Glenn Peoples’ Review: Bradley v Flannagan Debate

On Monday 2 August at the University of Auckland Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Dr Raymond Bradley and Dr Matthew Flannagan (of this blog) debated the topic “Is God the Source of Morality? Is it rational to ground right and wrong in commands issued by God?” Philosopher Dr Glenn Peoples watched the debate via live Skype feed and has reviewed it as follows.

Dr Glenn Peoples Reviews the Debate

Published with permission

Few subjects in philosophy are more interesting to me than the meta-ethical question of moral makes any moral claims true. My particular area of interest is the question of whether or not moral facts can be grounded in a purely naturalistic view of reality. The topic of this debate therefore grabbed my interest as soon as it was announced – and this was in no small part due to the fact that one of the debate participants was my good friend Matthew Flannagan, who blogs at MandM. What follows is my summary and review of that debate. As someone with no duty whatsoever to not take a side in the debate, I’ll comment on the arguments as they unfold throughout the debate rather like one commentating a live boxing match. And now the opening bell rings.

Opening Statement: Dr Raymond Bradley

Ray began his opening statement announcing that he did not want to praise God, but to bury him. God is not worthy of praise, the audience was told, but only a straight-jacket and a grave. God is the self-confessed author of the world’s problems, and as such, Ray says, he has taken it upon himself to play the role of the prosecutor.

God, Ray, charges, can be indicted on four counts. A) Firstly, God is guilty of crimes against humanity, using disaster and disease to wipe out countless millions. The Bible presents God as responsible for plagues, famines and flood. B) Secondly, God is guilty of war crimes, commanding the slaughter of “hundreds of thousands” of people in the Old Testament. C) Thirdly, God has licensed “moral mayhem and murder,” requiring the execution of homosexuals, adulterers, blasphemers and hosts of other people. D) Lastly and worst of all, God is guilty of eternally torturing people in the flames of hell, all on account of them not holding the correct religious beliefs.

In light of this horrible threat of torture, Ray asks, is it any wonder that Christians have done such horrendous things to people over the centuries, burning heretics and killing babies in an effort to prevent them from going to hell? Who takes this moral primitivism seriously? The Taliban for one, says Ray. So too do Christian fundamentalists, like many in the Southern Baptist convention, who argue openly for a theocracy, calling for the deaths of tens of millions of their fellow citizens. And it’s not just extreme conservatives who are in this mess, Ray says. Even relatively liberal Anglicanism is still in a quandary about whether or not homosexuals are abominations who should be “killed in this world and tortured in the next.” But could it be, we are asked, that those who went on Crusades for God were not actually hearing God’s voice, but merely their own? Ray has no time for biblical claims that “God is love,” in light of what the Bible says about God’s actions. The golden rule of reciprocity is likewise too full of exceptions to be correct, and in any case, God intends to torture most of us. No moral reciprocity there!

Okay, this is the first occasion for a time out. The topic of this debate (the topic that both speakers agreed to in advance) was announced as whether or not God is the source of morality – whether or not it’s rational to ground right and wrong in the commands of God. But as Ray’s opening statement unfolded, I began to wonder if he actually had anything at all to say about that topic. We’ve learned how Ray understands various parts of the Bible, and we’ve learned that he takes exception to them, but biblical hermeneutics and Ray’s moral sentiments – while interesting in some contexts – aren’t really what people were expecting to hear about (or at least, at a debate with a topic like this one these certainly aren’t the things that I was expecting to hear about). What if, for example, all of the above were totally true (although we’ll come to that when Matt responds)? Whatever that would establish, there’s no obvious reason to suppose that this establishes that whatever the moral facts really are, they do not have their origin in God.

But then, Ray presents an argument. He explains that his argument is as follows: Christians accept a set of five propositions, but in fact the set is inconsistent, and as such they find themselves in a “logical straight-jacket.” Those five claims are:

1. What God proposes for our belief (including beliefs about what we ought to do) is what we ought to believe or do.

2. In his holy scripture, God proposes for our belief that he has caused, committed, condoned or laid down commands for us to obey every one of the four types of crimes of types A, B, C and D.

3. It is morally wrong to cause, commit, condone or command any of the crimes of types A, B, C, D.

4. God is omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect.

5. A morally perfect being would not do anything that is morally wrong.

I’ve seen this kind of argument from Ray before. In fact some time ago I commented on it at my blog. Ray says that theists are committed to all five, and the result is a contradiction. Which of these can they afford to give up? They cannot give up 1) without giving up the thesis of this debate: That our moral duty is grounded in God’s will. They cannot give up 2) without giving up the authority of the Bible. They would have to say that either God didn’t know how to say what he meant, or else he did know, but didn’t actually mean what he said. They cannot give up 3) without becoming moral monsters. They cannot give up 4) without giving up the traditional theistic portrait of God altogether, and to give up 5) is to give up a truism: That a perfectly moral person is perfectly moral in all that he does.

Which of these, asks Ray, will Matt deny?

As Ray closed his talk, I was left feeling just a little cheated. I know what the debate over moral foundations is like. I research, write, blog, speak and publish on the issue. I’ve become familiar with the issues it delves into and the territory it needs to cover. In particular, the literature on divine command ethics (the specific ethical theory identified in the subject that both parties had agreed to debate) contains well known arguments on key features of the theory. But Ray didn’t appear to say a word about any of this. Indeed, as the debate unfolded it began to look like he was not familiar with the literature in the least – or at least if he was, he did not consider the more familiar philosophical territory to be at all relevant. Instead, we had a string of claims about the God of the Bible being a really nasty guy. Now, I can understand when the likes of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins haplessly wander into the domain of philosophy of religion and end up tub thumping about how God is a villain instead of actually doing any philosophy. But the whole reason that Ray was an ideal candidate for this debate was that he is a qualified philosopher. Where was the philosophical interaction with the claim that God is the source of morality?

Opening Statement: Dr Matthew Flannagan

Matt gave his opening talk next, and I think more or less everybody in attendance (and presumably Ray as well) would have noticed that the approach taken was markedly different from that of Ray. It may seem rather elementary, but first Matt explained what the subject of the debate was (namely, whether or not it is defensible to view God as the source of morality, and whether or not right and wrong could be grounded in God’s commands), he took a stance on the subject of the debate (namely an affirmative stance on both counts), and then he began to defend that stance. That, in short, was how his opening presentation differed from Ray’s.

Matt holds to a divine command theory of ethics, the view that moral rightness and wrongness are determined by the commands of God. There are a range of familiar objections to this view, and Matt turned to a few of those first. It is said that if morality is the result of God’s commands, then horrific things like torturing people for fun could become right just because God commanded them. But this is to suppose that God can command just anything, says Matt, and in fact the traditional concept of God, even as announced by Ray, involves God being “morally perfect,” and a morally perfect being would not commit such acts. For my part, I’m never quite happy when divine command theorists appeal to God’s moral perfection here, because if morality has as its source the commands of God, then God isn’t moral, meaning that it can’t be his moral perfection that constrains his commands (this is why it is, I think, better to think of God’s goodness preventing him from such issuing such commands). However, I think Matt next explains that this is not quite what he means to say as follows:

Some object to the above defence of divine command ethics. If we take the above line of reasoning, then just how meaningful is it to say that God is good? Surely the claim just boils down to saying that God obeys his own commands. But there is, says Matt, a grain of truth to this. We can talk about divine goodness without construing it in terms of moral perfection in the sense of doing one’s duty (this is what I was referring to earlier). Many theologians and philosophers construe God’s goodness in terms of his character: truthful, loving, merciful and so on. It may well be that God doesn’t have a duty to be loving or truthful, but that hardly shows that he isn’t loving or truthful.

With that, Matt moved on to Ray’s argument. Prior to the debate, Ray and Matt had “traded notes,” so that they would each know what the other was going to say, and be able to respond to that position in the debate. Matt replies to the “logical straight-jacket” argument summed up in five points as follows: First, even if all of Ray’s complaints about the biblical teaching were well founded, the argument wouldn’t even begin to address the subject of the debate, namely whether or not a divine command theory of ethics is tenable. There’s nothing about a divine command theory, for example, that commits somebody to inerrancy. A person might believe that moral duties are caused by divine commands, but known through all sorts of means like conscience and not necessarily from the Old Testament (they might, in theory, even gain that knowledge for other holy books). So Ray’s argument just doesn’t address the subject of the debate.

Secondly, says Matt, premise three of Ray’s argument is ambiguous. It could mean that it’s morally wrong for us (i.e. human beings) to engage in or will acts like A B C or D, or it could mean that it’s wrong for God to engage in them, as well as wrong for us. Ray claims that denying 3) amounts to becoming like Genghis Kahn or Hitler, but this is only so if we deny that it’s wrong for humans to do those things. We might say that it’s wrong for humans do do A B C or D, but still deny 3) because we think that it’s not wrong for God to do those things. What’s more, Ray, says Matt, is using circular reasoning here by just assuming that God has duties not to do A B C or D. But if God is the source of morality then he cannot have such duties, and this is the very subject in dispute. Ray is therefore assuming the very thing he needed to prove.

Matt’s third response is to address premise 2) in Ray’s argument, and here, if I may say so, is where the debate got rather sidetracked – not because Matt responded to Ray’s arguments at this point (it’s fairly inevitable that one wishes to respond to the other debater’s points), but because, as a whole, arguments about this premise came to dominate the entire discussion that followed. Here Matt argues that actually God did not do or command the things that many people allege that the Bible depicts him as doing or commanding. I summarise considerably here:

When it comes to the conquest and supposed genocide in the Old Testament, critics often note the harsh sounding instructions to wipe out everything that breathes in the Canaanite communities, but then fail to notice that the same books of the Bible later talk about the Canaanites still living where they lived before. There’s a widely recognised phenomenon in Ancient Near Eastern writing of extreme hyperbole, much like we use today when we talk about “annihilating” the opposition in a sporting match. The language refers to utter defeat, rather than the actual killing of every living creature. As an aside of my own, this line of argument is not new among fairly conservative Christians. In fact, even before there was any such thing as the “New Atheist” movement, Martin Luther in the 16th century discussed the fact that there are obvious exaggerations for rhetorical effect in Old Testament battle accounts.

Next, Matt argues that in fact while the death sentence is mentioned for fifteen offences in the Old Testament, it was usually anticipated that actual execution would not take place, but some sort of payment would suffice instead, the death penalty being mentioned only to underscore just how serious the offending was. In fact, for murder the Torah pointed out that a ransom (a payment in lieu of execution) was impossible and that execution must take place, which implies that in other cases a ransom was considered quits acceptable. The legal reference to execution was thus a hyperbole or a worst case scenario in most cases.

Lastly, Matt commented on Ray’s claim that God will torture people forever just for holding the wrong beliefs. Firstly, says Matt, the texts that speak about hell or eternal punishment actually do not, in context, speak of literal endless torment at all. The Book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, full of symbolic language from the Old Testament, language that originally referred to destruction of wicked empires. Similarly, language of weeping and gnashing of teeth or unquenchable fire, in the Old Testament context from which they are borrowed, refers to destruction and not endless suffering. What is more, the texts in question indicate that people will be punished for their actions, and not just for holding false beliefs.

Attempting to drag the debate kicking and screaming back onto the intended subject, Matt sums up by recapping: Ray, even if right, hasn’t offered an argument against God being the source of morality. Some of the premises of his key argument either equivocate or involve circular reasoning, and his interpretation of Scripture can be faulted for failing to take important features like genre and context into account.

End of round one. I think the impression created at this point was fairly unmistakable. Ray has presumed, it appeared, that he could simply embarrass God (or in God’s absence, those who believe in God) by seeking to make the biblical God look like a monster, while not turning to the philosophical issue in question: the source of morality. By presenting such a shocking picture, he seems to have supposed, people wouldn’t care about whether or not it’s acceptable to construe morality in terms of obedience to divine commands. Don’t think about that, just look at how awful the Old Testament is! By contrast, Matt singled out and offered defence of a stance on the subject in question. The problem is that he didn’t do it a lot – and the reason for that is that in responding to Ray’s argument, he was forced to talk about issues other than the subject of the debate. For what it’s worth, I also think the specific angle taken on defending a stance on the debate topic came across to many as a little on the technical side. The subject of the debate was introduced in Matt’s talk was a defence of his position against the possibility of horrendous commands and the claim that divine command ethics results in a vacuous view of ethics. The trouble is, given the nature of Ray’s approach, these objections never even arose, and as a result it seemed a little technical and out of place. I would have been inclined to start with a more general thesis about the relationship between God and morality, and then – without anticipating rebuttals that might not even follow, offer some fairly general arguments for that thesis. However, it proved to be the first and last interaction with the more philosophical aspects of the subject in the debate.

Rebuttal: Raymond Bradley

Next came the rebuttal round where each speaker made use of a right of reply. Ray went first, and his first objection was to the suggestion that God does not have moral duties. Nobody, he said, is above the law. I cannot be the only one present who found this to be completely gratuitous. The entire debate was supposed to be about whether or not God’s commands are the source of morality. If they are, then it follows that God has no moral duties. How can Ray appeal to this belief in order to rebut the affirmative position? Why, I thought at the time, do his logical senses not scream out at him “stop! You’re using the most circular argument in the world!” Commenting further on the claim that God doesn’t have moral duties, Ray next claims that this is moral relativism, an abandonment of moral objectivity: These are rules that apply to some people (i.e. all humans) and not to God. Moral objectivity requires that all moral rules apply to all persons no matter who they are. Again, I blinked, thinking – as a philosopher (a former head of a philosophy department, no less), how could he think that this is so? Moral objectivity has never meant that everyone has the same duties (for example, I have an objective moral obligation to provide for my children, but it doesn’t follow that Ray has that obligation to provide for my children). All it means is that it’s a fact that those people have the duties they have, regardless of what anyone else thinks about it. I could only imagine that his fellow philosophers in the audience were wincing as they listened.

Ray followed this up by saying that it’s no good defining God as good. We can define anything any way we like, that doesn’t make those definitions true. But of course defining things a certain way does not indicate that those things exist or that they are correctly defined that way, and nor had anyone suggested otherwise. Matt’s point had been a very different one, namely that if God is good in the way that theologians have portrayed him, then divine command ethics is not subject to the objection that God might just command horrific things, which would then become morally right.

Philosophically speaking, the rebuttals that Ray offered were not just poor, they were bewilderingly poor. Next came the rebuttals aimed at Matt’s biblical arguments (which had originally been responses to Ray’s own biblical arguments).

Yes, Ray says, it may be that the same books of the Bible that speak of the annihilation of the Canaanites also later speaks of them living in the land. However, this doesn’t justify the claim that the reference to complete destruction is a hyperbole. Instead, we should read both parts absolutely literally, and therefore see that what we have is a contradiction. But (in my view), one might have thought that had the contradiction been this obvious the author might have noticed, but Ray assures us that in fact this is how we should read the text. What does he say about the evidence from Ancient Near Easter literature indicating that such hyperbole was common and therefore unsurprising? Interestingly, he says nothing at all.

Staying with the Old Testament, Ray replies to Matt’s comments about the death sentence being substituted with a lesser penalty like a monetary fine. Ray’s challenge is: If those cases permitted something other than execution, then what would Matt propose? A “lesser execution”? As a listener I was somewhat confused by this challenge, given that Matt’s argument was that the lesser penalty was not execution but a fine. I assumed that Ray might simply have misheard Matt on the issue. But Ray has a question here for Matt: Which penalties should be carried out, and how do we know what they refer to?

But apart from the conquest and the death penalty, Ray added, there are other examples of atrocities in the Old Testament that Matt had not commented on. What, for example, of the biblical flood? Will Matt say that this too is merely a metaphor or a hyperbole? Can it just be exp

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