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