bookmark_borderAugustine Versus Hypatia (Part II)

This is the continuation of the imaginary dialogue between Augustine and Hypatia begun in the last post.
Moderator: I fear that the discussion once again is descending into mutual recrimination. To get us back on track, let me get back to a point that was raised earlier. It seems to me that one real strength of orthodox Christianity is the doctrine of the incarnation, which unites spirit and flesh. Orthodoxy banished the extreme dualism of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, an unattractive idea that spawns superstition and repudiation of the physical world. Augustine, would you care to comment”
Augustine: Yes indeed. Christianity in general, and I in particular, have been charged with the introduction of the “Dark Ages,” a period of supposed ignorance and credulity in which blind faith replaced reason and science was despised and ignored. On the contrary, by regarding the physical world as the creation of a rational God, and not the repository of darkness and evil, we laid the conceptual foundations for modern science. Had dualism triumphed, with its deprecation of the physical, modern science could not have arisen. Unbelievers who pride themselves in their devotion to science have Christianity to thank for the science which they idolize.
Hypatia: Whatever the “official” position of Christianity, in practice, Christians have been the most rabid dualists. Extreme Christian asceticism flourished in the late Roman Empire of our day. These ascetics practiced atrocious self-flagellation and mortification of the flesh, enduring the greatest rigors of self-torture in the effort to overcome the flesh and rise to God. St. Anthony lived in the desert and would throw himself naked into a thorn bush when Satan would tempt him with lascivious visions of beautiful women. St. Simeon Stylites lived on top of a pillar for many years, enduring all weather conditions and imposing the most severe deprivations on himself. Far from being objects of revulsion, these crackpots were deeply revered—note the “saint” before their names!—and held up for admiration and emulation. Actions speak louder than words, and when you look at what Christians actually did, you see that repudiation of the earthly and the physical were points of pride for them and that they were the most assiduous haters of the flesh.
Augustine: The rigors of the ascetics were neither gratuitous nor unwarranted. When a society is as besotted with carnal pleasures as was the Empire of our day, strong medicine is needed. As I said in my Confessions, when I arrived in Carthage, I found a hissing cauldron of lust, and Carthage was hardly atypical. Sex, power, and money were the true gods of our world, as they are today, and the “decadence” of Rome was a reality, even after it became nominally Christian. Asceticism and monasticism were the natural and salutary responses to a world mad with sinful indulgence. Did some of the ascetics go too far? Surely, but their excesses were mirror images of the excesses of sin.
Hypatia: But the cure for excess is not excess in the opposite direction, but reason and moderation. When excess is answered with excess, they do not cancel each other out, but synergize against reason. Really, though, the ascetics were only the spear-tip of the thrust against the flesh. Far more significant and lasting in its harm was the animus of the church “fathers” against those beings who, for them, were the quintessential embodiments of the flesh and its temptations—women. As meticulously detailed by the brilliant scholar Uta Ranke-Heinemann, in her searing indictment Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, the church “fathers”—and especially you, Augustine—taught hatred and fear of women, and, concomitantly, a morbid, indeed pathological, attitude towards sex.
Augustine: Nonsense. I merely held that sex should be for its natural purpose, which is procreation. Any use of sex that thwarts the procreative process is an unnatural perversion of its God-ordained purpose. Or do you deny that sex is for procreation? Is it not obvious that sex is for the maintenance of the human race?
Hypatia: As Mr. Darwin taught us, what any natural adaptation is “for” is that it functions so as to increase the reproductive fitness of the organism. Consider sex. Why is sex fun? The fact that it is fun seems to have been missed by you and the other “fathers.”
Augustine: Another smear.
Hypatia: Since reproduction requires sexual union it stands to reason that those organisms who find sex intensely pleasurable will seek to engage in it more often, and therefore enhance their chances of producing offspring. Further, a population of enthusiastic breeders, other things being equal, will very probably outbreed one of indifferent reproducers. Finding sex highly pleasurable is therefore an adaptive feature that was favored by natural selection, both at the individual and the group level. In that sense, sex, and specifically sexual pleasure, is “for” reproduction.
Augustine: And that is precisely why the experience of sexual pleasure for its own sake, and not with the intention of procreation, is an unnatural abuse and misuse of the divine gift of sex. It is like chewing food to get the savor of it and then spitting it out to avoid the nutrition.
Hypatia: Ah, so chewing gum leads to hell.
Augustine: Ridicule seems to be your main weapon.
Hypatia: There is nothing wrong with ridiculing the ridiculous, and your doctrine of what sex is “for” is preposterous. You commit a fallacy of division, saying that what is good for a whole must be good for each of its individual parts, i.e., what is good for a species is good for the individual organisms that constitute that species. In particular, what is good for the preservation of the human species must be the same as the good for each individual man and woman. Reproduction is, of course, necessary for the preservation of the human species, but that does not mean that it is necessary or even always desirable for every individual man or woman. What an individual human being is “for” is the happiness and well-being of that individual. Full stop. Sex therefore serves its purpose for the individual when it promotes the happiness and well-being of that person. Full stop. If the Church says otherwise, then it opposes the happiness and well-being of humans.
Augustine: Your statement makes absolutely clear the blinkered view of unbelievers. I emphatically affirm human happiness, but I realize that genuine fulfillment cannot be found in the striving for worldly goods, but only by faithful obedience to the eternal law of God. Our final and ultimate felicity will be the union of the faithful with God in the hereafter. Pagans who can see no farther than the earthly life think that earthly goods are sufficient for happiness. This view leads to sin and perdition.
Hypatia: Eternal happiness or misery are concepts a bit too rich for my blood. As I see it, a doctrine is to be rejected if it leads to pain and misery in this life. Let’s see what your sex-phobia and misogyny did to ordinary men and, especially, women. Did you not say that a woman is useful to a man only for the begetting of children (Aquinas later added housecleaning too)? She was not given to Adam to help him till the soil because she is lacking in physical strength, and a man would have been better. Neither is she a good companion. Conversation with a male friend is better. Women, in your view, are of no significance for the life of the mind. As Ranke-Heinemann put it:
Thus Augustine was the brilliant inventor of what Germans call the three K’s (Kinder, Küche, Kirche—children, kitchen, church), an idea that still has life in it, in fact it continues to be the Catholic hierarchy’s primary theological position on women.
As for sexual pleasure, you regarded it as per se evil, but as necessary for procreation, and therefore that even married couples should experience sexual pleasure only when they are wholly motivated by the desire for procreation. As you put it with casuistic precision: “What cannot occur without lust should not, however, occur because of lust.” As Ranke Heinemann aptly comments, Catholic sexual morality—largely shaped by you—has “…warped the consciences of many men and women. It has burdened them with hairsplitting nonsense and striven to train them as moral acrobats instead of making them more humane and kinder to their fellow human beings” (back cover)
In other words, Augustine, you stigmatized sex and denigrated women. Innocent and natural pleasures, chief sources of delight in this vale of tears known as human life, are relegated by you to the status of, at best, necessary evils to be avoided whenever possible. It is hard to imagine a doctrine more anti-human, more opposed to joy, more stifling of exuberance, less conducive to a full, rich, and happy life. As for women, we struggle to this very day to overcome the sort of disparagement you typified. Even now, in the twenty-first century, when women have achieved the highest accomplishments in every field of human endeavor, and proven more than capable of meeting every challenge, even now we struggle against the stereotypes you so eloquently promulgated.
Augustine: Well, if I may be allowed to get a word in edgewise into your tirade, my views on sex were not the product, as you seem to imply, of the neurotic maunderings of a sour celibate. I know about sex from knowing myself. I was as much a libertine and sensualist as anyone. Lust raged constantly in my mind, and no one knows better than I how terrible it is to be a slave to lust. It was not I, but a Greek of the classical age who said that when his desires ebbed in old age he felt like one freed from an insane and tyrannical master. I emphatically reject that I am opposed to joy and pleasure. I merely maintain that spiritual joy is greater than any sensual joy and that the pleasure of the soul is vastly more satisfying than the pleasure of the body. There are higher things and lower things. The higher things of mind and spirit are what give us the truest, deepest, and most abiding satisfactions. Or do you reduce everything to the physical, so that humans are just animals and can aspire to nothing higher, nobler, and uplifting—pleasures that refine and purify rather than besmirch and degrade?
Hypatia: How bizarre to think that pleasures of the mind require us to despise those of the body! I have known both kinds and unashamedly revel in them. Surely, those are to be pitied who can experience only sensual pleasure and know nothing of the joys of intellectual discovery or of beauty or of the sacred depths we may encounter in art and nature. Even more stunted however, are those who, oppressed by a neurotic and obsessive sense of sin and shame, foul the wellsprings of joy, and try to stifle their own sexual feelings. Having denied themselves sexual pleasure, they then devote themselves to denying it of others. These are the true sexual perverts, the ones obsessed with controlling the details of others’ sex lives. Those who cannot enjoy the satisfactions of mind, beauty, and spirit are to be pitied. Those pious hypocrites who cloak themselves in a devotion to “higher” things are actually devotees of the basest pleasure of all, namely the pernicious pleasures of self-righteousness and the manipulation of others by the inculcation of guilt and self-loathing. These are not to be pitied, but despised.
Augustine: You are shameless and offensive, and I see no purpose in continuing this conversation.
Moderator: In an effort to salvage some wisdom from what, despite my efforts, has become a personal exchange, may I ask each of you to sum up your position, and, let me emphatically implore you not make personal remarks. Augustine, will you go first?
Augustine: Certainly. If you recall, my intention from the beginning was to focus on ideas. The Lord disclosed even to pagans that there is a higher, more beautiful, and richer reality than the material. Yet, for them, that reality was out of reach, though they strove for it by undergoing years of rigorous intellectual training. The Lord, in His great wisdom and unbounded mercy, has seen that humans yearn for goodness and beauty, but are prisoners of sin that poisons their minds and will, and makes their striving vain. Thus, knowing that we cannot come to Him, He came to us, making himself a human being, born of woman, to redeem us from our sins and lead those who believe to Him. Why do not all bow to Him and accept his grace? Because the flesh is not weak, but strong, strong, and only rigorous discipline can contain it. When lust is unrestrained it rages in the mind, as I know only too well; indeed, it is a conflagration that burns through every scruple and principle and even destroys rationality. Surely no fact of human life is plainer than the devastation that lust has wrought—the powerful it has brought low, and the lowly it has ground into the dust. Unbelieving libertines do not set people free by destroying sexual restraint, but condemn them to the bondage of shame, disease, poverty, and despair. Only Christ can quiet the raging in our minds and limbs and give us the tranquility of self-discipline and turn our minds to higher things.
Moderator: Hypatia?
Hypatia: Sorry. I was bemused for a moment, sincerely dumbfounded by the idea that life presents us with so simple a dichotomy: Either monkish restraint or unbounded libertinism. No other options. I am afraid, Augustine, that you never really gave up your Manichean dualism…
Moderator: Please! No personal comments! Please stick to philosophy!
Hypatia: But sometimes the personal is the philosophical! Augustine invokes a religious philosophy that, he thinks, authorizes him to tell other people what is their most personal and intimate business. The institution he helped found, the Roman Catholic Church continues to this day the tradition of celibate old men telling women what they must do with their bodies. When your “philosophy” intrudes into my womb, then it inevitably becomes a personal issue. I have only one basic moral principle: human happiness. As I said earlier, what each of us is for is our own fulfillment and well-being. Women have known all along, without being instructed by men, that sex is double-edged. We are the ones who bear the consequences of the sexual exploitation and irresponsibility of men. Women are the ones who have had to suffer the double standard that punishes women’s sexual impropriety severely while male impropriety is shrugged off. I am afraid that religion has been the primary enforcer of that double standard, and so, in so many places in the world, it continues to this very day. Indeed, it is hard even to imagine what the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—would look like if truly purged of sexism and patriarchy. I am not sure they would even be recognizable.
Augustine’s religion is just as binding to the mind as to the body. Do not let creeds do your thinking for you. The human mind, if freed from dogma, is a marvelous instrument that can reach from the smallest atom to the vastness of intergalactic space. Free your mind and your body from gloomy and repressive superstitions. Women: Love yourselves, and find the truth with your own minds in defiance of centuries of denigration by the likes of Augustine. No force in the world is more powerful than your own free minds.
Moderator. Okay. Well, thanks to both of you for participating in this, er, vigorous exchange.
Augustine: It was an honor, if not exactly a pleasure.
Hypatia: For me it was an honor and a pleasure!

bookmark_borderAugustine Versus Hypatia (Part I)

For the edification of my students, and for fun, I have written some dialogues that resurrected figures from the past and allowed them to debate. I set these debates as part of programs on “The Afterlife Broadcasting Company.” I assume that the participants have become aware of intellectual developments since their day. Here I have tried to be as true to Augustine’s views as I could. We know quite a bit about Augustine but much less about Hypatia. Therefore, I have had to imaginatively reconstruct her views. Since the dialogue is rather long at over 5000 words, I have divided it into two parts so as not to try readers’ patience too much.
Moderator: Prepare for fireworks! Tonight we have in the studio Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415), philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, educator, and pagan martyr. Her opposite number is her contemporary, St. Augustine, philosopher, theologian, and Bishop of Hippo (354-430). Both of our guests tonight were citizens of the late Roman Empire, living in the days of the final collapse of the Western Empire, the topic our previous guest Mr. Gibbon wrote about so eloquently. The Roman Empire was made officially Christian by the Emperor Theodosius in 391, but pagan intellectuals and academies continued to exist, more or less tolerated for the time being. Hypatia herself was the victim of intolerance. In the year 415 she was killed…
Hypatia: Murdered. Atrociously. By a mob of Christian fanatics who had been incited by the odious Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria…
Augustine: May I ask the moderator not to spoil the discussion by permitting the injection of emotion and name-calling. I was hoping for a calm, rational exchange.
Hypatia: Did I raise my voice? That I was murdered by a mob of Christian fanatics is a plain fact that I stated in a calm, rational manner. That Patriarch Cyril was odious is, of course, a value judgment, but one I am happy to support. Indeed, his actions shocked and appalled many Christians.
Augustine: Yes, I was one of the ones shocked and appalled.
Moderator: I think that we can agree, then, that Hypatia’s murder was an atrocious and inexcusable act. However, to focus our discussion on ideas, let’s look at another area of at least potential agreement between the two of you. Hypatia, you were a neoplatonist philosopher. Augustine, you also were deeply influenced by neoplatonism. What exactly is “neoplatonism?”
Hypatia: Neoplatonism, as the name implies, is a philosophy that is based upon and arises from the metaphysical theories of Plato, particularly his theory of the Ideal Forms. As developed by neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichos, Proclus, and myself, we conceived of all of reality as an emanation from a transcendent, ineffable One that lies beyond all human categories and distinctions, and even beyond being. Reality, which flows from the One, is a hierarchical structure, with Mind as a more fundamental reality than matter, fundamental in the sense that that the order and organization of material things, their intelligible natures, are to be understood only in terms of ideal, transcendent patterns. The human is a material being, but possessed of a spiritual soul that is the pure and abiding essence of the human person. The goal of philosophy is to guide the individual soul upwards from its material prison, through a process of intellectual enlightenment, aimed at a return of the soul to its true home, the realm of mind and spirit.
Moderator. Wow. I am not sure that I understand much of that. I think, indeed, that one of our earlier guests, Aristotle, would question whether it is entirely intelligible. Nevertheless, I take it, Augustine, that your philosophical orientation is essentially in agreement?
Augustine: Yes. I think that God inspired Plato, Plotinus, and other pagan thinkers and showed them a part of the truth. They correctly perceived a reality beyond the material, but for them ultimate reality was an abstract principle, a theoretical entity that is no more personal than the modern theories about quarks and electrons. We Christians realized that the highest form of reality is a person, a being that thinks, feels, judges, decides, and plans. God can hear the prayers of even the humblest soul and is bountiful in His grace and mercy. Neoplatonism is an elitist philosophy that offers an intellectual path to salvation, one open to only the select few who have had the great good fortune to have had an elite education. Pagan intellectuals scorned Christianity as “a religion of women and slaves.” What for them was its greatest weakness was in fact its greatest strength. Salvation is not for a few privileged intellectuals but for one and all…
Hypatia: Yes, salvation is open to all—except for the myriads of human beings who, by your own doctrine, are predestined to eternal torment in hell. Your “God of mercy” has, for inexplicable reasons, created a universe in which a few are saved by irresistible and seemingly arbitrary grace, while the rest are consigned to the worst possible fate, a fate thrust upon them by “original sin” transmitted from two distant ancestors whom they never knew. I cannot think that omniscience and perfect goodness working through eternity could not have come up with a better plan than that.
Augustine: Typical! Instead of falling on your knees to thank God for his gracious salvation given through Christ, you presume to judge Him with your fallible human intellect! Much has been hidden from the “wise” such as yourself, and disclosed only to the eye of faith. It is not for us to question God’s judgments, only to defer to them and accept them humbly. I believe in order that I might understand.
Hypatia: Your incuriosity is staggering. One thing you do not have much faith in is reason. As one much later Christian, Mr. John Locke put it with admirable candor, all of you Christians follow reason until you get to something you cannot explain. You then call it a “mystery” and say that you have to accept it on faith! What you call a “mystery” I call “nonsense,” and what you call “faith” I call “credulity.” Indeed, your whole theology is an incoherent pastiche of ideas stolen from Greek philosophy and forcibly conjoined with the mythology of Hebrew religion. That is because you want two inconsistent things from this chimera you have created: You want your God to have the respectability of a metaphysical principle that will meet the rigorous standards of philosophy, yet he must also be a Zeus-like being who is enthroned in heaven like an earthly monarch, and like a human tyrant, he dispenses his favors to those who truckle to him and smites those with the courage to defy him. There is a great deal of smiting in your scriptures.
Augustine: Clearly, you have an incapacity to understand allegory. The Holy Scriptures were not written by or for philosophers, but for everyone. Therefore, they have meaning at different levels. The literal meaning speaks to the pious and humble, but the learned and wise can see a deeper and richer meaning. For instance, the beautiful story of the Prodigal Son can be understood by anyone, but the wise can see beyond its literal meaning and understand it as an allegory for the glorious plan of salvation whereby God’s supreme love justifies us despite our defiance of him. Like the Prodigal, we think we are capable of living on our own, without God or his grace and mercy. Our deepest sin is pride, superbia, the arrogance of thinking that we are sufficient for ourselves. Fools! We are so bound to sin that our choices are only sinful choices and even our intellectual powers are bound by sin. Only God can set us free. We know this to be true if we look in our own hearts. We see that we are restless and in turmoil. Tranquility eludes us, even if we are gifted with all good earthly things. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We know God by knowing ourselves and seeing in Him the final and supreme satisfaction of our yearning for truth, meaning, and beauty.
Hypatia: So, there is one revelation for hoi polloi, and another for the “wise and learned!” And who is the elitist? Worse, it is simply dishonest to dismiss every atrocity and absurdity, with which the Christian/Judaic scriptures overflow, by calling them “allegory.” The fact is, as the earlier guest Mr. Thomas Paine pointed out in his brilliant polemic The Age of Reason, the scripture of your alleged religion of love is filled with the most repugnant and degrading cruelties, and, as Mr. Paine so judiciously observed, those who worship a cruel God become cruel people. Cruel like you, Augustine. Did you or did you not say that “heretics” such as the Donatists should be forced back into the orthodox fold, by means of physical violence if necessary?
Augustine: Note that I recommended mercy and spoke against the use of the horrible tortures of the day such as the rack and red-hot irons…
Hypatia: Yes, as I recall you said that beating them with rods would do. Let’s see, was that metal rods or would mere wooden ones suffice? Yes, you were an angel of mercy.
Moderator: To prevent the discussion from devolving further into mutual recrimination, let me see if I can shift us back to a more philosophical orientation. History is irrelevant to neoplatonism. It is a metaphysic of eternal relationships between transcendent entities and between the transcendent and the material. For the neoplatonist, the material world has always existed as an eternal emanation from The One. Salvation, for the individual, is, in fact to escape the temporal and the material and involves the mystical union of the soul, purified of all earthly dross, with its ultimate source, The One. It is the “flight of the alone to the alone” as Plotinus poetically describes that mystical merging. It is a state of ineffable ecstasy that even Plotinus only experienced a few times. Indeed it may require more than one lifetime to achieve. Christianity, on the other hand, affirms certain historical occurrences as its fundamental truths. As St. Paul said (I Corinthians, chapter 15), “if Christ be not risen, our faith is in vain.” The Apostle’s Creed affirms that the world is not eternal, but was the creation of God in time. Also the incarnation, via the virgin birth, and the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ all are affirmed as actual, historical occurrences. Doesn’t Christianity, then, represent a crucial divergence from neoplatonism, and, indeed, all of Greek philosophy? Isn’t this an affirmation of the value of the world rather than a repudiation of it, as the neoplatonists recommended.
Augustine: Yes indeed. Christianity definitively repudiates the dualism of spirit and matter, and the association of all that is good with the former and all that is evil with the latter. God loves the physical universe; He created it. Most profoundly, he incarnated Himself as a physical being, the flesh-and-blood human being Jesus of Nazareth, born of a woman like any other man. Orthodoxy, in opposition to all Gnostic heresies, affirms that Christ was both fully God and fully human. In Him the divine and the human natures are perfectly combined without division or disunity. God unites his eternal nature with our earthly nature as an act of supreme love to reconcile sinners with Himself.
Moderator: But this is a point I have never understood. If God becomes incarnate as a human, then what happens to the creator and sustainer of the universe? Does he simply disappear, so that there is no longer a transcendent God but only an immanent one, one fully incorporated into the material world?
Augustine: No, this is why the doctrine of the Trinity is so vital. God the Father remains in His eternal glory. It is God the Son who is God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are not incarnated.
Moderator: So, Christians believe in three Gods?
Augustine: No! God is three persons united in one substance.
Moderator: But how do we understand this?
Hypatia: You cannot. The whole doctrine is a morass of incomprehensibility.
Augustine: What?!? You neoplatonists had your own trinity—The One, Mind (Nous) and the World-Soul.
Hypatia: We did indeed recognize three distinct realities, with The One as being the primordial reality and with Mind and the World-Soul as emanations from The One. We did not commit the gross error of uniting these into a single being of three distinct “persons”—a concept that makes no sense at all. Further, the idea of an incarnation is just as absurd. It is what a later philosopher called a gross “category mistake” to think that the divine and the fleshly can be combined. They are defined as opposites so that being one by definition excludes the other. To speak of the divine as becoming flesh makes no more sense than saying that the number seven is living next door to you or that the set of integers votes Republican.
Christianity is guilty of many intellectual sins, but putting incomprehensible metaphysical formulae at the center of a creed and then requiring, on pain of damnation, assent to the unintelligible, is its greatest offense.  To his credit, your successor, Aquinas, admitted that the doctrine of the Trinity was incomprehensible, but said that it should be accepted on faith. But you cannot accept, even  by faith, what is for you not even a concept. If I told you that you must accept, on faith, that “Twas brillig and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” what would be the content of your “belief?” How would such a “belief” differ from unbelief?
Augustine: Yet the world is full of adumbrations of the Trinity. Our very minds contain the trinity of being, knowledge, and love. We know that we are, we love that we are, and we know that we love. These three elements of our selves are distinct yet live within one consciousness and in the closest relation with one another. We see, therefore that parts of our selves can be distinct yet united into one consciousness. Our very souls mirror the triune nature of God, and that trinity of being, knowledge, and love constitutes the image of God in us.
Hypatia: Pardon me if I fail to grasp the analogy. The only human beings that are multiple persons are those who suffer from an extreme form of psychosis. Is the Christian God insane? That would explain a lot.
Augustine: Arrogance and insult are the best you can do? Allow me to point out the intellectual hypocrisy: Hypatia and the neoplatonists talk about the “One,” which is beyond all human descriptions and concepts, and so is incomprehensible. Sauce for the gander. They are the last ones who should charge Christians with incoherence.
Hypatia: Tu quoque is the best you can do? We persecute no one and threaten none with hell if they reject the idea of The One. As philosophers, we say that if you find a concept unreasonable, then by all means reject it. We disagree with other schools of philosophy, but we do not condemn them. Christians, however, display their charity by directing rancor and violence at those who split theological hairs with them. Christians violently persecuted and killed each other over whether the Son was homoiousios or homoousisos with the Father. Literally, an iota’s difference was a matter of life and death.

bookmark_borderIs Racism America’s Original Sin?

It has been over a year since I contributed to Secular Outpost. Multiple responsibilities and distractions took me away. I would like to return to SO with a post that is somewhat tangential to our usual discussion topics here, but the issue is so important that I think we need to discuss it whenever we can:
I am an old white man. What can I say about racism? Whatever I say, I am sure it will not be enough, since I have not experienced the daily reality of marginalization and humiliation in overt and subtle ways. Nevertheless, each of us must try to gain what wisdom and insight we can. Racism is a toxin that poisons every aspect of society. Nothing that we do is left untouched and undistorted by racism. Every institution, public and private, is affected by it. If I may speak in a theological vein, racism is the original sin of America that was with us in the beginning and in every succeeding generation has done its insidious work to prevent the realization of liberty and justice for all. Law, politics, business, medicine, religion, education, and even our leisure activities are skewed by racism. Unlike Augustine’s concept of original sin, racism is not passed on biologically. Small children seem to be immune to it. Yet the pervasiveness and intractability of racism is such that we may say, speaking metaphorically, that it is stamped into the cultural DNA of American society.
But haven’t things improved? Have we not made steps in the right direction? Surely we have. I am old enough to remember travelling by car across the South from Atlanta to Houston in the early sixties. The trip took us through some of the more paleolithic areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, where service stations still had separate “colored” restrooms and restaurants defiantly posted “whites only” signs.
In Atlanta, the city that prided itself in being “too busy to hate,” restaurateur (and future governor of Georgia) Lester Maddox brandished ax handles to chase black people out of his establishment. Governor George Wallace stood in the door at the University of Alabama to deny entrance to black students. In Neshoba County, Mississippi, three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan with the connivance of local “law enforcement.” In Birmingham, the Klan blew up a black church, murdering four young girls. Surely, we must think, we have come a long, long ways since those terrible days.
Then George Floyd was lynched. Who needs the Klan when cops can casually murder a helpless black man in a major city in broad daylight and obviously expect no punishment? And Floyd was just the latest in a long, disgraceful series of such incidents by the very officers appointed to “serve and protect” us. And the perpetrators nearly always have walked free, many not even being fired by their departments. Small wonder Floyd’s murderers arrogantly expected impunity. When it comes to race, America is like the hamster on its exercise wheel; we run and run and get nowhere.
So, what, if anything, can old white people like me do to improve the situation? Well, obviously we can tolerate no racism on the part of our public officials. Learn to recognize all the code words and dog whistles for racism, and be aggressively intolerant of those that use them. When you hear a politician calling for “law and order,” remember the history of that phrase. It is a classic dog whistle. That locution became popular during the Nixon years in response to the perceived threat of black crime and violence. Politicians who touted themselves as “law ‘n’ order” candidates were reassuring white voters that they were all for cracking black heads.
Call out racists when they try to claim the moral high ground. When someone responds to the slogan “Black Lives Matter” by piously intoning that ALL lives matter, don’t let them get away with it. People who say that are really just hypocritically invoking a moral platitude to disguise their refusal to admit that black lives really are valued less.
And in America today black lives really are valued less. Face that fact. Consider environmental racism. When a dirty, polluting plant, like a cement mixing facility is being located somewhere in town, guess whose neighborhood is chosen. I live in Friendswood, TX, a well-off, predominately white neighborhood. No mixing plants near me. The shocking fact is that zip code is one of the most reliable predictors of life expectancy in the Houston area. Not only do black and brown people have to live with pollution, they often are in food deserts, where the nearest grocery stores with healthy foods are many miles away. The shockingly greater mortality of the COVID-19 pandemic in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods is indicative of the underlying poorer health of residents and their greater difficulty in getting access to quality healthcare. Also, higher paid workers have largely been able to telecommute, but those in “frontline” jobs like postal or home healthcare workers, have no choice but to work in environments with a higher risk of exposure.
What about confronting your own racism? Touchy subject. Many of us, myself included, would be seriously offended if called a racist. In fact, I would consider it a defamation of my character. In my classes I make every effort to make everyone feel comfortable and included. I have gotten extremely positive feedback from students of all races and ethnicities. Many have taken multiple classes from me, and quite a few have earned outstanding grades. I am proud to have known these students and to have made a positive impact on their lives.
Still, to be perfectly honest—and we all have to be perfectly honest if we are going to make any progress—it would be a miracle if I, a white man in a society that devalues nonwhite lives, had never unconsciously absorbed any racist assumptions or attitudes. What do I do about it? Do I monitor my thoughts constantly and obsessively review everything I say to see if there is any tincture of prejudice? Do I engage in rigorous self-censorship, repressing any thought that might betray bias? Do I repent in sackcloth and ashes or wear a hair shirt? That sounds like the way to make yourself a neurotic, not a better person.
I think that the way to confront your own racism is to treat it like you would any other irrational thought or impulse. First, you have to notice it. Do you get angrier when a black person is rude to you than when a white person is? Do you expect more deference from people of color? Do you unthinkingly expect a black or brown professional to be less competent than a white one? When you hear about a holdup on the local news, do you automatically assume that the criminal was black? It is hard not to. Every time you watch local news, you are likely to see at least one video of young black men committing a robbery or break in. It is easy to think of crime as having a black face, but we forget that the overwhelming majority of white collar criminals are white. Bernie Madoff, the Wells Fargo crooks, and the Enron con artists stole more than armies of street criminals.
When I see security camera footage of a black teenager pistol whipping a convenience store clerk, it makes me mad. And it should. But you should be much angrier when the criminal is a wealthy white man who went to an elite university and occupies the executive suite of a large corporation and has bilked innocent people out of their life savings or retirements. Remember that a great deal of the really rotten stuff in the world is done by rich white people. Rich white people pollute your air and water, corrupt Congress with bribes and legions of lobbyists, gouge you for your insulin, bribe officials at top universities to admit their dimwit children, exploit dodges and loopholes to shift the tax burden onto you, bust unions, create monopolies, slap harassing lawsuits on ordinary people who have the temerity to stand up to them, and—should they (mirabile dictu!) ever actually be charged with a crime—are insulated from punishment by a phalanx of lawyers.
So, if racist thoughts or feelings bubble up into consciousness, or you find yourself making racist assumptions, confront them with reason, not guilt. For me it helps to remind myself that nearly everyone who has caused me any problem in life was white.
It also helps to have friends, not just casual acquaintances, but genuine friends who are not white. For many years, until his untimely death at the age of 56, one of my closest friends was a black man who was the son of a single mom who raised him and his brothers in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood. Gerry was an amazing human being. I thought that I knew something about the history of the Second World War, priding myself on having read a few dozen books. Gerry had read ten to every one that I had read. Add to that his exhaustive knowledge of cinema and classical music. You could ask Gerry about the best performance of any piece in the classical repertoire, and he would name the conductor and orchestra. I followed his advice many times in my music selections, and was never guided wrong. But Gerry also knew how to enjoy good food, good company, and a big laugh. Gerry had the greatest laugh of anyone I have known; it was an unrestrained eruption of pure mirth. God, I miss him.
OK, well those are my thoughts for now. I am sure that they are not profound: Do not tolerate racism in yourself or others. Confront irrationality with truth and reason. Have friends, real friends, who are people of color. Let me add that when black or brown people talk to you, listen to what they are saying. Really listen, even if what they are saying rubs you the wrong way. Especially if it rubs you the wrong way. They may be wrong. Just because someone is black does not mean that they can’t be talking nonsense. On the other hand, maybe they are saying something that you need to hear.
I am old. Racism is not going away in my lifetime. Probably not in yours, but as Voltaire said at the end of Candide, we must all tend our gardens. We must make the difference we can make.
 

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 6: Arbitrariness and Normative Impotence

Here, again, are the two options of the Euthyphro dilemma:
(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.
(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
I have written five parts in this series about the Euthyphro Dilemma, the overarching aim of which has been to show that the dilemma provides the basis of a decisive objection to the metaethical divine command theory (MDCT). In previous posts, I have explained what must be done to establish this:
(A)  Show that the two options of the dilemma are mutually exclusive. (This was accomplished in Part 1)
(B) Show the two options are exhaustive (i.e., that these are the only options available) (This was accomplished in Part 4.
(C) Show that both options imply devastating problems for metaethical divine command theory.

i. Show that option (I) implies that MDCT is false. (This was accomplished in Parts 1 and 4[1]).

ii. Show that there are serious and devastating problems associated with option (II) which (individually or collectively) indicate that MDCT is false.

In defense of claim (Cii), I have said that option (II) just is the MDCT and that there are four problems associated with it:
(1) The contingency problem
(2) The counterintuitive possibilities problem
(3) The arbitrariness problem
(4) The problem of the normative impotence of commands
In Part 5, I looked in detail at problems (1) and (2) and argued that, while these are serious problems, an objection to MDCT based on them is not decisive. In this current post, I will examine problems (3) and (4) and argue that an objection to MDCT based on them is decisive.
Problem (3): The Arbitrariness Problem
In Part 4, I described the arbitrariness problem as follows:

If actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it is difficult to see how God can have reasons for his commands. He has no reason to command one thing rather than another. On option (II) all deontic moral value exists in virtue of divine commands. Deontic moral value is precisely the value that actions have whereby we have reasons to perform or refrain from performing them. Commands are actions. So, if there is no deontic moral value prior to God’s commands, then God can have no reasons for his commands. But if there are no reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. And if his commands are arbitrary, then morality itself is arbitrary.”

Defenders of divine command theory have attempted to address this problem in two distinct ways. Some divine command theorists argue that God’s commands are grounded in (or are expressions of) God’s essential nature. In his contribution to the volume, Is Goodness Without God Good Enough, William Lane Craig, for example, says,

On the theistic view, God’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of divine commands that constitute our moral duties. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from his moral nature. (Garcia and King, 30)

Let’s call this response to the arbitrariness problem, the Essential Divine Nature response (EDN). Other divine command theorists offer a response that is importantly different from EDN. This second response involves using the distinction between axiological value and deontic value. Those who rely on this response emphasize that MDCT is a theory specifically of deontic moral value rather than a theory of all moral value. Given this, they claim, the axiological value of actions can provide God with reasons for his commands. Let’s call this response the Axiological Value response (AV). I will evaluate these responses separately.
EDN does not resolve the problem because is not actually a response to the arbitrariness problem, but to the contingency problem. Thinking that it is a response to the arbitrariness problem is a result of failing to properly distinguish these two problems. I made this point in Part 2 of this series using the following example:

Consider a deity who, like God, is omnipotent and omniscient, but, unlike God, is essentially hateful. This deity, who I will call ‘Asura’, has an essential nature and his commands flow from his essential nature, and, like God, it is not possible for Asura to issue commands that are contrary to his nature. Asura commands, for example, that we gratuitously torture children and similarly horrible things
Here is the point: that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature shows, at best, only that he issues the same commands in every possible world in which he exists. It does not show that he has reasons for his commands. And, plausibly, there are no reasons for Asura to command that we torture infants gratuitously. Given this, despite the fact that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature, they are still arbitrary. If Asura’s commands are not non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from his essential nature, then neither are God’s commands non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from God’s essential nature. What matters with respect to whether God’s commands are arbitrary is not whether they could be otherwise (not whether he could issue different commands) but whether there are reasons for his commands. Given all of this, we must sharply distinguish between arbitrariness and contingency and recognize that appeals to God’s necessary nature do not obviously resolve the worry that, on DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary.

That Craig, for one, confuses the problem of arbitrariness and the problem of contingency is made clear in his response to the criticisms (printed in the volume mentioned above) of his position that were offered by Louise Antony and William Sinnot-Armstrong:

The arbitrariness horn of the dilemma . . . is avoided by rejecting voluntarism in favor of God’s commands being necessary expressions of his nature.
. . .
God’s commands are not arbitrary in the sense that he could have commanded the opposite of what he did command.” (Garcia and King, 173)

The worry that God could have commanded the opposite of what he did command is not the same as the worry that his commands are not grounded in reasons. The former is the contingency problem, and while this problem is addressed via the claim that God has his nature essentially, as my comments above (from Part 2) demonstrate, that commands are expressions of an essential nature does not imply that those commands are grounded in reasons
Given the confusion between the arbitrariness problem and the contingency problem that this response involves, EDN is hopeless as a response to the arbitrariness problem. Let’s turn, then, to the second sort of response, AV. As I have indicated, AV claims that the axiological value of actions provides God with reasons for his commands. Baggett and Walls offer a version of this response in their Good God:

If “God is good” is true both as a predication and identity, a typical reason that God issues the commands he does is that the actions he commands are good. (Baggett and Walls, 126)

In his God and Moral Obligation, C. Stephen Evans offers a very similar response to the arbitrariness problem:

Restricting the account to moral obligations allows the defender of DCT to escape the dilemma implicit in the Euthyphro question. If asked, “Are moral obligations duties because God commands them?” the proponent of DCT answers yes. However, this does not imply that God’s commands are arbitrary. God’s commands are aimed at the good and therefore are certainly not arbitrary. (Evans 90)

A common way of responding to AV is to point out that if God has reasons for his commands, then these reasons will also be reasons for us to do what he commands and so his commands are superfluous. I discussed this issue in some detail in Parts 2 and 3, so I will not do so here. Instead, I want to consider a different but related issue.
Let’s begin by noting that there seems to be no reason to command things that are merely good. It is good to buy flowers for your mother on her birthday, but this does not seem to be a reason to command that you do so. For a command to be reasonable, it seems more is required than that the commanded action is good.
Of course, the DCT theorist can point out that she is not relying on mere goodness but on axiological value, which, it is plausible to suppose, comes in degrees other than simple goodness and badness. Some acts have higher/more or lower/less axiological value than others and it is only those acts that have very high positive axiological value that God has reason to command that we perform and only those that have very negative axiological value (or value lower than some threshold) that God has reason to command that we not perform.
But once this point is made, it becomes plausible that God’s commands would be superfluous. If some action is so (axiologically) bad that God has reason to command that we not engage in it, then, it seems, its badness is enough to give us reasons to not engage in it, which reasons are prior to and independent of God’s command. And if some action is so (axiologically) good that God has reason to command that we perform it, then its goodness is enough to give us reasons to perform it, which reasons are prior to and independent of God’s command.
The DC theorist must push back against this argument; she must insist that axiological value alone is not sufficient to ground moral obligations. On MDCT a divine command is necessary for making an action morally obligatory. This can be true only it divine commands add something normatively significant. Thus, MDCT is only viable if commands are not normatively impotent. In other words, the response to the arbitrariness problem we’ve been evaluating succeeds only if there is an adequate response to problem (4).
To get a better sense of this, let’s consider a specific action, say a gratuitous pummeling of Carl. Call this act, Pc. Let’s consider the act in two different contexts. Context 1 (C1), in which Pc is committed when there is no divine command to not commit it; context 2 (C2), in which Pc is committed when there is a divine command to not commit it.
On the view we are currently considering, Pc has axiological properties that provide God with reasons to command that we not commit Pc, but these axiological properties are not sufficient to make it the case that it is morally obligatory to refrain from committing Pc. Importantly, Pc has the same axiological properties in C1 as in C2. This must be the case if these axiological properties are to provide God with reason(s) to command that we not commit Pc. For the axiological properties to provide God with reasons, it must be that these axiological properties are prior to and independent of any divine command with respect to Pc. Thus, Pc has these axiological properties even in contexts when there is no divine command with respect to Pc.
The axiological properties of Pc, we can assume, include not just the intrinsic value (positive or, more likely, negative) of the act itself, but also the axiological properties of the consequences of Pc. Thus, it is reasonable to assume, the axiological properties that provide God with reasons to command that we not commit Pc include the negative value of Pc intrinsic to the act itself, and the negative value of the consequences of Pc. Let’s use the designation ‘VPc’ to refer to the total axiological value of Pc (it’s intrinsic value and the value of its consequences) The view under consideration has it that VPc (or some subset of VPc) provides God with reason(s) to command that we not commit, Pc but that the entirety of VPc is not sufficient to make it the case that we are morally obligated to refrain from committing Pc.
The defender of MDCT can acknowledge that VPc  provides reason(s) for us to refrain from committing Pc; she must maintain only that any such reasons do not make it the case that we are morally obligated to refrain from Pc (since only a divine command can make an action morally obligatory).
For this to be the case, God’s command with respect to Pc must add something of normative significance that is not otherwise present. Another way of saying this is that MDCT implies that C2 contains something of normative significance that C1 lacks, namely the command of God to refrain from committing Pc. But for this to be so, divine commands must be normatively significant. I will now attempt to show that they cannot be.
Problem (4): The normative impotence of commands
Here is what I wrote about this problem in Part 4:

A command (divine or otherwise) does not seem to be the kind of thing that can make a moral difference. Commands are normatively impotent in the sense that they cannot add to our reasons. We see this when imagine that God commands that we torture an innocent child. This command gives us no reason to torture a child, so it would make no difference to the moral status of child-torture. Or, again, imagine that God commands that we eat breakfast at 7:30 every morning. This command does not give us any reason to eat breakfast at 7:30 am and thus can make no difference to the moral status of refraining from eating breakfast at 7:30 am (by, for example, refraining from eating breakfast entirely). Commands are normatively inert in that they cannot add to the reasons that we already have to engage in (or refrain from) the commanded activity. Option (II) thus claims that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.

The DCT gets its plausibility from two consideration: first, since God is perfect, he will only command us to do what he has good reason to command that we do; second, that, as the creator of all that is, we owe obedience to him. But to understand the problem with option (II) we must think very carefully about the contribution (if any) that God’s commands make to the deontic status of an action. This means that we need to isolate the commandedness (so to speak) of an action from other features, such as that there are good reasons for God to command it or that we are obligated to do it in virtue of being obligated to obey God. The effort to isolate the commandedness is what lies behind the call to consider obviously arbitrary commands.
Consider the possibility that God commands that we floss our teeth in the morning rather than the evening, so that the act of flossing in the morning has the property of being commanded by God. How could this factor make a contribution to the deontic status of flossing in the morning? Could this fact make any contribution? Arguments against DCT that are based in the Euthyphro dilemma capitalize on the intuition that no command could make such an act morally obligatory. But it is worth exploring the basis of this intuition. Why is it that the bare commandedness of such an act cannot make a contribution to its deontic status?
The answer to this question has to do with the fact that commands are the acts of rational beings and that rational beings act (at least frequently) on the basis of reasons. We can only understand a speech act as a command if we presuppose that the commander takes him or herself to have reasons to issue the command. A command is a directive to some person or persons that they engage in some action or course of action. A command has a subject—the person(s) to whom the directive is issued—and an object—the performance of the specified action (or course of action) by the subject. To take oneself to have reasons to issue a command is to take it that there are features of the object that count in favor of issuing the command. (This point is directly related to what I have previously called the action feature constraint. See Part 2.) In other words, when a person issues a command, she takes it that there are features of the subject’s performance of the specified action that count in favor of directing this person to perform this action. But to say that there are features of the subject’s performance of the action that count in favor of that performance is just to say that there are reasons for the subject to perform the action. Thus, when a person issues a command, she takes it that there are reasons that count in favor of the subject’s performance of the specified action.
A defender of option (II) can accept this much. What she must say, however, is that the features of the object of the command (the subject’s performance of the specified action) that count in favor of the subject’s performing (or refraining from performing) the specified action do not make it morally obligatory (or morally wrong) for the subject to perform the action. Saying otherwise would contradict claim (II). If so, then a divine command must add something of normative force to the reasons that exist prior to the command. That is, a defender of (II) must assert:

(DC-Add) A divine command that some subject, S, perform act A adds something of normative significance to the reasons for S to A.

Before explaining why DC-Add is false, I want to distinguish between two types of reasons. As I used the term above, the object of a command is the subject’s performance of the specified action. Thus, an object-given reason is a feature of an action that counts in favor of some subject’s performance of the action. A command-given reason is any feature of a command (or the issuance of a command by a commander) that counts in favor of some subject’s performance of the action.
So, if there are object-given reasons for the commander to issue the command, then there are reasons for the subject of the command to perform the specified act. Importantly, a command itself cannot be one of the features of the object that counts in favor of issuing the command. This is because the features that count in favor of the command must be prior to the command. This just means that the fact that an action is commanded by God is not an object-given reason to perform the action.
One more bit of terminology: I will use the expression “reasons already present” to refer to the reasons that there are to perform a specific action (in a given context) and that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands.
Option (II) (and, hence, MDCT) implies that God’s commands add something normatively significant to the reasons already present. But examples that involve arbitrary commands or horrible commands show that a command, by itself, cannot add to the reasons that are already present. A command that we torture an infant cannot add or subtract to the reasons already present to refrain from torturing an infant. A command to do something that we have no reason to do cannot add to the reasons (or, rather, lack of reasons) already present. A command to do something that we have no reason to do cannot change the fact that we have no reason to do it. Thus, examples involving arbitrary commands and horrible commands show that DC-Add is false. In the case of an arbitrary command, there are no object-given reasons to perform the action. If we agree that the arbitrary command does not make it obligatory to perform the action, we are agreeing that the command does not add anything of normative significance to the object-given reasons. But this just means that, in the case of an arbitrary command, there are no command-given reasons. In the case of a horrible command, there are object-given reasons to refrain from performing the action. The command does nothing to change this. And so, the command adds nothing of normative significance. But, again, this just means that, in the case of horrible commands, there are no command-given reasons.
The reasoning from the above consideration about arbitrary and horrible commands to the rejection of DC-Add is as follows: If a divine command added something of normative significance, then even arbitrary commands and horrible commands would add something normatively significant. But neither arbitrary nor horrible commands add anything normatively significant. So, it is false that divine commands add something normatively significant.
A defender of (II) might want to insist that while arbitrary commands and horrible commands add nothing of normative significance, when there are object-given reasons to perform some action, a divine command does add something of significance. But such a view is untenable. To evaluate the claim that divine commands add something of normative significance, we have to isolate whatever normative force might be contributed by a divine command. And this requires considering commands in isolation from the normative force of other considerations (such as object-given reasons). When we isolate the contribution of divine commands (as we can when we consider arbitrary and horrible commands), we find that they make no normative contribution whatsoever.
Consider: If a divine command made a normative contribution, then in a situation in which there are no object-given reasons to perform an action (or one in which the object-given reasons that count in favor of performance are exactly balanced by object-given reasons that count against performance) a divine command to perform the action, in virtue of making any normative contribution whatsoever, would be enough to tip the balance of reasons and thus make it the case that the action is morally obligatory. But a divine command cannot do this.
There are no object-given reason to utter the sentence “The cute kitty cat came walking and sleeping and uttering utter nonsense last Tuesday evening at sunrise and bit the orange dog’s corpus callosum in the banana tree” once a month, every second Monday at 5:00 am. Nor does there seem to be any reason not to do so.[2] A divine command to utter this sentence cannot make it the case that it is morally obligatory to do so. This implies that a divine command to utter this sentence makes no normative contribution whatsoever. If divine commands made a normative contribution, then since there are neither object-given reasons that count in favor of nor object-given reasons that count against performing the action (and thus the balance of reasons is precisely neutral), a divine command could make it obligatory to utter the sentence. Since a divine command cannot do so; and this just means that the command itself cannot add to the reasons already present. So, a divine command would not add anything of normative significance.
At this point you might be thinking that there are social contexts in which a (non-divine) command can give a person reason to perform some action, which reason is not present prior to the command. When a commanding officer in the military, for example, gives an order, his subordinates are obligated to obey. And, arguably, children are obligated to obey when their parents tell them to do something. So, when a military officer commands that his subordinate perform some action, the subordinate has, just in virtue of that order, reason to perform the act (which reason was not present prior to and independent of the command). Thus, we might be tempted to say, given that we are obligated to obey God, when God issues a command, that command adds to our reasons, i.e., it provides additional reason(s) that were not present prior to the command.
This response will not help MDCT. The response just outlined assumes that, just as a subordinate is obligated to obey his or her commanding officer, we are obligated to obey God. But such general obligations (to obey superior officers or to obey God) exist prior to and independent of any command. The source of such general obligations is not a command, but something else. In the case of the military, it is plausible to suppose that a subordinate’s obligation to obey the commands of their superior officers is grounded in an oath that all military officers take. In the case of the children of children to obey parents, it is not as obvious in what the obligation is grounded. But the source of such obligations is not relevant to the point I am making. What is relevant is that the source must be something independent of and prior to the commands themselves.
By analogy, then, the response currently under consideration implies that we are under a general moral obligation to obey God, which obligation exists prior to and independent of any divine command. But that is incompatible with MDCT. The view according to which we have a general obligation to obey God is known as the Normative Divine Command Theory (NDCT). (I have covered the distinction between MDCT and NDCT previously, in Part 2, and here.) According to metaethical divine command theory, all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. Thus, such a view is inconsistent with the existence of a general obligation to obey God, which obligation exists prior to and independent of any divine command.
We are now in a position to state what I take to be a decisive objection to MDCT:  MDCT takes option (II) and, given this, it follows that the reasons that God has for his commands cannot be what makes an action morally obligatory or wrong (i.e., on MDCT, in the absence of God’s commands, the RAP do not make any action morally obligatory or morally wrong). On MDCT, what makes the action morally obligatory is the fact that God commands that we do it. But this cannot be correct because commands are morally impotent; by themselves, they add nothing of moral significance. A divine command might be a response to the reasons already present (which count in favor of the performance of the action), but the command does not generate any new reasons.


Works Cited
Baggett, D. and Walls, J., Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Evans, C. Stephen, God and Moral Obligation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Garcia, Robert K. and Nathan L. King (Eds.), Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).


[1] As I say in Part 4: “If (I) is true, then moral properties (at least deontic moral properties) are independent of God’s commands. Since, on option (I) the reason that God commands that we perform a morally obligatory action is that it is morally obligatory (or has properties in virtue of which it is obligatory), the action must be obligatory prior to and independent of God’s command.” And, if actions are morally obligatory prior to and independent of God’s commands, then MDCT is false.
[2] If you think that the length or silliness of the sentence or the energy needed to utter the sentence is a reason not to utter it, then consider any act such that you are sufficiently satisfied that there are neither reasons to perform it nor reasons to not perform it (perhaps, for example, the act of uttering to oneself the word ‘myrtle’ once a month on either the first, second or third Tuesday, sometime between 5 am and 10 pm).

bookmark_borderWas Joshua’s Slaughter of the Canaanites Morally Justified? Part 13: OT on Child Sacrifice

WHY ARE FICTIONAL OLD TESTAMENT STORIES MORALLY RELEVANT?
There probably was no Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and there probably was no Conquest of Canaan by the Israelites.  These stories are either pure fiction, or they are legends that have only bits and pieces of historical truth in them.  So, if the stories about Joshua leading the Israelites to MERCILESSLY SLAUGHTER every man, woman, and child in the towns of the Promised Land are fiction or legend, why get all worked up about the immorality of the MERCILESS SLAUGHTER in these unhistorical stories?
One reason for taking these apparently fictional stories seriously, is that many Christians and Jews have, in past centuries and in the present, believed these stories to be historical, and have believed that Jehovah commanded Joshua to MERCILESSLY SLAUGHTER every man, woman, and child in the towns of the Promised Land, and yet those Christians and Jews continued to WORSHIP and OBEY this cruel and bloodthirsty monster named “Jehovah”.
Even though it is NOT the case that Jehovah commanded Joshua and the Israelites to engage in such MERCILESS SLAUGHTER, and even though it is NOT the case that Joshua and the Israelites actually engaged in such MERCILESS SLAUGHTER, many Christians and Jews for many centuries have WORSHIPED and OBEYED a god whom they believed had commanded the Israelites to commit this horrible crime of mass murder of civilians.  That is a serious moral failure on the part of many Christians and Jews over many centuries.
Another reason to be concerned about these apparently fictional OT stories is that they are an important piece of evidence for the conclusion that Jesus was a morally flawed person, and thus that Jesus cannot have been the divine Son of God, and thus that Christianity is based on a FALSE ASSUMPTION about Jesus.  As a devout Jew who lived in Palestine in the first century, Jesus was familiar with the two greatest stories of the OT: the Exodus from Egypt led by Moses, and the Conquest of Canaan led by Joshua.
In fact, his name was not the English name “Jesus”, but was rather the Aramaic name “Yeshua”, which was the Aramaic version of the name of the leader of the Conquest of Canaan, which in English translations of the OT is “Joshua”.  In other words, Jesus was named after the man who led the army of Israel to MERCILESSLY SLAUGHTER every man, woman, and child in the towns of the Promised Land.
But Jesus never expresses any regret about being named in honor of a mass murderer.  Jesus never criticizes Joshua for engaging in mass murder.  Jesus never criticizes Moses for commanding Joshua and the Israelites to engage in MERCILESS SLAUGHTER of every man, woman, and child in the towns of the promised land.  Most importantly, Jesus promoted worship and obedience to Jehovah, the god of the nation Israel, who according to the OT (esp. Deuteronomy and Joshua) commanded that the Israelites MERCILESSLY SLAUGHTER every man, woman, and child in the Promised Land.
Jesus promoted worship and obedience to this moral monster who commanded the mass murder of civilians in a war of aggression to steal the land of people who were already settled in the Promised Land.  This provides a powerful reason to conclude that Jesus was a morally flawed person, and thus was NOT the divine Son of God, NOT the sinless lamb of God, NOT  God Incarnate.  God is by definition without any moral flaws.  So, a man who was morally flawed cannot be God Incarnate.
One rationalization that Christians and Jews have used to defend the command of Jehovah to MERCILESSLY SLAUGHTER men, women, and children by the tens of thousands, is that the inhabitants of the towns of the Promised Land practiced child sacrifice.   I have argued in Part 10 of this series that there is no significant historical evidence to support this claim:
All of the various peoples who were actually living in the towns of the Promised Land between 1350 and 1250 BCE regularly and frequently practiced child sacrifice.
The historical claim upon which this attempted justification of Jehovah is based, is highly dubious.  Nevertheless, because my moral critique of Christians and Jews and of Jesus is NOT based on what ACTUALLY happened, but on what the OT stories claim happened, it is unfair to Christians and Jews and to Jesus to focus strictly on historical FACTS about whether child sacrifice was regularly practiced by the inhabitants of the Promised Land prior to the time of the alleged Conquest of Canaan.
Many Christians and Jews, and certainly Jesus, formed their beliefs about the Conquest of Canaan based on the ASSUMPTION that the OT stories were accurate and reliable accounts of actual events.  So, if the OT stories also contain claims that all of the inhabitants of the Promised Land regularly practiced child sacrifice, then they would have also believed those claims, and thus formed their moral judgments about Jehovah’s command to MERCILESSLY SLAUGHTER the inhabitants of the Promised Land in terms of their belief that those inhabitants regularly practiced child sacrifice (even though that belief was in fact FALSE or HIGHLY DUBIOUS).

Binding of Isaac by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1860.

WHAT DOES THE OT SAY ABOUT CHILD SACRIFICE IN THE PROMISED LAND?
One last question thus remains to be answered:
Does the OT clearly claim that all of the peoples who inhabited the numerous towns and villages in the Promised Land prior to the alleged Conquest of Canaan, regularly practiced child sacrifice?
Before I attempt to answer this question, it is important to note that this is, in my view, a purely academic exercise.   It doesn’t really matter what the answer to this question turns out to be.
Even if the OT clearly does claim that all of the people in the Promised Land regularly practiced child sacrifice, that would NOT morally justify the command of Jehovah to MERCILESSLY SLAUGHTER every man, woman, and child in the Promised Land, as I have argued in Part 11 of this series.  So, no matter how one answers this question, it is still clear that Jesus was a morally flawed person, and thus that Jesus was NOT the divine Son of God, NOT the sinless lamb of God, and NOT God Incarnate.
=========================
OLD TESTAMENT PASSAGES ABOUT CHILD SACRIFICE
=========================
Leviticus – 2 passages
18:21 & 20:1-5
Deuteronomy – 2 passages
12:29-31 & 18:9-10
2nd Kings – 6 passages
3:26-27, 16:2-4, 17:6-8 & 16-17, 17:24-31, 21:1-6, 23:3-14(esp. v10)
2nd Chronicles – 2 passages
28:1-4, 33:1-6
Psalms – 1 passage
106:34-38
Jeremiah – 3 passages
7:30-34, 19:3-7, 32:26-35
Ezekiel – 1 passage
20:31
NOTE: Ezekiel 16:21 and 23:37-39 are about the CITY of Jerusalem, and are poetic and metaphorical, so these passages should NOT be read as talking about literal killing of literal children, since a CITY is not literally a woman, and thus cannot literally have children.
=======================
OT PASSAGES THAT MIGHT BE USED TO SHOW THAT PAGAN NATIONS IN THE PROMISED LAND PRACTICED CHILD SACRIFICE
=========================
Deuteronomy 12:29-31 New Revised Standard Version 
29 When the Lord your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land,
30 take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.”
31 You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.
⦁ This passsage does NOT state that ALL of the nations that inhabited the Promised Land practiced child sacrifice, so it only implies that at least one of the various pagan nations in the Promised Land practiced child sacrifice.
⦁ This passage does NOT state that child sacrifice was a regular or frequent practice of ANY of the peoples who inhabited the Promised Land before the Conquest of Canaan.
⦁ This passage does NOT state that the children were ever burned alive. It leaves open the possibility that the children were killed first, and then burned. Also, there is the possibility that the children died of natural causes (e.g. miscarriages), and then they were burned as a sacrifice.
Deuteronomy 18:9-10 New Revised Standard Version 
9 When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations.
10 No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer,
11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.
12 For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you.
⦁ The phrase “makes a son or daughter pass through fire” is not necessarily a reference to child sacrifice.
⦁ Does NOT state that ALL of the pagan nations that inhabited the Promised Land before the Conquest of Canaan engaged in the practice of making children “pass through fire”. It leaves open the possibility that only ONE of the pagan nations in the Promised Land engaged in this practice.
⦁ Does NOT specify which of the pagan nations had this practice.
⦁ Does NOT specifically state that making children “pass through fire” was a practice engaged in by ANY of the pagan nations that inhabited the Promised Land, so leaves open the possibility that NONE of those pagan nations engaged in this practice.
2 Kings 16:2-4 New Revised Standard Version
2 Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign; he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done,
3 but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.
4 He sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree.
⦁ The phrase “made his son pass through fire” does not necessarily mean that he killed his son or burned his son alive as a sacrifice to a god.
⦁ Does NOT state that ALL of the pagan nations in the Promised Land engaged in making their children “pass through fire”. This passage leaves open the possibility that only ONE of the pagan nations in the Promised Land engaged in this practice.
⦁ Does NOT specify which of the pagan nations had this practice.
https://biblehub.com/commentaries/cambridge/2_kings/16.htm

yea, and made his son to pass through the fire] i.e. To Moloch. Thus introducing into Judah once more, as in Solomon’s days (1 Kings 11:7) the worship of ‘the abomination of the children of Ammon’. The words of this verse might be made to refer only to a passing through flame, as a ceremony significant of purification. But the words of the Chronicler are stronger: ‘he burnt his children in the fire.’ From which it would appear that not one son only was offered. That the children offered in such sacrifices were actually burnt is seen from 2 Kings 17:31; Ezekiel 16:21; and many other passages. But from the words of Ezekiel it may perhaps be inferred that the victims were first slain and then burnt. ‘Thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters whom thou hast borne unto me and these hast thou sacrificed unto them to be devoured … thou hast slain my children and delivered them up in causing them to pass through the fire unto them.’

NOTES ON ABOVE COMMENTARY:
2 Kings 17:31 is about the Sepharvites. Those people were NOT among the seven nations listed as inhabitants of the Promised Land prior to the Conquest of Canaan, and those people were specifically stated to have been moved into the Promised Land by the King of Assyria AFTER the Conquest of Canaan.
Ezekiel 16:21 is an extended metaphor about the CITY of Jerusalem being a woman and a prostitute. So the reference to this “woman” sacrificing her “sons and…daughters” is a metaphorical claim that does NOT have any clear historical implications about the practice of child sacrifice in Jerusalem:
20 You took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. As if your whorings were not enough!
21 You slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering to them.
2 Kings 17:7-8 & 16-17 New Revised Standard Version 
7 This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They had worshiped other gods
8 and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had introduced.
[…]
16 They rejected all the commandments of the Lord their God and made for themselves cast images of two calves; they made a sacred pole, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal.
17 They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire; they used divination and augury; and they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.
⦁ The phrase “made their sons and their daughters pass through fire” does not necessarily mean that they killed or burned their sons and daughters as a sacrifice to a god.
⦁ Does NOT specifically state that making “their sons and their daughters pass through fire” was one of “the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out”, as opposed to being one of “the customs of the kings of Israel”.
⦁ Does NOT state that ALL of the pagan nations in the Promised Land practiced making “their sons and their daughters pass through fire”.
⦁ Does NOT point out any specific pagan nation that practiced making “their sons and their daughters pass through fire”.
2 Kings 21:1-6 New Revised Standard Version 
1 Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign; he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah.
2 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, following the abominable practices of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.
3 For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole, as King Ahab of Israel had done, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served them.
4 He built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem I will put my name.”
5 He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord.
6 He made his son pass through fire; he practiced soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.
⦁ “He made his son pass through fire” is not clearly about killing or burning a child to death as a sacrifice to a god.
⦁ This is specifically about the actions of the king Manasseh making “his sone pass through fire”.
⦁ The passage does talk about “the abominable practices of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” but it also speaks of MANY such practices and does not claim that ALL of these “abominable practices” were engaged in by ALL of the pagan nations that inhabited the Promised Land before the Conquest of Canaan.
⦁ It also does NOT assert that the specific practice of making children “pass through fire” was engaged in by ANY of the pagan nations that inhabited the Promised Land before the Conquest of Canaan. It leaves open the possibility that child sacrifice was NOT one of the “abominable practices” of the pagan nations that inhabited the Promised Land. This could have been either a pagan practice of the ancestors of the Israelites, or of some pagan nation that resided outside the Promised Land.
2 Chronicles 28:1-4 New Revised Standard Version
1 Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign; he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his ancestor David had done,
2 but he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel. He even made cast images for the Baals;
3 and he made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.
4 He sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree.
⦁ “He…made his sons pass trhough fire” it is not clear that this is talking about killing or burning children as a sacrifice to a god.
⦁ This is talking specifically about the actions of king Ahaz in Jerusalem after the Conquest of Canaan.
⦁ There is a mention that the practices of Ahas were “according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” But there is no list of the specific nations, and there are several practices mentioned, so it is unclear whether ALL of these practices were engaged in by ALL of the nations that inhabited the Promised Land prior to the Conquest of Canaan.
⦁ This passage leaves open the possibility that only ONE of the pagan nations that lived in the Promised Land engaged in this practice of making their children “pass through fire”.
2 Chronicles 33:1-6 New Revised Standard Version 
1 Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign; he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem.
2 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.
3 For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had pulled down, and erected altars to the Baals, made sacred poles, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served them.
4 He built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem shall my name be forever.”
5 He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord.
6 He made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.
⦁ This is about the practices of the king Manasseh in Jerusalem after the Conquest of Canaan, not about the pagan nations that lived in the Promised Land before the Conquest of Canaan.
⦁ There are several abominable practices mentioned here, so it is NOT CLEAR whether child sacrifice is being attributed to ANY pagan nation that lived in the Promised Land before the Conquest of Canaan.
⦁ “He made his son pass through fire” it is not clear that this is a reference to child sacrifice.
Psalm 106:34-38 New Revised Standard Version
34 They did not destroy the peoples,
as the Lord commanded them,
35 but they mingled with the nations
and learned to do as they did.
36 They served their idols,
which became a snare to them.
37 They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons;
38 they poured out innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan;
and the land was polluted with blood.
⦁ “They” here is the people of Israel, not the pagans who inhabited the Promised Land before the Conquest of Canaan.
⦁ There is a reference to the Israelites learning the practices of “the nations” that they were supposed to have annihilated, but there is no clear indication that ALL of the pagan nations practiced child sacrifice. So, the implication here is that SOME of the pagan nations SOMETIMES practiced child sacrifice.
=======================
CONCLUSIONS:
Only two OT passages appear to provide relevant evidence concerning the claim that the pagan nations that inhabited the Promised Land (prior to the Conquest of Canaan) engaged in child sacrifice:   Deuteronomy 12:29-31 and Psalm 106: 34-38.  
But these two passages only imply that at least one pagan nation residing in the Promised Land (prior to the Conquest of Canaan) occasionally engaged in child sacrifice.  Neither passage states or implies that ALL of the pagan nations residing in the Promised Land (prior to the Conquest of Canaan) engaged in child sacrifice.  Neither passage states or implies that ANY pagan nation residing in the Promised Land (prior to the Conquest of Canaan) REGULARLY engaged in child sacrifice.  Furthermore, neither passage states or implies that the children were ever burned alive as part of this practice, as opposed to being killed first, and then the body burned.
The other passages are irrelevant or unclear for various reasons.  The other passages only talk about making children “pass through fire”, and it is UNCLEAR whether this involved killing or burning those children to death, as opposed to being some sort of harmless magic ritual involving fire or flames.
Does the OT clearly claim that all of the peoples who inhabited the numerous towns and villages in the Promised Land prior to the alleged Conquest of Canaan, regularly practiced child sacrifice?
The answer to this question is: NO!
The OT  does NOT state or imply that ALL of the nations who inhabited the Promised Land (prior to the alleged Conquest of Canaan) practiced child sacrifice, and the OT does NOT state or imply that ANY of the nations who inhabited the Promised Land (prior to the alleged Conquest of Canaan) REGULARLY practiced child sacrifice.
=======================
OT PASSAGES ABOUT CHILD SACRIFICE THAT CLEARLY DON’T SHOW THAT PAGAN NATIONS IN PROMISED LAND PRACTICED CHILD SACRIFICE
=========================
I will cover these passages in the next post.