Saturday, October 06, 2012

"Would you kill Baby Hitler?"

"Would you kill Baby Hitler?"

Of course, you would have needed to know on April 20, 1889 that the little boy would grow up to become Adolf Hitler, and would commit all of the crimes we now know he committed. The only way you could know that, apart from precognition, would be to have traveled backward in time from a point when Hitler had committed all his crimes and you knew about them.

One of the stock objections to Biblical morality is the mass execution of the Canaanites, by divine command. Now there are some scholars, of whom Richard Hess is the most distinguished, who think this involves a traditional misinterpretation of the text.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the traditional interpretation is correct. Roger Ebert has raised an obvious counterexample. Ebert is, himself, a lapsed Catholic. I believe he’s an atheist or at least an agnostic.

And that’s what makes his hypothetical significant. Unbelievers (and theological liberals) typically attack the morality of the OT conquest accounts. Yet Ebert, a fellow unbeliever, is posing a hard question that’s applicable to that issue.

Canaanite boys were too young to be soldiers. And we might even say they were “innocent” (in the qualified sense that children are innocent). Yet, if allowed to live, they’d grow up to be combatants. They’d mature into Israel’s mortal enemies. They’d implement the Final Solution. So we’re dealing with the moral and functional equivalent of an infant Hitler scenario.

What are the viable alternatives?

i) After killing the adults, do you just leave them orphaned? To fend for themselves? How would they survive on their own in the harsh conditions of the ANE?

ii) In theory, Israelites could adopt them and raise them as their own. And that might work when they were too young to know any better. But when they became old enough to remember or realize that their adoptive parents were the killers of their biological parents (and other blood relations), they’d naturally hate their adoptive parents.

For instance, suppose, when you were very young, a couple broke into your home, murdered your parents, kidnapped you, and raised you. If you were very young, you might temporarily adapt to your new caregivers. Identify with your new caregivers.

But as you continued to mature, you’d become increasingly aware of what they’d had done to your parents. Not only what they’d done to them, but what they’d done to you by forcibly removing you from your parents. By depriving you of that upbringing. Your natural allegiance to your parents would kick in. You’d despise your kidnappers. You’d be tempted to avenge your parents.

My immediate point is that unbelievers suffer from conflicting intuitions. They vehemently object to the OT conquest narratives, but their knee-jerk objections are superficial. As even a fellow unbeliever like Roger Ebert points out, the issue is morally complicated.