Thursday, July 27, 2017

Does skeptical theism entail moral skepticism?

I will comment on this essay:

Maitzen, S. (2013) The Moral Skepticism Objection to Skeptical Theism, in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (eds J. P. McBrayer and D. Howard-Snyder), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Oxford, UK.,ch30.

A Google search on the term “child torture” retrieves the following case among others: in 2010, four-year-old Dominick Calhoun of Argentine Township, Michigan, died after days of being beaten and burned by his mother’s boyfriend. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is the worst case of child abuse I’ve ever seen,” said the local police chief; “in all respects, he was tortured.” Dominick’s grandmother reported that “burns covered his body” and that his brain was “bashed out of his skull.” A neighbor told police he heard Dominick screaming, over and over again, “Mommy, make him stop.” Dominick’s crime? Wetting his pants.1

Where was God while this was going on? Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect God stand by and let someone torture Dominick to death? Atheists of course reply, “Nowhere: there is no God in the first place.”

i) Maitzen's example is truly horrific. That said, it's not as if the existence of horrendous moral evil is a new discovery, like astronomers finding a new planet. Christians inhabit the same world as atheists. So no particular news story, however horrendous, is a novel reason to reconsider belief in God. 

ii) Consider the secular alternative. To my knowledge, child abuse is typically committed by the live-in boyfriend rather than the biological father. The evolutionary explanation is that men are hostile to another man's offspring. That's a rival to their own offspring. It's like a lion who kills the cubs of other lions when he takes over the pride. 

iii) Theism doesn't create natural and moral evils. From a secular standpoint, the same horrendous events would happen whether or not religion exists (apart from uniquely religious violence). In that respect, theism doesn't make the problem any worse. 

However wince-inducing the examples of moral evil, and however inscrutable the relationship between moral evil and Christian theism, atheism is incomparably worse. Atheism is just a vanilla euphemism for moral and existential nihilism. 

Some theists answer by offering theodicies: attempts to explain why the universe is in some sense better, or at least no worse, if God allows Dominick’s torture than it would be if God prevented it (see Part 2 of this volume). In their view, God’s letting Dominick suffer must achieve some compensating good (or prevent some evil at least as bad) that not even God could achieve (or prevent) otherwise. Theodicies try to specify those goods (or evils).

Those in the theodicy business face a daunting challenge. On reflection, the only goods we can think of seem to fail, individually and collectively, to provide a sufficient moral justification: either they look too small to offset the disvalue of Dominick’s suffering, or else we cannot see how an omnipotent God would need to allow Dominick’s suffering in order to achieve those goods. Even after thinking hard about it, we cannot see how God’s permission of that suffering could be justified by (1) a four-year-old child’s somehow deserving it, (2) the value (if any) of the boyfriend’s libertarian freedom to torture Dominick, (3) the value of someone else’s libertarian freedom to do something in light of the torture, or (4) whatever beneficial attention to the problem of child abuse this case may generate. Justification (1) looks preposterous, and (2)–(4) seem, at best, to violate Dominick’s autonomy by treating him merely as a means to some good end that even consequentialists must admit does not look good enough.

I agree with him that (1)-(4) are inadequate. By that hardly exhausts the available explanations. 

Even if we consider possible benefits of a less mundane kind, such as Dominick’s “experiencing complete felicity in the everlasting presence of God,”2 we cannot see how achieving those benefits would force an omnipotent God to permit Dominick’s suffering. 

Not in isolation, but that can be combined with other reasons. 

Or consider instead the prevention of some horrific evil: suppose that Dominick, had he not been killed, would have grown up to commit brutal murders. 

As far as that goes, you don't have to commit murder to facilitate murder. In a case-effect world, many human agents unwittingly facilitate murder through entirely innocent transactions that nevertheless contribute to the eventual action of the killer. Preventing a murderer is not the only way to prevent a murder. There are ever so many variables feeding into that particular outcome.  

I'm not offering that as an explanation for God's nonintervention in Dominick's situation. I'm just responding to Maitzen on his own grounds. 

Even on that wild supposition his suffering remains unjustified, since his painless death would have prevented that future evil at less cost. 

True, but his widely publicized death has many consequences. 

Furthermore, such speculation about Dominick’s future brutality could provide the justification we seek only if we had some reason to believe it, and we do not. Again, our search for an adequate justification comes up empty.

Yet Maitzen indulges in wild hypotheticals about God as the cosmic deceiver (see below). Yet he doesn't believe in his own hypothetical. And Christians have no reason to believe that God routinely deceives people. So Maitzen has a double standard.   

But if deception is ever good, all things considered – imagine deceiving a murderer about the location of a potential victim – then presumably a good God could deceive us, and if we are as clueless about God’s true purposes as skeptical theism says we may be, then for all we know radical deception on God’s part represents the height of goodness.

i) Actually, I think God occasionally deceives certain people. Consider, for instance, how Elisha caused the Syrian army to hallucinate (2 Kgs 6:8-22). That, however, creates no presumption that God generally deceives people.

ii) Maitzen's own hypothetical illustration involves God deceiving a murderer about the location of a potential victim. But how can he logically extrapolate from that type of scenario to divine deception in general? That would be to prevent a heinous crime. 

But there is another way in which theism threatens our knowledge quite apart from the possibility of divine deception.

How does a purely hypothetical defeater threaten our knowledge? Does he take the same position regarding the brain-in-vat scenario? We can imagine all sorts of ingenious skeptical scenarios, but that, in itself, is not a reason to cast doubt on human knowledge, is it? Absent concrete evidence, the ability to concoct abstract possibilities is not a rational basis for skepticism. 

Certainly Maitzen doesn't seem to be a Pyrrhonian skeptic. Indeed, if he were that skeptical, it would disarm his ability to attack Christianity, since, in order to attack Christianity, he must have a standard of comparison which he views as true. Take the news story.

According to theism, something literally magical stands at the foundation of our universe: a nonphysical God who created the universe from nothing at all and via methods that we have no reason to think natural science could ever unravel. God had free rein over which natural laws, if any, to create, and given science’s unavoidable reliance on natural laws there is no reason to think science could dig “underneath” all natural laws to discover the reasons, if any, God had for creating them. If the universe is at bottom magical, then our inescapably nonmagical ways of figuring it out are doomed to fail eventually. According to naturalism, by contrast, nothing magical stands at the foundation of our universe, and so there is no reason in principle why science cannot make our knowledge of the origin and workings of the universe ever deeper.4 Indeed, insofar as we can explain some fact in natural-scientific terms, to that degree we do not – and, more important, need not – invoke the intentions of agents to explain it. But theism regards God’s intentions as fundamental to the universe, in which case we cannot hope to understand the universe ever more deeply by means of our nonmagical scientific methods. Unlike naturalism, theism puts a barrier in the path of our ever-deeper knowledge of the universe, a barrier we must hit sooner or later.

i) To characterize God or divine agency as "magical" is tendentious.

ii) There are built-in limits on how far we can probe the natural world. Objects too small or too distant to detect. And not just distance in space, but distance in time. It isn't possible to reconstruct the past in detail. 

iii) Maitzen seems to rule out personal agency and mental causation as fundamental explanatory categories. His reductionistic worldview eliminates humans as well as God. 

If worries about our poor grasp of value prevent us from doubting God’s goodness on the basis of the suffering we experience or witness, they ought to prevent us from affirming God’s goodness on the basis of the sudden cures, spontaneous recoveries, and averted disasters that we experience or witness.5

That assumes those are symmetrical propositions, for which he offers no argument. A parent takes a child to the doctor to be vaccinated. The injection is momentarily painful. The child resents the doctor, and the child resents his parent for subjecting him to the pain. He can't fathom why his parent would make him suffer that ordeal. But while his reaction is understandable from the blinkered viewpoint of a child's mind, is that a good reason to doubt the parent's benevolence? 

even if we ourselves can see nothing that would justify allowing E to occur,
we should insist that it is not unlikely that there is some . . . reason for a perfect being’s not intervening to stop E. Plainly, we should also concede – by parity of reason – that . . . it is not unlikely that there is some good which, if we were smarter and better equipped, we could recognize as a reason for our not intervening to stop the event. . . . But it would be appalling for us to allow this consideration to stop us from intervening. Yet, if we take [sceptical theism] seriously, how can we also maintain that we are morally required to intervene? (Almeida and Oppy 2003, 505–506, first emphasis added)

Is there parity between the two? Does divine nonintervention authorize human nonintervention? That's a false dichotomy. God often works his will through secondary agents. God intervenes indirectly through human intermediaries. 

On the standard kantian theory of duty, we can discover duties by rational reflection alone.

i) To begin with, I'm not a kantian demonologist.

ii) In addition, there's a systematic equivocation running through Maitzen's use of "moral skepticism". Skeptical theism doesn't deny that some actions are intrinsically right or wrong. So it's hardly equivalent to moral skepticism. Rather, skeptical theism simply acknowledges that we may sometimes be in doubt on how to apply moral norms. You can subscribe to moral realism, but be unsure of what is morally licit or illicit in a particular case. That's commonplace, both in philosophical ethics and practical ethics. That's the stuff of moral dilemmas, borderline cases and edge cases. 

Some people oppose consequentialism because they say it makes the moral status of our actions unknowable by us, given our inability to know the total consequences of our actions and given that the unforeseeable consequences swamp the foreseeable ones.6 

But in that event, his objection isn't principally to skeptical theism, but to consequentialism. Yet that's ironic since many atheists are consequentialists. 

Skeptical theists persistently claim that only those goods you know of – rather than goods beyond your ken – can justify your inaction in the face of what seems to you to be an obligation to intervene (e.g., Howard-Snyder 1996, 292–293, criticized in Pereboom 2005b, 89). But their claim ignores the fact that, in high- stakes circumstances, recognition of your own ignorance can also justify your inaction.

i) Maitzen constantly acts as though these complications are unique to skeptical theism, whereas ethics in general presents us with analogous cases where the best course of action is unclear–assuming there even is a best course of action. Although the consequences of our actions are not a morally sufficient consideration, they are often a morally necessary consideration. Yet that's fraught with variables we can't foreknow or control.  

ii) Moreover, Christian theism–especially predestinarian varieties like Calvinism–provide a practical solution. In his providence, God supplies a morally licit option. Christians can do God's will without knowing his will. 

There is, in addition, a type of belief we can expect theists to possess and nontheists to lack that also undermines the moral obligation to intervene in cases of horrific evil: the belief that someone exists who can make this suffering turn out for the sufferer’s best even if I do not intervene. Given the badness of severe suffering, why do we not feel obligated to prevent children from ever undergoing painful rabies vaccinations? Because we are confident that sometimes severe suffering will turn out for the sufferer’s best. Suppose we believe, as many theists do, that someone exists who can always make suffering turn out for the sufferer’s best (see, e.g., Gellman 2010, 188; Stump 1985, 411–413). We ought, I submit, to feel less obligated (or less clearly obligated, if obligation does not come in degrees) to prevent and relieve suffering than we would feel if we did not believe in such a potential guarantor of a good outcome.

i) Only a universalist believes that God will always make suffering benefit the sufferer. 

ii) More to the point, Maitzen seems to be alluding to the afterlife. But how does belief that things will be better in the future imply that would shouldn't alleviate suffering in the present? That's like saying, why not operate without anesthetic since eventually the pain will go away once the patient heals up. 

[T]heists very typically believe that God has commanded his creatures to behave in certain ways; and they also very typically believe that God’s commands provide all-things-considered reasons to act. Thus, a sceptical theist will very likely not find it . . . plausible . . . that [skeptical theism] leaves us without an all-things-considered reason to prevent harm to others in cases like [Dominick’s].

Taking guidance from God’s commands raises the prior question of how to identify what God commands. Some theistic religions claim that God never issued or no longer endorses some of the things regarded as operative divine commands by other theistic religions. Suppose we consider one obvious source of God’s commands if any such commands exist: the monotheistic sacred scriptures. Does God command followers to circumcise every male child among them, as Genesis 17:10 reports? Traditional Jews say yes, while many Christians say either that God never commanded circumcision or that the circumcision command has been superseded (see Galatians 5:6). The Qur’an contains no command to circumcise, although most Muslims continue it as a traditional practice. Christians claim that God commands the baptism of all people in the name of the Trinity (Matthew 28:19), a claim that Jews and Muslims of course reject. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Jesus announces commands that are supposed to supersede Old Testament law concerning divorce, the swearing of oaths, the treatment of enemies, and lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”). Holy writ contains many similar examples of conflicting commands.

i) That's a bait-n-switch. Regarding Christianity and Islam, the issue in that case isn't picking out true divine commands but picking the true religion. You don't validate or invalidate individual commands, but the source. If the source is genuine, then the commands are genuine. 

ii) Regarding Christianity and Judaism, that's asymmetrical. Christians don't regard OT Judaism as a rival to Christianity, whereas Rabbinic Judaism regards Christianity as a rival to Judaism.

iii) Yes, we have the hermeneutical issue of how much carryover there is from OT ethics to NT ethics. To say they're "conflicting commands" is ambiguous. They'd only be in conflict if they are commands for the same people-group at the same time. If, however, some commands supersede other commands, then there's no essential conflict. 

Since none of these conflicting putative revelations is self-authenticating, followers of theistic religions have to decide which of them to take as genuine. The mode of presentation is the same in each case: the commands appear in ancient texts, such as the Old Testament, that the various religions often agree in revering as God’s Word. So nothing about the means of presentation distinguishes them, forcing adherents of the various religions to rely on their independent moral judgment to tell which of those commands most likely do express the will of a morally perfect God and whether God does intend the later commands to supersede the earlier ones. Consequently, identifying God’s genuine commands requires human insight into God’s reasons and intentions.

The question at issue is not a distinguishing "mode of presentation" (whatever that means) but distinguishing evidence to differential the true religion from false religions. 

Suppose, for example, that a traditional theist announces that he has felt the presence of God commanding him to quit his gambling habit and donate to charity what he would have spent on gambling. We can predict the approval of his clergy and fellow parishioners. But compare that approval with the reaction he would get were he to announce that God had told him to slaughter everyone in the neighboring town. In declaring that God could not possibly have commanded the latter action, his co-religionists would not rest their case on the nature of the alleged communication – “Was it a voice? If so, what did it sound like, and did anyone else hear it?” – for nothing about the means of presentation would in fact quell their doubt that it actually came from God. Instead, they would rule it out as a divine command purely on the basis of its morally objectionable content. The Old Testament reports God as having repeatedly commanded the killing of men, women, and children (see 1 Samuel 15:3, among many examples), so it is not as if a command to kill would be out of character for such a God. Nevertheless, nowadays, anyone’s claim that God has commanded him to wipe out the neighboring town would rightly encounter at least initial disbelief even among his religious group – principally, if not exclusively, on moral grounds. Thus, skeptical theism faces a problem encountered by divine command theories of ethics, and at least as acutely: our very identification “of God’s commands as God’s commands” (to quote Bergmann and Rea) presupposes that we independently understand the realm of value well enough to tell which actions and omissions a perfect being would be likely to command. 

i) There's no need to rule out the revelatory claimant on exclusively or primarily moral grounds. Indeed, moral considerations needn't figure in the consideration at all. To begin with, a parishioner could properly say God didn't tell him to do that. And he has no evidence that God spoke to the claimant. The onus is not to disprove a mere possibility that God spoke to the claimant, but whether there's sufficient evidence that God spoke to the claimant. 

ii) He might also argue that the age of public revelation is over. 

iii) The command to execute the Canaanites is indexed to temporary geographical cultic holiness. That's confined to a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose. 

According to skeptical theism, we lack what it takes even to estimate the likelihood that some compensating good justifies a perfect being’s permitting Dominick to suffer as he did.10 Skeptical theists grant that none of us can detect that compensating good, but given our limited knowledge of the realm of value, they ask, how could we estimate the likelihood that some compensating good lies beyond the limit of what we detect? By the same token, however, we cannot estimate the likelihood that some reason lying beyond our ken turns what seems to us a diabolical command into just the thing a perfect being would tell someone to do under the particular circumstances.

If Maitzen is still alluding to the so-called "abhorrent" commands or "terror texts" of the OT, Bible-believing Christians don't have a problem with that comparison. Those commands were morally licit and morally obligatory for the intended audience. 

Even when theists concede that God has issued a particular command, they sometimes consciously choose, on what look to be moral grounds, to disobey it. According to leviticus 19–20, God forbids breeding cattle with other livestock (apparently beefalo is an abomination in God’s eyes), mixing the kinds of seed sown onto a field, and wearing a garment containing both linen and wool. God also imposes the death penalty for cursing one’s parents, adultery, male homosexual conduct (see also Romans 1:27, 32), certain types of incest (which require death for everyone involved, sometimes by burning), bestiality, witchcraft, and blasphemy. Yet it is unlikely that even Orthodox Jewish parents kill their children for parent-cursing or blasphemy, because they reason (if perhaps implicitly) that God couldn’t really want them to do that. So theists must be nonskeptical concerning their capacity to discern God’s reasons, to tell which of God’s commands God really wants us to obey. I wager that Bergmann and Rea don’t check the label for divinely prohibited fiber- content before buying a suit of clothes, and not just because they might not know about the prohibition in leviticus 19:19, but because they assume, if only implicitly, that the Creator of the universe surely does not care about that issue, even though the Bible portrays him as caring about it.11 Their assumption is as sensible as it is hard to square with their skepticism about our knowledge of God’s underlying purposes.

i) That's a village atheist objection. Has Maitzen does any serious reading in the literature? 

ii) This may indeed be a logical pressure point for Orthodox Jews. But Christians aren't using moral criteria. Rather, this is a theological and hermeneutical question of the extent to which the new covenant supersedes the Mosaic covenant. 

Mind you, professing Christians range along a theological spectrum, from liberal to conservative. "Progressive Christians" do pick and choose based on their moral opinions. 

iii) Maitzen equivocates over the word "children". Dominick was a four-year-old. That's not comparable to juvenile delinquents in the Mosaic injunctions. 

It does not solve the problem, furthermore, to respond that these embarrassing commands applied only to the ancient Israelites in their specific time and place, because we still must rely on our own judgment – independent of any divine commands – to determine whether any of those ancient commands are meant to apply to us today. Even if scholarly exegesis can explain away the most awkward commands while retaining the rest, such explanations will surely depend on assuming human insight into the relative importance of particular values in God’s grand scheme. Why not say that God cares first and foremost about the composition of our clothing and only secondarily about harm to children? Because we know independently that such an attitude would be unworthy of a morally perfect being, something we could not know without knowing more about the realm of value than skeptical theism says we can know.

The Bible itself, in both Testaments, provides a rationale for particular commands or types of commands. Likewise, the Bible itself, in both Testaments, prioritizes some commands over others. This doesn't involve extrinsic appeal to moral intuition or perfect being theology. 

Bergmann and Rea claim that God’s commands give even skeptical theists “an all-things- considered reason to prevent harm to others in cases like” the torture of Dominick. While we regard it as likely – again, based on our independent moral judgment – that God (if God exists) wants us to protect innocent children from harm, has God in fact commanded it? Biblical commands are often extremely specific, not simply general principles we must then somehow apply to particular situations. Has God specifically commanded us to prevent child abuse or even specifically commanded us not to abuse children? Not in any scripture I can find. On the contrary, one finds death-penalty offences for children listed in Exodus (21:15, 21:17), leviticus (20:9), and Deuteronomy (21:18–21), apparently endorsed by Jesus (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10), and several apparent endorsements of child-beating in Proverbs (13:24, 20:30, 22:15, 23:13–14, 29:15). Granted, Matthew 18:6 warns us against corrupting those children who believe in Jesus, and verse 18:10 commands us not to “despise” such children, but it offers such children no specific protection against the kind of abuse Dominick suffered and offers no protection at all for children who do not believe in Jesus.

i) Maitzen is repeating his equivocal usage of "child," as if a 4-year-old is morally and intellectually equivalent to teenagers. 

ii) In addition, it's arguable that some OT offenses were capital crimes to maintain the cultic holiness of the land. Certain crimes defiled the land. Executing the perpetrator eliminated ritual pollution. However, that framework has been superseded by the new covenant. 

iii) Maitzen classifies corporal punishment as "child-beating". But that's a hyperbolic, indiscriminate characterization. 

In sum, had Dominick been beaten to death for parent-cursing or blasphemy, it is not clear that his abuse would have crossed any line drawn by the Bible or that any recognized command would have given us an all-things-considered reason to prevent his death. If you reply that in God’s eyes a four-year-old simply cannot commit the crimes of parent-cursing or blasphemy, I would say that you are relying – entirely properly – on your ordinary moral judgment, independently of any divine commands. But Bergmann and Rea’s point is that God’s commands can guide skeptical theists even after they have stopped relying on their ordinary moral judgment to fathom God’s ways.

It's not a moral judgment to conclude that four-year-olds lack the cognitive development of teenagers. We routinely make age-appropriate distinctions regarding curriculum that are unrelated to moral judgments. For instance, we don't teach calculus to four-year-olds unless the child is exceptionally precocious. The Bible itself indicates an age of reason (cf. Isa 7:16). 

Furthermore, if we try to extrapolate from God’s pronouncements on other topics in order to tease out the principles God wants us to apply to the case of child abuse, we must assume for ourselves a substantial degree of insight into God’s purposes. Consider, for instance, the second greatest commandment according to Jesus, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39), which some Christians may offer as a way of dismissing the jumble of conflicting commands I cited earlier. Suppose I hate myself; am I off the hook with regard to loving others, or, indeed, am I then obliged to hate others? “Of course not,” one might reply; “the commandment presupposes a healthy degree of self-love on the part of everyone to whom it applies. Moreover, as God’s creature, you ought to love yourself and hence ought to love others.” Maybe so, but that reply explicitly depends on a claim about what the command presupposes: self-love on the part of those it commands. Thus, it presumes insight into God’s assumptions in issuing the command, insight skeptical theism says we have no right to think we possess.

His willfully subversive self-hatred interpretation is a transparent ploy to disobey the command. 

Moreover, even if we ignore these interpretive problems and grant that the command “love thy neighbor as thyself ” gives us some moral guidance on what to do about Dominick’s suffering – presumably we ought to try to relieve it – it fails to give us enough guidance to answer the moral question that Almeida and Oppy pose in their criticism of skeptical theism: Must we intervene to prevent such suffering if we easily can? Even if the command clearly enough implies that neither his mother’s boyfriend nor anyone else may torture Dominick, the command does not tell us whether, for example, we must use whatever force may be needed to prevent the torture – not, again, unless we make assumptions about the relative importance and overall purpose of the command, assumptions that skeptical theism denies us any confidence in making. In obeying the command to love one another, must we prevent people from behaving in harmful ways, or is it God’s business to prevent them? The command itself does not say, and hence we have to rely on moral assumptions, including assumptions about the command’s context and purpose, to answer this (by no means easy) question.12 In sum, we simply cannot interpret commands as expressions of God’s will without assuming we know much, independently of those commands, about God’s intentions, just as we cannot interpret a constitution as expressing the will of its framers without assuming we know much about their intentions. But, of course, our knowing enough to identify, interpret, and apply God’s commands ought to increase our confidence in drawing the very “noseeum” inferences that skeptical theism denies us the right to draw.

Of course, one particular command may not contain all the salient qualifications. But Maitzen artificially and atomistically isolates one command from another. 

At this stage, one might reply that God himself could provide the insight we need in order for us to identify, interpret, and apply his commands – the insight I have said skeptical theism denies us any reason to think we possess. According to this reply, we would find ourselves in a skeptical quandary about God’s commands except that God has given us, or at least could give us, the guidance we need to escape the quandary. But the skeptical problem recurs at this stage too. As I argued earlier, if deception is ever good, all things considered, then it is consistent with God’s perfection that he deceive us at any time, including when he apparently tells us his intentions and purposes in issuing a command.

i) How does it follow that if deception is "ever" good, then it's consistently good to deceive "at any time"? Many ethicists, including some evangelical ethicists, believe deception is permissible or obligatory under special circumstances. But you can't extrapolate from that principle to disanalogous situations where the same justifications are absent.

ii) Once again, Maitzen acts as though this poses a unique problem for skepticism theism, making skeptical theism entail moral skepticism–but many moral realists consider deception to be warranted under special circumstances. Does Maitzen himself think deception is always wrong? If not, does he think deception is always right? If not, then he himself must draw the line somewhere.  

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