It had to happen sooner or later. Professor Jerry Coyne has identified what he sees as an inconsistency in Dr. William Lane Craig’s Divine Command theory of ethics, and after reading his latest post on the subject, I have to agree that Coyne is basically right and Craig is wrong. Consider the following statements by Professor Craig (see here and here):
Remember: on perfect being theology, God is a maximally great being, a being which is worthy of worship.
According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.
On voluntaristic theories God’s commands are based upon His free will alone. He arbitrarily chooses what values are good or bad and what our obligations and prohibitions are….
Most divine command theorists [including Craig himself – VJT] are non-voluntarists who hold that moral values are not grounded in God’s will but in His nature. Moral duties are grounded in His will or commands; but moral values are prior to His will, since God’s own nature is not something invented by God. Since His will is not independent of His nature but must express His nature, it is logically impossible for Him to issue certain sorts of commands. In order to do so, He would have to have a different nature, which is logically impossible. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
So far, so good, but Craig also says this:
On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
One might ask: could God legitimately command someone to kill, then, or would that be murder? Craig responds:
No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder.
If that’s not voluntaristic DCT [Divine Command Theory], I don’t know what is. It basically says that God’s commands ARE the arbiter of right and wrong.
I have to say that I think Coyne has a legitimate point here. In order for Professor Craig to extricate himself from the inconsistency that he appears to have fallen into, he would have to do the following:
(1) show that there are certain actions that God could not possibly command us to do, because they would be contrary to His character;
(2) specify at least some of these things that God cannot command us to do; and
(3) explain why ending someone’s life isn’t one of the things that God cannot command us to do.
Meeting the first requirement is fairly easy, if one defines God as a maximally perfect (and hence, all-loving) being, as Craig does. For then it follows that God could not command any action which can only be justified by appeal to values which run contrary to universal love.
The real problem, as I see it, lies in the second requirement. Consider the example of torture. If the infliction of torture is not self-evidently wrong, then it is hard to see what would be. But now consider a surgeon operating on a patient back in the old days before anesthetics had been invented. Surgical patients had to be forcibly held down during operations, because the pain was so great. Was that torture? “Obviously not!”, I hear you reply. “After all, the surgeon was intending to heal the patient, and the infliction of pain was unintentional.” But now consider this: what if God is like a surgeon, inflicting pain on us for our own good? C.S. Lewis explored this possibility in his book, A Grief Observed:
The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed—might grow tired of his vile sport—might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.
But now ask yourself this: what if God, instead of inflicting these tortures on us Himself for our own good, were to ask some human being to inflict them, acting in His name? Would it be possible for an all-loving God to command someone to do that? If you are inclined to answer “Yes,” then you can no longer hold that God could never command us to torture someone.
“But surely,” it will be urged, “an all-loving God could never command the torture of innocent children?” Not so fast. What if God (by virtue of His infallible foreknowledge) foresees that if a certain degree of suffering is not inflicted on this child, he will grow up to become a bad person, and eventually be damned? Would it then be consistent with the character of an all-loving God to command a human being to inflict the torture on the child – perhaps because it would have a more salutary effect on the child if it is inflicted by a human authority figure (e.g. a parent or schoolmaster)? And where does one draw the line between corporal punishment and torture, anyway? It seems that someone acting with good intentions, and at the behest of a Being possessing unlimited foreknowledge could justly inflict any degree of pain on an innocent human being, provided they knew that it was necessary for that person’s ultimate good.
Now, someone might object that while it would be theoretically possible for God to act in this way, it would be epistemically irrational for any human being to trust what purported to be a vision of God commanding them to torture someone: for how could they be sure that the Being in the vision was God, and not the Devil? And since critical reason is a God-given gift, God could hardly blame us for prudently rejecting any such command – which in turn means that it could never be obligatory, which implies that God could never justly command such a thing in the first place. But this objection assumes that it is impossible in principle for a human being to distinguish a vision from God and one from the Devil. That hardly seems likely. And if it were true, it would rule out the possibility of our having a warranted belief in any revealed religion.
One way out of this ethical impasse would be to hold that there are certain things which it is morally acceptable for God to do, but which He may not command human beings to do. On this view, it may be all right for Him to inflict painful tribulations on people, for the sake of their ultimate good (i.e. their eternal salvation), but it could never be right for Him to command us to inflict these tribulations on our fellow human beings.
Fair enough; but then the nagging question arises: why, precisely? Why would it be wrong principle for us to do these things to others, if God may licitly do them? One plausible answer is that it would violate some principle of fellowship which we share with our fellow human beings: all men are brothers, and you don’t torture your own brother. But you don’t kill your own brother, either. If torturing another human being contravenes the principle of fellowship, then surely killing another human being does so, too. In that case, Professor Craig will be unable to meet the third requirement I specified above: explaining why ending someone’s life isn’t one of the things that God cannot command us to do.
Another possible answer is that the act of inflicting torture is inherently desensitizing, for the person who inflicts it: it hardens the torturer’s heart and dehumanizes him in the process, corrupting his soul and placing his own salvation in mortal peril. And since God cares about the salvation of each and every human being, He could not justly command one person to inflict torture on another human being: while the act just might (conceivably) prove to be conducive to the eternal salvation of the victim, it would at the same time jeopardize the eternal salvation of the torturer. But once again, it seems that the same train of logic would rule out the possibility of God commanding one human being to kill another. For if killing someone is not desensitizing, then what is?
There’s another problem with the “desensitization” argument, too. God, being omnipotent, can heal the wounds of the heart. That which has been desensitized, he can re-sensitize. What if God were to reassure the torturer that He would reverse the hardening of the heart resulting from obeying His commands – or even better, prevent it from occurring in the first place?
Perhaps, then, we need a more radical solution. Perhaps it would be wrong not only for human beings, but also for God to deliberately inflict pain on human beings, even if it is intended for the sake of their ultimate good (e.g. to break their stubborn pride and induce them to repent). “Why?” one might ask. Because the supposition is premised on the assumption that God knows what would happen to us if the pain were not inflicted – in other words, that there are true counterfactual statements about what I would or would not choose, if placed in these particular circumstances (e.g. the statement that if I were to suffer paralysis, I would repent and turn to God). But if we have genuine libertarian free will, then it seems that such statements make no sense: for what they amount to is a kind of psychological determinism.
This sounds more promising, but it also entails that God may not justly bring about someone’s death for the sake of procuring their salvation – a conclusion that some believers may find surprising and even counterintuitive.
Another apparent problem with the radical solution proposed above is that while it seems absurd to suppose that there is a there is a true counterfactual statement about what I would or would not choose, in each and every possible situation, there are surely at least some true counterfactual statements about what I would or would not choose, in some situations. For instance, if I were starving, I would surely eat a piece of bread that was dangled in front of my nose. And if I were an alcoholic, then there are surely some situations in which I would find a glass of wine irresistible.
Now, a libertarian might grant this, but still urge that to the extent that there are true counterfactual statements about what I would or would not choose, in some situations, then precisely to that extent, my will is not genuinely free. And since decisions which are not genuinely free are not truly choices on my part, they cannot possibly be conducive to my ultimate good or eternal salvation. (For if I am eventually saved, it can only be through some freely chosen act on my part, even if the supernatural grace required to make that choice can only come from God.) Hence it would be impossible for God to appeal to these counterfactuals in order to justify inflicting pain or death on innocent people.
In that case, then, we have to conclude that God is not like the surgeon after all: He does not inflict pain or death on people for their ultimate good.
So where are we now? It seems that the acts which God cannot command us to do – and which God cannot justly do either – are simply those which are not good for us. And we cannot appeal to counterfactuals about good consequences that would occur or bad consequences that would be avoided, in order to justify the performance of these acts. For as we have seen, these counterfactuals are irrelevant to the extent that we possess libertarian free will.
So far we have only spoken of the innocent, but what of the guilty? May God justly punish the guilty? Surely the answer is yes. May He then command human beings to punish the guilty, acting in His name? And if so, is there any limit to the punishment that one human being may inflict upon another, when acting at God’s behest?
Here, it seems, the difficulty is genuine. For whatever one thinks of corporal and capital punishment, there are surely some cases where the infliction of these punishments brings wicked people to their senses, causing them to repent of their sins. And who among us (little children excepted) is not guilty of some personal sin? (I am not speaking here of original sin.) It seems, then, that there is no reason in principle why God could not justly command one person to punish another. And the severity of that punishment might amount to what we would call torture.
The only answer I can propose here is that it would be out of place for God to ask a creature to perform a task which belongs to the Creator. Judgement of the wicked is a task for God (Who sees into our souls) to perform; punishments inflicted on the basis of that judgement are also God’s responsibility, not ours. Not can it be urged that the State is an instrument of God’s Will in this regard; for the purpose of the State is not to secure absolute justice, but social harmony, and lawbreakers are punished only insofar as they disrupt this harmony by tearing a hole in the fabric of society. For this reason, a pure theocracy, in which human judges strove to be instruments of God’s Will, would be a fundamentally immoral society.
And that’s about as far as my deliberations have taken me. But perhaps I have overlooked something. What do readers think?
One last request. Could we please keep the Bible out of the arguments below, for the sake of polite discussion? I’d like readers to try to resolve the difficulties I have posed above, by appealing to general ethical principles. And now, over to you.