Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Loftus Dilemma

One objection to Divine Command ethics (ethics in which right and wrong are grounded in the will of a deity) is articulated by atheist John Loftus. It is that God is essentially a moral hypocrite because he commands us to do something that he himself doesn't do. Loftus bases his argument on the Euthyphro Dilemma which, for those unfamiliar with it, I comment upon here. He writes:
No amount of ownership, no amount of knowledge, can ethically justify passing by a man beaten and robbed by the roadside. If we are to act based on God's character then we should all be Good Samaritans. God should be a Good Samaritan.

No amount of ownership, no amount of knowledge, can ethically justify watching a man slowly roast to death in a house fire.

No amount of ownership, no amount of knowledge, can ethically justify eating popcorn while watching as a woman is beaten, gang raped, and then left for dead.

In fact, since the ethical standard is the perfect character of God (per modified divine command theories) and this God has omniscience and omnipotence, then God is even MORE obligated to alleviate suffering. For while we may not have the power or knowledge to intervene when we see intense suffering, God is not limited like us. The more that a person has the knowledge and the ability (or power) to alleviate suffering, then the more that person is morally obligated to help by intervening.

We may not know that someone is suffering, so we are not morally obligated to help because we are ignorant about it.

We may know someone is suffering but we lack to ability or power to help.

We may not have the financial resources to help a man beaten and robbed by the roadside. We may not have the ability to save a man who is burning in a house fire. We may not have the physical strength to save a woman who is being beaten and gang raped. It's true we should act based on our knowledge by doing what we can. But since God is supposedly omniscient and omnipotent there is no excuse for him. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts about it....

If God can justify letting us suffer in this life by compensating us in the next life, then that ethical principle allows us to do the same thing (per modified divine command theories). We can knowingly allow people to suffer even though we could help them, so long as we compensate them afterward for our inaction. That same ethical principle would allow someone to sit by and do nothing while others abduct and abuse a woman, and then compensate her with a million dollars afterward. Does the compensation justify the deed? No. Compensating someone for abuse does not justify the abuse. Abuse is still abuse. To see this just ask if such a woman would prefer to skip the abuse and just receive the million dollars. Her answer would be an unequivocal yes.

Why can God violate these ethical principles that we are obligated to obey, if morality is based on his character? If he's our ethical standard and acts like an inattentive and inactive monster, then why can't we act like him? If we cannot act like him, because it would be unethical for us to do so, then God's character is no longer the basis for morality. Which is it?
There are a couple of things to be said about this argument. First, it strikes me as a very odd case for an atheist to make because it essentially brands God a hypocrite for failing to incessantly override the laws of nature and human free will. I say this is odd because one of the arguments that skeptics invoke against the credibility of miracles is that a genuine miracle would amount to a suspension of the laws of nature and that it would be repugnant of a deity to override those laws since it would throw science into chaos and confusion. Nothing would be predictable. What seems to be an inviolable law of nature today could well be nothing of the sort tomorrow if God were to be constantly intervening into the affairs of the world.

So, many skeptics argue, if there were a God he wouldn't be the sort of deity which would create a world and then feel the need to constantly tweak what's going on in it.

Very well, but then to turn around, as Loftus does, and call God a moral hypocrite for refraining from miraculously intervening hundreds, thousands, of times every second to alleviate the suffering occurring around the world seems a bit unreasonable. According to skeptics like Loftus God is malicious if he does perform miracles and hypocritical if he doesn't.

The second reason why this is an odd argument for Loftus to make is that he claims that we have a moral obligation to help those who suffer if we can. I agree with him about this, but I don't see why he should think that such an obligation exists. After all, on atheism what could possibly be the source of moral obligation? What is it that imposes such duties? Where does the notion that we have a duty to help the suffering come from, and what does it matter whether we fulfill this duty or ignore it? Loftus might reply that people who ignore such duties are reprehensible, but all he can possibly mean by that is that he doesn't like them, to which the appropriate response is, so what? How does his not liking someone make that person morally wrong? Even if 99% of the people don't like someone who chooses to withhold help from someone who's suffering, how does that make that person wrong? Is morality a matter of what's popular?

Perhaps God desires nothing more than to end human suffering. Perhaps he's perfectly capable of ending it, but has a good reason for not doing so. Loftus might scoff at such a suggestion and ask what could possibly be a good reason for not eliminating the suffering of a child? If he does respond in that fashion, though, all the theist need do is remind him that his fellow atheists have supplied the reason: Ever since the 18th century they've been arguing, as I noted above, that it would be disastrous for God to intervene in the normal cause and effect course of physical events. It'd be the end of science, they've been telling us, even if he only intervened occasionally. If so, how much more disastrous would it be for God to intervene as often as would be needed to alleviate instances of human (and animal) suffering in the world?

I think there are other plausible reasons why an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God might permit suffering, but Loftus' fellow atheists seem to have pulled the rug out from under his argument so anything else I might add would just be piling on.