Outsourcing moral decisions to justify genocide

By Ken Perrott 27/10/2011

A while back I participated in a discussion involving a number of non-theists and theists. You can guess which side I was on. But I bore no ill feelings to the theists — and why should I have? These discussions are largely harmless.

But when the discussion turned to biblical genocide I found I had very strong feelings of hostility to one of the theists, a local minister of religion. Why? Because here I found someone who was blatantly justifying the slaughter of thousands of people. Genocide! And he justified it because he thought those people had been sinful!

Perhaps some people might think my reaction naïve. But I feel exactly the same hostility towards people who justify the Stalin terror, the victimisations and murders of Mao’s so-called ’cultural revolution’, Pinochet’s slaughter of Chilean democrats, Hitler’s slaughter of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals and communists, Pol Pot’s murder of intellectuals, and so on. And in my life I have come across people arguing to justify the genocide in all these cases. I really don’t see the justification of biblical genocide any differently. If you can make such  justifications perhaps you are also capable of carrying out such atrocities.

So I can understand why Richard Dawkins recently expressed such feelings of disgust about the justification of biblical genocide by William Lane Craig (see Dawkins responds to a stalker – Craig gets his debate).

We have yet to hear Craig’s response. But he has clearly endorsed that genocide
and I can’t see that his response can be at all human — unless he withdraws that

Divine commands

Craig’s justification relies on his support for, and interpretation of, ’divine command’ ethics. Basically he is saying that there is an objective standard of ’right’ and ’wrong,’
that this is determined, defined,  by his god, and that if his god commanded
these acts of genocide (which his bible said she did) then they are justified.
That genocide was OK — morally ’right!’

Supporters of ’divine command’ justifications for genocide
have responded to the natural reaction by insisting that their god can do no
wrong. So if their god commands it, then it must be right. And they argue their defence for this position by defining their god as a ’loving’ god. In fact they
will go further to support their justification. Matt Flannagan, a local
theologian who also supports this biblical genocide, argues that these ’divine
commands’ come from a person (his god) who has a whole range of features.

He says:

’As I noted a divine command theory entails that Genocide is permissible only if a just and loving person fully informed of all the facts and who was rational would command it. Now a rational person obviously uses logic correctly, a person who is fully informed is aware of all the facts, and if they were loving and just they would value the things that loving and just people value. So any situation in which God commanded Genocide would be a situation in which it was justified . . .’

Oh, he also claims elsewhere that this person must be omniscient.

Two problems here:

Stalin – a loving, omniscient, just, rational and fully informed person to his followers

1: His excuse for giving up his moral autonomy in such an extreme situation is that his commander is omniscient, loving, fully informed, rational, etc.

See the problems? This is exactly the sort of description the followers of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or Mao would have given of their leaders! Stalin was even revered by many in the West before and during World War II — Uncle Joe they used to call him.

2: He is arguing to outsource his moral decisions. Saying one should commit something as extreme as genocide just on the basis of following orders. No self-reflection. No questions. Just get stuck in!

He is just following orders — opting out of any obligation to moral autonomy. He has no intention, or any way, of evaluating these commands. In fact it would be considered heretical to do so. ’Following orders’ is a requirement for soldiers to become automatic fighting units in an army. Questioning commands is not allowed and soldiers are trained not to. But this can also happen to civilians who are brainwashed by strong ideologies.

A specific example of such ’divine command’ ethics today is demonstrated by
the farewell letter of a Dutch jihadist:

’In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,
I write this letter to inform you that I departed for the land of the jihad.
To dispel the unbelievers, and to help establish the Islamic state.
I do not do this because I like fighting, but because the Almighty has commanded this ‘Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you may not’

[taken from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur — see my review in Secularism is Important]

’God knows, but you may not.’  No questions allowed. And
we are talking about genocide!

How do you know that?

Here’s another problem. It seems that religious apologists who argue for ’divine command’ ethics really have no idea how they should find out what these commands are. This is strange as ’commands’ that cannot be identified are useless. Just imagine an army where soldiers had no idea of their orders or how to find out what they were!

Perhaps religious apologists are more concerned with establishing that there are such commands, than with knowing what the commands are, or how they should go about finding out what they are. After all, ’divine command’ ethics are intimately tied up with the apologist ’argument from morality.’  That argument
says that because there is an ’objective morality’ there must be a god to have
created that objective morality. Maybe all this talk of morality by religious
apologists is completely opportunist. They are only concerned with proving the
existence of their god and can’t give a stuff about human morality at all.

You have got to wonder. Recently I posed this question to several local religious apologists, self-declared experts in ethics. ’How do you think our minds come to know what our ’moral obligations’ are?’

Jelly wrestling

It seems a simple question but for a long time all I got was evasion. Here’s a sample of their responses (these are repetitive — click here to get to the end if you wish):

’Moral Obligations cannot exist without God. He’s not trying to say that we cannot know Moral Obligations without believing in God.’

Yes, I know that

’I don’t see how your question is at all relevant to the question at hand because it only covers moral epistemology.’


’he’s talking about Moral Ontology, while you are continuously getting it mixed up with Moral Epistemology. This can be seen clearly in the question you keep asking.’

’Is it really that difficult to tell the difference between (a) explaining how we came to have the ability to judge that X exists and (b) explaining what X is and why X exists.’


’Your question is vague and not entirely clear.’

’This is an issue of Moral Epistemology, and is not really relevant to the issue at hand here.’

’you can not draw the basic distinction between an epistemological concept and an Ontological concept.’

’Have you stopped beating your wife yet?’

’you [are] not really interested in honest discussion.’

’ how .. we know what moral obligations we have … is a question of moral epistemology. Divine command theories are theories of moral ontology they are questions about what divine commands are, hence, although your question is interesting and important it actually has nothing to do with the topic.’ (My emphasis).

’all this is irrelevant because a divine command theory does not purport to answer the how do we know question.’

Yes, I get your point. Don’t need to labour it. Are you avoiding something?

Of course one does not need to use words like ontology or epistemology to
see the difference. Despite prevarications you admit that the ’question is
interesting and important.’
It’s valid. Surely self-proclaimed ethicists
should have no trouble answering.

I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps these experts were quite happy to use
words like revelation and bible at church or to children, but are ashamed to
use those answers when grown-ups are present.

Some progress at last?

Then a glimmer of hope:

’a person can agree that moral obligations are divine commands and yet disagree about how we come to know what God has commanded.’

OK sounds like you guys disagree — but what about some suggestions?

Then a specific answer (well, sort of):

’My view: God make us in such a way that we intuitively have some understanding of right and wrong. He could have easily communicated this to us through divine revelation, or he could have hard-wired it into us via Evolution. I think it’s a bit of both!’

And finally a confirmation

’For the record, if a divine command theory is true and moral obligations are divine commands, then one can determine what God has commanded by determining what our moral obligations are.

’I take it that you and most people know that rape is wrong and giving your wife a box of chocolates is not wrong? hence you like most people can and do know what your obligations are. If so then you can know what God commands,.’

And, at another blog:

’There are a number of ways, perfectly compatible with divine command ethics and the moral argument, that people can find out about moral truths. According to ethical intuitionism, under the right conditions there are moral truths that we intuitively grasp in much the same way that we have immediate experiences of the world through sight. Other ways of arriving at moral truth might involve a kind of reflective equilibrium, where we take the moral truths that we are more certain about and try to ensure that our other moral beliefs are compatible with them. Some might even believe that moral truths are secretive things that only those who belong to their religion can receive, imparted directly via some sort of unique special and personal revelation’

Phew — why couldn’t you say that several days ago when I asked my question?
But now I had the answer — I was assured these were ’ways of arriving at moral truths.’

But, there’s a flaw

I pointed out that in the old days I would have intuitively known that equal rights for women were ’wrong.’ That slavery and racism were ’right.’ That denial of rights to homosexuals was ’right.’ Now I intuitively know that denial of rights to women and homosexuals is ’wrong.’ That slavery and racism are wrong. This doesn’t seem very definite for ’divine commands’ or object moral truths. Surely we don’t just rely on our changing  intuitions?

The response to this was:

’its not true that in the old days people ’knew’ that slavery was right. Its rather that people mistakenly thought this. We have since learn’t that was mistaken.”

I see. These guys don’t see these commands as so divine after all. They are trying to second guess them.  Judge for themselves whether they are acceptable or not (that’s a good sign).

Using an independent moral standard to evaluate ’divine commands.’

Isn’t this exactly what they are doing? How do they ’know’ slavery is ’wrong’ when they would have known it was ’right’ if they lived in the old days. After all, even then ’most knew  what their obligations were’, to paraphrase the above.

These  apologists provided intuitive moral knowledge as their main answer to my question. But because of the fact that this intuitive knowledge can be ’wrong,’ all these apologists should agree that they have a way of independently evaluating what they are considering to be ’objective moral truths’ or ’divine commands.’ Shouldn’t they?

I have written elsewhere that intuitions are very much involved in out automatic, unconscious moral system.  But I have pointed out that such unconscious moral decisions can reflect all the prejudices, customs and personal learning. They may or may not correspond to a ’correct’ moral decision.

I have also described how we can arrive at a more ’correct’ moral decision by conscious reflection. Especially when the deliberation is social, the resulting moral decision is likely to be a good reflection of what could be considered the ’moral truth.’ This is because it has been arrived at through applying reason to the objective facts of moral situations. It is also open to the accepted value system arising from our empathetic and social nature. We have used an independent moral standard to judge our intuitive decisions, our ’divine

This is a secular process — treating morality as a real world problem. In a way this is like the scientific process. It produces a knowledge which is not absolute, but approximate. A good reflection of the truth.  It is open to revision and upgrading. Yes, it may be messy, even inaccurate at times, but it is the best we can do because it has been arrived at by the best system we have available.

Does it matter?

OK, I have talked about an ’objectively-based morality.’ Others talk about ’moral truths,’ ’objective morality’ or even ’divine commands.’ Does that matter? Because, whatever we call it, most sensible people will probably use a similar secular process of social deliberation, reasoning, consideration of objective facts and applying social and empathetic values. In most cases, I guess not.

But, I am concerned about those who avoid this social process. Who insist that the moral values they have are the correct one because they are ordained by the ultimate authority, their god. That any attempt to question or modify those commands amounts to heresy. These people outsource their moral decisions and don’t critically assess them.

I can’t for the life of me see any way to justify genocide using the secular moral process described above. None of these oblige a person to hand over their moral decisions to a ’divine commander’ or to claim that ’God knows, but you may not.’ To take moral commands from ancient documents without any room for interpretation or judgement.  To refuse to use their brain for intelligent reflection on the issues.

But that is what William Lane Craig and his supporters have done to reach their position of justifying biblical genocide.

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