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God's Judgment of Canaanites: Amoral? A Critical Response.

08 January 2014, 09:27

MyNews24 recently imposed a great misfortune on its readers by publishing an article defending the mass killing of people and otherwise innocent children ( The article is problematic for this and other reasons, which will be the subject of this response. The author of that article was adamant that this was a ‘philosophical’ argument, and that it deserved a philosophical response. If that article counts as philosophy, then I am deeply ashamed to be a part of such an institution. Let’s begin.

Straightaway I’m going to vindicate ‘Godwins law’ and show that the strategy used by the author can be used, equally well, to defend Nazism. The intention is not to suggest that the author has Hitlerite sympathies. Rather it is to show that author’s defence leads to results which we find to be obviously incorrect. As such, the results the author actually draws should be called into question.

 The author espoused a very straightforward and heroic ‘divine command’ meta-ethical grounding. This means that he takes it that whatever God commands is right. As he said, the only moral obligation the Israelites had, in the Canaanite affair, was to follow God’s commands.

As can be expected, there is no argument for this assumption, so from the start we have no reason to accept his basic premises. Also, generally speaking, taking such a position incurs problems, which I’ll talk about later on. But let us make the same sort of assumptions and see what we can get out of it. Let us suppose that we are Nazis and that we regard Hitler, the Fuhrer, as the ultimate source of goodness (or, at least, privy to God will), and that we are trying to make sense of the mass killing of the Jewish people. There are interesting conclusions we can draw by following the author’s logic.

Let me paraphrase the author, substituting for various salient words. “[Germany’s]” moral duties are constituted by [Hitler’s] commands. What the [Nazis] did is not murder, since it was done with the sanction of the Fuhrer.” We could appeal to Mein Kampf to learn of the tyranny of the Jews. This follows much the same thought process as appealing to the bible to learn of the tyranny of the Canaanites. Indeed there are many pamphlets and organizations today, to which we can appeal, which continue to believe rather negative things about Jewish people.

Let us then say, based on the information from Mein Kampf and associated documents, paraphrasing the author: “The [Jewish] culture was not good, according to [Hitler]. He knew what the results would be were the Jews to remain alive. For the adults, it was punishment for their [crimes against Germany]. This is not murder, or genocide, because such punishment was exacted under Nazi Law.” I can stop here, I think.

It would be horrific if not so laughably ineffective to defend or justify the atrocities of Nazi Germany in this way. The same thing can be said about the author’s defence regarding the Canaanite affair. The problem is rather obvious. Whatever were the beliefs of the Nazi’s carrying out such atrocities, the mere fact that they believed or assumed what they did to be right (or sanctioned by some divine command) does not make it so.

One can assume, just as the author does, anything they like, and see what follows from that assumption. This method will not only see us ‘justifying’ the issue around the Canaanites, but also around the holocaust, or any other atrocity worth mentioning. But the method, then, is obviously flawed, and the flaw is this. We cannot simply assume that God (or Hitler, or Allah, or whatever else) is the ‘source of goodness’, and that people’s moral obligations are constituted by his (or their) commandments. This assumption must be justified, and unfortunately for religious folk this is a very difficult task. The strategy amounts to not much more than begging the question – trying to defend some event as being moral by assuming it to be moral (or sanctioned by some moral-law). Clearly this is not only a bad strategy, but a totally invalid one, which the author would be wise to leave behind.

The other problem, which is more abstract, is to do with the divine command theory itself, which the author brashly and misguidedly upholds. I’ve written before about the problems with such a perspective, but I’ll try and reproduce what is salient about my previous critiques here.

In accepting that one’s normative obligations are identical with God’s commandments we lose the ability to speak sensibly about what is right and wrong. ‘Right’ becomes a substitute word for ‘Gods will’. To say that something was ‘good’ is only to say that God enjoyed it.

The problem with this position is well known. It means that, for the religious believer, the foundation of morality is subjective, as it springs solely from the ‘mind’ of God, and arbitrary, since its contents are decided by whatever God wills, without constraints. Religious folk tend to think more highly of themselves, and hope for an ethic which is objective, stable and even absolute, rather than subjective and arbitrary. The assumptions of the author, themselves philosophically tendentious, also lead to an unhappy result for the religious sympathiser.

The common response to that criticism is ultimately contradictory. The response attempts to appeal, as the author does in some vague sense, to “Gods infinitely good nature”. Given that the author has already announced that the meaning of ‘goodness’ is ‘Gods will’, it is difficult to know what to make of this appeal to Gods ‘good’ nature.

There are a number of ways to understand this. One might mean, by saying that God’s nature was good, that God approved of his own nature. Or one might mean that God willed himself to have the nature he currently has. It is in this way that it becomes trivial to talk about the ‘goodness’ of Gods nature – because Goodness, on this view, is nothing more than what God wants.

An appeal to God’s nature as justification for the goodness of his commands is – even though the author didn’t recognize it – totally circular, and thus invalid. Despite what the author thought he was doing, he is actually presenting an amoral picture. That is a world view in which words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do not have their usual significance but are, basically, catch-words for Gods desires and moods. Hopefully by this point, whatever sympathy he had from other religious folk is eroding.

I must be fair and admit that the author clearly didn’t intend all of that. The author, rather misguidedly, wanted to appeal to the stability of ‘Gods nature’ as an objective foundation of the goodness of Gods commandments. God’s nature typically includes, in the minds of his believers, kindness, mercy, love, justice, fairness and so on. The idea here is rather simple. Since God’s nature involves these things necessarily or essentially (and, so, not arbitrarily) then God’s commandments can have some semblance of objectivity, rather than being peculiarly arbitrary.

Of course, this strategy does not work. In order to get the result theists want, which is a God whose commandments are objectively valid and not arbitrary, they have to deny (one way or another) that God is the source of Goodness. Thus, the author would have to contradict the pronouncements he began with and revise the notion that the Israelites obligations were constituted by Gods commandments. Doing this, obviously, undermines the entire argument the author tried to erect. Let me explain how this result occurs.

The appeal which religious folk emphasize is to Gods ‘essential’ or ‘necessary’ nature. This, they hope, results in the objective validity of God’s commandments. But what is really pulling the crazy train forward is rather the appeal to the content of Gods alleged essential or necessary nature. They appeal, in other words, to the fact that God is loving, kind, just, merciful, and so on. Were we to suppose that Gods essential nature was that of being hateful, unkind, unjust, unmerciful, and so on, we would hardly think it correct to call God ‘good’, let alone ‘infinitely good’. And anyone who characterized such a being as good could plausibly be accused of not understanding the moral terms they were using.

As such, the fact that God (if it exists) has some necessary nature is irrelevant to moral considerations. What is of concern is the content of his nature, and it is the content of his nature which is morally significant. This, then, is an appeal to the intrinsic goodness of various qualities, such as ‘love’, ‘kindness’, ‘mercy’, ‘justice’, etc. That is, those qualities are goods in themselves, and are good independent of Gods commandments, or Gods existence.

So, in appealing to the (infinite) goodness of Gods nature, if the author wishes to avoid fallacious circularity, moral subjectivity and moral arbitrariness, he must appeal to the intrinsic goodness of things independent of God. The author, therefore, is simply, by his own argument, incapable of saying legitimately that the Israelites moral obligations were to God’s commandments – their moral obligations were towards ideals and virtues such as justice, love, mercy, kindness, fairness, etc.

Once the set pieces are arranged this way, then no questions need be begged regarding the existence or non-existence of God. And we have, as good as can be done in such a paradigm, a proof that divine command theory is an incorrect theory. Both theists and atheists can address the question quite soberly and ask whether or not various events or actions exhibited such moral virtues. Equally, it can be asked whether various commandments exhibited those moral virtues. In this way, in answering such questions I think the atheists will have the upper hand.

None of this prevents the author from asking his closing questions. I must say, though, that it is often a mistake to ask such (rhetorical) questions or to finish things off with a question – the problem is that it might actually get an answer, which is what I shall try now to do.

Regarding the penultimate question, ‘how can we make moral judgments were God not the creator of morality?’, I have given many answers already to this question. But those answers are too long to reproduce here, and they can easily be found elsewhere. The final question is, ‘am I a better judge than the creator of everything?’ How one interprets this string of symbols depends on what conceptual machinery underlies them.

 The author, and most of common sense, despite what he explicitly and incoherently writes, really does make appeal to the various moral virtues I outlines just above. In this sense, the answer is that so long as one is competent in their understanding of these moral concepts, then one is as good a judge as any other, given sufficient time to reflect.

If, on the other hand, the author does not want to accept the above moral concepts as being morally significant, then various unhappy results follow. For one, the final ‘question’ would cease to be a legitimate one, and would be rather oxymoronic to ask. It would be impossible by definition to be a ‘better’ judge than God, because whatever God happens to judge is, by definition, the best. The question is posed, then, cynically.

But, of course, if this is the path the author wishes to travel he shall have few travelling companions, save the bungling company of William Lane Craig. This path leads one ultimately to accept the unhappy result that there is no such thing, really, as morality – rightness, wrongness, goodness, badness, etc. – there is just Gods desires, which are subjective, arbitrary, and perhaps not even stable (as evinced by his notable change in tone from the old testament to the new testament). Moral language, as I noted earlier, can be eliminated entirely on this view and exchanged for a language expressing Gods subjective states.

Far from the bold ‘absolute morality’ that many religious folks boast, unless one accepts that morality is independent of God, one is left with no real morality at all. One is left merely with amoral appeals to the will of the overlord which his followers call God. I struggle to see any non-trivial difference between this case, and the otherwise amoral appeals fanatics make to the will of overlords and dictators with more Earthly names. I should, however, let the readers decide on that matter.

Much of this ignores the tenuous metaphysical assumptions one must make in order even to start such a defence as the author wished – failed as it is. One has to assume that God exists, that there is some sense in which he created morality, that the events in the bible are historically accurate, and that the people acting in those events were roused to act by their acquaintance with this particular God. It is difficult, I think, to come up with a reason to grant these assumptions. Certainly there is very slight evidence to warrant our beliefs in such things. So unless one wishes to engage in purely hypothetical work, which perhaps says nothing about the actual world, one needs to first establish those things, before engaging in this kind of defence.

Let me sum up the points then. Firstly, it simply will not do to assume that divine command theory is correct. If such an assumption is granted in the case of religion, then it can be granted (in one guise or another) regarding any group-based event. This assumption, on its own, leads us nowhere. Rather, what the religious apologist needs to do is to establish that divine command theory is correct, and that God exists. This, as I have shown here and elsewhere, cannot be done.

Secondly, divine command theory, even if it is assumed, is a highly problematic position to take. The author mistakenly, perhaps unwittingly, even presents an incoherent rendition of it, making much of what he said formally unacceptable.

One unpalatable option for the divine command theorist is to eschew the notion of morality altogether, and embrace an ironic amorality in which nothing is really good or bad, but merely willed or decried by God. This makes, what ought to be seen as, ‘morality’ the arbitrary and subjective desires of the overlord creator.

The other option, more palatable, though less favourable for the author’s case, is this. That we should accept that there are various things which are good in themselves, independent of God’s desire, such as love, kindness, mercy, justice, fairness, etc. Only if this is the case can it have significance to suggest that God is ‘good’, otherwise such locutions become circular and end up signifying the banal notion that God approves of himself (which, probably, every psychopath does). This means, of course, that questions like ‘is God good?’, and ‘Did God, on that one occasion, command what is good?’, are significant questions, which can have negative answers, as many think is the case regarding the Canaanite affair.

The author’s main argument then, that the Israelites only obligation was to follow God’s commandments, and this makes what occurred good, is exposed as simply incorrect. The Israelites moral obligations were to follow the moral virtues, and there are many plausible arguments to suggest, without presupposing theism or atheism, that such activities were less than moral in that sense. As such, there don’t seem to be many good reasons to accept the authors defence.

I think it is genuinely difficult to extract a defensibly moral message from the bible. I’ve expressed before that I consider it to be a problematic book, with few factual, moral, or spiritual lessons relevant for today. It is about time that we start to realize that. I don’t think the author gave a very good philosophical treatment to this issue, and I hope I have shown why that is. 

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