Saturday, January 17, 2015

Is Roger Olson a moral monster?


This is a sequel to a previous post:
Let's put this in context. Here's a definition:
Moral dilemmasThe crucial features of a moral dilemma are these: the agent is required to do each of two (or more) actions; the agent can do each of the actions; but the agent cannot do both (or all) of the actions. The agent thus seems condemned to moral failure; no matter what she does, she will do something wrong (or fail to do something that she ought to do). 
When one of the conflicting requirements overrides the other, we do not have a genuine moral dilemma. So in addition to the features mentioned above, in order to have a genuine moral dilemma it must also be true that neither of the conflicting requirements is overridden. 
Yet another distinction is between obligation dilemmas and prohibition dilemmas. The former are situations in which more than one feasible action is obligatory. The latter involve cases in which all feasible actions are forbidden…Sophie's case is a prohibition dilemma. 
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-dilemmas/
And here's a classic thought-experiment in bioethics and utilitarian ethics:
The organ harvest

Another problem for utilitarianism is that it seems to overlook justice and rights. One common illustration is called Transplant. Imagine that each of five patients in a hospital will die without an organ transplant. The patient in Room 1 needs a heart, the patient in Room 2 needs a liver, the patient in Room 3 needs a kidney, and so on. The person in Room 6 is in the hospital for routine tests. Luckily (for them, not for him!), his tissue is compatible with the other five patients, and a specialist is available to transplant his organs into the other five. This operation would save their lives, while killing the “donor”. There is no other way to save any of the other five patients (Foot 1966, Thomson 1976; compare related cases in Carritt 1947 and McCloskey 1965). 
We need to add that the organ recipients will emerge healthy, the source of the organs will remain secret, the doctor won't be caught or punished for cutting up the “donor”, and the doctor knows all of this to a high degree of probability (despite the fact that many others will help in the operation). Still, with the right details filled in, it looks as if cutting up the “donor” will maximize utility, since five lives have more utility than one life (assuming that the five lives do not contribute too much to overpopulation). If so, then classical utilitarianism implies that it would not be morally wrong for the doctor to perform the transplant and even that it would be morally wrong for the doctor not to perform the transplant. Most people find this result abominable. They take this example to show how bad it can be when utilitarians overlook individual rights, such as the unwilling donor's right to life. 
Utilitarians can bite the bullet, again. They can deny that it is morally wrong to cut up the “donor” in these circumstances. 
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/#ConWhaRigRelRul
A commenter ran this hypothetical past Roger Olson. His response was:
Some acts are necessary even though wrong (sinful). My argument is that God automatically forgives necessary acts such as taking life to save innocent life. 
You are asking me to engage in casuistry. I can only say what I think I would probably do--when talking about "limit cases." And in this case I don't know. But I doubt I would condemn the surgeon in your hypothetical scenario. Have you seen "Sophie's Choice?"

A friend compared this to the film Extreme Measures:


Even some hard-nosed utilitarians balk at murdering a healthy patient to harvest his organs to save five needy patients. But ironically, this Arminian theologian, with his kinder, gentler theology, would be prepared to murder some patients to save other patients. Take the life of one patient to save the lives of five others.

Imagine if Olson was chief of medicine at a large hospital. Imagine if the bioethics board was dominated by Arminians. Imagine if this was under a totalitarian regime in which they actually had the authority to make some patients involuntary organ donors. 

It's striking to compare and contrast Olson's position with John Frame's:

God’s Word gives us a specific promise concerning temptation in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” This text says that no temptation is so great that the Christian cannot escape it. That is, even in the worst temptations, God gives us the resources to be faithful to him, to make right choices, to find ways of escaping from wickedness. Tragic moral choice, however, is a situation where by definition there is no way to escape. So this passage implies directly that there is no tragic moral choice. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (P&R 2008), 232-233.

Why do Frame and Olson take diametrically different positions on bioethics? It goes to a fundamental difference between Reformed theism and freewill theism. 

As a Calvinist, Frame believes in absolute predestination and meticulous providence. Because God planned everything that happens, because he providentially executes his plan, God can and does prearrange the course of events such that a Christian will never find himself in a position where there are no morally licit options. Compare that to Olson's position (in the same post):

The underlying issue here is whether the existence of gratuitous evil undermines belief in an all-powerful and all-good God. (“Gratuitous evil” is evil that is not necessary for some greater good.) 
All these Christian thinkers argue that free will requires an environment of natural laws, predictability, risk and ability to do evil. In other words, even God cannot create a world that includes genuine moral free will and responsibility and constantly interfere to stop gratuitous evils from occurring. 
The answer has to lie in divine self-limitation.

Given Olson's "risky" view of providence, odds are that Christians will find themselves cornered by circumstances which compel them to do something immoral to avoid something even more heinous. In a world chockfull of gratuitous evils–a world that's a runaway train–Christians will be confronted with intractable moral dilemmas in which there's no right option. They can't avoid doing something morally wrong. It's just a choice between degrees of wrongdoing.

Arminians are fond of quoting 1 Cor 10:13 to prooftext libertarian freedom, but ironically it's the Calvinist who's appealing to that text whereas Olson's position cuts the ground out from under that text. Given his risky view of providence, God cannot provide an escape route for every ethical challenge. In world where moral chaos theory reigns, where gratuitous evils are inevitable, Christians (as well as unbelievers) will find themselves boxed into situations in which they are forced to commit atrocities. No virtuous alternative is available in that situation. 

As is often the case, more consistent Arminians like Jerry Walls and Roger Olson do us the favor of taking freewill theism to a logical extreme. They are to freewill theism what Alex Rosenberg is to atheism. 

2 comments:

  1. I'm confused by your apparent affirmation of "Because God planned everything that happens, because he providentially executes his plan, God can and does prearrange the course of events such that a Christian will never find himself in a position where there are no morally licit options."

    Given the surgeon example, are you saying a believer would never be that surgeon or put in that situation? You cited Olson as saying the surgery would be a necessary act so I presume he's not entertaining he could just say no and let himself be killed or something - he has to do it or some greater evil will ensue. Similarly he referenced Sophie's Choice - that seems a no-win situation where a necessary sinful act must occur (with mitigating culpability obviously) so again are you saying a believer will never be put in such a situation?

    I'm perplexed since much of your previous writing on ethics affirms morally grey areas and conflicting priorities/hierarchies and tough less-than-ideal situations where it would seem at least some type of sin might have to be committed. But now you seem to be saying no believer would ever be put in a such a situation where *any* type of evil (not necessarily "atrocities") might be necessary to commit even if unwillingly and reluctantly.

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    Replies
    1. "Given the surgeon example, are you saying a believer would never be that surgeon or put in that situation?"

      Your question is equivocal. What do you mean by "that situation"?

      i) A Christian surgeon might find himself in a situation where there are more needy patients than available organs.

      ii) But that doesn't make it a "situation" in the sense of a moral dilemma (as defined in my post).

      "You cited Olson as saying the surgery would be a necessary act so I presume he's not entertaining he could just say no and let himself be killed or something - he has to do it or some greater evil will ensue."

      i) That's hardly a given. To the contrary, that's the very issue in dispute.

      ii) Moreover, it's a "necessity" generated by his "risky" view of providence. But that's hardly something you can transfer to Calvinism.

      "Similarly he referenced Sophie's Choice - that seems a no-win situation where a necessary sinful act must occur (with mitigating culpability obviously) so again are you saying a believer will never be put in such a situation?"

      i) A "no-win situation" is not equivalent to a moral dilemma. Are you being intentionally sloppy in your usage?

      ii) To say choosing one child in that situation is sinful begs the question. At the very least, you need a supporting argument.

      iii) Moreover, the alternative would be for the mother to refuse to choose. Refusing to choose wouldn't be a "necessarily sinful act." What would be sinful is putting the mother in that predicament, then murdering one or both of her children. 

"I'm perplexed since much of your previous writing on ethics affirms morally grey areas and conflicting priorities/hierarchies and tough less-than-ideal situations where it would seem at least some type of sin might have to be committed. But now you seem to be saying no believer would ever be put in a such a situation where *any* type of evil (not necessarily 'atrocities') might be necessary to commit even if unwillingly and reluctantly."

      That's hopelessly confused:

      i) In case of conflicting duties, where a higher duty *overrides* a lower duty, that's not a genuine moral dilemma. In that situation, both prima facie duties cease to be *simultaneously* obligatory.

      ii) Not knowing the right thing to do is not an ipso facto moral dilemma. A moral dilemma is metaphysical: not *having* a morally licit option.

      iii) Furthermore, an agent can do the right thing even though he's in doubt regarding the right course of action. You need distinguish between moral ontology and moral epistemology.

      Indeed, given a strong doctrine of providence, an agent can do the right thing even though he doesn't know what he ought to do in that situation.

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