Is it permissible for God to kill people?
April 5, 2008 — 10:23

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God  Comments: 57

Many people have difficulty with God’s acts in the Bible because God seems to be committing or commanding immoral acts (e.g., when God commands the Israelites to wipe out certain people-groups, including children). I think that many of these charges can be alleviated if some good justification can be given for the claim that it is morally permissible for God to kill people as he does in the Bible.
One step towards arguing for the claim that it is morally permissible for God to kill people is to argue that people do not have the right not to be killed by God. I may have the right that you not kill me, and vice versa, but

perhaps there are different considerations with God. The difference is that while others don’t own my body, God may own my body. There are three options:
a) God owns the body inhabit and I don’t,
b) I own my body and God doesn’t
c) God and I jointly own my body.
(I will ignore the option where neither God nor us own the bodies we inhabit.)
On (a), we would merely be borrowing the use of these bodies, but we wouldn’t own them; God would own them. If so, then it is plausible that God has the right to destroy them (i.e. kill us). On (b) and (c), since we either have full or at least partial ownership over our bodies, it is plausible that God does not have the right to destroy our bodies without our consent. This seems plausible.
So here is an argument that it is wrong for God to kill people as he does in the Bible. Argument: unless very strong utilitarian considerations are not at stake, it is wrong to violate a right. If (b) or (c) is true, then God is violating people’s rights in the Bible when he kills them or commands others to kill them. Very strong utilitarian considerations are not at stake. Therefore, it is wrong for God to violate people’s rights in the Bible when he kills them or commands others to kill them.
(Strictly speaking, God wouldn’t be violating rights when he commands others to do the killing, but it seems plausible that if doing A is wrong, then commanding another to do A, when you’re God, is also wrong. This is all that’s needed for the argument.)
The best way out for the Bible-believer is to reject (b) or (c) and accept (a). I suppose we could also say that in all those Biblical cases, catastrophic utilitarian considerations are at stake; I guess that’s also an option. But I think the Bible-believer’s best option is to accept (a), and we are on our way to defending that it is morally permissible for God to kill people as he does in the Bible.

  • Tully Borland

    Hi Andrew,
    Three things.
    (1) You say…”unless very strong utilitarian considerations are not at stake, it is wrong to violate a right.”
    I’d say that by definition it is wrong to violate a right. Wronging someone just is violating someone’s right, and thus any violation of a right is something that is wrong. So I think it odd that the proviso is added with respect to utilitarianism. Moreover, as I understand utilitarianism, it denies that there are rights (at least moral and inherent rights which your post suggests). There are actions that are right or wrong (ones that violate/promote maximizing utility), but there aren’t rights. So I’d say that not only are “very strong utilitarian considerations not at stake” but that your argument just seems to be assuming the falsity of utilitarianism.
    (2) Your position seems to also assume that we aren’t identical with our bodies (which I don’t have any particular problem with either). So the argument doesn’t seem open to theists who think that they are identical with their bodies, for it makes no sense to think that I own myself (right?).
    (3) Here’s a way one might adopt (c)–the dual ownership position: God and I both own my body, but God owns 99% of the shares. He doesn’t own 99% of the parts, but he has more ownership in the sense that, in virtue of his ownership relation to by body, he can do a number of things to my body that I (or others) can’t. He can destroy it, for instance. But perhaps in virtue of my 1% share of my body, I can’t be tortured for weeks on end (by God or anyone else) but I can have my body destroyed (which for the sake of argument I am assuming is less of a violation of my rights than torturing me by torturing my body).

    April 5, 2008 — 13:41
  • nacisse

    can’t it still be wrong to destroy something even if you own it if that something has worth, and is unique? isn’t it wrong for me to destroy a priceless work of art even if it is mine? it also seems wrong for me to destroy something that I own if it adversely affects others… if i own a house that i’m lending to a poor family it would seem wrong for me to just throw them out and tear it down – certainly without a good reason. once i lend something to another -something their live depends on – it would seem to me that they then have some right not to be unduly deprived of that something…

    April 5, 2008 — 14:11
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Tully,
    Thank you for the interesting comments. (1) It’s certainly not by definition that it is wrong to violate a right. Suppose the only way to stop aliens from destroying the world is for me to trample on my neighbor’s garden flowers. She has also forbidden me from trampling on her flowers (she’s given me no consent). In this case, it seems permissible for me to trample on her flowers, even if this violates her rights over her property. It is these sorts of cases that I had in mind where it is plausible that it is permissible for someone to violate a right for utilitarian considerations.
    But suppose there are no such cases where it is permissible to violate a right. Then we’d have to restate the argument (in my third to last paragraph) without the proviso. And if utilitarianism is true, then the argument doesn’t even get off the ground. (I think that this is what you are saying.) All the better for the Bible believer; you may be right about this. Then it would all come down to utility calculations, which the Bible-believer might be happy with.
    (2) Right, but I don’t think anything stands or falls on this. I think that for Bible-believing materialists, the same argument could be stated, but it might have to be worded differently. I’m not sure, at the moment, how it would go. But I’d also say that it ought to make sense to everyone, whether materialist or not, that they have bodies.
    (3) This surely is a possibility, but I can’t imagine someone actually holding it. God owns all of my body except for one of the cells on my left thumb and my right kidney? However, I can’t think of an argument against this possibility. It seems like if there is joint ownership, it would be joint ownership of both parties over all parts of my body.

    April 5, 2008 — 14:51
  • Well, let’s imagine that some guy beats my 4-year-old son to death with a baseball bat. I don’t find it plausible to suppose that what makes this action wrong is that the guy violated my son’s property rights to his body.

    April 5, 2008 — 14:58
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Nacisse,
    For context, I’m not saying that the argument I give in the third to last paragraph is the only argument one could give for the conclusion that it is wrong for God to kill people as he does in the Bible. It does strike me as a plausible way, but it hangs on accepting something like (b) or (c). Someone could get by it by accepting (a). You suggested two other ways, but I don’t think they’re as strong.
    First, in the case where an artist destroys his own artwork, it’s not clear to me that it’s wrong. I’ve actually heard of artists who’ve created masterpieces, they weren’t satisfied, so they splashed paint over it. It can be be sad to hear about these instances, but I don’t think the painter author did something morally wrong. Similarly, it is a sad thing if God were to destroy a people group for this reason (where God is destroying his own creation), but it doesn’t seem to me to be morally wrong. Or maybe I’m not seeing something.
    Secondly, maybe you will appeal to utilitarian considerations. Your example with the house seems to be just that. Also, returning to the earlier point, it might be arguably wrong to destroy a beautiful piece of art because you are destroying something that would bring great happiness to the world. But if we are appealing to utilitarian calculations, I think that the Bible-believer is justified in pointing out that such calculations are extremely hard to make. Who knows how much overall happiness or unhappiness would have come about in various scenarios? Only God knows. This is one of the standard objections to utlitarianism in general. That’s why I think it’s best for someone to argue from the standpoint of human rights, but I think that fails if you accept something like (a).

    April 5, 2008 — 15:03
  • Tully Borland

    I’m going to run through these 3 points one more time in response:
    (1) Poor choice of wording on my part. I do think that violating a right entails wronging someone or something, but of course (as you note) not every act of violating a right is wrong “all things considered”. My main point, which still seems to me correct, is that a utilitarian won’t be impressed with the argument since the argument appeals to God’s right to destroy the body–he has this right because he’s the owner–utility theories can’t account for rights. As you say, “if utilitarian theories are right, the argument doesn’t get off the ground.”
    (2) I guess what I was thinking is that the argument seems to me less plausible if one is a materialist. If I’m identical with my body, I surely don’t own it in the same way that I might be thought to own my body if I’m a soul. When you destroy my body (for the dualist) you aren’t destroying me (even if, let’s say, there is some necessary connection between my body’s existence and my own.) And I guess it seems to me less plausible that God has a right to destroy me than just my body. Now perhaps what you’re really saying is that God owns ME, whatever I turn out to be, and I don’t own me, and you’re not really concerned with God’s ownership of the body per se.
    (3) I wasn’t thinking that God owned parts of my body and I owned other parts. I was thinking that perhaps we might think of the ownership in terms of owning shares of my whole body. God has more “stake” in my whole body than I do. He doesn’t own so much that he can do anything he wants (torture endlessly), but he can take it away. I’m not sure WHY we should think that God has more stake in my body than I do–perhaps because he’s the sustainer of it, etc. But it actually seems to me that this view is more plausible than one which affirms that I don’t own my body at all–or have no rights to my body being treated in certain ways.

    April 5, 2008 — 18:19
  • Hi Tully,
    I think there’s no disagreement on (1).
    On (2), we could restate (a)-(c) in terms of ownership of one’s life instead of body (call them (a’)-(c’)), and then restate the argument. However, it seems less plausible to me that God owns my life than that he owns my body. It seems less plausible still that I don’t own my life and am merely borrowing it. In other words, it would be harder to accept (a’) than (a). At a worst case scenario, I’ll grant your point that the argument is weaker if we read it using (a’)-(c’) than (a)-(c). Most Bible-believers would be happy to concede this and accept substance dualism as a way of blocking this more difficult argument. (It would be surprising, however, if the charges against God’s moral character in the Bible depended on whether dualism or materialism is true.)
    On (3), I agree that it is plausible that God has the right to take away my body but does not have the right to treat it in torturous ways. I was thinking that God might have full ownership but it would not be permissible for God to torture our bodies (or us) because of utilitarian considerations.
    On God owning shares of our bodies, I think I’ll have to think about it.

    April 5, 2008 — 19:07
  • Paul

    I take it that it is not wrong for one person to kill another person if that is the just penalty he deserves for his crime. God even gives us this right in Genesis.
    I take it that this is what is going on when God kills people (e.g., when God commands the Israelites to wipe out certain people-groups, including children).
    When we put certain criminals to death, we don’t own their body. So, even if God did’t own our bodies, I find that irrelevant.
    There’s more to say, but that’s sufficient for now…I think.

    April 5, 2008 — 22:24
  • nacisse

    I was thinking of me owning a Rembrandt and then burning it. that would seem to be wrong – i guess it depends on how wide the category of morally wrong is taken to be. the harm done with such an act would seem to do harm to good subjects as well as good objects, which i think makes it a moral wrong – like killing a beloved dog is doing moral wrong to some person…
    but, there is a difference between owning something and creating something because when i create, rather than just own something, i’d have to put my talent, time, mind, labour etc… into it – some of myself then, which i guess gives me more rights than just being the owner, maybe.
    in the counter-example you gave about the artist i don’t know that a virtually unknown painting found lacking by it’s creator would count as a work of art – maybe it does, but not on the same scale as Rembrandt’s Night Watch, i wouldn’t think..
    so if it is creator (rather than just owner) vs. object (bodies or paintings) i think the right to destroy is dependent on which has the more worth and if one is standing against or in the way of the others plans… so painters can destroy paintings -without doing wrong- because they aren’t yet works of art and because of the painters worthwhile act of creating …
    but owners can’t destroy good objects just because they are owners, i don’t think. since they don’t have the same relationship to the object as a creator would have – they aren’t putting their own good qualities into it – they don’t have the same right…

    April 6, 2008 — 4:39
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Paul, the argument I gave in the third to last paragraph would be put forward by and be taken seriously by those who don’t think that all the killings God causes are “just penalties” for crimes. I think it’s false that when God commands the death of children (and especially infants) in the Bible, he is giving them the just penalty of their crimes. I think this because they haven’t committed any crimes yet (or at least the infants haven’t!) Because of that, I think appealing to something about God’s right to kill people is necessary.

    April 6, 2008 — 11:25
  • Andrew Moon

    Nacisse, I think that if we subtract utilitarian considerations (i.e., the potential utility that could be produced by the art, e.g., the happiness, appreciation, joy and life-enhancement produced by people who see the art or the sadness at having lost the piece of art, etc.), I simply don’t have the intuition that it would be wrong for the owner of an art piece to destroy it. Furthermore, if the defender of the God of the Bible takes a dualist approach (as I’ve been discussing with Tully), then the most valuable part of the human being (what is essential to being a person- the soul) is not destroyed but just removed. In that case, the argument doesn’t seem that convincing to me.

    April 6, 2008 — 11:33
  • James

    There are a few flaws with your argument:
    1) As Tim pointed out, it seems absurd to believe that our moral instincts against murder is based on property rights. If that were the case, we would have the right to kill people who “belong” to us. Thus, in a time where slavery was deemed as legal and acceptable, a slave owner who kills his slaves cannot be faulted with murder. Or to take a more current example, women should have the right to abort their foetuses.
    2) If we were to accept your logic, then we must also accept that it is permissible for God to rape and torture children, since their bodies belong to him too. I do not see any logical grounds to state that destroying your possessions is moral and acceptable, while mutilating them is not. If you own something, then you can do whatever you like with them.
    Since this conclusion is a morally repugnant one, we can only surmise that your logic is flawed – a desperate attempt to exculpate God of the atrocities in the Old Testament.

    April 6, 2008 — 23:46
  • Regarding killing babies as a penalty: that’s not quite so farfetched if one subscribes to a doctrine of original guilt/original sin – whereby, due to the Fall, a measure of guilt and sinfulness is inherited by (almost) all people. If such a position is true (as many Christians do believe) then it’s not so crazy to think of death as a kind of ‘just penalty’ even if the babies have not themselves knowingly committed any consciously sinful acts themselves. Of course, not everyone likes such doctrines, but for those who do this issue doesn’t seem like as big a problem as it is for those who don’t.

    April 7, 2008 — 0:20
  • Fascinating topic Andrew! But, I feel like your argument might ignore a few possibilities:
    1a) Does the concept of “rights” even apply to God? Is anyone justified in this application?
    1b) Assume we are justified in saying “God doesn’t have the right,” then consider: do God’s action possibly determine what His rights are? That is, if He kills someone, is He justified simply because He committed that act? Are His actions self-justifying?
    2) Why does ownership constitute rights? This is a fairly restricted view of what forms the basis for rights, no? For example, I can own my home, but if it is in a militaristically strategic location during wartime, guess what: I have to leave.
    Where did the notion that “individual ownership” equated to “exclusion of external command” come from?
    3) The question could easily be replaced with one that many might find more appropriate:
    Ought God kill people?”
    If we in fact have a sin nature, and God is eternally and infinitely Just, regardless of “ownership,” is God more obligated to kill us than He is to leave us be?
    Is our “deed to the house” of greater significance and primacy that God’s supreme duty to justice?

    April 7, 2008 — 9:00
  • Paul

    Hi Andrew,
    But I think they are guilty. And the Bible says they are. So on my view, if what I say is correct, then my answer is sufficient. As Ian Spencer commented, the position that children (everyone, really) are guilty of death has a most robust pedigree in Christian thought. In other words, for your argument to work (on someone like me) you’d have to include this premise: “The Bible is false,” for your argument to work. But of course if the Bible is false, I have bigger problems that whether God can kill people; namely, whether there is a God who kills, at all.

    April 7, 2008 — 18:03
  • nacisse

    Andrew Moon, but even if we subtract all utilitarian considerations we’d still be left with the beauty and goodness of the art itself, which is intrinsic to the work. i can’t see morality working without the intuition that it is wrong to destroy good and beautiful things.

    April 7, 2008 — 20:05
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi James,
    To recall the overall dialectic, I was presenting one possible argument for the position that it is wrong for God to kill people as he does in the Bible, and I presented a possible response. I wasn’t trying to exculpate God (nor, do I think, was I desperately attempting to). I think the argument still has to be clearly formulated to even show that God is in need of exculpating.
    If one accepts (a), then you could ground the wrongness of God raping or torturing on utilitarian considerations or other moral considerations. Another option is to accept (c) in the way Tully suggested above (God and I own shares to my body). I think that’s a possibility. There are probably others I haven’t thought of.

    April 7, 2008 — 22:47
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Ian and Paul,
    Your right that one way to respond is to day that these infants and children were paying the just penalty for their guilt (although, oddly, they haven’t performed any actions for which to be guilty). I do not find this plausible at all since I think that you can only be guilty for things you do (and perhaps your thoughts), and I don’t think that the Bible teaches this anywhere. Philosophically, I’ve read Michael Rea’s Edwardsian defense of this, but I didn’t find that moving at all either; the ontological commitments were very strange, to say the least. But if someone could convince me that this is plausible, I could add this to the list of ways I would want to respond to the argument.

    April 7, 2008 — 22:54
  • Andrew Moon

    Thanks for the reply. On 1a and 1b, I do think we have rights, and I think this applies to God, but I don’t have any strong reason to think this. On 2, I frankly don’t know too much about rights, but I know that I have the rights over my property, and if it’s mine, you don’t have the right to use my property unless you have my permission. (However, I don’t think that rights-considerations exhaust morality, as you can see in my first response to Tully above.) On 3, as I said in my last response, I just don’t think that the children in the Bible did anything worthy of death!
    You raised interesting questions, and I wished I had interesting responses, but I guess that’s all I have to say!

    April 7, 2008 — 23:05
  • Andrew Moon

    So consider the following thought experiment. God creates ex nihilo a beautiful tree and then annihilates it; he creates it and then annihilates it; and so on. In this process, I just don’t have the intuition that God is doing something wrong. We might just have to disagree at this level.

    April 7, 2008 — 23:10
  • Paul

    Hi Andrew,
    But on the doctrine of original sin one need not *do* anything in order to be guilty.
    Then, if you fill that out with a robust doctrine of the federal headship of Adam, it is all the more a defensible position. This is argued for primarily in Romans 5 (but cf. various arguments from federal headship by covenant theologians).
    The Bible operates on the principle of federalism. This is the worldview presupposed. You may disagree, but the Bible does provide the resources for defending this view. Thus, pulling from all my resources, I find the muscle needed to defend my position inherent in my position.
    Conversely, I’d say that if the federal representation of Adam for all his is denied, then one can’t turn around and take Christ’s federal representation for all his. It’s like this, for example: Say you are a child and your father makes some bad business decisions. He loses everything. Now you guys are dirt poor. Rice and beans for dinner. Holes in your jeans. All that. You didn’t do anything wrong per se. But, you still suffer for the decisions of your representative. The state doesn’t come and take you away, give you to new parents, and give a “fair shot” at a comfortable upbringing. No, you suffer with the family for the decisions the head or representative made. You can’t very well go and divorce your family, asking for a new representative. You were born with the representative you had.
    Now imagine this situation is reverses. Your father invests in some stocks that blow up over night. He earns millions of dollars. If it wasn’t fair or right for you to reap the fruits of his poor decisions, why would it be fair to reap the fruit of his wise decisions?
    Thus notions of federalism are still in play, though not as prevalent as in ancient societies (cf. Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, for evidence to this effect), and so you can still see hints of this prevalent and pervasive notion that informed the world of the Bible in our own time.
    I wo9uld thus argue that if the doctrine of the federal representative status of Adam is denied, so would that of Christ’s. Romans 5 links the two together, and it cannot be denied that Christ stood in as a representative of his people. So, Adam’s federal headship can’t be denied either, I would argue.
    And so this is the way I would answer your argument. You may not be persuaded by it, but that is somewhat persona relative. If my position is correct, though, then I’ve presented a model where it is not wrong for God to kill (or command to be killed) people since I take it that it is not wrong to issue just penalties for crimes committed. And the penalty for Adam’s transgression was death.

    April 8, 2008 — 2:55
  • John Alexander

    Thanks Andrew et. al., this has been a very interesting discussion. I have one problem which I think is similar to one suggested by Benjamin Allison when he asked if it is proper to apply the concept of rights to God. Andrew seems to agree that this might be a problem so I want to expand on it a bit. Why do we think that God needs permission to do x? Who does he ask permission of? One of the ideas behind the notion of permissibility for doing x is that someone has agreed that A doing x will not subject A to blame by someone who has the authority to blame person for what they do wrong. If seems paradoxical, at best, to suggest that it is permissible for God to do x if God is the one who ultimately assigns blame (or praise) to those who act; I give myself permission to do x so it is permissible that I do x. If this is the case then God can do what he pleases because he is the ultimate source of the value attached to whatever he does. Interestingly, because God can give himself permission to do x, he can deny that permission to other beings so that for them doing x would be blameworthy. So it seems we are left with the interesting situation that it could be permissible for God to do x, but impermissible for anyone else to do x because God has the authority to assign whatever value to x he deems fitting. He can kill people, but we cannot.

    April 8, 2008 — 8:55
  • Thanks for your reply! And again, I love this topic. I’ve definitely never thought about this topic this way.
    Here’s a question for you: if God is omnipotent (or if you reject that, then replace the statement with “if God is capable of preventing death and sustaining life”), then does all death make God guilty of violating our rights? If He is sustaining our lives — if life is only possible through Him — then death is only possible when He removes His hand. How do we make sense of this?
    * * *
    I think John packaged my argument far better than I did: permission requires authority. In your argument, Andrew, it seems as though you are making “rights” the authority over God. Is this warranted?

    April 8, 2008 — 9:18
  • mp

    If I lend something to somebody it would be morally wrong for me to destroy it. It’s not just a matter of material ownership, but the one doing the borrowing was given a right to usage, and by destroying it I’m violating this right. Wouldn’t it be wrong to lend a basketball to someone and then stab it when it’s in his hands, popping it and taking away his ability to use the ball? I think that we would say that this is mean and shows horrible moral character.

    April 8, 2008 — 14:33
  • Andrew Moon

    Well, I remain unconvinced. I grant that the world is such that people often suffer for the wrongs that others (normally those representing them) have committed (as in your example). But it still just seems to me unjust that someone dish out punishment on A for B’s wrongdoing. It’s one thing for A to suffer bad results because of B’s decisions. It’s another thing then to say that A is guilty for B’s actions and deserves punishment. I’m not even sure if I can make sense of this.
    I don’t have comments on the Romans 5 passage (I’d have to look at it more carefully, and that’d take us way off track). I’ll just grant to you that the model you (and others) suggest is one way to respond to the whole question of whether it is permissible for God to kill people as he does in the Bible. The reasoning I give can be seen as another response one could give to those who don’t find your model plausible. It doesn’t hurt to have more arguments, right?

    April 8, 2008 — 19:24
  • Andrew Moon

    John and Benjamin,
    You guys seem to be tempted to take a certain horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma, that acts are wrong because God commands us not to do them. I suppose I take the other horn, that God commands us not to do certain acts because they’re wrong. That’s why this is a problem in the first place. If you take the other horn, of course there would be no problem. Or are you suggesting something else?

    April 8, 2008 — 19:35
  • Andrew Moon

    well, in your scenario, it only seems wrong if certain conditions are given when the borrowing occurs. If I say that I’ll let you borrow my basketball for ten days and we agree, and then I take it back the next day, surely I’d be violating your right to use my ball as you wished for those ten days. But suppose I let you borrow my basketball and I stipulate that I reserve the right to come over and use it whenever I want. Suppose you agree to this. I don’t think I would be violating your rights if I came in during a game you were playing and took the ball. (Now you said this would show horrible moral character – perhaps because I was taking you away from your basketball and you were having a fun time and I was keeping you from having a fun time and whatever. But now we are appealing to utilitarian considerations as determining the wrongness of the action, which, as I’ve made clear throughout this discussion, that I’m fine with. See my above comments on how I think utilitarianism applies to this discussion.)
    In the case of God creating our bodies, we never agreed to any terms of usage. He just gave us these bodies to use. But it doesn’t seem that he would be violating our rights by taking them away at any time. The scenario is as follows. Suppose I were to go away on a trip overseas, but I leave a car for my infant nephew to use when he reaches 16. I also stipulate that, when I return from overseas, I reserve the right to take the car back, but my nephew can use it however he wants until then. It seems to clear to me that I wouldn’t be violating my nephew’s rights if I came back and took the car away. Such is the case with God’s granting us the use of these bodies – he could reserve the right to take them away at any time.

    April 8, 2008 — 19:45
  • Andrew Moon

    I think there is a distinction between God’s allowing us to die and God’s killing us. It’s roughly the killing vs. letting die distinction in ethics and specifically bioethics. Would God be violating rights if he allowed people to die? Certainly, if God’s not violating rights when he kills us, then he’s not violating rights when he lets us die. So if I’m right about the main topic of this post, then this would be no problem either.
    Someone who tries to argue that God is violating our rights by letting us die would have a hard time being persuasive. My main consideration is that it’s more plausible that we have the right that others not kill us than that we have the right that others keep us alive. While the latter seems plausible, the former has weird implications (like the implication that others have a right against us that we do our best to keep them hooked up on life-support and on drugs to stay alive as long as possible). In general, I’m skeptical that there are positive rights like this in the first place. The existence of negative rights (the right that others not do X to me) is far less controversial.

    April 8, 2008 — 19:58
  • Paul

    Hi Anderw,
    I thought you might remain unconvinced.
    But, your post did talk about the “best way out for the *Bible*-believer.” And if my interpretation is correct, then this may be one of the best ways out since I do not think anyone has a problem with justly punishing criminals.
    Now, you may not agree with the biblical position regarding its stance on federal headship, but that’s another argument (which would also take us too far off course).
    I’m not too sure about your inability to make sense of the claim that “A is guilty for B’s actions and deserves punishment.” For example, if A hired B to murder A’s wife, and B succeeds, many times our court will try *both* of them for first-degree murder.
    Adam represented all mankind. That is, God tested mankind in Adam. This was a fair representation in that Adam was infallibly chosen and perfectly represented us such that he was the best possible representative. If he did X, any of us would have done X. That we didn’t choose him, or weren’t born yet, does not mean that we can’t suffer the consequences (we would have gladly accepted the blessings if he were to have had kept the covenant of works!). Our children, and children’s children, will reap the consequences of our choices. We reap the benefits of America, the choices of our founding fathers. If we’re going to be intellectually honest, why do we take the benefits while not wanting the consequences?
    I would wonder, though, given your reasoning, why you would think anyone should get the other end of the stick? That is, why should someone (say, someone we *know* is a sinner) get treated as *not*-guilty based on *another’s* [Jesus’] actions? Why doesn’t *this* seem unjust? Why is it just that Jesus should die for our sin? He didn’t sin? If Adam had fulfilled his covenantal obligations, all of humanity would not have been born into a state of sin and misery. We would have been born sinless and unable to sin. So it seems, to me, that you would have to deny some major themes in the Bible in order to deny my argument.
    But, yes, other arguments never hurt anyone! And, thank you for granting the position I (and others) offered was a possible solution.

    April 8, 2008 — 20:50
  • “I think there is a distinction between God’s allowing us to die and God’s killing us.”

    But there isn’t when if we take a view that combines these suppositions:
    1) God is nature bound to deliver justice
    2) Death is the explicit result of sin and the only just end to a sinful life
    3) God is the sustainer of life (in Him we live and move and have our being)
    The typical Christian view holds that all death is the result of death. That is, death is punishment for sin. This means that someone’s dying of old age is no different than someone’s dying at the hands of a murder — we have no right to life in the first place! Life is only sustained by grace.
    * * *

    “a certain horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma”

    I take a somewhat strange position here, in that both “horns” are true.
    It makes no sense to establish some order above God that He is appealing to — that would make Him not God. God must be defined as the primary source of morality. However, for some reason, the things He has chosen to establish as “right and wrong” just seem self-evident — playing hopscotch and feeding the homeless are fine, raping kids and taking your neighbour’s car are wrong. I mean, an inverted moral universe isn’t even really conceivable, is it? Could anyone conceive humanity continuing if God decreed an opposite morality, and wrote it onto our hearts?
    So, God is the definer of morality and yet is bound by morality. When we ascribe to Him the role of definer and realize that He is duty bound to be morally perfect, we then have to make concessions. “God did this… it must be right, and I must be missing something.”
    If God is capable of immorality, we have no guarantees. This whole life might be nothing more than a maniacal plot to deceive humans, only to torture them for all eternity regardless of any piety or faith. We can not strip something off of God without essentially annihilating Him. He becomes meaningless.

    April 9, 2008 — 9:22
  • My intuition is that God sustains us in life, and barring special obligations due to promises or the like, God has the right at any time to cease to sustain us in life. Is that more like killing or like letting die?
    In one way it’s more like letting die, since it’s a matter of withdrawing an active contribution. If so, then God in an important sense cannot kill anybody. God can make a big boulder roll over somebody, but whether the person lives or dies depends on whether whether God continues to sustain the person’s life–in some possible worlds, the boulder rolls over the person and God sustains the person’s life (and so the person is miraculously kept alive) and in some the boulder rolls over the person and God ceases to sustain life. Only in the latter is the person dead, so it depends on God whether the person lives or dies. But it depends not so much on whether God sends the boulder, but on whether God withdraws sustenance.
    If this is right, then any “killing” by God is more a “letting die”. If God has no obligation to prolong life, then it is, as it were, permissible for God to “kill” people.
    On the other hand, one might argue that divine withdrawal of sustenance is like a killing. For it would be a killing to fail to provide a dependent with food and water. To fail to provide the ordinary means of sustaining life is to kill. But God’s sustenance of anybody’s life is as ordinary as food and water–it is an even more necessary condition for continued existence.
    If this is right, then any withdrawal of sustenance on God’s part is a killing. Since plainly it is permissible for God to withdraw sustenance (there is nothing wrong in God’s creating a person who will live between t1 and t2 as opposed to creating a person who will live between t1 and infinity), it is permissible for God to kill.
    So, it’s either permissible for God to “kill” or it’s permissible for God to kill. The practical consequences are the same. At any time, barring special promises, God is permitted to strike us down with a well-placed stroke of lightning or by withdrawing our sustenance and having us collapse dead forthwith.

    April 9, 2008 — 10:09
  • John Alexander

    I was simply responding to your title. However regarding the Euthyphro Dilemma; it is only a dilemma for those who believe 1) God exists, 2) morality is somehow objective in the sense that its basic precepts apply equally to all moral beings including God, and 3) we want to talk about the moral nature of God; i.e., God is completely good. I am only maintaining that God can do what he pleases because He (minimally) has the knowledge and ability to do what he wants. He can blame/reward us using any criteria he chooses. There is no dilemma for God. From DCT, if we want to be rewarded, we will do as God commands regardless of what it is that he commands us to do (Abraham deciding to agree to sacrifice his son because God commanded him to do so). Of course one could argue that a just God will not punish (kill) innocent people, so that if God does punish (kill) people they cannot be innocent. Obviously this has nothing to do with who owns what; it is simply a matter of who can do what to whom. I suspect that few of us (myself included) likes this accounting, but it is consistent with there being a God who created us and has the knowledge and power to reward or punish us as he sees fit.
    As far as rights are concern we would need to know 1) how they arise and why they are binding on us regarding how we should treat each other, and 2) why we think God needs to recognize these rights as binding on him in regards to how he treats us. We may be able to agree that there are rights that persons have that explain how we should treat each other (for example, we should not kill each other), but it is not clear that God must also treat us in a similar fashion. I know that I am a moral being subject to praise or blame for my actions, I am not sure that God is.) We may be permissible for God to kill us, but not for us to kill each other. I do not see how a theory of rights can help out here.
    Here is an interesting (I think) problem: If we have the right to praise or blame others for how they act, can we blame God for how he acts. For many religious believers it seems that we have a duty to praise God, but we should refrain from blaming him; we do not have that right. If that is the case, then does the praise/blame distinction even apply to God’s actions? Why are not God’s actions morally neutral; that are not good or bad, they simply are.

    April 9, 2008 — 13:54
  • Philip

    Hey Paul,
    I agree that we reap the benefits/ suffer the consequences of decisions made by others. Another question is whether or not you can deserve something different merely because of the actions of others? It doesn’t seem like I deserve to have a better life than someone else just because my parents happened to make better decisions than his parents did. Better things may well happen to me and I appreciate that and consider myself fortunate, but that doesn’t mean I deserve anything different than the less fortunate person.
    One possible way to make a distinction between the Adam case and the Jesus case is that you might think that by coming to faith in Christ people consent to taking Jesus as their representatives. Thus their action of consenting changes the moral landscape and makes it acceptable for Christ’s actions to affect them. However, certainly none of us have consented to Adam being our representative. (Not sure if this works, just a thought)
    The fact that we would have all fallen in Adam’s citation seems irrelevant to me. It seems like we are responsible for the things we do in the actual world, not things we would have done in counterfactual scenarios. There are probably counterfactually scenarios where each one of us would commit murder, but that doesn’t seem to make us morally equivalent to those who commit murder in the actual world.

    April 9, 2008 — 20:43
  • Tully Borland

    Alexander Pruss:
    I’m inclined to agree with much of what you say but I wonder about this:
    “Since plainly it is permissible for God to withdraw sustenance (there is nothing wrong in God’s creating a person who will live between t1 and t2 as opposed to creating a person who will live between t1 and infinity), it is permissible for God to kill.”
    I don’t think it’s plainly permissible. It seems reasonable to me that humans have certain rights given their worth. This is something God knows prior to creation; he doesn’t have to create, but once he does he honors the rights of the creatures he has created. One of those is a right to an amount of flourishing that can’t be accomplished in one second. As Aristotle (I think) says, if an infant is killed we think that it’s a greater tragedy than if an old man is killed (although this is still tragic) for this very reason. I think we can hold that having a right to some flourishing entails having a decent length of life (more than a minute, more than a year) while admitting that the length that one has a right to live is vague–there are no sharp boundaries. What, then, to make of God’s commanding men, woman, AND, children to be killed? I’m not sure what God’s trying to tell us in these stories, but I’m inclined to think that places such as Limbo, Abraham’s Bosom, are reasonable–some state of existence where children (et al.) killed in this life can experience the flourishing they are due (perhaps with the possibility of attaining flourishing beyond what they’re due).
    But suppose this is wrong, that is, it’s wrong that each human has a right to a live for more than a second, minute, year, etc. There still is reason for thinking that, at least in a world like ours, it would be wrong for God to create humans and not sustain them for (say) more than a minute. At the very least, it would be wrong if God did this A LOT–say from 2009-2019 all newborns live for 1 second and every 5 minutes God creates 1000 “adults” that exist for only 1 minute! Even if this wouldn’t violate any of the individual “1-minuter’s” rights, it seems reasonable that it would be a violation of the rights of some of us that are alive–we would be wronged, and prima facie, it would be wrong for God to do. I’m not sure if I can specify why, but it seems to me more plausible that we’d be wronged and that the action would be wrong than that it’s permissible for God (or a lesser being) to do it. Perhaps one of our rights that would be violated is to live in a world with a sufficient degree of regularity.

    April 10, 2008 — 9:45
  • Tully:
    I don’t know. Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine twin-earth very much like earth, with one exception. There are no humans there. Instead, there are whumans, and the mental and physical life is just like that of corresponding humans on earth. Thus, while we have a human named “Mother Teresa”, they have a whuman named “Mother Teresa.” But there is one very important difference between humans and whumans. Unlike for humans, it is normal for a whuman to read minds. But in fact all of the whumans are defective and are unable to read minds. Maybe the bit of brain that is able to read minds is missing, and as a result their brains are just like ours. Thus, while the human named “Mother Teresa” is not defective for lacking mind-reading abilities, the whuman named “Mother Teresa” is defective for lacking them. Otherwise, the lives of the two are the same, and the whuman does not know that she is lacking mind-reading ability. Everything that is of value in a human life is available to the whumans. But they are incapable of living a fully whuman life, because they lack mind-reading abilities.
    Let’s suppose God hasn’t wronged us by creating us. Suppose God has created a twin-earth populated by whumans. Has he wronged them? It seems that every positive good that we have is one the whumans have. And every evil that the whumans suffer is one which we suffer, with the exception that it is not an evil that we lack mind-reading abilities, while it is an evil that the whumans do. So they do suffer an extra evil that we don’t. However, it is a suffering they are entirely unconscious of.
    Now we may wonder why God would create a twin-earth populated by whumans instead of one populated by humans. We can come up with various hypotheses. Maybe God allowed the ancestor of the whumans to make a choice about whether his descendants would be defective in respect of mind-reading. Maybe God does need the whumans to normally have mind-reading abilities because he is planning on having them use these abilities in the afterlife, but in their present fallen and sinful stage, mind-reading abilities would be harmful to them (can you imagine human society with mind-reading). Maybe he knows through middle knowledge that they would be even worse off if they had mind-reading abilities.
    It just does not seem to me like there is much of a complaint a whuman can make against God for lacking mind-reading abilities.
    Well, we can likewise imagine beings like us whose nature is to live for only a short time. Their rights wouldn’t be violated by their living a short time. Similarly, I don’t think ours are… But your intuitions about whumans may be different from mine.

    April 10, 2008 — 10:15
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Benjamin,
    I agree with the position that it is morally permissible to kill someone if, in doing so, you are properly executing justice. I just don’t think that this applies in the cases in the Bible; see the discussion with Paul for more. On the Euthyphro Dilemma, I guess I’ll just repeat that if you take the horn that things are wrong because God commands them, then there is no problem. If things are wrong independently of God’s commands, then there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

    April 10, 2008 — 13:52
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi John,
    To recall the overall dialectic, I was just providing a response to the argument mentioned in the third to last paragraph in my opening post (which did have to do with rights). I wasn’t trying to argue for much beyond that. There are probably other responses in addition to my own, and there are probably positive arguments that it is permissible for God to kill people as he does in the Bible. If there are further responses to the argument (in my opening post), that’s great! (I don’t have much to say further in response to your other points or interesting questions you raised.)

    April 10, 2008 — 14:06
  • John Alexander

    Andrew; I did address the argument you raised in my last post. You have given no reason for me to think that God has to honor rights even if you and I do. Why should I presume (on God) that he has to honor what I have to honor? Unless you can present a reason that justifies your assertion that God has to honor rights like you and I have to honor rights, then I think you are begging the question at a very key point. Furthermore, it we assert that a good and just being, including God, will recognize and honor the rights of people, one of which is not to be harmed undeservedly, then if God does kill people, as the Bible asserts that he does, then those people must have deserved to die. He does not violate any of their rights if he is a good and just being because they are not innocent and therefore not deserving of being protected by some rights claim. He is in a much better position to judge guilt and innocent then you or I are. I happen to think this is ‘crazy,’ but it is consistent with the idea that God is completely good and just. If he is completely good and just (as theists maintain) then if he causes harm, the harm must be deserved. Is this not what Augustine and Edwards maintained?

    April 10, 2008 — 15:44
  • Philip

    Here’s an argument for the conclusion that God is morally obligated to respect rights:
    1) Human beings are morally obligated to respect rights.
    2) There is no morally relevant difference between God and humans beings which would explain why human beings are morally obligated to respect rights and God is not.
    3) If X is obligated to A and there is no morally difference between X and Y which would explain why X is morally obligated to A and Y is not, then Y is obligated to A.
    4) Therefore God is obligated to respect rights.
    Clearly (2) is the controversial premise, However I don’t see what the explanation would be. The facts that God is morally better or noncontingent or more powerful or the creator don’t seem to me to be the kinds of things that would remove the moral obligation to obey rights. (Although these considerations might effect what rights people have if something like Andrew’s ownership suggestion is right.)

    April 10, 2008 — 16:12
  • John Alexander

    I agree that this is a valid argument. I also agree that 2 is the problematic premise and that is why it is problematic for me to assert 4. I see no reason to assert that 2 is true. It is also possible that 2a) there are no morally relevant similarities that explain why God should honor rights as we do, is true. In that case you get 4a) God is not obligated to respect rights. 2 needs to be argued for, not simply asserted. To me anyway it is problematic that 2 or 2a cannot be successfully argued for. This being the case I see no reason to beleiove that God is, or is not obligated to respect rights. It is an open question. Andrew’s argument does not address this. Even if I own my body outright this does not entail that God cannot kill me because it has not been arguend that killing me is an example of not respecting my rights. That was the point of the latter part of my last post. Even if we assume that 2 is true and that b (I own my body and God doesn’t)is true, this does not entail that God has violated any rights, property or otherwise, if he kills me.
    Anyway, I am finding this discussion to be of great value to me. I am truly enjoying this exchange. Thanks

    April 10, 2008 — 18:13
  • Philip:
    What about the the fact that our existence is a participation in God, so all our value is derivative? I can see how that might be relevant here.

    April 10, 2008 — 20:15
  • Paul

    Hi Philip,
    I’m not sure I grasp your objection about “deserving.” In Federal Headship theology, the representative *stands in for you*. He makes decisions for you. He speaks *for you.* It would be like during the Revolutionary war. Say you voted for some person to represent your town. This man goes to a meeting where it is decided, by his vote and others, that we will go to war with England. Now, say that a red Coat comes to your door. He aims to take your property, etc. What sense does it make to say, “But I don’t deserve this? I didn’t vote to go to war against you.”?
    Now, you may say, “Ah, but you chose your representative.” Fair enough. Granting me all the parts of my theology on this matter, our representative was chosen, not by us, but by God. Now, let’s explore that. When we pick someone to stand in for us, we hope to pick the best man for the job. But we are finite. We don’t know for sure if he is making false promises. We don’t know, for certain, that those we vote for are the best man (or woman!) for the job. He may or may not be. In the case of our original representative before man in fulfilling the covenant of works, there was a choice for us, God made it.
    Now, what follows from that? Well, for one thing, the choice (Adam) was *the best possible choice* that could have been made. It is not as if Adam failed but if it had been you, you would have succeeded. This choice was perfect. Adam really was, the best man for the job. So, say you are in a voting situation. Say you can chose for A or B candidate. You think about it, and you think you have some good reasons to chose A over B. You want your choice to be the best one possible. After all, you have children and you don’t want someone who will make foolish decisions which could affect your children. Now, say that God comes down to you, tell you that B is the best bet for you. Since God cannot be wrong, knows everything, is all-good, etc., then the most rational thing to do would be to go with B.
    Apply that to the Garden Scenario GS. In the GS God was totally fair. it would have been *unfair* for God to let *you* chose. You may have picked the wrong candidate. God picked for us. His choice was perfect and infallible. I take it as obvious that whenever someone gives me the best shot to win, they’ve been fair with me. Thus I deny the intuitions behind your argument.
    Moving along to your comments on Jesus vs. Adam. I have already covered the “choosing” portion. But furthermore, since faith is a *gift*, then even your choice was not something you made all on your own. Indeed, given a Reformed view of Scripture, you did not chose God out of your own free will, he had to change your nature first, giving you a heart which desired to chose him. Indeed, in John 6:44 Jesus says that “no man can come to him [Jesus] unless the Father who sent him [Jesus] draws him, and I [Jesus] will raise him up on the last day.” Since not all men are raised up (putting aside universalism for now), then the father chooses who comes to Jesus.
    So, though we did pick Jesus, God picked Adam. To say that “none of us would have consented to Adam being our representative” is to say, “I know better than God. I could make a better choice than God.” So, I don’t think that maneuver works.
    Lastly, it is not a counter-factual claim I’m appealing to. Original sin is not about a counter-factual state of affairs. It states that all men *do* have a sinful nature. A nature that is opposed to God. A nature that if left to develop on its own will necessarily sin. So, we *are* sinners.
    Jeremiah 17:9 says that “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it.” This seems to assume original sin–wickedness is a property of the human heart. Ecclesiastes 9:3 declares a similar truth: “…the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil, and insanity is in their hearts through their lives.”
    So, given the *truth* of Christian theism, then the argument goes through.
    Let me make another distinction that has not been brought here. Maybe this works. Since, on the traditional view, all men have a soul that can never die, we will live forever, then technically God isn’t “killing” anyone so much as he is allowing them to progress to the next stage of *life.* All those “killed” do not cease to exist. I don’t see why God is required to keep your body in *this stage* of life rather than the next. The physical “death” is just a vehicle for God to move you on to your next stage of life–heaven or hell. It could also be that God does not allow any infant to go to hell. So, he moves infants on to their next stage of life, heaven. Anyone older than an infant, given original sin and total depravity, will have committed actual sin, and so this meets some of the worries here.
    I hope the above wasn’t too jumbled!

    April 10, 2008 — 21:35
  • Andrew Moon

    Okay, we may just be starting to talk past one another. I never said you weren’t addressing my argument (if that’s what you thought I was saying). I don’t even take us as disagreeing. I thought I summed up the dialectic in my last comment to you, but your response didn’t make sense to me, so now I’m lost.
    One last try: I presented one argument (in my third to last paragraph) that someone might give (which appeals to rights) that someone might give in order to argue that it is morally wrong for God to kill as he does in the Bible. I presented one response to that argument: accept (a) or some version of (c). You have also presented another response: say that the people God kills deserved to die. If your response is successful, then we don’t even need to go with my response. And that’s that. (If we continue to talk past one another, it may be better to just stop this thread of the discussion till another time.)

    April 10, 2008 — 22:39
  • Philip

    Hey John,
    Thanks for the helpful response, I am also enjoying thinking through these issues. Let me see what I can say by way of a reply.
    Here are some qualities both God and human beings have that seem to be plausible candidates for making a being the kind of thing that ought to respect rights. Being a person (or persons in the case of God:), being rational, or being able to follow moral rules and act for moral reasons. Those seem to give us some prima facie reason to doubt (2a). In general it seems to me that X having a right that Y A, gives Y a moral reason to A. And if Y is a moral agent (which God presumably is) Y ought (all other things being equal) to A. Thus being a moral agent (whichever way we cash that out) is the relevant similarity God shares with human beings. I’m not sure if these are the kinds of similarities you were looking for, let me know if I just missed the point here.
    I also think that if we can’t think of any morally relevant difference between God and human beings which would affect God’s obligations to respect rights, this does give us some evidence that there is no such difference. (Just like the fact that I can’t think of any morally relevant difference between black people and white people gives me reason to think that there isn’t one. I admit the evidence is somewhat weaker in the case of God because we shouldn’t expect to be able to understand his moral nature to the same extent.) Thus I do think we have at least a somewhat plausible argument for (2). Another argument for (2) is that it just seems wrong for God to torture and rape people and a good explanation of this is that God ought to respect people’s rights.
    I agree that nothing I’ve said demonstrates that we have a right not to be killed by God. Although I do think it’s plausible that we have at least some rights against God.

    April 11, 2008 — 0:40
  • Philip

    Hey Alex,
    Thanks for the interesting suggestion. I am not sure if I completely understand it. What does it mean for our existence to be a participation in God? I grant that we are all sustained in existence by God, is this what you have in mind? I don’t think that fact would entail that our value is merely derivative. I doubt you mean that we are a part of God. Could you explain further?

    April 11, 2008 — 0:51
  • Philip

    Hey Paul,
    Thanks for the reply, I agree that if we grant your theological position then the problem is solved. However, I think that our intuitions about desert may give us reason to question some aspects of your theological system. It seems to me that I if I have never performed any actions or made any choices, then I do not deserve punishment for anything. Thus, it would be unjust for God to set up a system which allowed for this. (This seems very different from a case where I may deserve certain responses because I have supported someone whom I knew would incite a rebellion.) Since God would not do anything unjust, I conclude that he would not set up a system where I am held to deserve punishment for actions performed before I was born. (As you suggest, you could just claim that my intuition about desert is incorrect, do you share the intuition at all?)
    You say: “I take it as obvious that whenever someone gives me the best shot to win, they’ve been fair with me. Thus I deny the intuitions behind your argument.” This doesn’t seem obvious to me. Suppose the blue jays are about to play the red sox and then Bud Selig informs them that the yankees (a genuinely better team) will play the game as their representative (the jays have no choice in the matter). The yankees then proceed to lose the game on behalf of the blue jays.) Have the blue jays really been given a fair chance to win? Shouldn’t they be allowed to play the game for themselves? I’m kind of afraid that we might just end up intuition bashing at this point.
    Nothing I’ve said undermines the doctrine of original sin. (I’m not saying you claimed that it did.)It is consistent with my view that Adam’s fall causes us to all be born evil. What my view inconsistent with is the claim that we are born guilty or deserving punishment for the fact that we are evil. In my view we are born in the same state as someone who has had an evil psychology implanted in them by a mad scientist, the person is evil but they are not initially responsible for this fact. (Note also that the fact that a person will sin in the future does not seem entail that they are currently a sinner, it just entails that at some point in the future they will become a sinner.)
    On a tangent, (I’m not a theologian so take this with a grain of salt) but I doubt that the reformed interpretation of John 6:44 is plausible unless you accept universalism. This is because in John 12:32 Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”(ESV). So the ‘drawing’ has to be interpreted as resistible, otherwise universalism would be true. (I’m sure there are responses one could make to this.)
    Your point about it not being wrong for God to move people to the next stage of life seems plausible. One concern might be that we wouldn’t then be able to explain why it is generally wrong for humans to move people to the next stage of life.
    Thanks for all the good thoughts, I’m enjoying the discussion.

    April 11, 2008 — 1:47
  • Tully Borland

    I’m not sure if the whumans would have been wronged if they had been created with the mind-reading part of their brain missing. I doubt they’ve been wronged but still think my prior point holds that it’s not obvious that, in all circumstances barring God’s making special promises, God could rightly cease sustaining the existence of humans.
    I do think we can be wronged–have a right violated–and never be conscious of it, e.g., videotaping a woman in the bathroom without her knowing. But it’s not clear to me that having mind-reading abilities is necessary for the whumans to live a sufficiently flourishing life. After all, like us, they DON’T HAVE a capacity for mind-reading, and thus it’s not clear to me that for any individual whuman, the fact that he has never read minds his whole life would make any difference to whether his life was sufficiently well-lived. He has lots of other capacities.
    Moving on… You go on to say that “we can likewise imagine beings like us whose nature is to live for only a short time. Their rights wouldn’t be violated by their living a short time. Similarly, I don’t think ours are.”
    I don’t know if I can imagine beings sufficiently like us whose nature it is to live for only a short time. Can they reproduce? Form friendships? Fall in love? Perhaps they just are a LOT faster than us, in which case, perhaps they CAN live a fairly flourishing life in a couple minutes.
    But then they would not be significantly like us to motivate thinking that God would not be violating OUR rights if we only lived for a blip in time.
    But as you say perhaps our intuitions just differ here and you’re thinking of something I’m not.

    April 11, 2008 — 10:15
  • Tully Borland

    Here’s one more thought. Instead of a right to live a sufficiently flourishing life we could put things in terms of a right to love/obey God at some time or other. Here’s one right that can be violated by other humans, but, even more clearly than the case of flourishing I think, is a right that cannot be violated by God.
    I mention this other possible right, because one thing that you mentioned in your first post was that God could cease sustaining unless he’s made a special promise not to. And this suggests that you think that God could place duties on himself–and perhaps confer to us the right to have the promise honored–but that there are no inherent rights (or non-conferred rights) that God would have to honor before ceasing to sustain us.
    I think there is a duty to love God, but also a right because, not only is someone wrong if they prevent another from loving God, but the person prevented from loving God IS WRONGED, or so it seems to me. At the very least, Adam I think had this right even if perhaps we’ve all lost it in the fall (which I’m not sure about).

    April 11, 2008 — 11:05
  • Andrew Moon

    Quick note, my last comment may have come off as a bit curt or brusque. No negativity was intended. More, I was just getting at that I was lost about where the dialectic was and that we were probably talking past one another. Anyway, let me know if you think how I summed up the dialectic in the previous comment is correct. (Also, ‘Andrew’s argument’ is ambiguous. It could refer to the argument I gave in the third to last paragraph in my opening post, or it could refer to my response to that argument. Also, in addition to what I said in my last attempt to sum up the dialectic, it seems you are saying that rights may not be binding to God, or you might be saying that people deserve it when God kills them. Either way, you are providing further responses to my argument (the one in the third to last paragraph of my opening post) which, if successful, my own response would not be needed.)

    April 11, 2008 — 11:21
  • John Alexander

    Andrew: I did not think you were curt or brusque. I also think you are correct in how you summed up the discussion to this point. I will admit that I did not see you advocating c as an option in your argument, although I do see that now.
    My underlying concern and motivation in giving an alternative (one which I do not accept) is that I was interested is finding out how you think rights work and were it is permissible to override a particular right. I should have been clearer. It seems at times as if you think that (certain) rights are not defeasible especially when you say “it is plausible that God does not have the right to destroy our bodies without our consent.” This statement does occur before your argument, but I think it frames the argument. If you are correct and it is true that consent is a necessary condition that must be met before another can destroy my body, then your argument is very strong and God’s killing people as he does in the Bible (or parts thereof) is morally problematic. If consent is a necessary condition and must be knowingly and freely given before my body can be destroyed, then my counter-argument, as stated, regarding justice and punishment fail. Some very interesting issues are embedded in this approach, if this is the one you think is sound. It could be argued for example, following Socrates argument in Crito, that I have given my consent to being punished if I am guilty by agreeing to stay ‘in the game.’ Of course, I would have the right to defend myself and that right is certainly violated in many of God’s purported actions towards humans that he kills (directly or indirectly). So do you think consent is necessary, or is there some other way to understand rights relative to b and c in your argument that justifies your conclusion?
    Anyway, I appreciate your patience and please know that I am enjoying this exchange. Some very interesting and challenging ideas have been put forth by everyone in this ongoing discussion.

    April 11, 2008 — 13:24
  • Andrew Moon

    I’ve enjoyed the discussion as well!
    Ah, I see better what you’re saying. Let me restate the original argument I proposed:
    (a) God owns “my body” and I don’t, (b) I own “my body”, but God doesn’t, and (c) we both jointly own “my body”.
    i) it is always wrong to violate a right unless there are strong utilitarian considerations overriding those rights.
    ii) if (b) or (c) is true, then God is violating people’s rights in the Bible when he kills them.
    iii) (b) or (c) is true
    iv) There are not strong utilitarian considerations overriding rights in those cases.
    v) It is wrong for God to kill people as he does in the Bible.
    At first, I thought that you would have to reject (iii) and accept (a). This is one way which I believe is sufficient to successfully respond to the argument, and it’s the only one I thought of at the time. But Tully convinced me that (ii) is false. This is because (c) could be true, but God could own enough shares of our bodies so that he would not be violating our rights if he were to kill us. I believe that Alexander denies (ii) as well (although I haven’t had time to catch up on his discussion with Tully).
    Now I believe you (John) are questioning the argument in at least two ways. First, you could question (i) by saying that God is someone who is not obligated to respect human rights. This question is being explored in your dialogue with Philip and Alexander (which I hope to eventually join). Secondly, you could (like Tully) question (ii). But unlike Tully, you are saying that (b) could be true, but God would still not be violating people’s rights when he kills them. One way this could happen is if God were punishing us for sin. This is what Philip and Paul are currently discussing.
    This is how I see the dialectic. What do you think?

    April 11, 2008 — 15:23
  • Paul

    Hi Philip,
    You said, “I agree that if we grant your theological position then the problem is solved. However, I think that our intuitions about desert may give us reason to question some aspects of your theological system.” Okay, but my response has aimed to satisfy the question put to me in the original post, namely, what is the “best way out for the Bible-believer.” I’d furthermore add that I don’t come to the Bible and expect it to conform to my moral intuitions, I conform my intuitions to the Bible. This especially true given the nature of my fallenness, my epistemic situation with respect to God’s plan, etc. Surely there are some that have the intuition that it is immoral to punish an innocent man for the sins of the guilty. Yet this is what we ask people to accept when we ask them to consider the claims of Jesus’ death for sinners. Would your intuitions not have a problem with, say, the nice old grandma on the block being punished for the crimes of the pedophile on the block…even if they both agreed for this transaction to take place!?
    You have agreed that someone S can be punished for the crimes of another S* (say, a S hires a hit man S* to knock off his wife in order to collect the insurance money; in this case S can be tried for murder even though S did not commit the murder himself, S* did), but this is acceptable for you because S chose S* to act as his representative. I don’t think this is necessary, though. Our children may be economically punished by the voting decisions of their parents. Their parents chose their representative for them, and they get punished for the decision of their parent. Besides this, I have not totally removed the notion of choice, I just transferred it out of your hands and into God.
    At this point, I think this is the best position to be in for us. I would rather have God make choices that mattered for me, given that he is all-wise, all-good, all-just, etc. Now you balk at what I took to be an eminently plausible position! How strange for a philosopher to balk at plausible assumptions! You invoke the baseball illustration to make your point. But, I do not think that was an appropriate illustration. How about this:
    Say you got the opportunity to win a million dollars by kicking a football through the uprights from 45 yards away during the half-time show of the Super bowl. Suppose they gave you the option of having Adam Vinatieri represent you and kick for you. Who has the better shot? Who would you rather kick for you?
    Say you had to answer 20 questions for a terrorist otherwise he would blow up NYC. Say they were multiple choice, but they were all mensa level questions. Now, you had get all of them right. No error. Say that, unwisely for his purposes perhaps, the terrorist also allowed you to step down and have “the smartest man alive” answer the questions for you. He was smarter than you in every conceivable category. Who would you rather have making the choices? For my sake and yours, I would hope you would choose “the smartest man alive.”
    That is to say, when the steaks are high, I want the best man for the job. God put that man in there. He made our choice for us. There was going to be a choice no matter what, and so given that, I have no problem that he chose our representative for us. Therefore, I do not find it entirely against intuition for us (and not problematic at all, for me), that (a) we could be punished for someone else’s crime, and (b) that the representative was chosen for us, and (c) that the choice made for us was the best possible choice. And, say it was guaranteed that you would fail just as quick and miserably. Does it matter? Why the need for the existential involvement in the situation?
    Now, if your view is that we are born evil, then I fail to see why it is unjust for God to enact the consequences of evil–“death”. I would also take issue with the idea that original sin is like someone planting an evil psychology in us. Furthermore, your view seems to imply Pelagianism. So, since this view has been dubbed heretical in Christian theology (cf. the many cross-denominational councils), it would be no help to the Bible-believer.
    Lastly, regarding John 6:44 and John 12:32, you’re right, there are responses one could make to this! You say my view would lead to universalism. But that is odd, I think the Arminian view would since they believe all are “drawn” in a John 6:44 way. And since John 6:44 is a conjoined with “raise him up on the last day,” and the two “hims” are the same him, we have universalism. Here are some problems:
    i) John 6:44 clearly states that no one can (is able) to come to Jesus unless the father draws him.
    ii) Since the sentence is a conjunction, and if all men are drawn, then all men are raised. All sides must take this view, then.
    iii) Since universalism is false (as you seem to grant), then it can’t be that John 12:32 refers to all men whoever. The context seems to indicate that it is classes of men being referred to as right before v.32 some gentiles now come and are seeking Jesus.
    iv) Other passages would also seem to indicate that not all men whoever are drawn to the cross: 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 says, “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
    v) Dr. White James white comments: “To whom is Christ the power and wisdom of God? To “the called.” What is the preaching of the cross to those who are not called? Something that draws them or repels them? The answer I think is obvious. The cross of Christ is foolishness to the world. These considerations, along with the immediate context of the Gentiles seeking Christ, make it clear that if He is lifted up in crucifixion, He will draw all men, Jews and Gentiles, to Himself. This is exactly the same as saying that He has sheep not of this fold (John 10:16), the Gentiles, who become one body in Christ (Eph. 2:13-16).”
    vi) It is not clear that “draw” is used the same in John 6 and 12. And in John 6 it is the who does the drawing and in John 12 it is Jesus who does the drawing.
    Now, sorry for all that theology, but the important point is to show that God chooses who will come to Jesus. Thus, if this is established, then I have reinstated the Jesus counter in my argument viz. you can’t deny Adam’s imputed guilt and sin and accept Jesus’ imputed righteousness.
    Thank you for the good conversation, and your precious time!

    April 11, 2008 — 19:06
  • Tully Borland

    I haven’t closely followed the other discussions so I hope this isn’t redundant.
    Let me restate my worries about (i), that is, that (i) is false 🙂
    Here’s your example you gave earlier modified for my purposes. My grandfather is across the street. Unbeknownst to him (he’s blind and deaf) a car is about to hit him. I realize that the only chance I have to save him is to run through my neighbor’s yard and push him to safety, sacrificing my own life in the process. I run through my neighbor’s flowers killing them all, saving my pappy, and dying in the process. My neighbor has a right to this good–having her flowers. In trampling her flowers I thereby take away her good to which she has a right in order to save a life. Still, although I’ve violated her right, my action is morally good because my grandpa’s life is a greater good than having flowers. (I think that if I had lived, I would have needed to apologize–I did indeed wrong my neighbor).
    Still, there’s no utilitarian considerations invoked here. I wasn’t aiming to maximize goodness nor has my action contributed to maximizing some good or goods (I’m dead, am a nicer guy than my grandpa, and he’s 99 and dies the next year). I was trying to promote some good–my grandpa’s life, but I wasn’t trying to maximize some good.
    So how about something like this instead:
    (i) An action that violates a right is wrong [*] unless the good(s) to which one has a right that is taken/destroyed/prevented by the action is a lesser good than some other good(s) to be promoted by the action.
    (iv) ~[*] in these cases.
    And, again, I’d leave out the ‘utilitarian’ considerations clause entirely. A substantive view of rights, which I think you’re employing, thinks of rights as “trumps”. Rights are the overriders of utilitarian considerations and the reverse can’t be true.
    Note, though, that if (i) is right, then I think one would need to not only demonstrate (a) that God doesn’t own my body and (b) that I haven’t forfeited a right to my body, but (c) that there is not some higher good that God’s action is aimed at promoting in destroying my body–a slightly different and perhaps more difficult task than showing that God is not maximizing utility.

    April 11, 2008 — 20:05
  • John Alexander

    Hi Philip, sorry it took so long for me to respond to your thoughtful response.
    I think that your argument as originally stated is probably the one that most would accept as the most plausible one. When you write in response to my counter-argument that- “Here are some qualities both God and human beings have that seem to be plausible candidates for making a being the kind of thing that ought to respect rights. Being a person (or persons in the case of God:), being rational, or being able to follow moral rules and act for moral reasons. Those seem to give us some prima facie reason to doubt (2a),”- I think you have captured what many would accept as being true, or at least acceptable. Given this, it is correct to doubt 2a (in my counter argument). The problem that I have is that I do not see a very close relationship between being rational and being able to follow moral rules and act for moral reasons. Does utilizing reason result in one set of moral rules or 2) can reason be used differently by different people to arrive at different rules? Do our goals determine our values, or vice versa?
    My problem goes historically back to Descartes’ Demon and the argument that he used to show that God was not a deceiver. Deception may be an imperfection for us because we do not want to be deceived. We want to make decisions that are based on ideas that we believe are true. The acceptability of deception is not rationally permitted by those who do not want to be deceived because it would undermine our confidence in what we believe to be true. Because we strive to be good, we will conclude that any action that results in unnecessary and avoidable harm is bad. Therefore it is rational for use to believe that deception bad (or an imperfection). However, for the agent that wants to deceive us deception would be a good. Deception would be that beings means to achieve its desired objective of having those deceived accepting something that is false to be true. What reason do we have to think that God is completely good or completely bad? What can we conclude regarding God’s understanding how he should value our rights?

    April 11, 2008 — 20:10
  • John Alexander

    I think you have given a good summary of what I have been arguing. I would add that I am also questioning the moral nature of God that seems to underlie the overall argument: that if God is good then what is attributed to him in the Bible regarding his killing of people (in parts) is not an accurate portrayal (what I take part of your argument to be asserting). Because I do not think it is possible to know what God’s moral nature is (for reasons discussed in my discussion with Philip) I think we are not warranted in being confident about any conclusion that is drawn from a premise that relies on what we think the normative nature of God is. This has nothing to do with what we think our obligations are regarding honoring human rights. Following your suggestion, it is wrong to kill a person without their consent. If it can be shown that God does kill people without their consent, then questions concerning his moral nature are not relevant; his actions demonstrate that he is guilty of violating a right.
    I do hope that sometime you will make a post and explore in more detail the implications of your assertion that God does not have the right to kill a person without her consent; that doing so violates her right to be self-determining. My intuition is that you would not need to answer questions of body ownership, but would need to focus on questions of due process.
    Thanks for a great post!!!

    April 12, 2008 — 0:15
  • Michael Gogins

    This is a really great question. Thanks!
    Do you think that there is a link between this question and the problem of evil? That is, why shouldn’t God create persons who never have to die and who never do die? Regardless of their innocence or sin? It seems much better to do that than to create what we see. In that case the evil would not be able to murder (although they could lie, steal, and cause other kinds of suffering). Isn’t that more or less the case with angels? Or do the bad angels, finally, really die?

    April 14, 2008 — 15:37
  • Trent

    I am a former youth minister/theology nerd turned agnostic; degreed in theology/philosophy. Just a bit of background… : )
    As you know, some of this is tautological at best, and it’s based on the assumption that Yahve (or whomever) ‘is’ in fact God; or that there is even a god to begin with.
    Nonetheless: Here’s a perspective concerning the Biblical God.
    The nature of repentance is one of change or turning away. God displayed this trait twice specifically, as I’m sure everyone here is aware of.
    So, if God himself turned/changed/repented (or spin this if you like) from an action he himself was either about to commit (Sodom) or did commit (the Flood), can we not conclude that God himself has an issue with killing arbitrarily?
    If so, this forces the argument toward selective destruction and negates the possibility of categorical apologies for taking any life at any time.
    Of course, if one believes in Yahve, one must accept Genesis on ‘some’ level. Even if you take it as mythical, you are still left with the vivid description of the big picture: Man is sinful by his own choosing. By choosing poorly (despite not having the discernment to distinguish good from evil?) man chose death, and therefore God is reacting to this choice accordingly.
    Problems arise, from “Why would God create our immune system? Was this a ‘just in case’ scenario?”, to, “On what day did God create the smallpox virus?”
    These issues must be addressed if one is to begin addressing the question of God’s right to destroy his own creation; one that he called “good” at one point.
    It either was or was not “good”. Perhaps this was momentary? If so, it seems a rather strange proclamation.
    Open to your thoughts, and thanks for reading.

    May 3, 2008 — 18:14