God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part III Philip Quinn

In this three-part series I look at some different ways of adjudicating conflicts between apparent divine commands and moral beliefs. I started with Immanuel Kant, I then looked at Robert Adams’ defence of Kant’s position. Now I will complete the series by exploring Philip Quinn’s alternative view.

In “God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part II Robert Adams” I mentioned Phillip Quinn’s observation that theists can face a particular dilemma,

“[I]t seems possible that a theist should have both good reasons for believing that God has commanded him to perform a certain action and good reasons for believing that it would be morally wrong for him to perform that action. Thus a theist can be confronted with moral dilemmas of a peculiar sort.”

Quinn’s point is that a theist might find himself believing all three of the following propositions:

[1] Whatever God commands is morally permissible;

[2] God commands X;

[3] It is wrong to do X.

Adams and Kant argued that one should resolve dilemmas of this sort by affirming [3] and denying [2].  I argued in Part I Kant and Part II Robert Adams that this conclusion is unjustified. What Adams does show is that one cannot “accept a theological ethics that ascribes to God a set of commands that is too much at variance with the ethical outlook that we bring to our theological thinking.” [Emphasis added] His position, in fact, suggests that in many cases we should accept divine commands at variance with our moral beliefs. Hence, there may well be times when it is rational to reject [3] and embrace [2].

In this last post I will elaborate Quinn’s answer to this question. Quinn’s position can be seen by contrasting two approaches he takes to specific examples of the kind of dilemma he cites.

The first is Quinn’s response to the dilemma posed by “the sins of the patriarchs” this is the term medieval theologians gave to specific dilemmas they thought they saw in the biblical texts, cases “where God commands something that appears to be immoral and indeed to violate a prohibition he himself has laid down.” Three examples were dominant in medieval discussions. These were: (a) the case of Abraham being commanded to kill Isaac; (b) a command in Exodus 11:2 which was interpreted to be a command to plunder the Egyptians; and (c) the command to Hosea to have sexual relations with an adulteress. (Hosea 1:2, 3:1)

Quinn’s response is to appropriate the response suggested by Augustine, Bernard,   Aquinas and, in most detail, by the 14th century theologian Andreas de Novo Castro:

“[T]here are actions which, ‘known per se by the law of nature and by the dictate of natural reason, are seen to be prohibited, as actions which are homicides, thefts, adulteries, etc., but, with respect to the absolute power of. God, it is possible that actions of this kind not be sins.’”

Andreas’ claim is that certain actions such as theft, adultery and killing the innocent are wrong and that people know by nature that they are wrong. What he contends, however, is that God could have made them permissible if he choose to do so by simply commanding them.  Moreover, Andreas accepts that in the cases of (a), (b) and (c) God did do this and so on these occasions the actions in question were not wrong.

Quinn notes that a divine command theory makes sense of this. According to a divine command theory wrongness is constituted by the property of being contrary to God’s commands. So where God has issued a command to all people to refrain from P, engaging in P would have the property of being wrong. However, if, in a specific situation, God commands a specific person to do P then P is no longer contrary to God’s commands, for that person, and hence, no longer has the property of being wrong, for that person.

Quinn notes that this does not, as critics contend, open the flood-gates allowing everyone to kill or steal or so on because if a specific individual is commanded to kill or steal or commit a sexual indiscretion for a specific occasion then it is only permitted for that particular individual to perform that act on that particular occasion. Hence, this view is compatible with contending that these actions are generally, and in most cases, wrong. Moreover, nothing about this view requires a person to believe that God ever issued such commands to anyone apart from the specific instances mentioned nor does it require a person to accept any and every claim made by any would be killer, thief or sexually promiscuous person that God has commanded them to act as they do.

People who hold this view can, and typically do, think that cases where God does command such things are extremely rare and that any claim that God has commanded such an action today is unlikely. In fact, they may have theological reasons for thinking such commands would not occur outside of the events recorded in salvation history. Adopting this view, one could even accept that such actions are, for practical purposes, absolutely wrong. All this position entails then is that in specific, rare and probably never to be repeated occasions, these actions have been permitted.

Quinn’s second approach is to respond to an objection made to divine command theory by 17th century Philosopher Ralph Cudworth. Cudworth objected that the divine command theory makes morality arbitrary, according to a divine command theory, anything at all could be deemed ‘right’ as long as God commanded it. Wes Morriston formulises the objection as follows:

(i) The divine command theory entails that whatever God commands is morally obligatory;

(ii) God could command X;

(iii) so if the divine command theory is true, X could be morally obligatory;

(iv) but X could not be morally obligatory;

(v) therefore, the divine command theory is false.

[ X = the action of torturing children purely for fun]

Quinn’s response here is interesting (and I think substantially correct). He notes that this objection assumes (ii) is true, that it is possible that God could command atrocious things like torturing people for fun. This assumption seems very dubious.

We need to remember that we are not talking about right or wrong as being based on the commands of just anyone, we are talking about God, understood as a being with certain attributes. The most notable of these is His being omnipotent, omniscient, loving, good and just.

So, as God is understood by divine command theorists, the claim that it is possible for God to command people to torture others for fun is true only if it is possible for a morally perfect person, who is fully informed of what he is doing, to command such an atrocious thing.  But this is impossible. As Quinn notes, “If God is essentially just, there will be constraints on the antecedent intentions God can form.” A just being cannot command just anything, hence Cudword’s argument fails.

What is immediately apparent is the contrast between these two approaches. In the sins of the patriarchs case, Quinn has responded to the dilemma by denying [2] on the basis of [3]. He argued that the actions in question are not wrong for these individuals in these contexts because God commanded them. However, regarding the example of torturing children for fun, Quinn has denied that [3] is possible on the basis of his moral judgements about [2], torturing children for fun is the kind of action a loving and just being could not command. Quinn notes the apparent inconsistency,

“Given that I say it is impossible for God to command someone to torture an innocent child just for the sake of amusement, it may seem that I must also say that it is impossible for God to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, impossible for God to command the Israelites to plunder the Egyptians, and impossible for God to command Hosea to have sexual relations with the sinful woman.”

Quinn’s response is that in the case of torturing children for fun, the most plausible response is to answer that God could not command such a thing; “it would be a mistake to generalize to the conclusion that it is an implausible kind of response in every possible case, including all cases of the immoralities of the patriarchs.” This is because in the case of torturing children for fun Quinn’s response was based on the intuitive insight that it is impossible for an omniscient, loving, just and good being to command such a thing.

However, he notes that our intuitions about different cases differ. While it is intuitively obvious that it is impossible for a perfectly good being to command us to torture others merely for fun, it is not obvious that it is impossible for a good being to ever permit stealing – cases exist where a person might need to steal food in order to avoid their child succumbing to starvation and in such cases it is not obvious that stealing is always wrong.  Moreover, in the case of plundering the Egyptians, the Israelites had just been liberated from slavery and were taking property from those who had held them in slavery. Similarly with Hosea, like Quinn, I don’t find it intuitively obvious that there is no possible world or situation where a good person might permit someone to sleep with an adulteress.  So, these cases are not on par with the case of a command to torture children for fun.

Behind Quinn’s analysis is the epistemic principle he attributed to Kant, “whenever two conflicting claims differ in epistemic status, the claim with the lower status is to be rejected.”  Unlike Kant, however, he does not assume that moral claims will always have a higher status than theological ones. In the case of torturing children for fun the claim that such an action is necessarily wrong has a fairly high epistemic status; the idea that it is wrong to torture children for fun is so central to our understanding of  goodness that denying it would make it impossible to coherently claim a good being commanded it. On the other hand, the claim that God has commanded such a thing or even could does not have a high status. Hence it is sensible to contend that God cannot issue such commands.

In other cases, such as the immoralities of the patriarchs, the contention that the action is wrong does not have a high epistemic status. It is not obvious that our beliefs about it being always wrong to sleep with adulteresses or that it is wrong in any circumstances to steal, have anywhere near the strength our belief about torturing children for fun does. That it is never permissible to steal is a moral judgment. One can coherently deny that a perfectly good being would endorse this judgment and there appears to be some scriptural support for the claim God did command theft on a specific occasion. So, provided the exegetical case for this command having occurred is conclusive enough, one can accept that God commanded it.

Quinn’s approach, I think, also incorporates some of the insights of Adams. Adams argued that in order for [1] to be correct God must be understood as good. Quinn’s response to Cudworth illustrates that Cudworth’s objection fails only because God is essentially good. Similarly, Adams argued that in order to meaningfully say God is good, one cannot attribute to God a set of commands so much at variance with our beliefs about morality that one could no longer coherently claim that a good person had commanded them. Quinn’s response acknowledges that in this sort of situation one would have compelling reasons for thinking that God did not issue the commands in question because accepting God did would be incoherent. What Quinn’s approach adds is that there are also many situations in which our theological beliefs can correct and critique our moral beliefs. We might be quite sure on exegetical grounds that God has commanded some action and coherently believe this; if this is the case then unless we have equal or stronger reasons for thinking the action is wrong, it will be rational to accept God’s command. Quinn’s position, therefore, takes seriously the fact that our moral judgments are fallible and an authentic encounter with God’s will is therefore likely to contrast with some of our moral beliefs.

God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part I Kant
God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part II Robert Adams

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