bookmark_borderJ.L. Mackie’s Argument from Queerness against Objective Values

In his highly significant book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, the late Oxford philosopher J.L. Mackie rejected moral objectivism and instead defended an error theory.[1] Although Mackie admitted that ordinary moral language and first-level moral beliefs imply moral objectivism, he argued on empirical grounds that moral objectivism is false.  Mackie called one of his anti-objectivist arguments the “argument from queerness.”  Mackie viewed his argument as having “two parts, one metaphysical, the other epistemological.[2] Since our focus here is on moral ontology, not epistemology, I shall discuss only the metaphysical part.
In the metaphysical part of the argument from queerness, Mackie argues that objective values, including objective moral values, do not exist because they are metaphysically anomalous.  He writes, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.”[3] As I read him, Mackie provides two reasons in support of that claim.  (1) First, Mackie assumed that moral objectivism entails nonnaturalism, which Mackie considers ontologically queer.  In his words, “Plato’s Forms give a dramatic picture of what objective values would have to be.”[4] (2) Second, if moral objectivism were true, then internalism about moral motivation would also be true.  As Mackie puts it, “if there were objective principles of right and wrong, any wrong (possible) course of action would have not-to-be-doneness somehow built into it.”[5]
Mackie later imported his argument from queerness into the philosophy of religion.  Given the queerness of objective values, Mackie argues, moral objectivism is more likely on the assumption that theism is true than on the assumption that metaphysical naturalism is true.  In his landmark critique of theism, The Miracle of Theism, he states,

Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.  … If … there … are objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus, we have … a defensible argument from morality to the existence of a god.[6]

Ironically, what began as an argument against moral objectivism became an increasingly popular argument among some moral objectivists—proponents of ontological versions of the moral argument for God’s existence, to be exact—as an argument for theism and against metaphysical naturalism.[7] Given this popularity as well as Mackie’s own immense influence, this argument is worth a detailed look.  Has Mackie shown that objective values are queer given metaphysical naturalism? Let’s consider Mackie’s two reasons in turn.
(1) begs the question against ethical naturalism by assuming without argument a nonnaturalist interpretation of objectivism.  By itself, however, moral objectivism is metaphysically neutral since it does not specify whether moral facts and properties are natural, nonnatural, or supernatural.  Moreover, nonnatural moral facts and properties are not queer even on the assumption that metaphysical naturalism is true.  Metaphysical naturalism only rules out the existence of nonnatural entities that can affect nature; it does not rule out the existence of acausal objects, including abstract objects or irreducible, sui generis moral properties.  Of course, ethical nonnaturalism does pose a problem for reductive physicalism, since reductive physicalism by definition rules out irreducible, sui generis moral facts and properties.  Since Mackie accepted not only metaphysical naturalism but also reductive physicalism, it is not surprising that Mackie considered nonnatural facts and properties queer.  But this biographical information is of little philosophical significance.  As Quentin Smith writes, “nonreductive physicalism can allow for nonnatural moral values, as Post has plausibly argued, and most physicalists today accept a nonreductive version” of physicalism.[8]
As for (2), why should we believe that internalism is true if moral objectivism is true?  According to Mackie, moral objectivism entails internalism about motives.  He writes, “Something’s being good both tells the person who knows this to pursue it and makes him pursue it.”[9] However, this is incorrect.  Moral objectivism has not been shown to entail internalism, and certainly not by Mackie.  On the contrary, as David Brink has demonstrated, if an objective moral truth is motivating, then that is a contingent fact dependent upon external factors such as the content of the moral truth, the psychological state of the agent, etc.[10] Moreover, internalism is not supported by the empirical evidence.  The existence of intelligent psychopaths shows that one can understand true moral propositions and yet feel utterly unmotivated to act in accordance with such propositions.[11]
I conclude, therefore, that Mackie’s argument from queerness fails.  On the assumption that metaphysical naturalism is true, it neither follows nor is probable that objective moral truths are “queer.”  Thus, Mackie’s argument from queerness does not support the claim that, given metaphysical naturalism, objective moral truths cannot be truths about nonnatural facts or properties.
[1] J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1977).
[2] Mackie 1977, 38.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 40.  Italics are mine.
[5] Ibid.
[6] J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1982), 115-16.
[7] J.P. Moreland, “The Ethical Inadequacy of Naturalism” Promise (May/June 1996): 36-39, republished electronically at <URL:>; Paul Copan, “Can Michael Martin Be A Moral Realist?: Sic et Non,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, 1/2 (1999): 45-72.  Cf. George I. Mavrodes, “Religion and the Queerness of Morality,” Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment (ed. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).
[8] Smith 1998, 174; cf. John Post 1987.
[9] Mackie 1979, 40.
[10] David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), chapter 3.
[11] Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (State University of New York Press, 1998), 211-30.

bookmark_borderMorality Cannot Have a Foundation in God: A Summary for the General Reader by Quentin Smith

The following essay was written by Quentin Smith around 2001 or 2002, but inexplicably fell through the cracks. While organizing files on my computer, I recently rediscovered it and am happy to be able to share it with our readers. I am posting it here, without taking a position pro or con, for interested readers. Feel free to debate in the combox.



                                                BY QUENTIN SMITH

                                                WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY

As I indicated in my history of 20th century moral philosophy, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (Yale University Press, 1997), the idea that morality is founded by God is rejected as nonsensical by all 20th century moral philosophers, be they theists or atheists. There are many theists who write on moral philosophy, but they reject just as much as do atheistic philosophers the idea that God is the foundation of morality.
Why have all theistic and atheistic philosophers of the 20th century rejected as absurd the idea that God is the foundation of morality? Because they realize that the opposite claim is true: God is not the foundation of morality, but morality is the foundation of God. Why? God is defined as morally good. God can be morally good only if God’s actions are based on the principles of goodness. But if God founds the principles of goodness, God’s actions cannot be founded on these principles. Founding something, and being founded on something, are opposites. Something cannot both be founded on something, and yet at the same time not be founded upon that thing but rather be the foundation of the thing. By analogy, a single brick cannot at the same time be underneath a building, and also, at that very time, be resting on the roof of that building.
It is also true that if God is the founder of moral goodness, then, instead of being morally good, he has the different characteristic of being the founder of moral goodness (and moral evil).  Being good, and being the foundation of goodness, are two different characteristics. Something  can be the foundation of moral goodness and evil only if that being is neither morally good nor morally evil. By analogy, the foundation of the Atlantic Ocean is not liquid water; rather it is solid dirt and rock. If you found something, you cannot be the very thing you found. If you found your children, you cannot be your children. If you are the foundation of a building, you are not the building, but steel piles underneath the building.
This explains why all 20th century philosophers, both theists and atheists, have recognized that if God is the foundation of goodness, then this contradicts the definition of God as good. The foundation, God, cannot be what he founds.
There is a third reason, recognized by all atheist and theist moral philosophers of the 20th century, that shows even more clearly why God cannot be the foundation of morality. Consider the example of the Christian philosopher Robert Adams, who has come closer than any other philosopher to saying that God is the foundation of morality. But Adams ends up denying this. Why? Because he recognizes that if God founds morality, then God can make anything whatsoever good. God could make torture, rape and murder good. If God is the foundation of morality, then torture, rape and murder are not intrinsically evil; rather, they are evil only because God happened to decide to make them evil rather than good. This is absurd, since God equally well could have founded torture, rape and murder as good instead of evil, and  God could have founded kindness, generosity and mutual respect as evils. As a founder of morality, you can make anything whatsoever good or evil. But it is absurd to think that God, who is good by definition, could have made cruelty, rape and incest morally good. If God could have founded the horrible evils of mass genocide, brutal rape and extreme cruelty as good, instead of evil, then God cannot be good by definition. A good God could not have founded the murder of 6 million Jews as good, since if he did, he would not be good. This shows why God cannot found what is good or evil. The Christian philosopher Robert Adams, upon recognizing this (it was pointed out to him by other Christian moral philosophers) adopted the different theory that only a loving God could command certain actions to be good. This is because Adams’ recognized that love is intrinsically good; it is objectively good by itself, and is not good because God founds or commands that it be good. God recognizes that love is intrinsically good just as humans recognize that love is intrinsically good.
God is in the same situation as humans, except God is perfectly good. Humans are good only if they recognize that murder, rape and torture are intrinsically evil and therefore do not engage in these activities; and humans are good if they recognize that kindness and generosity  are intrinsically good, and act kindly and generously. Sometimes humans do things that are not good, but that is because humans are not perfectly good.
The obvious fact that God cannot be morally good if he is the foundation of whatever is good or evil has been recognized by all 20th century moral philosophers. Anybody who argues that God is the foundation of morality is either ignorant of 20th century philosophy or else is using pure rhetoric to score a point in a debate before an audience that does not contain any philosophy professors. The issue of whether God is or is not the foundation of morality is not even discussed by philosophy professors who write about morality, because they recognize that the very idea that God founds morality is too preposterous to deserve discussion.

bookmark_borderWhitcomb’s Grounding Argument for Atheism and Reply by Rasmussen et al

I am quoting the abstract of these papers here, without comment pro or con, for interested readers who may wish to read the papers for themselves. Feel free to debate in the combox.
Whitcomb’s argument for atheism:

I’m going to argue that omniscience is impossible and therefore that there is no God. The argument turns on the notion of grounding. After illustrating and clarifying that notion, I’ll start the argument in earnest. The first step will be to lay out five claims, one of which is the claim that there is an omniscient being, and the other four of which are claims about grounding. I’ll prove that these five claims are jointly inconsistent. Then I’ll argue for the truth of each of them except the claim that there is an omniscient being. From these arguments it follows that there are no omniscient beings and thus that there is no God.

Reply by Rasmussen, Cullison, and Howard-Snyder:

Abstract. Dennis Whitcomb argues that there is no God on the grounds that (i) God is supposed to be omniscient, yet (ii) nothing could be omniscient due to the nature of grounding. We give a formally identical argument that concludes that one of the present co-authors does not exist. Since he does exist, Whitcomb’s argument is unsound. But why is it unsound? That is a difficult question. We venture two answers. First, one of the grounding principles that the argument relies on is false. Second, the argument equivocates between two kinds of grounding: instance-grounding and quasi-mereological grounding. Happily, the equivocation can be avoided; unhappily, avoidance comes at the price of a false premise.


bookmark_borderLINK: What is a Physical Object? by Ned Markosian

I am quoting the abstract of this paper here, without comment pro or con, for interested readers who may wish to read the paper for themselves. Feel free to debate in the combox.

Abstract: The concept of a physical object has figured prominently in the history of philosophy, and is probably more important now than it has ever been before. Yet the question What are physical objects?, i.e., What is the correct analysis of the concept of a physical object?, has received surprisingly little attention. The purpose of this paper is to address this question. I consider several attempts at answering the question, and give my reasons for preferring one of them over its rivals. The account of physical objects that I recommend – the Spatial Location Account – defines physical objects as objects with spatial locations. The intuitive idea behind the Spatial Location Account is this. Objects from all of the different ontological categories –physical objects; non-physical objects like souls, if there are any; propositions; universals; etc. – have this much in common: they all exist in time. But not all of them exist in space. The ones that exist in time and space, i.e., the ones that have spatial locations, are the ones that count as physical objects.


bookmark_borderIndex: Atheist Error Theorists

Many atheists have claimed that atheism entails that moral realism is false; many theistic apologists gleefully quote those atheists. But how do those atheists support their claim? This page provides an index to other Secular Outpost posts which discuss specific atheists’ arguments for the claim that atheism somehow supports moral nihilism or error theory.

Related posts:

bookmark_borderThe Amalekites and Options for Apologists

I have been having a very interesting discussion with a Christian correspondent who calls himself “Veritas.” Discussions of this sort all too often generate far more heat than light, so let me first note that in our interactions the contributions by Veritas have been consistently intelligent, courteous, and candid. The focus of our conversation has been a particular scriptural passage, I Samuel 15: 1-3. For convenience, let me quote these verses:
“Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel. Now listen to the voice of the Lord. This is the very word of the Lord of Hosts: ‘I am resolved to punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel, how they attacked them on their way up from Egypt.’ Go now and fall upon the Amalekites and destroy them, and put their property under ban. Spare no one; put them all to death, men, women, children, and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses.”
The problem raised by this passage is obvious. God, speaking through his prophet Samuel, apparently orders the slaughter of an entire community of people, of both sexes and of all ages, and the destruction of all they possess. Veritas, with admirable frankness, admits that the passage says precisely what it appears to say. God does indeed order the extirpation of an entire community. Of course, this is not the only passage in scripture where actions of a sort normally considered heinous are ordered or endorsed by God. One other that comes to mind right away is in II Kings, Chapter 2 where the prophet Elisha curses some children that had taunted him, and God sends two she-bears that maul forty two of the children. With a bit of diligence, many such passages can be discovered.
Perhaps Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason was exaggerating when he spoke of the “unrelenting vindictiveness” which he says fills more than half the Bible. Unquestionably, though, there are many passages that present a problem for the apologist. Taken straightforwardly as saying what they appear to say, they invite the judgment that God has commanded something morally reprehensible, and the apologist has the burden of showing that the appearance is deceiving and that the command of God was just and righteous in this instance.
Let’s focus just on the passage from I Samuel. A preliminary question is one of semantics, what do we call the extermination of the Amalekites? Do we call it “genocide?” Veritas objects to this terminology because God is not ordering the deaths of all Amalekites everywhere, only those within the land of Israel. God’s order to Saul is not a call for the elimination of a particular nation, race, or ethnicity, but only their elimination from a certain locale. I am not sure that this argument holds. If Hitler had declared that he only sought the destruction of Jews of Europe, while being unconcerned with those in, say, Argentina or Australia, would the destruction of European Jewry no longer rightly be called a “genocide?” Perhaps the reply would be that the Nazis murdered Jews on the basis of a notion of “race,” a modern concept unknown to the OT. Still, the Amalekites in Israel were identified as a particular people, nation, or tribal group that Saul was ordered to destroy utterly (I Samuel: 15:18). The action, in fact, looks disturbingly similar to the “ethnic cleansing” made notorious in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The stark reality is that an entire community was slaughtered, and we need to remember what that meant in the context of ancient warfare. Modern warfare has made massacre a much more efficient process. Now the push of a button can kill enormous numbers instantly many miles away. In those days it was messier. To kill an entire community you had to do it one-by-one, unless, perhaps, you could herd them into a building which you set on fire. Those killed individually were impaled by arrows or spears, or hacked with swords. Those fleeing had to be chased down and those hiding rooted out. Husbands were cut down in front of wives, and parents in front of children. The sick and dying had to be pulled from beds, and infants torn from mothers. When those who perpetrated the butchery had finished, they would have been sodden with gore and the screams would still be ringing in their ears.
Now, I have offered this lurid description not to inject emotion into what should be a rational discussion. I simply insist that, whatever name we give to the actions committed by the Israelites against the Amalekites, the true horror of its nature not be obscured.
Now, for the apologist who, like Veritas, takes the passage straightforwardly as ordering a general massacre of the Amalekite community, what are the options for justification? First, we must ask, justified for whom? Is it sufficient for the apologist to justify the passage (i.e. to show that God’s order to Saul was righteous and just) only for those who share his particular Christian worldview? On the other hand, does the apologist have the harder task of justifying it to those of us who do not have that view? Traditionally, the field of apologetics has sought to defend faith by an appeal to generally rational considerations, not just tenets accepted only by Christians. Apologetics is traditionally a kind or rational evangelism; you proselytize by appealing to the minds of unbelievers. Conceived as such, apologetics is not a purely defensive procedure, but attempts to justify Christian claims by principles, beliefs, and intuitions endorsed by the unbeliever.
The point here may be clarified by recalling a distinction made by Alvin Plantinga. In dealing with the general problem of evil, and not just the apparent evil of certain scriptural passages, Plantinga says that Christians can offer either a “defense” or a “theodicy.” A defense has the modest aim of showing that theistic belief is rational even given the occurrence of certain horrendous evils. The one offering a defense does not claim to explain why God permits evils; Plantinga candidly admits that he has no idea why God permits some evils. However, the defender argues that the theist can rationally believe that God does have a morally sufficient reason for permitting evils without having any idea what that reason might be. To support such a defense, only tenets internal to theistic belief need to be adduced. If the believer’s reasons do not move the unbeliever, the theist need not care.
A theodicy, on the other hand, is more ambitious. It attempts to explain the ways of God to humans, i.e. to appeal to broadly shared ethical intuitions and principles to show that God’s permission of evil is in fact a good thing. For a theodicy to work, the theist has to appeal to broader principles, intuitions, and beliefs, not merely those internal to a Christian worldview. For instance, Richard Swinburne says that God permits moral evil in order to give humans responsibility for themselves and make them co-creators of their own destiny. Being responsible for yourself and making your own destiny sound like good things to many people, not just Christians.
So, in the attempt to justify I Samuel 15: 1-3, should the apologist offer a “defense” that shows that those who share his Christian worldview can reasonably accept God’s order to Saul as righteous and just? On the other hand, should he offer a “theodicy” that shows to the rest of us that, despite its horrific appearance, the massacre of the Amalekites was really righteous and just? There are advantages and disadvantages of each approach.
The advantage of taking the “defense” approach is that it is dead easy to do. It would go like this:
1) God is perfectly holy, righteous, and just.
2) Therefore, whatever God orders is holy, righteous, and just.
3) God ordered Saul to exterminate the Amalekites.
4) Therefore, the extermination of the Amalekites is holy, righteous and just.
The apologist and those who share his worldview are wholly convinced of the holiness, righteousness, and justice of God. They may not know just why God ordered the destruction of the Amalekites, but they are quite sure that it was for a good reason.
The unbeliever may be nonplussed by such an argument, but why should Christians care about that? The skeptic may demand that the believer explain his confidence in God’s goodness, given precisely the challenge of verses like the one in question. The Christian can answer with the philosophical equivalent of “I just know. Nyah Nyah.” (Actually, I consider some of Plantinga’s arguments to be philosophically sophisticated equivalents of thumbing his nose and blowing a raspberry). Christians could say that they have encountered a God of perfect, loving goodness and that such experience trumps any appearances to the contrary. The skeptic may gnash his teeth over such a response; to him it sounds like the bumper sticker “God said it. I believe it. And that settles it.” However, the believers can repose in the confidence that they have made themselves invincible to counterargument.
Such invincibility is also the weakness of such an approach. It is always possible to hermetically seal yourself into your own worldview and defy anyone to do anything about it. As Quine showed with his metaphor of the “web of belief,” anyone determined at all costs to hold onto a conviction can always do so. Counterargument and contrary evidence can always be managed by adjusting other strands of your belief-web, while leaving the protected beliefs in place. The problem is that such intellectual insulation is marginalizing and Balkanizing. True, nobody can refute you, but they will not believe you either, or even take you seriously. To skeptics, you will appear to be the victim of a sad delusion that has deranged your moral sensibilities to the point that you feel compelled to accept the manifestly unacceptable, e.g. mass murder. The unbeliever will not be able to refute you. Instead, he will just write you off. Some Christians may be quite happy to live in such a state of mutual disdain and dismissal with unbelievers. So be it.
Again, though, Christianity has traditionally been committed to stating its case to unbelievers, using unbelievers’ own canons of rationality and morality to support the truth of the Christian revelation. From Paul on the Athenian Areopagus to Thomas Aquinas to Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig, Christian intellectuals have sought out the skeptic in his own abode and argued that by even secular standards of rationality and morality, Christianity is the most reasonable and moral position. C.S. Lewis spent his career as an apologist trying to take the argument to the infidel, and to argue on the infidel’s terms. To argue with the unbeliever, you have to open your hermeneutical circle to him; you have to be willing to argue on his terms, not just your own.
The obvious downside of arguing on the unbeliever’s terms is that you might lose the argument. It is not a sure thing like arguing only on your own terms. For instance, how would you justify I Samuel 15: 1-3 to an unbeliever, one to whom the passage plainly seems to mean that God ordered mass murder? How do you argue that, yes, it was a mass killing, but not mass murder? It was a terrible thing, true, like the bombing of cities in World War II. However, like that bombing, it was something that had to be done to serve a higher purpose.
The most likely way of attempting this with respect to the verses in question is to claim that the Amalekites were intransigently, irredeemably, and egregiously evil. Their presence within the confines of Israel was a cancer that had to be cut out in its entirety. No half-measure would do. Maybe the Amalekites were like the legendary 16th Century Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean, who supposedly headed an incestuous clan of cannibals. They would waylay travelers, murder them, and cannibalize them. When the authorities discovered their hideout, they were apprehended and expeditiously and without trial executed—men, women, and children—by the disgusting means of capital punishment of the day. Maybe it will be argued that the Amalekites were that bad and deserved a similar summary extermination.
The problem with such an argument is that there just is no evidence to justify such a judgment. True, the Amalekites were a fierce desert tribe. They were probably very much like other desert tribes then and later. In The Blue Nile, Alan Moorhead described the Bedouins of Egypt who harassed Napoleon’s armies. The Bedouins were quite happy to attack any strangers who were passing by. Living in harsh conditions made them hard and pitiless towards outsiders, whom they were happy to ambush given the opportunity. Another comparison would be with the Mongols of the 13th Century, whose fierceness was exploited by Temujin in uniting them to form his invincible army.
Yes, the Amalekites were pretty rough customers, but admitting this falls far short of justifying their total extermination or of viewing them as demonically evil. A more telling comparison would be between the Amalekites and fierce Native American tribes like the Apaches or Comanches. The Comanches were badasses; their ferocity is still legendary here in Texas. There is no question that you would not have wanted to be a settler who was on the receiving end of a Comanche raid. Yet, the treatment of Native Americans like the Apaches and Comanches remains one of the darkest blots on American history. Often, as with the Amalekites, whole communities were destroyed. How can the defender of I Samuel 15 expect to justify the Israelite’s actions to those who are appalled at the similar treatment of Native Americans?
In my discussions with Veritas, I gathered that the most objectionable transgression of the Amalekites was not their rapacity but their idolatry. They persisted in worshipping “false gods” in the very land that God had promised to Israel. It was this culture of persistent and unrepentant idolatry that made the Amalekites so very offensive to God, prompting his extermination order. The Promised Land was to be a pure and holy precinct where only The Lord was to be worshipped. All other worship was an abomination to be wiped out.
This argument is even less persuasive to skeptics than the previous one. As the skeptic reads the Bible, here is the scenario: God leads the Children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. He promises them a homeland of their own, and, after a forty year peregrination in the desert, he locates them in the only part of the Middle East with no oil (sorry). Seriously, the “Land of Milk and Honey” is given to the Israelites as part of their covenant with the Lord. He will guard and protect them if they will keep his ways. There is only one slight complication: Indigenous people already live in the land promised to Israel. They do not worship The Lord and have their own gods and customs. According to the Bible, these supernumeraries are to be given three choices: (a) be evicted from your ancestral home, (b) give up your gods and customs and convert to the True Religion, (c) be exterminated.
To the skeptic, this scenario does not sound too good. The Israelites moved in, took over, and killed the people already there if they did not leave or convert. Of course, the Israelites claim that they are authorized to do so because that land they are given is to be a pure and sacred land, devoted exclusively to the worship of The Lord. To the skeptic this sounds very much like what Al Qaida and such other radical Islamists say about the outrage of infidels being present in Muslim lands. The Radical Islamist could agree wholeheartedly with the principle expressed in I Samuel 15: 1-3, that is, that no infidels are to be allowed in the lands set aside for the faithful. The Islamists would only disagree as to the identity of the deity that rightly issues such an order—Allah not Yahweh.
Judging by Veritas’ response, he would say that, yes, Muslims can make the same claim, but they are wrong, and the Israelites were right. Israel worshipped the True God and the Muslims do not. OK, you can take that line, but it obviously vastly increases your burden of proof. The justification for the passages in question now depends upon a whole, massive program of apologetic to prove that the Judeo-Christian God is in fact the true one. Only by proving this can you avoid the charge that you are engaging in special pleading, justifying actions for some (the true believers) that are not justified when committed by others. The ball is therefore in the apologist’s court, and the ball weighs a million tons.
So, I Samuel, chapter 15 presents the apologist with a number of options. None of them sounds very good.

bookmark_borderWhat *Is* the Logical Structure of Mackie’s Anti-Moral Realism Argument?

Although the contemporary metaethics literature contains many references to (and discussions of) the late J.L. Mackie’s arguments against moral realism, I’ve never seen anyone formally analyze its logical structure. (If I’m mistaken and someone has done that, please provide a citation in the combox.) The goal of this post is to try to take first step towards filling that lacuna.
The primary source of Mackie’s argument(s) against moral realism may be found in his classic book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin, 1977). Mackie never formally states the logical structure of his argument(s). In this writer’s opinion, that omission has probably contributed to some (unnecessary and avoidable) confusion among philosophers about what his argument(s) is (are) supposed to be (and, correspondingly, what constitutes a relevant and effective refutation). But let that pass. What are his argument(s)?
A typical discussion of Mackie’s case for error theory will represent Mackie as if he had presented two arguments against moral realism: (1) the argument from relativity; and (2) the argument from queerness. But is that accurate? After re-reading his book–specifically, the conclusion of the first chapter–I’m no longer so sure about that. Here is how Mackie begins his conclusion.

I have maintained that there is a real issue about the status of values, including moral values. Moral scepticism, the denial of objective moral values, is not to be confused with any one of several first-order normative views, or with any linguistic or conceptual analysis. Indeed, ordinary moral judgments involve a claim to objectivity which both non-cognitivism and naturalist analyses fail to capture. Moral scepticism must, therefore, take the form of an error theory, admitting that a belief in objective values is built into ordinary moral thought and language, but holding that this ingrained belief is false. As such, it needs arguments to support it against ‘common sense’. But solid arguments can be found. (p. 48-9)

Then, in what has to be one of the longer run-on sentences I’ve read recently by a philosopher, Mackie summarizes those “solid arguments.”

The considerations that favour moral scepticism are: first, the relativity or variability of some important starting points of moral thinking and their apparent dependence on actual ways of life; secondly, the metaphysical peculiarity of the supposed objective values, in that they would have to be intrinsically action-guiding and motivating; thirdly, the problem of how such values could be consequential or supervenient upon natural features; fourthly, the corresponding epistemological difficulty of accounting for our knowledge of value entities or features and of their links with the features on which they would be consequential; fifthly, the possibility of explaining, in terms of several different patterns of objectification, traces of which remain in moral language and moral concepts, how even if there were no such objective values people not only might have come to suppose that there are but also might firmly persist in that belief. (p. 49)

What, precisely, does Mackie think those five solid arguments show?

These five points sum up the case for moral scepticism; but of almost equal importance are the preliminary removal of misunderstandings that often prevent this thesis from being considered fairly and explicitly, and the isolation of those items about which the moral sceptic is sceptical from many associated qualities and relations whose objective status is not in dispute. (p. 49)

So, contrary to what many metaethicists claim, I’m starting to wonder if the best interpretation of Mackie’s case against objective values is two-fold: (a) five independent supporting arguments; and (b) one main argument which somehow combine into a “case for moral scepticism.” In what follows, I’ll list what these five supporting arguments are. Since Mackie only explicitly named the first two, I’ll give my own names to the last three.
(1) The Argument from Relativity. The relativity or variability of some important starting points of moral thinking and their apparent dependence on actual ways of life.
(2) The Argument from Queerness. The metaphysical peculiarity of the supposed objective values, in that they would have to be intrinsically action-guiding and motivating.
(3) The Argument from Supervenience. The problem of how such moral values could be consequential or supervenient upon natural features.
(4) The Argument from Epistemology. The corresponding epistemological difficulty of accounting for our knowledge of value entities or features and of their links with the features on which they would be consequential.
(5) The Argument from Patterns of Objectification. The possibility of explaining, in terms of several different patterns of objectification, traces of which remain in moral language and moral concepts, how even if there were no objective values people not only might have come to suppose that there are but also might persist firmly in their belief.
Even if the rough logical structure of Mackie’s argument is the two-fold as I have suggested, the formal structure of what I’m calling the “main argument” would be a complete mystery. All Mackie says is that “These five points sum up the case for moral scepticism,” but he never explains how, in his view, that argument works. Is it an inference to the best explanation? A Bayesian-style explanatory argument? Something else? Unfortunately for us, Mackie never says.
Your thoughts?

bookmark_borderMichael Ruse’s Argument against Moral Realism and for Error Theory

Michael Ruse is a philosopher of biology and an atheist who is well-known for his writings about evolution. In various writings, Ruse has argued against moral realism by appealing to (Darwinian) evolution. Instead, he argues, the scientific facts about evolution justify the conclusion that moral error theory is correct. In this post, I want to assess Ruse’s argument against moral realism and for error theory.
In his 1989 book, The Darwinian Paradigm, Michael Ruse argues that evolution, specifically Darwinian evolution, shows that morality cannot have an objective foundation.

The position of the modern evolutionist, therefore, is that humans have an awareness of morality – a sense of right and wrong and a feeling of obligation to be thus governed because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth (Mackie 1978, Murphy 1982, Ruse and Wilson 1985).[1]

One premise of the argument, then, seems to be:

(1) Morality is a biological adaptation.

Let’s continue. Ruse writes:

Darwinian theory does speak to foundations, albeit in a negative sense. My claim is that the recognition of morality as merely a biological adaptation shows that there can be no foundation of the kind traditionally sought, whether by evolutionists, Christians or others![2]

The statement, “the recognition of morality as merely a biological adaptation shows that there can be no foundation of the kind traditionally sought,” suggests that another premise for Ruse’s argument is:

(2) If morality is a biological adaptation, then it cannot have an objective foundation.

And from there the implicit conclusion seems to be:

(3) Therefore, morality cannot have an objective foundation.

Why does Ruse think that morality cannot have an objective foundation if it is nothing but a biological adaptation? Ruse asks us to perform the following a thought experiment.

Start with the fact that the argument about the train goes through because and only because the existence of the train is assumed independently. Suppose, for instance, one had two worlds identical except that one has a speeding train and the other does not. There would be no reason to think the evolutionist is committed to a belief in speeding trains in both worlds. One is aware of the speeding train only because there is such a train. Now consider two worlds, one of which has an objective morality, whatever that might mean (God’s will? Nonnatural properties?), and the other world has no such morality. If the evolutionist’s case is well taken, the people in both worlds are going to have identical beliefs-subject to normal laws of causation and so forth. The existence of the objective ethics is in no way necessary for a derivation of our belief in an objective ethics from an evolutionary perspective. So, at the very least, what we can say is that an objective ethics is redundant to the evolutionist’s case.[3]

Elsewhere, he writes:

The objectivist must agree that his / her ultimate principles are . . . redundant. You would believe what you do about right or wrong, irrespective of whether or not a ‘true’ right or wrong existed . . . Given two worlds, identical except that one has an objective morality and the other does not, the humans therein would think and act exactly the same ways, Hence the objective foundation for morality is redundant.

This passage suggests the following supporting argument for (2).

(4) On the assumption that evolution is true, an objective morality is not necessary to explain why people believe there is an objective morality.
(5) But the only reason we could have for believing in an objective morality is that they form part of the explanation for why we have the moral beliefs we do.
(6) Therefore, there is no reason to believe in an objective morality.

Let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that Ruse’s supporting argument is sound. How does Ruse justify the inference from (6) to (2)? As Lillehammer points out,

So far, however, Ruse has only made an epistemological claim about knowledge, not a metaphysical claim about truth. It does not follow from the fact that your belief that P varies regardless of whether or not P is true either that P is not true or that there is no fact about whether P is true.[4]

In other words, Ruse at least seems to be confusing moral epistemology (the order of knowing) with moral ontology (the order of being). But is he?
As Lillehammer rightly points out,[5] in order to evaluate Ruse’s argument, we have to understand what Ruse means by “objective” and “objectivity.” Before we consider what Ruse has written, let’s first distinguish between ontological and epistemological interpretations of objectivity. Morality is ontologically objective just in case some moral claims are true in virtue of corresponding to actually existing objects or properties that function as truthmakers for the claims in question. For example, someone who holds that morality is ontologically objective might maintain that the sentence “murder is wrong” is true because there is a real property, wrongness, and all moral acts that result in murder have that property. Moreover, all murders would have this property even if no one contemplated the moral status of murder and even if everyone thought that murder did not have such a property.
Moral values are epistemologically objective just in case some moral claims are such that they would be believed by (all?) impartial or rational persons who considered them; the claims in question need not have an objective ontological foundation. An epistemologically objective moral truth might have no ontological foundation at all, an objective ontological foundation (i.e., if it corresponded to natural or non-natural properties), or an intersubjective ontological foundation (i.e., if it corresponded to the moral beliefs of a group of people).
For an example of an intersubjective foundation for moral values, consider Larry Arnhart’s recent defense of an Aristotelian ethical naturalism rooted in the biological nature of human beings.[6] On Arnhart’s theory, some moral values have an ontological foundation in the biological nature of human beings. Moreover, those moral values are epistemologically objective, since they are rooted in universal desires found in all human societies. Nevertheless, such values are not ontologically objective, since they are grounded in the subjective desires of human beings.[7] Rather, they are ontologically intersubjective because such values corresponds to the universal desires found in all human societies.
With this distinction in mind, let’s return to Ruse. As Lillehammer notes, in order to properly understood Ruse’s argument, we need to understand how Ruse defines his terms. It is odd, then, that Lillehammer doesn’t quote any passages from Ruse’s writings which clarify what Ruse has in mind. Fortunately for us, however, such passages are not hard to find. Here’s one.

Clearly, here, the evolutionist and the Christian part company. Admittedly, there is no unanimity among Christians as to the true foundations of morality. While some subscribe to a divine command theory, others (no doubt impressed by arguments which go back to Plato’s Euthyphro) would argue that there are independent standards of right and wrong to which even God subscribes. But, be this as it may, the Christian is surely committed to an independent, objective, moral code – a code which, ultimately, is unchanging and not dependent on the contingencies of human nature. (Of course, like any moralist, the Christian appreciates that different times and different places call for different applications of this code.)[8]

The statement, “independent, objective, moral code — a code which, ultimately, is unchanging and not dependent on the contingencies of human nature,” suggests that Ruse has ontological objectivity in mind when he refers to objectivity. So we can reformulate his supporting argument as follows.

(4′) On the assumption that evolution is true, an ontologically objective morality is not necessary to explain why people believe there is an ontologically objective morality.
(5′) But the only reason we could have for believing in an ontologically objective morality is that the existence of an ontologically objective morality forms part of the explanation for why we have the moral beliefs we do.
(6′) Therefore, there is no reason to believe in an ontologically objective morality.

While Ruse at least defends (4′), he says nothing about (5′), perhaps because he thinks its truth is obvious. But its truth is not obvious to this writer. Many philosophers, including Richard Swinburne, have argued that moral truths are analytic truths. On the assumption that moral truths are analytic truths, then (5′) would be false. As Swinburne explains,

For the existence of the phenomena described by analytic truths needs no explanation. It does not need explaining that all bachelors are unmarried, or that if you add two to two you get four. These things hold inevitably and necessarily, whether or not there is a God.[9]

Why does Ruse not consider the possibility that at least some objective moral truths are analytic? Because he rules out that in advance.  Ruse can conclude that “the only reason we could have for believing in an ontologically objective morality is the actual existence of an ontologically objective morality” only by assuming there are no analytic truths about morality (and hence by assuming there are no ontologically objective moral truths). But Ruse asserts that the supporting argument is also supposed to lead to the intermediate conclusion that there are is no reason to believe in an ontologically objective morality, which in turn is supposed to lead to the ultimate conclusion that there is no ontologically objective morality.  Thus, the thesis that there are no analytic truths about morality is both an assumption and an implication of the conclusion of his supporting argument. In other words, his supporting argument begs the question against ontologically objective morality.
[1] Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262, 268-269.
[2] Ruse 1989, 286.
[3] Michael Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 254, as quoted in Hallvard Lillehammer, “Debunking Morality: Evolutionary Naturalism and Moral Error Theory” Biology and Philosophy 18 (2003): 567-581 at 576.
[4] Lillehammer 2003, 576.
[5] Lillehammer 2003, 577.
[6] Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998).
[7] Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, “Introduction: The Many Moral Realisms” Essays on Moral Realism (ed. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 15.
[8] Ruse 1989, 269. Italics mine.
[9] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (revised ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 176.

bookmark_borderOne Problem with Swinburne’s Case for God – Part 2

In a previous post I pointed out three different problems related to the third argument in Richard Swinburne’s systematic case for the existence of God.  The third argument is the final argument of his arguments from the nature of the universe.  It is his Teleological Argument from Spatial Order (hereafter: TASO):
(e3) There is a complex physical universe that is governed by simple natural laws and the values of the constants of the laws and of the variables of the universe’s initial conditions make it probable that human bodies will evolve in that universe.
(g) God exists.
The first problem is that the premise might well be false.  The fact that human bodies did evolve several billions of years after the Big Bang, does NOT imply that this event was probable or likely.  In fact, it seems rather improbable that HUMAN bodies would evolve just the way that they did.  However, Swinburne does not really mean “human bodies” literally here.  He means any sort of body that would be suitable for a ‘humanly free agent’, so that leaves open a wide variety of possibilities in addition to the kind of human bodies that actually exist.  Nevertheless, it is not clear to me that it was probable that bodies suitable for ‘humanly free agents’ would evolve in our universe;  the evolution of such bodies could be a lucky accident.
The second problem is that it seems IMPROBABLE that God would use the slow and (literally) painful process of evolution to bring about animals and human bodies, when God could have designed and created millions or billions of animals and humans in the blink of an eye.  God had no need to use the natural biological process of evolution, and no need to build such a process into the fabric of the universe.    Most importantly, instantaneous creation would have bypassed hundreds of millions of years of animals suffering and dying from disease and parasites and predation and injury.  A huge amount of animal suffering was involved in the natural process of evolution, so a perfectly morally good person clearly would NOT have used evolution to produce human bodies when there was a much better solution ready at hand.  So, it seems clear to me that contrary to Swinburne’s view, (e3) does not provide evidence in support of the existence of God, even assuming (e3) to be true; rather it provides evidence AGAINST the existence of God.
The third problem is the most serious, because it affects his whole systematic case for the existence of God. Unlike the premises of his first two arguments for God, the premise of TASO requires a great deal of background knowledge.  In order to know that (e3) is true, one must first know, at least, that the theory of evolution is the correct theory of human origins.
In order to know that the theory of evolution is true, one must know a significant number of scientific concepts, facts, and theories from a variety of scientific disciplines (chemistry, biology, physics, geology, paleontology, anthropology, and astronomy) plus one must have some awareness of philosophy of science and the history of science.  For all practical intents and purposes, Swinburne has sucked in most of modern scientific knowledge (at least at the level of high school biology, chemistry, etc.) into the background knowledge of TASO and thus into the background knowledge in all the remaining arguments in his case for God.
One big problem is that knowledge of evolution clearly involves knowledge of the problem of evil, at least knowledge of the problem of natural evil.  In order to know that evolution has occurred one must be aware of the fact of natural death, predation, disease, accidental injury, and natural disasters.  Thus, in order to evaluate the success or failure of TASO, one must deal with the problem of evil, at least with the problem of natural evil.
One option Swinburne has would be to simply dump TASO, to completely remove it from his sequence of arguments, and move on to the first argument in the next phase of arguments (that are based on human life).  That is probably his best option.  But if Swinburne insisted on retaining TASO as the third argument in his sequence of arguments for God, then he would have to deal with the problem of natural evil as part of the evaluation of TASO.
On the face of it, the problem of natural evil sinks TASO; that is to say, if we add (e3) and the required background knowledge to the previous information from his first two arguments, then TASO would REDUCE rather than increase the probability that God exists.  In order to avoid TASO reducing the probability of God, Swinburne would have to engage his theodicy for explaining natural evil, and he would have to do so as a part of his evaluation of TASO.
Swinburne explains natural evil or justifies the perfect goodness of God in view of natural evil by making a few basic points:

  • Natural death provides a limitation on the amount of suffering that one animal or human must endure.
  • The vulnerability of animals and humans to being killed provides many opportunities for humans to make significant choices between good and evil.
  • The existence of evil desires (that cannot be helped) in humans makes it possible for humans to have freedom of choice between good and evil.
  • The frequent occurrence of suffering and need that results from accidents, diseases, and natural dangers and disasters provides humans with opportunities to help and comfort animals and humans.
  • The frequent occurrence of suffering and need that results from accidents, diseases, and natural dangers and disasters provides humans with opportunities to investigate and learn about nature (or to choose lazy indifference and ignorance) and with choices in the use of such knowledge either to cause more suffering and need or to help reduce suffering and need or to simply not make use of the knowledge.

It appears to me that in explaining or justifying natural evil, Swinburne focuses in on human beings, and especially on the fact that human beings have freedom to make significant choices for good or evil.  In other words, in order to justify God in the face of natural evil, Swinburne must now pull the problem of moral evil into the picture.  That means, that in order to evaluate TASO and to avoid the conclusion that TASO actually REDUCES the probability that God exists, Swinburne must deal with the whole problem of evil, both natural evil and moral evil.
Furthermore, in order to deal with the problem of moral evil, Swinburne must assume that humans have conscious awareness and moral awareness.  But the next two arguments in Swinburne’s sequence of arguments are based on the premises that humans have conscious awareness and moral awareness.  Thus, in order to evaluate TASO, Swinburne must incorporate not only his response to the problem of evil (which was supposed to be argument number seven in his sequence) but also he must incorporate his argument from consciousness and his argument from moral awareness.  That means that at least three other arguments in his carefully constructed sequence of arguments must be dealt with all at once and summed up all together, in order to evaluate the success or failure of TASO.
Some of the points justifying natural evil (listed above) come from Swinburne’s argument from Providence, so it is hard to see how he could avoid pulling in that argument as well.  Thus, it appears that four out of five of Swinburne’s arguments from the nature of human life must be dealt with in order to evaluate TASO.
This makes a complete mess of his careful sequence of arguments, and destroys the logical neatness of his whole strategy, which is to add facts one at a time, and to analyze the impact of those facts one at a time.  But TASO requires that most of his remaining arguments must be examined all at once, or evaluated all together and not as separate bits of evidence added one bit at a time.
If I am correct in this analysis, then I think Swinburne really has no other option but to toss out TASO completely, and he must simply jump from his second argument from the nature of the universe to his first argument from the nature of human life (the argument from consciousness).  Otherwise, he is forced to abandon his basic strategy of adding facts one at a time, and to evaluate the significance of these facts one at at time.

bookmark_borderBiblical Genocide and Village Atheists

This post springs from an interesting discussion I had with Scott Scheule in the comments section of an earlier post. The issues there are important enough to deserve a deeper look.
Quoting the Bible against believers is one of the hoariest weapons in the freethinker’s war chest. It has been done many times, never more cogently or eloquently than in Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. Robert Ingersoll’s Some Mistakes of Moses is another fine instance of the genre. The tactic cites cruelties, horrors, and absurdities ostensibly ordered or endorsed by scripture, thereby undermining its claims of divine provenance. One rhetorical advantage of the tactic is that it immediately puts believers on the defensive and presents them with a dilemma: Either bite the bullet and admit that scripture really does say such things, or reinterpret the passages as metaphorical, allegorical, hyperbolic, or as simply misunderstood by the objector.
Either alternative presents problems. Biting the bullet may be courageous but will probably lead the freethinker to see the point as conceded. Reinterpretation has to avoid the charges of special pleading or arbitrariness. Obviously, it is not a legitimate exegetical principle to take the parts of scripture you like as literal and the embarrassing parts as metaphorical. Also, apologists don’t want to be tagged as playing lawyer’s tricks, e.g. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, when my client said ‘I will BLEEPing kill you!’ all he really meant was ‘Golly, I strongly disapprove of your action.’ He was merely using hyperbolic language to make an emphatic point.” Even in this post-Derridean age most people hold that there exist utterances that function to convey definite meanings that can be understood correctly or incorrectly. As an unabashed phallologocentrist, I concur. An interpretation cannot be legitimate if it clearly distorts the meaning.
A common riposte to the citer of scriptural embarrassments is that he is playing the “village atheist.” What is a “village atheist?” I take this epithet as implying that the objector is like the old-time purveyor of cracker-barrel skepticism who enjoys needling his pious neighbors with clever but unsophisticated objections to popular belief. A typical query of the village atheist would be something like this: “The Book of Genesis says that Cain took a wife. OK, where did she come from, if the only people alive were Adam, Eve, and Cain?!? Where did he find Mrs. Cain???” Spencer Tracy asks Frederick March this question in Inherit the Wind. It does present a challenge to fundamentalists, who are not without resources in answering it. I recall that Dr. Duane Gish, the late, not so great, young-earth creationist, replied that by the time Cain killed Able hundreds of years had passed since Eden, and that other descendants of Adam and Eve had multiplied and populated other areas (remember, everybody lived hundreds of years back then). So Cain took one of his great, great, great, etc. nieces for a wife. (Still sounds like dangerous inbreeding to me)
So, does it mark you as a “village atheist” if you cite ostensibly abominable passages of scripture as evidence against their divine provenance? Let’s try it and see.
I Samuel 15: 1-3 contain one of the most notorious passages in scripture. In the OT there are rules for everything, including the conduct of holy war. The rule was that none of the enemy or any of their animals or goods could be taken for use of by the Israelites (Deuteronomy 13: 12-18). This rule, called the ban of hērem, apparently served to show that a war was not being fought for the usual predatory reasons, but upon orders from the Lord and for his holy purposes. The enemy and all he has are to be regarded as a sacrifice to the Lord, not booty to be taken. However, the ban seems to have had the morally perverse effect of preventing pillage by sanctioning genocide. In the passage from I Samuel, the holy prophet Samuel, as spokesman for the Lord, orders King Saul to attack the Amalekites, a fierce desert tribe that had attacked the Israelites during their trek from bondage in Egypt (Exodus 17: 8-16). Here is the passage (The New English Bible):
“Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel. Now listen to the voice of the Lord. This is the very word of the Lord of Hosts: ‘I am resolved to punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel, how they attacked them on their way up from Egypt.’ Go now and fall upon the Amalekites and destroy them, and put their property under ban. Spare no one; put them all to death, men, women, children, and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses.”
Now my interpretation of this passage is that the Lord, through his prophet Samuel, is ordering Saul to attack the Amalekites under the rules of the ban. He is to kill men, women, children, and babes in arms, as well as herds, flocks, camels and asses. Prima facie it orders Saul to extirpate the Amalekites utterly, and to destroy all that they possess. Since I see no good reason for taking the passage as saying anything other than what it appears to say, this is my reading of the passage. I also make a moral judgment based on my understanding that the passage commands genocide: This is bad. I think that any morally decent person would say that if anything is bad, genocide is bad. Therefore, as Tom Paine would (and did) say, this passage seems to be more appropriately regarded as the word of a demon rather than the word of God. The Good Book is not so good.
The structure of the reasoning of the above argument is this:
1) Prima facie, this scriptural passage appears to endorse X.
2) As every morally decent person admits, X is bad.
3) Therefore, this scripture seems to endorse bad things.
4) Therefore, this scripture does endorse bad things.
Is this reasoning superficial and shallow, a typical product of a “village atheist” mentality? Well, it appears hasty. Can we so quickly move from “seems to be bad” to “is bad?” Wouldn’t a more careful thinker at least wait to see what sorts of arguments apologists can provide to exculpate these passages?
Not really. Only four interpretations of the passage seem possible:
1) It really does command genocide. All of the Amalakites are to be killed.
2) It commands that only some but not all of the Amalakites be killed.
3) It does not command that any of the Amalakites be killed. The language of genocide is hyperbolic utterance meant to indicate the extent of the Lord’s disapproval of the Amalakites.
4) It never happened. This is a piece of fiction. There was never a historical Samuel that addressed a historical Saul in this way.
Each interpretation produces intractable problems for the apologist.
1) Biting the bullet is brave but not too smart. To defend the passage you would have to argue that genocide is good in some cases. Like when? Well, maybe you could say that the victims were so demonically evil, perhaps even possessed by demons, so that killing them would be justifiable. This response may be contemptuously dismissed. Every genocide has been justified by saying that the victims were atrociously evil. “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” as the cavalry general Philip Sheridan allegedly put it (he later denied saying it). If the Jews had been as bad as depicted in the Nazi film, Der Ewige Jude, then they would have been truly despicable. Before the Rawandan genocide, Tutsis were called “cockroaches” before being murdered by the Hutus. That the victims of genocide are uniformly evil is always the justification claimed by their murderers, and it is always a notorious lie.
2) This interpretation is plainly at odds with the rest of the chapter. Verses 7 through 9 say that Saul put all the people to the sword sparing only the Amalakite king, Agag, and the best of the animals. Verses 10 through 19 tell how Samuel angrily confronts Saul and upbraids him for sparing the sheep, cattle, and King Agag. He insists that the Lord had ordered the destruction of that wicked nation and that they were to be wiped out (verse 18). To drive the point home (sorry, I couldn’t resist) he takes a sword and cuts Agag to pieces (verse 33). More basically, trying to get the command to only kill some and not all from the above passage in verses 1-3 is just trying to squeeze blood from a stone. The passage is woefully clear: “Spare on one; put them all to death, men, women, children and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses.” The commentators of the Oxford Study Edition of the New English Bible take it for granted that the passage says just what it seems to say. Rather cold-bloodedly, they note “The ban, making a battle an absolute, relentless struggle, was a powerful psychological force in holy war.” Modern day exponents of holy war, like ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab would certainly agree! The Bible gave the idea of holy war to mankind, and it is a gift that keeps on giving!
3) For the sake of argument, suppose we concede (what I don’t for a second actually believe) that the passage is not to be taken literally, as a command to commit genocide, but employs hyperbolic language to express a strong moral condemnation, or something like that. Even if taken non-literally, the spirit of the passage is still extremely nasty; it is an instance of what Paine called the “unrelenting vindictiveness” that fills so much of the Bible. Also, use of such language does not seem terribly smart. Some literal-minded persons might make the mistake of taking language that apparently calls for genocide as actually calling for genocide. Could happen. Oh, wait. It has happened. Many times. As Paine notes, such passages have served to corrupt and brutalize mankind. How odd that divine omniscience would not foresee that saying hateful things might have hateful effects.
4) Perhaps some very liberal Christians would be willing to see the passage in question and other such passages as fictions. Such things were never really said. Still, the burden would be on such persons to explain just how scripture can be considered inspired when it has so many horrible stories.
The upshot is that with verses such as I Samuel 15: 1-3, there is not much that the apologist can say that will do much to redeem such passages. In such cases, there is nothing superficial or unfair about taking the nasty passages in the Bible to say what they appear to say and then making the appropriate moral judgments. Of course, such a critic’s readings and judgments are defeasible. Perhaps, mirabile dictu, apologists will, after all, have adequate justifications for such passages, and not simply tie themselves into mental and moral knots in the attempt. However, the critic may be excused for not holding his breath until such putative justifications emerge. After all, on far too many occasions we have all heard the sophistries of casuists as they attempt to defend the manifestly indefensible.