Moral Autonomy and God’s Commands
November 16, 2005 — 19:27

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Divine Command  Comments: 11

James Rachels ‘God and Human Attitudes’ in Paul Helm (ed) Divine Commands and Morality (OUP, ’81) offered the following argument for the incompatibility of there existing both a being that is worthy of worship and autonomous moral agents.
1. Necessarily, if God exists then He is worthy of worship.
2. It is impossible that some being is worthy of worship.
3. Therefore, it is impossible that God exists.
Phil Quinn, ‘Religious Obedience and Moral Autonomy’ (also in P. Helm) submits his doubts about premise (2) and (more or less) plausibly reconstructs Rachels’ argument for (2) in this way.
4. It is impossible that some being is worthy of worship and there are some moral agents.
5. Necessarily there are some moral agents.
2. Therefore, it is impossible that some being is worthy of worship.
In defense of (4) Rachels commits himself to a Kantian or neo-Kantian conception of moral agency. He says, for instance,
“to be a moral agent is to be an autonomous or self-directed agent . . . The virtuous man is therefore identified with the man of integrity, that is the man who acts according to precepts which he can, on reflection, conscientiously approve in his own heart” (43).
If (4) is true then a genuinely self-directed moral agent could not co-exist with a being that is worthy of worship. More on this puzzling premise in a moment.


For reasons that strike me as odd, Quinn balks at premise (5) on the basis of the assertion that “. . . even if each of us is sometimes a moral agent in the requisite sense, this is a contingent truth and not a necessary one” (51). But premise (5) doesn’t say that there exist some beings that are necessarily moral agents. It says that necessarily some beings or other are moral agents. Why doesn’t Quinn balk at (5) on the basis of the fact that some possible worlds include nothing but one huge liquid sphere or that (perhaps more reasonably) some worlds contain no rational or autonomous agents at all? Better to replace (5) with (5*),
5*. There are some moral agents.
But Quinn again doubts that there exist any moral agents in the sense of self-directed agents. He observes that many of us, much of the time, act in unprincipled and unreflective ways that, in our hearts, we would not approve of (51). And he concludes that we are not fully moral agents because we are not always acting autonomously. But the objection seems to me a bit tedious. Certainly to be an autonomous moral agent you need not always be acting autonomously and that’s enough for Rachels’ argument. So (5*) seems right.
The important question is about (4). Why believe it? According to Rachels ” . . if we recognize someone as God, then we are committed, in virtue of that recognition, to obeying him” (44). So in “admitting that a being is worthy of worship we would be recognizing him as having an unqualified claim on our obedience” (44). All of this sounds vaguely right. We are therefore alleged to have a conflict between our total subservience to God and our role as a moral agent which necessarily involves autonomous decision-making. (45). But where exactly is the problem?
Let’s agree that God is worthy of worship. Quinn suggests the concern might be the following. Consider (6)
6. Necessarily, if God is worthy of worship and God commands that I mildly harm an innocent
person then it is obligatory that I mildly harm an innocent person.
Supposition: God commands that I mildly harm an innocent person.
Now assume that (7).
7. On reflection I cannot conscientiously approve of mildly harming an innocent person.
According to Quinn, the safe way to resolve the tension between (6) and (7) is to deny the supposition. That is, deny that God actually commanded that I mildly harm an innocent person. But this makes things too easy (and Quinn later considers that God makes the unexpected command). Suppose we replace (6) with (6*).
6*. Necessarily, if God is worthy of worship and God commands that I mildly harm an
innocent person and I know that God commands that I mildly harm an innocent
person, then it is obligatory that I mildly harm an innocent person.
Add (8).
8. God is worthy of worship and God commands that I mildly harm an innocent person
and I know that God commands that I mildly harm an innocent person.
Quinn wants to deny that (7), (8) and (6*) are consistent. He finds it convincing that, whatever God commands, it could not be something that on reflection you cannot conscientiously approve of. I doubt it.
So here’s the question. Suppose (7), (8) and (6*) are true and I act on God’s command. I certainly act contrary to what, on careful reflection, I conscientiously approve of, and I do owe God my unqualified obedience, but does it follow that I (somehow) failed to exercise my autonomy?

Comments:
  • Sorry about the weird reformulation from MS word of the grammatical possessive in the post. I was watching for problems with quotation marks.

    November 16, 2005 — 20:01
  • I would like some clarification of the term “mildly harm”. If I harm you, I inflict some kind of pain and and suffering on you. How can pain and suffering be “mild”? I suppose one way to cash that out is to make a “mild harm” a harm of brief duration. Like the harm inflicted by minor surgery of some sort (like getting a few stitches). Another way is to make a mild harm a harm which is easily balanced off by some greater good. So I could take the twenty dollar bill out of my father’s wallet one day, then put 200 in the wallet the next day. In such cases, I think it is approriate to ask if there is a real “harm” involved at all. If there is no real harm, my contention is, “mildly harm” is just a meaningless expression, like “mildly satisfy”. You either harm X, or satify Y, or you do not. Of course, a “mild harm” could simply be a harm which any rational person would choose from a group of alternatives if asked. So if I give you a list of harms which I could inflict upon you and allow you to choose which one do you’ll get, your choice (assuming you are rational)would likely be the least intensely harmful of the alternatives. In this relative sense the harm executed would be a mild harm. But that does not make the harm intrinsically mild. Mildness in this latter sense is a relative term, like tallness.

    November 16, 2005 — 23:34
  • It sounds like you’re denying that harms come in degrees. I disagree. There is a perfectly sensible way in which someone might inflict a severe harm–they cut off both of your arms. On the other hand they might inflict a less severe harm–they lacerate your arm. I have in mind the lower end of this scale. Something that is more than offensive conduct and much less than a severe harm. This strikes me a a perfectly sensible way to talk.

    November 17, 2005 — 6:27
  • If God is a moral agent, and God necessarily exists, then isn’t (5) true? 4 and 5 really need to be rewritten in terms of moral agents other than God.
    Another problem with Rachels’ argument is that it assumes genuine moral dilemmas are impossible. It seems to me that even if you grant all of his claims until the end, the result is that you have two obligations that seem to you to conflict, not that you have something that’s uncontroversially contradictory. You have a moral obligation not to do the harmful thing, as far as you can tell, and you have an obligation to obey God. I think what Rachels is saying is that a God worthy of worship wouldn’t put someone in such a situation, but this actually has to be a weaker claim than he wants. It isn’t that it would be wrong to put someone in a situation where someone might interpret it as such a conflict. It’s that it would be wrong to put someone in a situation where that person will interpret it as such a conflict. This is where Patrick’s examples come in.
    I think Patrick’s problem with 7 is an ambiguity in ‘harm’. His surgery and wallet examples are cases when a localized harm is not a harm overall. The local harm when taken by itself is indeed a harm. It causes damage to someone’s well-being or prevents their ability to seek their well-being from what they would otherwise be able to do. But when you consider the overall treatment of the person over time, you realize that someone being lacerated for the sake of fixing a greater problem is not overall being harmed, and someone who takes $20 out of a wallet to use it to get $200 is not overall harming the person. I wouldn’t say that it’s not a harm in any sense, but you could call it a local harm as opposed to a global harm.
    Once you disambiguate in this way, it just seems obvious to me that the only way 7 makes sense is if you’re talking about a global harm. But it seems very difficult to know that there’s no way a local harm you’re being commanded to do by an ominiscient being will not result in a global increase in well-being. Rachels seems to be assuming that you know it will count as a harm overall.
    A helpful example is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Since this is a consistency issue, we can assume God is worthy of worship and thus has a reason for wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham presumably doesn’t know yet that God’s reason is to test his faith without letting him actually do it, but Abraham might have other possibilities before his mind. He’s been promised that Isaac will be his heir and will father many nations. What should Abraham conclude in this example? He certainly doesn’t need to conclude that this command contradicts his belief that God is worthy of worship. He could conceivably think what the author of Hebrews says he thought. He could conclude that God must intend to raise Isaac from the dead after Abraham kills him. He may not have an understanding of why God would do this, but it seems perfectly possible that a perfect being would want to do this for reasons of global well-being for both Abraham and Isaac.
    Once that’s clear, I’m not sure how this violates Abraham’s autonomy. Rachels’ argument that it does assumes that Abraham must have concluded that there’s no way to carry out the command and be morally justified, all the while thinking he had a moral obligation to carry it out anyway. But the Hebrews interpretation of Abraham’s beliefs at the time shows that Abraham could in good faith have believed that this would not harm Isaac overall, and the problem disappears. This sort of solution might work for any situation where it appears that one will globally harm someone, as long as it’s conceivable that one will not globally harm the person because of how God might resolve it.
    This is all assuming that mildly harming someone globally can never be done for the sake of someone else’s well-being or for the sake of some greater good than human beings’ well-being. I’m not sure that’s true. You don’t have to be a consequentialist to think that in some cases overall consequences for many outweigh one person’s well-being.

    November 17, 2005 — 7:23
  • Hi Jeremy,
    The situation does not describe–at least not so far forth–a genuine moral dilemma (GMD). A GMD involves two all-things-considered obligations (or prohibitions) that cannot both be fulfilled. In the case above one has moral reasons against obeying the command of God. But you don’t obviously have a moral obligation not to obey. So there are epistemological concerns here that do not characterize GMD’s.
    On the local/global point, I don’t see it as especially useful here. Suppose the harm is just “local”. I may still see it as morally wrong. I might find it wrong to cause a harm to someone even as a means to some greater good.
    As you note the Abraham/Isaac case does come to mind immediately. And what you say by way of resolution of Rachels’ worries raises interesting questions. I agree that in most cases we can generate some reason God might have to command an action that we believe, on reflection, is wrong. But this is consistent with Rachels’ concern that, in such cases, as far as you can see on careful and responsible reflection, there is no such reason. If you nonetheless obey the command, you *seem* to be abandoning the conclusion of your deliberations–i.e., that the action is wrong and there is no moral reason that you know of to do it. Does that get closer to giving up one’s autonomy in this case? I’m not certain–but it does approximate placing little weight on what I think morally and doing what I’m told. Still at least part of what I’m asking is what exactly Rachels’ is worried about.

    November 17, 2005 — 8:09
  • A quick point on this observation,
    “In this relative sense the harm executed would be a mild harm. But that does not make the harm intrinsically mild. Mildness in this latter sense is a relative term, like tallness”.
    If the claim is that a harm–mild or not–must be actually harmful, then the point couldn’t be much more obvious. But if I’m supposed to draw the conclusion that harms are much worse than offenses, then it is flatly false. The borderline between offenses and harms is vague. In many cases what offends one person will harm another. Take, for instance, offenses to one’s senses. Joel Feinberg especially (cf. both _Harm to Others_ and _Offense to Others_, OUP circa ’90), but many others, note that a sufficiently prolonged offense to the senses (e.g., as the effects of a glue factory can harm the sense of smell) can easily move what was simply an offensive odor to a harmful odor. And this is not because exposure causes some physical harm: it is merely that the smell is very bad and prolonged. Similarly with offenses to one’s sensibilities. What to one person is an offensive T-shirt is to another a severe enough blow to the sensibilities to constitute a harm. So it is just a mistake to think that there are no harms that are very close to tolerable (and indeed tolerated) offenses.

    November 17, 2005 — 20:24
  • The following is a quote from John Hare’s, God’s Call: “We ordinary moral agents have to see our role as recapitulating in our own wills the declaration in God’s will of our duties. This is how we are lawgivers; we declare a correspondence of our wills with the law (which we do not create). For me to will the law autonomously is to delcare it my law. A good word here is appropriation…, to make one’s own. Autonomy on this reading is more nearly a kind of submission than a kind of creation” (96).
    Hare argues that this is Kant’s view of autonomy. It seems that your autonomously acting on God’s command, even in this case, is consistent with the truth of (6*), (7), and (8). I don’t think it entails that you must have given up (7). “Recapitulation” and certainly “submission” needn’t imply “conscientiously approve”, but we might wonder about “appropriation”.

    November 17, 2005 — 23:50
  • Kyle,
    I believe Rachels has in mind a situation in which you have reservations about how some command C could be a genuine *moral law*. So while I agree that the moral law is in some important sense independent of individual agents and that Kantian autonomy consists (in part) in imposing the law on oneself, it does not appear consistent with Kantian autonomy that I impose a “law” that a rational agent might doubt is a genuine law. Kant in fact considers cases like this in _Religion within the Limits of Reason_ and favors the conclusion of the autonomous agent.

    November 18, 2005 — 8:27
  • In response to :
    “If the claim is that a harm–mild or not–must be actually harmful, then the point couldn’t be much more obvious. But if I’m supposed to draw the conclusion that harms are much worse than offenses, then it is flatly false.”
    I only had the former claim in mind. Another way of stating my point, I suppose, is that there is no single intrinsic property that makes X a harm. Rather, we must see how X interacts with other aspects of the person’s life (or the object’s career)and then decide whether X was indeed a harm or, for lack of a better term, a “blessing in disguise”.

    November 18, 2005 — 13:17
  • Mike,
    Do you mean that’s Rachels’s spin on (7)? But this seems to build a lot more into (7) than (7) on its face suggests. Rachels, then, if I understand you correctly, really assumes that (7*).
    7*. On reflection I don’t believe that the command that I mildly harm an innocent person could be a genuine moral law.
    If that’s the idea, then I don’t think (6*), (8), and (7*) are consistent.

    November 18, 2005 — 17:30
  • Let’s see, (6*) says,
    6*. Necessarily, if God is worthy of worship and God commands that I mildly harm an
    innocent person and I know that God commands that I mildly harm an innocent
    person, then it is obligatory that I mildly harm an innocent person.
    And (8) says,
    8. God is worthy of worship and God commands that I mildly harm an innocent person
    and I know that God commands that I mildly harm an innocent person.
    And your (7*),
    7*. On reflection I don’t believe that the command that I mildly harm an innocent person could be a genuine moral law.
    But I don’t say (7*). I say “a rational person might not believe…”. So we have a conflict between,
    a. It is obligatory that I mildly harm an innocent person.
    And,
    b.On reflection, [a rational person might] believe that the command that I mildly harm an innocent person could be a genuine moral law.
    I don’t see any logical problem in holding these two beliefs. They simply state that God commands some action A and there is nothing about the circumstances or nature of A that prevents a rational agent from concluding that doing A is not required by moral law.
    Performing the action in spite of this latter conclusion is not consistent with the exercise of Kantian autonomy, as far as I can see.

    November 18, 2005 — 20:16