Skip to main content

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 16: “Can One Rationally Believe God Commands a Violation of Innocent Human Beings?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman

In our last chapter we read that it is possible for God to command the killing of innocent human beings on those rare occasions where some greater good might prevail. The prohibition against taking innocent life is understood as one that normally holds, but is not one that is an absolute against all circumstances. In this chapter, F&C examine some objections that might arise to this reasoning.

They first begin to examine an objection that comes from the mind of one of the greatest German philosophers of modern times, Immanuel Kant. Kant’s objection arises from his consideration of the biblical account of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. F&C cite Kant, “That I ought not kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God – of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from (visible) heaven” (195). Kant is pulling a Hume-like “weighing of the epistemic evidence” move in his argument. His point is not so much that God could not issue such a command, but that one could not have apodictic certainty that such a command came from God. It would always be possible that one’s understanding or interpretation of the command could be in error. However, one can have such certainty when it comes to the moral law concerning the killing of the innocent. This we know for certain is wrong. Hence it is a weighing of epistemic certainty or knowability that is at issue. According to Kant (ala Hume) one should always go with that which has more epistemic certainty, which in this case, will be with the moral law rather than the divine command.

F&C point to Phillip Quinn’s two pronged response to Kant’s objection. Quinn’s first prong is to question Kant’s “optimistic view” of our ability to achieve apodictic certainty concerning our moral judgments. Quinn acknowledges that this might be the case with certain moral claims, such as torturing little children for fun, but it seems overly optimistic when it comes to moral claims across the board or in general. Philosophers have become more comfortable with thinking of moral duties as having prima facie standing as opposed to thinking of them as absolutes. The very fact that we serious debates about moral issues such as capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion, participation in war, torture, and many other issues of which many good and intelligent scholars hold differing views should give one pause about taking such an optimistic attitude. Quinn’s other prong is to question Kant’s doubt that one can never be rationally certain of knowing a command came from God. He sees no reason one could not, in principle, be as certain or more certain that God is speaking than they are that the moral claim holds in a particular situation. This is especially the case if one takes the first prong seriously. There is no reason to assume that moral claims always have a higher epistemic status than theological claims. In answering the objection, “But this is killing the innocent, certainly we are certain about this moral duty,” F&C state, “We agree that in normal circumstances it is wrong to kill innocent people . . . However the claim that it is never permissible under any circumstance is extremely controversial.” (197)

F&C go on to examine the objection by Randall Rauser that a literal reading of the command by Yahweh to kill babies is “really stronger” than the moral duty not to kill the innocent. They explore an answer to four specific objections Rauser raises. Rauser’s first objection is the assertion that “every rational properly functioning person cannot help but know that it is always wrong to bludgeon babies” (197). In support of this claim Rauser offers several examples of moral atrocities of which, he claims, any “intellectually honest human being will condemn these events without question” (197). Rauser’s argument is that since we do not need any qualifications or further information to condemn such actions, such actions are always wrong without exception. However, this simply does not follow. While a particular example of wrongdoing can be condemned “without qualification,” that does not imply that another example of the same actions might have a qualification for which the action can be morally acceptable. The point of the arguments being presented by F&C is that an action that might normally or regularly be condemned can be morally justifiable in a rare case. They provide an example in which terrorists are going to crash a hijacked plane into a building in which thousand may be killed and the option of shooting the plane down to stop the terrorists from accomplishing their goal. Certainly innocent people will die, but many “intellectually honest” persons will hold such a shooting as morally justifiable in such a case.

Rauser’s second argument stems from the idea that commanding others to perform moral atrocities such as killing the innocent often has detrimental effects on those commanded to perform such actions. He cites examples of those in the military who experience PTSD from traumatic experiences as support that commanding someone to do such actions is a moral atrocity itself. F&C point out that this reasoning backfires on Rauser himself, who advocates active involvement in just war where certainly the possibility of PTSD is highly possible. In fact any activity in which one could be seriously psychologically affected would have to be placed under Rauser’s condemnation and could not be commanded including many necessary activities of firefighters and police officers.

Rauser’s third argument is the idea that acceptance of a literal interpretation of these conquest passages leads to “the ubiquitous human tendency to rationalize illegitimate violations of the principle of universality” (201). The “principle of universality” is the basic idea that we should apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others. Rauser offers two criteria for distinguishing a legitimate exception to this principle from an illegitimate one, and then claims that the conquest narratives fail to meet the criteria. F&C reply first by showing that the view they are promoting does not violate the principle as they are not claiming the exception they offer (that God commands it) does not just apply to us but to anyone whom God commands. They then suggest problems with Rauser’s criteria. The first, “criterion of extraordinary exceptions,” simply states that the more radical the exception the stronger the rationale is needed. However, F&C point out that is the very point of the idea of prima facie prohibitions: one needs a rationale for violating the prohibition. However, the context determines the level of rationale. One cannot apply an abstract principle and then form a judgment. Rauser’s second “criterion of common origin” is also problematic. The criterion states that one should be suspicious of a rationalization if it “conforms to a well-established pattern of rationalization.” However, F&C point out that one cannot decide a rationalization is illegitimate purely because it follows a particular pattern because examples can be provided of acceptable rationalizations that follow such patterns and they proceed to provide one.

Rauser’s final argument is a more pragmatic one based on practical consequences. Rauser contends that a literal interpretation of the conquest narratives has “contributed to a long history of moral atrocities” (204). Rauser appeals to both John Howard Yoder’s claim that from the time of Augustine Christians have appealed to the conquest narratives to justify genocide and increase the empire as well as Jeremy Cort’s claim that there is a link between the violence of Canaan and the Crusades. F&C will deal more fully with this discussion in later chapters, but at this juncture they simply show that, first, these charges are dubious at best. Augustine is the father of the just war doctrine and advocated against the ancients like Aristotle and Cicero in conquering weaker and inferior peoples. Mainstream Christianity followed Augustine in this doctrine, and F&C cite Aquinas and Francisco Vitoria as example of mainstream thinking concerning the treatment of the innocent: “Let my first proposition be: The deliberate slaughter of the innocent is never lawful in itself” (205). They also briefly address the common assumption concerning the crusades and point out that in a study of medieval texts, scholar Douglas Earl shows that very little appeal is made to the conquest narratives to justify the crusades, but instead appeals to the teaching of Jesus were much more prominent in justifying the crusades. Finally F&C explore the underlying assumption behind Rauser’s argument: “If a belief as contributed to a long line of historical atrocities, then we should reject that belief” (206). However, they point out that many atrocities have occurred in the name of good things, such as the splitting of the atom or the reign of terror, but that does not mean we should reject the good because people have used it for bad.

F&C conclude by showing that the objections raised against the idea that God could on rare occasions abrogate a moral duty that normally one should keep fail and that the principle holds.

Image: “Abraham’s-sacrifice-from-Raduil” by Edal Anton Lefterov – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Leave a Reply