Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Consequentialist 'Bajillion People' Objections and the Divine

If you are a believer, this argument might appeal to you:

(1) It's absolutely wrong to blaspheme against God, as in swearing at God.  Even if a thousand/million/bajillion people were going to die if you didn't.
(2) So there are some moral absolutes.

If you don't think this works then think of some worse offense against God, maybe killing him, like they did to Our Lord. Then stipulate once more that a thousand/million/bajillion people will die if you don't.

When the divine comes in this seems to some extent to release us from the intuitive pull which consequentialist 'what if a bajillion people'-type objections have.

If you think the first example works, then acting contrary to other moral absolutes can be viewed as violations of God's law, and thus equally worse or bad offenses against God; after all, if saying certain words to God is absolutely wrong, then surely violating his commands about even more important things, like killing innocent humans, is also absolutely wrong.


tarlachrua said...

We might argue that the argument is circular: ‘It's absolutely wrong to do X, therefore there are moral absolutes.’ Those who don’t accept (2) already will reject (1) out of hand.

Furthermore, you can have an absolute morality & absolute values without demanding absolute maxims on the divine command model. Blasphemy is supposed to be a crime against God, but the “victim” (being impassable) of the crime is not harmed in any way by the act of blasphemy. (So Aquinas’ belief that it is the very worst crime can’t really be sustained.) The command against blasphemy, then, does not seem to be part of the natural law and therefore is not a moral issue, but one of religious observance (in a special realm of non-moral-sin). If not blaspheming leads millions to suffer and die, then we can say that not only is it permissible to blaspheme in this instance, it is a moral duty. Likewise, the maxim never to lie cannot be part of the natural law, because lying (deliberately misleading) can save lives; therefore, lying is not only permissible in these instances, it is a moral duty. Later casuists argued that the maxim not to lie is designed to defend the good of truth, not to allow innocents to die. If innocent life is at stake, it’s not that the command not to lie can be suspended; rather it simply does not apply. (So the absolute prohibition on lying is not part of the natural law.) Likewise, the good of piety does not apply when innocent lives are at stake, therefore the prohibition against blasphemy is not part of the natural law (and indeed might never be a moral issue, on the natural law model of ethics). In the case of famine, the prohibition on stealing need not be suspended (by God), because the good of private property simply does not apply [think of Ireland during the 1846 famine when the English were still exporting food from Ireland], therefore one may take food from food-stores to save one’s family.

There is no moral relativism here (morality or the natural law is absolute), but the Divine Command model of morality being reducible to “absolute prohibitions” can be seen to fail. If any element of divine command is allowed to encroach into natural law (e.g., Suarez) morally dreadful things will follow from one’s moral system. [Think of born-again-mental-patient Christine O’Donnell who said she would not lie to save Anne Frank because lying is prohibited by commandment (and I guess there’s no commandment against allowing Jews to be killed!) Philippa Foot’s book "Natural Goodness" makes this point nicely.]

BenYachov said...

Actually to commit Blasphemy one would have to intend to insult God with their speech. They must consciously choose that their actions are meant to give offense.

OTOH if I typed just now "God damn the God damned Holy Spirit" then all I am in fact doing is reproducing profane speech for demonstrative purposes since I am as of this moment of writing, absent any desire or will to insult God. Thus it is not at all clear to me I am committing Blasphemy.

The Bible records instances of idiots committing blasphemy does that mean the sacred writers of Holy Writ where committing blasphemy when they recorded it?


The real way this question should be phrased is can you mortally sin to save life?

Is it ever moral to willfully put your soul in danger even to "save life"?