Monday, October 06, 2008

When it's right to disobey God

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Israelite soldier at the time of the Old Testament. One day, King Saul - claiming that he has received a command from God - orders you, together with your fellow soldiers, to raid a nearby Amalekite town, and to kill every man, woman, child and animal. Now imagine that you feel uncomfortable about that order: killing enemy soldiers during war might be justified, you think to yourself, but woman and children? You have reservations. So as an Israelite soldier, under orders from the creator of the universe, would you be ethically and morally right if you refused to obey this command?

Take particular note of your answer to this question, as it might indicate what type of ethical philosophy you subscribe to.

Deontological ethics
The story of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22 clearly highlights the ethical and moral philosophy advocated by much of the Bible. Abraham was willing to obey God’s command, despite any major reservations he might have had, because Abraham, like many theists today, based his moral and ethical worldview on the foundation of deontological ethics, an ethical system that is based on obligation and duty. But more specifically, Abraham adhered to divine command theory, a form of deontological ethics that states that whatever God commands must be right, and that reward and punishment should be used as motivation.

On an apologetic website, the following answer was given to why God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Notice how much emphasis is placed on unquestioning obedience to God, which is an important element of divine command theory?

[Abraham’s] unquestioning obedience to God’s confusing command gave God the glory He deserves and is an example to us of how to glorify God. When we obey as Abraham did, trusting that God’s plan is the best possible scenario, we lift up His attributes and praise Him for them.

The problem with divine command theory
As a Christian, I once subscribed to the divine command theory of ethics, but since leaving the faith I have realised that deontological ethical systems can be incredibly disempowering for the individual, as well as extremely dangerous. The divine command theory is ultimately authoritarian, and the biggest danger that I see in an authoritarian approach to morality and ethics is that it emphasizes following orders over and above anything else. If we follow God’s instructions, then we are good; if we don’t, then we are bad. It doesn’t matter if we cause untold suffering and destruction in the process. In other words, the consequences of our actions don’t matter; what matters is that we please God.

There are other issues as well. As the following article argues, there are three main problems with deontological ethics:

  • There is no real moral merit in following an order, anyone can follow an order while not all orders should be followed;
  • The ability to follow an order is more characteristic of robots, not free ethical individuals; and
  • Orders are followed simply because they are given, not because they reduce suffering, increase happiness or are in any way virtuous.

Is obedience more important than consequences?
As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, I’m in the slow process of developing a ethical and moral system that is not based on religion. I’m not done yet, but the one thing I do know for certain is that I’m moving away from deontological ethics. I try not to measure the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of my actions according to whether I follow rules, commands or orders, but rather according to the consequences of my actions. When I consider a particular action, I ask myself: what would the consequences be for myself and for others? The command itself no longer matters.

So, if you were an Israelite soldier, would it be right for you, if you based your ethical system on consequentialism, to disobey God’s command to annihilate the Amalekites?

What are your thoughts?

(I just want to thank Phil; my discussion with him on an earlier article inspired this post)

14 comments:

Jay said...

I guess if you can have a high degree of certainty that it is really God ordering the slaughter, you are on safe ground morally. I would also posit that you absolutely *cannot* have that high a degree of certainty. I don't know how the Israelite soldiers could have. So functionally, it would never be justified morally. The Nuremberg trials also come to mind...

Cobus said...

what is the command was: "Love your neighbor as yourself... love your enemies."?

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

Thanks for making good on your promise to examine this issue more closely; to say your treatment was thought-provoking is an understatement. I'll do my best to articulate my answer to the question you posited.

"So as an Israelite soldier, under orders from the creator of the universe, would you be ethically and morally right if you refused to obey this command?"

Absolutely not, because any system of ethics from which I justified my disobedience would be subjective, rooted in my own fallible human conscience, and with complete disregard for the Sovereign Creator of ethics (and the only objective standard by which to measure ethics). If God didn't exist, of course it would make sense to base my decision on whatever personal ethical scheme I devised. However, for the Old Testament Israelite, belief in God's existence was never an issue (obedience to God's commands was the issue, as is observed in your example from 1 Samuel 15). God made Himself personally and visibly known to Israel and its leaders in distinct and unique ways that left no room for doubting the existence of God or His goodness to them. Therefore, trusting that God knew best and that His wisdom exceeded that of anyone else, the onus would have rightly been on the Israelite solider to obey what he believed to be a direct command from God.

I read the article you linked to and it certainly bears implications for some of my above thoughts as well. I have a few additional thoughts in response to the three problems associated with deontological ethics:

1. "There is no real moral merit in following an order, anyone can follow an order while not all orders should be followed"-- It is true that not all orders should be followed. One must consider who is giving the order. If the God of the Bible exists, and He possesses the capacities of wisdom and discernment espoused in the scriptures, then His orders should be followed, and there is moral merit in doing so. The point here is not that we follow orders because they are orders, but that we follow orders because we know and trust the One who is issuing the order.

2. "The ability to follow an order is more characteristic of robots, not free ethical individuals"-- I disagree with this assertion as it pertains to obeying God or other people. A robot is one who is programmed to follow orders without choice, whereas humans have the capacity to obey or disobey a command. A young child is not a robot, yet he obeys his father's orders because (hopefully) he knows his father loves him and knows what is best for him. Based on his knowledge of his father, the child then makes an informed decision to trust and obey. The robot, by contrast, takes none of this into account. He obeys without choice. I believe my obedience to God is based more on knowledge and trust rather than divine "programming."

3. "Orders are followed simply because they are given, not because they reduce suffering, increase happiness or are in any way virtuous." There are many dimensions to this side of the discussion. Again, my obedience to God is based on trust that His commands are issued in wisdom that exceeds my own. This means that while, in my limited view, disobedience might cause the least amount of suffering for someone, I trust that following God's command will actually prevent a greater, unforeseen suffering. Additionally, I must understand that "happiness" and a problem-free life is not God's ultimate goal. God's end game is the pursuit of His glory. He created the universe for this purpose, and He owes humanity no happiness or good thing (although, thankfully, God in His great mercy still often allows us to enjoy these things).

It also bears repeating that the biblical example you cited is not God's normative way of dealing with a sinful society in our world today. The directives for Israel were issued to a divinely- ordained theocracy (the only one in history) in specific instances at specific times to preserve the purity of God's people (and, I would argue, would result in the greatest "happiness" for all mankind in the end). Any human suffering that occurred was only the justified result of the sinful activity of people, not the "meanness" of God. His abiding mercy in spite of overwhelming ungodliness is sobering, as can be clearly observed in many Old Testament accounts as well as the New Testament commandment to "love your enemies" (which Cobus appropriately cited earlier). This is the normative command for believers today, though God has never been anything less than "virtuous" in his past (and future) condemnation of humans, if indeed His chief goal is His glory among the nations.

-phil

Gino said...

Well said Phil. Many of these questions are asked on the perception of a point of view like unto a man looking at a refletion of light on a back of a cave and saying,"this is the sun". To the others standing there looking at the same spot all agreeing to the deduction of the man, yet not realizing if they turn around and look for the source of the light reflection, they would see the true sun. With all repect...

CyberKitten said...

Doesn't a Command Morality leave a person without responsibility (and hence accountability)? After all... they were 'only following orders'.....

Which of course is the prime objection to such a 'morality'.

Jason Hughes said...

"God's end game is the pursuit of His glory."

Which is why it baffles me that people would bother worshipping him, if indeed he did exist.

If a human were to live his life only for himself and his own glory, not a single person would be better off for it. How is your life made better, ultimately, and why bother worshipping a god who, in your view, is only out to serve himself? What's the point? If your god isn't obligated to make your life happy, good, but occasionally "in his mercy" allows you to be happy or do good, then I'm afraid I fail to see why you bother...

Is it just the fire insurance policy?

Honestly, it sounds like you've reduced yourself to being a puppy whimpering and hoping for a scrap of meat from the master's table, and your content with the fact that he may or may not happen to look your way every now and then and drop a crumb or two... You call that a life worth living? A god worth worshipping?

I find it all rather ludicrous...

But I realize that could be just me...

Laughing Boy said...

Phil has defended God-based deontological ethics very well, so I'd like to raise a question about Kevin's consequences-based alternative.

Personally, I have a hard time determining, in advance, the consequences of my actions, even when they don't involve other people—who contribute vast complexities. I think I would need a great deal of knowledge about another person to determine what's best for them with any accuracy. How can I be sure that my action will lead to the best outcome for another person, and all those who could be indirectly affected, especially in the long-term?

Laughing Boy said...

For anyone interested in further reading on Divine Command Theory, check out this article at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website.

Cori said...

I strongly affirm the stance that we need to think critically and think for ourselves with regards our ethical decisions. I don't see a direct correlation between following someone I trust, thoughtfully and with self awareness, and blindly following orders. A rather cliched example might be a child following a parents instructions in negotiating a difficult challenge.

I would describe following God, as I understand from a broad reading of the Bible (as opposed to isolated Old Testament examples)more as an apprenticeship than a blind following of orders. One must remember that Abraham's act came out of context of a relationship and as Phil points out, a trust not only in an external being but in an external being with a particular character. Many times previously to this act (of Abraham sacrificing his son) God had promised him to bless him, his family and all nations.

If I were in a situation over my head, such as being on a mountain cliff and needing to get down, I would follow the instructions of the most knowledgable and experienced expert. Not blindly, but thoughtfully, trusting their expertise.

Cori said...

Additionally, I wonder if it is correct to place consequential ethics and blindly-following-orders ethics (my terms to make it easier for me to understand!) in binary opposition. Are not both sometimes happening simultaneously and are ethics in anyway not a lot more complex than that?

CyberKitten said...

Cori said: A rather cliched example might be a child following a parents instructions in negotiating a difficult challenge.

and: I would follow the instructions of the most knowledgable and experienced expert. Not blindly, but thoughtfully, trusting their expertise.

But in each case who would be held responsible if anything went wrong? The child or the parent? The novice or the expert? No matter what the trust levels or expertise in both cases the parent/expert would at least be held to be *more* responsible than the child/novice no matter if the obedience was thoughtful or not.

In the context of God this would absolve the follower of Gods instructions from at least some (if not all) of the responsibility of any act taken under such instruction. This would inevitably reduce any moral responsibility that could be assigned to the actor - and in some cases completely remove it. If this is the case how can we possibly assign sanction or reward to the person involved? Because to a greater or lesser degree they are not responsible for their actions.

Kevin Parry said...

Very good comments all around. Jay and Gino: I don’t know if you have commented before; if you have not, welcome!

Phil, you have done an excellent job at defending your position, and you’ve given me a lot to think about. I noticed, though, a common theme in your reply: your whole argument rests on the premise that God knows better, and we should trust him no matter what he commands us to do. To me – as an ex-Christian who is no longer convinced that the god of the Bible, or any other god, exists – I don’t give much credence to this premise, simply because there seem to be so many different gods out there giving different orders to different people. I’m no longer convinced that there is a god giving orders; rather it is more likely that humans mistakenly think they have heard the voice of the divine (after all, how can be sure that Samuel, who gave the order to Saul, was not mistaken?) There are different religious groups in conflict with each other. Each have their own notions of god; each fully ‘trust’ their god without question; each believe they have to protect some kind of ‘purity’ or truth; and sometimes (luckily not very often) some members of each group believe they have the divine authority to cause harm to others in pursuit of their god’s glory. This is why absolute obedience, even to a god, can be quite dangerous in a multi-religious, multi-cultural society.

LB wrote:
Personally, I have a hard time determining, in advance, the consequences of my actions, even when they don't involve other people—who contribute vast complexities.

Very good point! But at least I can sort of figure out, to some degree, what the consequences would be in my own sphere of influence. I can weigh up advantages and disadvantages, and drawing on experience and reason I can make an informed decision on what action to take. I think most of us, Christians included, use this method on a daily basis for most of our decisions. For me, this seems a far better method than simply trusting in a higher authority whose motivations I cannot often know, and whose plans for the future are often secret.

But your point is a good one, and it also prompted me to question the consequentialist way of thinking. As the devil’s advocate to my own post, there is one other point I would like to raise: how do we measure the ‘goodness’ or ‘wrongness’ of various consequences? I think the consequentialist way is a method of deciding what action to take, not necessarily a method of deciding what is actually good. After all, what are ‘good’ consequences, and what are ‘bad’ consequences? Will do some more thinking on this . . .

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

Thanks for taking the time to read my somewhat exhaustively-long reply, and for your response to my comments. Based on your latest response, I get the impression that you wouldn't have a problem with following the moral law of the God of the Bible, so long as you were convinced He was the One true God. Your issue seems to be more with confirming the reality of this God over one proposed by a different religion or an athiest/agnostic position. If that is the main problem, perhaps you'd be willing to explore in a separate post the evidences and merits of the biblical God verses the alternatives? Is this a correct assessment of your viewpoint? Again, thanks for reading.

phil

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Phil

Sorry to come back to late to this, but I've though about it some more, and you are right in one regard: in my last comment, I shifted the debate from the topic of this post to the existence of God. So what I will do is steer the discussion back to the topic at hand.

Phil wrote:
Absolutely not, because any system of ethics from which I justified my disobedience would be subjective, rooted in my own fallible human conscience, and with complete disregard for the Sovereign Creator of ethics (and the only objective standard by which to measure ethics).

But one would have to ask the age old question: does God decide what is good, or does he obtain a measure of goodness from somewhere else? If it’s the former, then isn’t morality subjective in a sense (because God arbitrarily decides what is good and bad, without using some ‘objective’ criteria); if it’s the latter, then God is subject to a ‘higher’ morality that exists apart from him. In other words, if we choose the former, then subjective morality is not only a problem only for the atheist, but it’s a problem for God as well.

Phil wrote
A robot is one who is programmed to follow orders without choice, whereas humans have the capacity to obey or disobey a command.

But do we really have a choice when disobeying God automatically results in punishment, often severe punishment? Can we really be considered free ethical creatures when we have the possibility of fear, pain and sorrow – through punishment – hanging over our every choice? It’s like the slave driver who stands over you with the whip in his hand. After a while you don’t make choices because you think though your decisions carefully, weighing consequences and alternatives, but because you want to avoid the whip!

Phil wrote
I trust that following God's command will actually prevent a greater, unforeseen suffering.

But isn’t this a admission that God is in a way limited, that he lacks imagination? God is supposed to be omniscient and all powerful. Surely he could have thought of a way to prevent greater, unforeseen suffering without sacrificing a few individuals. I am a simple human with a fallible human mind, but despite this, I can think of various scenarios in which God could have achieved this. For example, God could have simply not created the Amalekites to begin with, or he could have somehow, long before the arrival of the Israelites, emptied surrounding land of all human beings through migration. In this way, the Israelites could have entered the territory without the need to kill anyone.


Phile wrote
Any human suffering that occurred was only the justified result of the sinful activity of people, not the "meanness" of God

But what did the unborn babies (killed in their mothers’ wombs) and animals do to deserve such a punishment? And what crime did the adult Amalikites do themselves that is deserving of such a punishment?

Again, thanks for the interesting discussion, Phil.