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.
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?