Friday, April 10, 2009

Reppert's paradox

One of the arguments in the inerrancy debate is the assertion that God cannot lie. I want to suggest that although this claim is initially intuitive, (I mean who wants a liar for a God?), there is what seems to me a forceful argument against the claim.

1. God always does what is morally right, and never does what is morally wrong. (The doctrine of divine moral perfection).
2. Possibly, lying is morally obligatory, and truthfulness is morally reprehensible.
(I will call this position anti-Kantianism about lying.)
3. Therefore, possibly God lies.

Now of course you can avoid this conclusion by accepting the Kantian position that if you were hiding Nicole Brown Simpson, and OJ were to come to your door with a knife and ask you where she was, you couldn't tell her that she went to LAX and that if you hurry up in that White Ford Bronco, you might be able to catch her before she leaves for New York. But most of us suppose are on the side of Benjamin Constant on this issue, and accept 2.

But how can you accept 1 and 2 but deny 3? I don't think I've committed some horrid modal fallacy, have I?

I was trying to pose a problem for the claim that God cannot lie, indicating that there was an argument against it. I was asking whether there was some way to believe in divine moral perfection, believe that lying is sometimes morally justified for benevolent purposes, and at the same time hold that God cannot lie. The kinds of lies that I have in mind have fairly transparent beneficent purposes behind them, and the overall effect is of course has to be for the eternal benefit of human beings. The title of Kant's reply to Constant is "On the Supposed right to Lie for Beneficent Purposes."

So far I haven't seen any attempt to resolve the paradox. It may turn out that the claim that God cannot lie can be defended. But I wish people would at least take a shot at the argument I provided.

I don’t see a genuine paradox.

1.The minor premise (#2) is too strong. All he would need to make the argument go through is that lying is sometimes morally permissible, not that lying is sometimes morally obligatory.

That, of itself, doesn’t ruin his argument, but I point that out for purposes of precision.

2.In the modified sense that I just stated, I don’t object to the minor premise, per se.

However, the premise suffers from a hidden equivocation. When Reppert uses the example of hiding someone from a murderer, what makes the lie justifiable is that, under those circumstances, you can’t do the right thing by telling the truth.

That, however, involves a disanalogy between divine and agents. The human agent is justified in lying in that situation because he has no control over key elements of the situation–in the sense that he didn’t create that situation in the first place. He’s having to adapt to preexisting circumstances beyond his control.

By contrast, God is responsible for the circumstances. He created the situation.

Therefore, God would never be in a position where he must lie to save an innocent life. Nothing and no one can put him in that situation.

3.Now, one might still argue that, regardless of the situation, some people are not entitled to the truth because they misuse the truth. But that would be a separate argument. And that would complicate the relationship between the premises and the conclusion.

4.Finally, I don’t think the impossibility of divine lying is a logical precondition of inerrancy. In principle, all that inerrancy requires is something like the proposition that God would never lie to his people.

The primary audience for Scripture is the chosen people. The people of God. Therefore, God would never speak falsely in and through the Scriptures.

I’m not stating for a fact that God ever lies. I’m merely addressing the logic of Reppert’s paradox on its own terms. And it seems to me that the impossibility of divine lying is a stronger thesis than inerrancy requires, for syllogistic purposes.

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