Genocide and Divine Command Theory
Brandon Watson is giving me grief for neglecting to address the arguments put forth by William Lane Craig in support of his literal reading of God’s command to Israel to slaughter the Canaanites. Such an engagement was not the objective of my previous post, which was intentionally more assertion than argument. However, Craig has a considered and finely executed argument for his interpretation, and so it seems only fair that I address it after (in this case) I’ve dismissed his conclusion.
Craig argues that one can read the offending passages in question as accurately depicting real events and real divine commands without endangering 1) the moral argument for God existence, 2) the deity of Christ, or 3) the conception of God as holy and loving. According to Craig, there’s no moral problem in saying that a good, holy, and loving God commanded his Chosen People to wipe out another people, including children and infants. To say such a command didn’t really happen is to reject biblical inerrancy: “the problem, it seems to me, is that if God could not have issued such a command, then the biblical stories must be false. Either the incidents never really happened but are just Israeli folklore; or else, if they did, then Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities, when in fact He had not.”
His argument centers on a version of divine command ethics in which God’s holy and loving nature determines what he commands. It is on this ethics that I wish to dwell. Craig writes:
I think that a good start at this problem is to enunciate our ethical theory that underlies our moral judgements. According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.
What that implies is that God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites when He sees fit. How long they live and when they die is up to Him.
So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their own initiative, it would have been wrong.
On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.
It is important to note that Craig does not espouse voluntarism; he rejects a divine command theory in which God arbitrarily decides what is good and evil. Instead, says Craig, “our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.” It is God’s commanding that obligates us, but the actions to which we are obligated because of his commands correspond to the standard of his holiness and love. Craig furthermore theorizes that God can command us to perform acts that would be sinful if we performed them without his command, but are not sinful if he commands them because a) his commands constitute our moral duties, b) God himself is not prohibited from doing them or commanding them, and c) commanding such actions is not contrary to God’s nature. According to Craig, the genocide committed by Israel in obedience to God’s order was such an act.
While Craig does not profess belief in a morally arbitrary deity, his theory, in practice, opens the city gates to the same practical consequences that result from voluntarism. To speak of God commanding X or Y is to refer to an act occurring beyond human experience. Assuming such commands actually occur, we only know about them because someone claiming to speak for God tells us what they are. Moses claimed to have been given the Ten Commandments. Jesus claimed that he and the Father were one. Paul claimed to speak in the name of Christ. The popes have claimed magisterial teaching authority guided by the Holy Spirit. We’re typically not directly present to divine commands, but rather to self-described religious authorities and religious texts through which, we’re told, God speaks.
Now maybe God actually has spoken through some select human beings, but Craig’s ethical theory doesn’t provide us with the tools to recognize the legitimate representatives from the phonies. Instead, his theory makes this discernment more difficult. By placing the origin of moral obligation in divine commands, he has in effect placed it in the words of people his faith tells him are the real deal. And how does his faith speak to him? Why, through people who claim to be religious authorities who have authored religious texts. People of other religious professions or merely of other interpretations of his own who likewise approach the source of morality through divine command theorizing will undoubtedly arrive at different conclusions about what God commands or what an alleged commandment from God means.
In practice, divine command theory, even one which depicts God as holy and loving, deprives us of a knowable objective moral standard. We’re presented with as many divine commands as there are alleged mouthpieces for the divine. Saying that God is holy and loving doesn’t settle the matter of what the terms mean when applied to God. To insist on a singular meaning for each term requires a step away from the proclamations of alleged religious authorities toward a standard by which even they can be judged; but if we subject them to such a standard, then we move away from the position from which we hear the ethical standard arising from their lips. We walk away from the practice of a divine command ethics.
Craig makes matters worse by opening the door to the justification of all manner of evils. Suppose a couple comes to believe that God has commanded them to suffocate their young children because the kids are destined to grow away from their faith when they become adults. According to Craig’s theory, God could conceivably command this horror, and if he did, the parents would be morally obligated to obey the command. What would we tell such parents? That God wouldn’t command such a terrible thing? That to carry out this command would be a sin? The parents could simply respond, “God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.” Maybe we’d bring up advanced theological ideas about dispensations to differentiate our world from the world of the Old Testament, and therefore the situation of the ancient Israelites from that of these parents, but such recourse would be more than a little odd. Should an ethical theory really need to reference the theological concept of divine dispensation in order to have a footing on which to persuade a couple not to murder their children?
Craig’s ethical theory may enable him to explain why the ancient Israelites were on solid moral ground when killing the children of their enemy, but it also, in practice, results in an authoritarian ethics, and ethics in which the basis of right and wrong is communicated to us by a self-described religious-moral authority and which therefore gives us no ground, solid or otherwise, to judge the moral truth of what the authority claims to communicate. If we assess the moral thinking of such an authority without simply taking the word of another such authority, then we’ve looked elsewhere for a basis of right and wrong.