is also important to clarify what it is for God to be morally perfect. It means that God has no moral defects. However, given that God is very different from us, and stands in different relations to the created order than we do, what would be a moral defect in or an immoral act performed by a human is not necessarily a moral defect in or immoral act if performed by God. The similarities and differences between God and human beings must be taken into account when morally evaluating particular traits or actions.[6]

There are some analogous examples which lend support to the claim that (1) and (3) are consistent (i.e. God’s moral perfection is not compromised by divine moral concessions). Such concessions need not compromise moral character, and in fact can be taken as evidence for the goodness of the moral conceder.

Consider the clearly relevant case of a good parent. The rational and moral capacities of one’s child are very different at the ages of 5, 15, and 25. For example, imagine a parent who catches her 5 year old in a lie. It seems that there is a range of appropriate responses. I can imagine circumstances in which the parent might simply ignore this, or only make a minor comment about it in passing. Perhaps the child is having a very rough day emotionally—maybe it was her first day of kindergarten—or she is sick, or she was just disciplined for doing something else that was wrong and further correction would, at the moment, exasperate her (Eph. 6:4). A parent who does this, and who intentionally correlates her parenting with the capacities of her child is no less good, and is in fact better, for so doing. It is both wiser and morally better to concede and work patiently with the child at her developmental stage, than to fully implement all of the relevant moral and religious values in the life of her child without sensitivity to character, context, and other relevant considerations. By parity of reasoning, then, God is no less good by doing the same thing in connection with Israel and other nations.

Another example related to parenthood has to do with bullying in high school. I heard a speaker share about his son who was being bullied during school by another student. The administration and faculty were not addressing the issue, leaving the child vulnerable to harm. The father met with the son, the principal, and teacher, and said this to his son in their presence, “The next time he pushes you, I want you to hit him.” All else being equal, this is not the type of thing a good parent will tell his child. But when certain circumstances obtain, he may have to do so for the sake of some greater good—such as the physical safety of that child. In order to realize this good, the parent believed that he had to tell his child to do something in self-defense that in most circumstances he would not permit him to do. The upshot is that God may have to command his children to do certain things that he would prefer not to have to command them to do, and in ordinary circumstances would not permit them to do, but does so because certain mitigating circumstances obtain.

Next consider an example which I presume will be relevant to all of us. C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, has the demon say the following:

To anticipate the Enemy's strategy, we must consider His aims. The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.[7]

This is one of the recognizable aspects of true humility. God could command us to have such a character at this very moment, and hold us accountable for our failure to do so. But he does not do this, because he knows that to become this type of person requires that we go through certain steps of moral and spiritual growth. To get to this point of moral and spiritual development one would first need to root out the anger and other emotions and beliefs that are barriers to this. God is willing to work with us in the process of spiritual formation. This requires divine patience and divine moral concessions. There is a higher standard which God desires that we achieve but in his moral perfection he is willing to allow for the incremental process that such change in human beings requires. Moreover, there is surely much more to morality and God’s moral nature which God does not burden us with at present, given who and what we are as well as the point we are at in history. God is still conceding, it seems to me, and for this we should be grateful.

In fact, the general point that God engages in moral concessions for our good also reveals the moral goodness of his character. Consider the divine virtues on display as God does this: patience, love, forgiveness, graciousness, longsuffering, and enduring commitment. God will not abandon his children, even if this means that he must make moral concessions, because the ultimate result is their inclusion in a loving community of human persons and the members of the Trinity in the new heavens and the new earth. That this greater good is perhaps the overriding consideration in play is the focus of the next section.

 

CMR, Pluralistic Deontology, and the Beatific Vision

One feature these examples share is the notion that the existence of some greater good justifies the divine moral concession. I would like to suggest that the greater good which justifies, at least in part, the passages at issue in this essay is the redemption of all things, including what Aquinas referred to as the beatific vision.

There is some biblical precedent for this argument. The purpose of Yahweh in another morally problematic OT episode—the sending of the plagues upon Egypt—was a redemptive purpose: “so you may know that I am the Lord...” (see Exodus 7:5, 17; 8:10; 9:14; 10:2; 14:4). Yet Pharaoh, as was and is true of many people, was not permanently effected by God’s mercy. Often the works of God that are intended to soften the heart of humanity have the opposite effect, depending on the condition of the heart and the free response of human beings.[8] This same redemptive purpose is at work in other morally difficult passages of the Bible. William Bruce has something like this in mind when he considers the morality of God’s wiping out of the Canaanite nation through Israel. Bruce argues that God was presented with a dilemma, in which the choice was between two evils. God could have spared the Canaanites, in which case they would have influenced Israel towards moral and religious corruption to the point at which Israel would no longer be fit as an instrument of God’s revelation to humankind. The other option, the one which God chose, was to end the existence of these Canaanites. Note, I am not saying what follows is true, only that it is one possible response worth considering as we think through these issues.

While Bruce states that “it is to be said with all reverence that there was here but a choice of two evils”,[9] I must take issue with his point. I would prefer not to characterize this as a choice between two evils, as it is a mistake to ascribe evil to God. I think Bruce is merely a bit careless in his terminology, as he states later that “evil can never be attributed to (God).”[10] Still there is something important to consider here. God certainly did not find it pleasing to wipe out the Canaanites, anymore than a morally admirable human judge or jury finds it pleasing to sentence a convicted criminal to death. However, there is still a sense that justice is accomplished, and a sense that we have protected society from future criminal acts by sentencing the criminal to death. Similarly, God is protecting the world and ensuring that his plan of redemption is fulfilled by sentencing the Canaanites to death. It is not a pleasant thing, but neither is it evil. God is doing what He must in response to the free response of human beings to Him. While some claim that God’s order to exterminate Canaan shows him to be a nationalistic God who shows favoritism, Bruce argues that God, as the moral governor of the earth, must take care of all the peoples of the earth. In this case that made it morally acceptable for him to order the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites. Yahweh had the interests of Israel and the rest of the nations of the earth in mind, and acted to prevent the further spread of this influential and morally corrupt culture. Perhaps God was faced with a choice between two different moral concessions, and chose the one which was the least concessionary. This illustrates (4), insofar as a particular action performed by morally perfect being could be justified by long-term considerations. That is, long-term benevolence may necessitate actions which in isolation appear to be non-benevolent or even malevolent.

One way of understanding these issues from the perspective of normative ethical theory is through the lens of pluralistic deontology.[11] On this moral theory, there is an objective fact of the matter with respect to our moral duties. These duties are prima facie duties. A prima facie duty is objectively true and exceptionless, but it may be overridden by a weightier duty in a particular circumstance, such as lying to save the life of an innocent person.[12]

Given that God relates to human beings in a fallen world, there will be times at which two or more prima facie duties come into conflict. When this occurs, the morally proper action is the one that is in accord with the weightier moral principle (or principles). Perhaps this is the best way to understand God’s actions at issue in (2). If we combine this understanding of moral duty with graded absolutism, we gain a way of understanding how God can be morally perfect and yet order the destruction of the Amalekites and Canaanites. Perhaps God’s actions are necessitated by beneficence (improving the lives of some people with respect to virtue, intelligence, or pleasure) and fidelity (keeping promises) at the expense of non-maleficence (not harming others). Non-maleficence remains relevant as an exempted moral principle which makes its presence felt in the situation, but it is overridden by the other two moral duties.[13] In such a situation, it seems that God’s moral perfection is preserved.

Recall that a divine moral concession is “God allowing, performing, or commanding actions which he would prefer not to allow, perform, or command, all things being equal.” But in our world, things are often not equal. For example, a good parent would never allow someone to kill his son, when it was in his power to stop it. This seems true, on the surface. However, when we fill in the details, we can see that there are counterexamples to this claim. What if allowing his son to be killed saves millions from death? If there is merit to some of the above points with respect to God’s redemptive motivations in his dealings with the Canaanites and others, then the redemption of humanity and the rest of creation could at least be part of the reason for these events. Given that, it is at least plausible to hold that God’s moral perfection is consistent with the passages at issue.

To be in relationship with us seems to entail that God must make certain moral concessions. These concessions show respect for persons, grace, forgiveness, and other morally praiseworthy traits. The divine moral concessions present in the perplexing passages at issue in this essay are perhaps a necessary means for the ultimate redemption of human beings who live in communion with one another and God. In this state, human beings attain what Aquinas refers to as the beatific vision: an intellectual vision of God which also engages the upright will and constitutes our ultimate happiness.[14] This, I suggest, is what may ultimately justify the divine moral concessions found in the Bible.[15]

 

Conclusion

I would like to close with a passage from Brennan Manning’s book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, because it captures something important about the character of God that is relevant to the issues considered in this paper:

Grace is the active expression of his love. The Christian lives by grace as Abba’s child…At the same time, the child of the Father rejects the pastel-colored patsy God who promises never to rain on our parade. A pastor I know recalls a Sunday morning Bible study at his church when the text under consideration was Genesis 22. God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him in sacrifice on Mount Moriah. After the group read the passage, the pastor offered some historical background on this period in salvation-history, including the prevalence of child sacrifice among the Canaanites. The group listened in awkward silence. Then the pastor asked, “But what does this story mean to us?” A middle-aged man spoke up, “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me. I’ve decided that me and my family are looking for another church.” The pastor was astonished, “What? Why?” “Because,” the man said, “when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel like I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club God we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person, and then want more. I want to know that God.”[16]

Image: "Adam, Noah, Moses" by W. Andersen. CC License. 

Notes:

 

 

 

[1] This essay was inspired in part by the conference “My Ways are not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible,” available via streaming video at http://www.nd.edu/~cprelig/conferences/video/my_ways/.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, “Response to Fales,” unpublished paper from the conference “My Ways are not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible.”

[3] Ibid.

 

[4] Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” Philosophia Christi, 2 (2008): 7-37.

[5] See 1 Samuel 15 and Deuteronomy 20.

[6] Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 27.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1982), p. 64. The Enemy in this passage is God, as the speaker is the demon Screwtape.

[8] Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), p. 256.

[9] William S. Bruce, The Ethics of the Old Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895), p. 263.

[10] Ibid., p. 266.

[11] W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930; Hackett Reprint).

[12] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 453.

[13] This would not be the case if the claim was these passages constitute moral exceptions.

[14] Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, et. al. Aquinas’s Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), pp. 75-76.

[15] This is in fact consistent with the justification given in Dt.

For example, in Deuteronomy 7 Moses tells the Israelites

When the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods. . . This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.

Later in the same speech Moses says:

. . . in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them . . . Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (20:16, 18)

 

[16] Manning, pp. 96-97.

On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics

 

Editor's Note: The whole video is well worth watching, but you can find Wood's comments about the moral argument around 23 minutes into the video. Also, we would like to thank The Gospel Coalition for highlighting Wood's story

When David Wood was a boy, his dog was hit by a bus and died. Although his mother was terribly upset, he was not. He figured it was just a dog, now it’s dead, end of story. A few years later when a friend of his died, his response was largely the same. He didn’t feel any particular regret or remorse, but at the same time, largely owing to the very different responses of others, he sensed that maybe he should. Not everyone emotionally impaired in such a way turns violent, but he did. In years to follow, he extended his emotionally dead and unempathetic take on those around him by engaging in some horrifying acts, like brutally attacking his father with a hammer until he thought him dead (he wasn’t). Wood was convinced that right and wrong were fictions to be discarded at will and that the apathetic universe couldn’t care less how anyone acts.

The absence of empathy that Wood seemed to exhibit as a young boy is often indicative of psychopathy or sociopathy. Although sometimes these categories are treated interchangeably, some insist that there are crucial clinical differences between them. For example, some (like Chris Weller) suggest that, though both psychopaths and sociopaths tend to lack fear and disgust, sociopaths are more likely to be found holed up in their houses removed from society, while a psychopath is busy in his basement rigging shackles to his furnace. Psychopaths are dangerous, violent, cruel, and often sinister. Showing no remorse, they commit crimes in cold blood, crave control, behave impulsively, possess a predatory instinct, and attack proactively rather than as a reaction to confrontation.

In contrast, upbringing may play a larger role in a child becoming a sociopath than those diagnosed as psychopaths. Sociopaths project an appearance of trustworthiness or sincerity, but sociopathic behavior is actually conniving and deceitful. Often pathological liars, sociopaths are manipulative and lack the ability to judge the morality of a situation—not for lack of a moral compass (like we find in psychopaths), but because of a greatly skewed moral compass. Despite their differences, both psychopaths and sociopaths can wreak quite a bit of havoc and do much damage in people’s lives.

Since Wood was (1) remarkably unempathetic from such a young age, (2) seemingly lacking a sense of right and wrong rather than having a merely skewed sense of morality, and (3) engaging in extremely antisocial and violent behavior, perhaps this would suggest that he was more a psychopath than a sociopath. Since this is not my area of specialty, though, I am doing nothing more than offering my untutored guess. Yesterday the Gospel Coalition posted an article about Wood called “What Sociopaths Reveal to Us about the Existence of God.” For present purposes, we needn’t worry with the exactly right psychological diagnosis, but it bears pointing that, if anything, Wood seemed to be riddled with the more congenital, more entrenched, more debilitating of the two mental disorders, which is instructive. Wood wasn’t at all inclined to believe he should refrain from hurting others for fear he would thereby violate their “intrinsic value,” since this was a notion he scoffed at as a young man, thinking people were just biological machines for propagating DNA inhabiting a speck in a vast, empty, meaningless universe. For Wood was also, as a young man, an atheist, but this piece is not about his atheism. It’s rather about this mental phenomenon of psychopathy/sociopathy and its bearing on moral apologetics—and vice versa.

What does any of this have to do with the moral argument for God’s existence? Atheists Sam Harris and Erik Wielenberg, both well-known and outspoken atheists, think that the existence of psychopaths, in the clinical sense of the term—by some estimates making up as much as one percent of the population—poses a challenge to theistic ethics generally and divine command theory more particularly. In Sam Harris’s debate with William Lane Craig, Harris pointed out one potential connection between psychopathy and moral apologetics, but we can dispense with it fairly quickly. (Harris also devotes a section of his book The Moral Landscape to the issue of psychopathy, thinking it provides a case study of dissection of conventional morality.) In the debate Harris pointed out that psychopaths manifest an inability to distinguish between true moral claims and commands from authority. They tend to think that moral rules are just arbitrary impositions by someone in charge. Interestingly, Wood himself now admits that for years this was his own view—that for years he was willing to give up everything for the sake of a false freedom from the control of others he despised. At any rate, casting a moral theory of obligations as rooted in divine commands as an arbitrary morality of “authority,” Harris ambitiously argued that there is a psychopathic core to divine command theory—not a compliment to his theistic interlocutors.

As this site has emphasized repeatedly, divine command theory, rightly understood, is not at all an effort to render morality arbitrary, nor does it unintentionally accomplish such a feat de facto. Of course there is the occasional radical voluntarist (sometimes dubbed an Ockhamist, though writers like Lucan Freppert and Marilyn Adams have argued this is unfair to Ockham), but most mainstream divine command theorists don’t embrace anything so scandalous. No, God has reasons for the commands he issues—reasons tied to the nature and telos he’s given to us and, most ultimately, to his own perfect and essentially loving character.

Setting aside that arbitrariness misunderstanding, though, the even more egregious misstep of Harris’s is the suggestion that submitting to moral authority is psychopathic for equating morality with a presumed authority. This is a rookie mistake. Morality, particularly moral obligations, is authoritative—this is what Anscombe pointed out when she talked about the verdict- and law-like nature of moral obligations, what Richard Joyce means when he refers to the punch and clout of moral duties, what Mackie was pointing to when discussing the “queerness”’ of morality; part of what it means to reject objective morality is to deny that such prescriptively binding obligations exist. This shows there’s nothing question-begging about insisting on this aspect of morality; someone can deny objective morality, but such authority is precisely part of what they are denying. Psychopaths are not denying that morality possesses such authority, but rather insisting that morality, invested with such authority, doesn’t exist. Clearly such authority just is part of morality classically construed—whether morality is real or not. So acknowledging such authority is no evidence that those doing so are mentally unstable; such authority is rather one of those important moral facts in need of adequate explanation. The moral argument, especially in its long (abductive) game, wishes—carefully, patiently, and systematically—to make the principled case that theism, better than the plethora of secular moral theories on offer taken individually or in any particular combination, can provide the better explanation of such authority. The recognition of a true and legitimate authority hardly qualifies as psychopathic. Harris’s charged rhetoric here is strategically hyperbolic and borders the conversationally uncooperative.

Let’s turn now to the more serious objection to moral apologetics on the basis of psychopathy that Erik Wielenberg raises. He broaches the topic of psychopathy in his book God and the Reach of Reason. In the context of discussing C. S. Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence, Wielenberg writes, “Perhaps more problematic for Lewis’s argument than variation in the deliverances of conscience is the fact that some people apparently lack a conscience altogether. Psychopathy (sometimes called ‘sociopathy’) is a personality disorder characterized by, among other things, the absence of the capacity to experience various emotions, including empathy, love, and guilt.” An interesting characteristic of psychopaths, experts tell us, is that they know the difference between right and wrong in some sense. Or they at least recognize that others view certain acts as right or wrong and can use such language appropriately. But such words hold no purchase for psychopaths, because they don’t care about morality. Wielenberg quotes psychologist Robert Hare, who’s studied psychopathy for over a quarter of a century: “They know the rules but follow only those they choose to follow, no matter what the repercussions for others. They have little resistance to temptation, and their transgressions elicit no guilt. Without the shackles of a nagging conscience, they feel free to satisfy their needs and wants and do whatever they think they can get away with.”

Wielenberg notes that there may be an odd individual here and there who doesn’t know the moral law, just as we find a few people color-blind or tone deaf. Robert Hare, too, uses color-blindness to explain psychopathy:

The psychopath is like a color-blind person who sees the world in shades of gray but who has learned how to function in a colored world. He has learned that the light signal for “stop” is at the top of the traffic light. When the color-blind person tells you he stopped at the red light, he really means he stopped at the top light. . . . Like the color-blind person, the psychopath lacks an important element of experience—in this case, emotional experience—but may have learned the words that others use to describe or mimic experiences that he cannot really understand.

Wielenberg argues the existence of psychopaths poses a problem for Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence. Lewis argues that human conscience is a tool that God uses to communicate with us. “More precisely,” Wielenberg writes, “conscience is a tool that God uses to get us to recognize our need for Him.” Christianity tells people to repent and promises forgiveness; Lewis thus writes it “has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness.” Since psychopaths are unable to feel they need forgiveness—and psychologists estimate that about four percent of human beings are psychopaths (at least in the West)—Wielenberg asks where this leaves roughly one in twenty-five human beings? Has God abandoned them? This is how Wielenberg argues that the phenomenon of psychopathy undermines the premise of Lewis’s argument that says “the Higher Power issues instructions and wants us to engage in morally right conduct.” Why would God allow so many to lack the emotional equipment essential for engaging in morally right conduct? Wielenberg admits this may not be a decisive objection, owing to the possibility of a justification for psychopathy that lies beyond our current understanding, but he suggests it’s a phenomenon that does not fit very well with Lewis’s overall view.

In response to Wielenberg, I would point to the rest of Wood’s story. If his story were unique, this tack could be accused of being merely anecdotal, but it is one of many stories of remarkable personal transformation. Constructing his worldview to correspond with his flat and lifeless emotional perception of reality, Wood began to think that all of life was pointless. At the same time, he would try to hold his worldview together whenever occasional doubts crept in, until he finally realized that if life was pointless, so too was his effort to hold it all together. And then, he says, life offered him an alternative. In prison he ran into a Christian who was willing to defend his convictions rather than cower in silence or run for cover when Wood issued his usual barrage of insults and challenges. And the believer, named Randy, challenged Wood in return, forcing him to articulate his convictions, at which point Wood recognized something for the first time: “Things that made perfect sense when unquestioned seemed silly when questioned.” Questions of why the disciples would risk death to testify to the resurrection of Jesus or how life could emerge from lifelessness now began to plague Wood’s mind.

In an effort to refute Randy’s faith and consolidate his own, Wood began reading the Bible. He was refraining from eating at the time—long story—and found in scripture that Jesus was the bread of life. He wanted escape from his imprisonment, and read that the Son of God can set us free. He was painfully sick at the time, and read that Jesus was the resurrection and the life. Over and over again he was startled to find Christ to be the answer he was seeking. He spent time reading the books on apologetics Randy had given him, and gradually his secular worldview began to crumble. The design argument and the argument for the historicity of the resurrection began to make more sense to him, and then the moral argument began to speak to him as well. Heretofore he’d held two beliefs at the same time—that humans are meaningless lumps of cells, AND that he was the best, most important person in all the world—and the realization dawned on him how inconsistent these were. A best person, he began to see, required an objective standard of goodness. He went from thinking himself the best person in the world to the worst, and then realized that if his earlier assessment of morality was wrong and there really was an objective standard of goodness and rightness, he was in trouble.

At this point he recognized, without anything much emotional going on in him, what John Hare calls the “moral gap.” Either he was irremediably selfish and sick and there was no hope, or there was someone, or Someone, who could help. He knew he, riddled with his psychological, spiritual, and moral maladies, couldn’t help himself. Who could? Gradually he came to think that only God could do it, and Jesus, the One God raised. Eventually, beaten down, desperate, barely able to know how, he prayed for forgiveness. His was a dramatic conversion, which happens on occasion. Instantaneously, no longer did he want to hurt anyone, and, perhaps even more importantly, he had the strange sense that he’d known the truth all along.

Wood’s moral sense was damaged but not beyond repair. The grace of God and the use of his other faculties (like that of reason) enabled him to understand that he did indeed have moral obligations after all. So perhaps the feelings that psychopaths lack are not necessary in order to recognize the reality and authority of morality. A psychopath is a person who doesn’t feel appropriately about his actions, but reason still leads to moral law. So psychopaths are not incapable of recognizing the moral law, they just lack the right emotional responses to it. Thus they are disadvantaged, but not in a way that precludes knowledge of the moral law. So Wielenberg may be operating on a mistake, namely, the conviction that to be morally responsible one has to have the right moral feelings. Perhaps having moral feelings is not a necessary condition for being morally accountable and that having these feelings is just a gift from God to aid in the moral life. Wielenberg, therefore, may be treating conscience in an overly narrow sense. Perhaps he thinks of conscience as morally appropriate feelings that guide us to right action, but why not include among the faculties of conscience the deliverances of reason? In which case, if our feelings fail us, we are not without a conscience, but just without some of the faculties a healthy conscience would have.

Today Wood runs an apologetics ministry (Acts 17 Apologetics), and he says that, though God created the universe, he created human beings in a special way, imbuing them with his image. Wood realizes now that true freedom is deliverance from his earlier desire to turn against his Creator. Echoing C. S. Lewis, he says he now believes in Christianity as he believes in the Sun—because by it he can see everything else. Wood perhaps didn’t have the advantage of most: a well-functioning conscience and active capacity for empathy, which God can indeed and often does use to draw people to himself. Lewis was right about that, but perhaps overstated the case, because God has other resources besides. People don’t fall through the cracks if God is a God of love. Augustine once wrote that God bids us do what we cannot, that we may know what we ought to seek from him. In an important sense, we are all morally sick to the core and in need of healing that only God can provide; we all need to become not just better men and women, but new men and women. Contra Wielenberg, despite his deficiency Wood was still able to apprehend the truth, recognize the possibility he was wrong, throw himself on God’s mercy, and emerge from the darkness into the light. And for a person who underwent such radical transformation, these words from Ezekiel 36:26 seem poignantly apt: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Photo: "The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. National Gallery of Art. Public Domain.