Thursday, December 29, 2016

Are serial killers entitled to respect?

Atheist Jason Thibodeau left some comments on my post:

I'm posting a separate response, in part because the original post is heading into the archive. But you can refer to the original post for contextual background:

"Saying that a person has infinite value is just a way of saying that the value of a person is not measurable or comparable to other things of value."

If that's how you wish to define your usage, fine. But in that case, "incommensurable" or "incomparable" would be more accurate than "infinite".

"There is nothing that is more valuable than the value of a person. We don't know how to measure it and it is inappropriate to put a numerical value on it."

Or course, I never suggested putting a "numerical" value on human life.

"I don't think you have shown that any person can forfeit the respect to which they are entitled. Even serial killers have dignity and their dignity deserves to be respected."

1. That remark is unresponsive to what I wrote. Here's what I wrote:

"Moreover, what's wrong with saying some lives are less valuable than others? What about the possibility that some people devalue their lives through their misconduct? Take serial killers…some people can forfeit their prima facie right to life. Take serial killers."

Thibodeau recasts the issue in terms of "respect" and "dignity". He's free to frame the issue however he sees fit, but those weren't my categories, so his remark fails to engage or counter what I actually said. His categories are not equivalent to mine.

2. I don't think serial killers are entitled to "respect". 

3. Although it's fashionable in some circles to frame human rights in terms of "dignity," that's a terribly vague designator. 

4. To say I haven't shown that "any person can forfeit the respect to which they are entitled" (even if we bracket "respect") is a tendentious way of framing the issue, for I don't grant that's an inalienable entitlement. 

I agree that people can't forfeit an entitlement; by definition, an entitlement is something you're entitled to receive. So on that tautological level, it's something that can't lost or denied. But that begs the question of whether, in fact, this is something to which they are entitled. 

5. I think there's a baseline for how humans should treat other humans. But I say that as a Christian. From a secular standpoint, anything goes.

6. It's true that I didn't argue for my contentions, but I was responding to Thibodeau, who didn't argue for his contentions, either. It's not as if the onus is on me but not on him. 

7. To flesh out my position a bit more, one of my moral principles is the Aristotelian principle that we ought to treat like cases alike and unlike cases unalike. Apropos that distinction, the essence of justice is to distinguish between innocence and guilt, good and evil. 

Hence, serial killers should not be treated the same way as people who exhibit common decency, for that would be treating unlike cases alike, and erasing a necessary distinction between justice and injustice. 

It follows that people can, through misconduct, lose a prima facie status (i.e. immunity to harm). Put less abstractly, someone who commits murder (to take one example) has crossed a moral threshold from innocence to guilt, in that regard–which demands a correspondingly differential treatment. 

I could say more, but that's a start, and that's more than Thibodeau is said in defense of his own position. So the ball is back in his court.

"ii) I have no idea what point you are trying to make here."

That's too vague to respond to.

"Suppose McCoy had reason to believe that his judgements about what is good and bad (including his comparative judgements) are not reliable. He might have this reason if he had good reason to believe that there are things the existence and value of which we are ignorant. In this case, for all he knows, the death of Edith Keeler is a very good thing. This must be McCoy's judgement. Notice that this is true regardless of Kirk's viewpoint. We don't have to even suppose that Kirk is involved to see that, if McCoy is a skeptical theist, he must believe that, for all he knows, Edith's death is very good indeed. If this is so, then he must believe that he is not in a position to know whether it is his prima facie duty to try to save her life. 
According to skeptical theism, Kirk's viewpoint is not superior to McCoy's. Kirk knows things that McCoy does not. However, if skeptical theism is true, then for all Kirk knows, there are things the existence and value of which he is ignorant. For example, it is possible that the nazi conquest is necessary for the realization of something that is much more valuable than the elimination of Nazi Germany. Thus, given Kirk's viewpoint, it is possible that nazi conquest is not bad; it is possible that it is very good indeed. Thus, if skeptical theism is true, Kirk must be agnostic about his moral duty. He has no reason to think that he ought to let Edith die."

A number of confusions on Thibodeau's part:

1. As I already pointed out, but Thibodeau ignores, this is not unique to skeptical theism. Rather, this can be a quandary for any ethical system where the impact of our actions should be a factor in our moral deliberations. Does Thibodeau suppose we should never take the expected effects of our actions into account when we compare and contrast different courses of action? So that's not a predicament for skeptical theism in particular, but for moral deliberation in generation, of which skeptical theism is a special case. 

2. Keep in mind that some secular ethicists think genuine moral dilemmas are sometimes unavoidable. Cf. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, Moral Dilemmas (Blackwell, 1988). So why does Thibodeau act as though skeptical theism generates a unique challenge in that respect? Indeed, part of the appeal of time-travel stories is to illustrate moral dilemmas. 

3. Thibodeau repeats his simplistic classification, according to which something is either good or bad. But as I already explained, it's more complicated than that. A particular event can be good or bad in its own right. Yet that's in distinction to good or bad side-effects of the precipitating event. And, again, this is by no means exclusive to skeptical theism. 

4. I think some actions are intrinsically right or wrong. In that case, a good outcome can't override an intrinsically prohibitory action while a bad outcome can't override an intrinsically obligatory outcome. So those need to be separated from cases where something that's prima facie right or wrong might be overridden by circumstances.

5. There's also the question of our moral responsibilities. From a Christian perspective, I'd say there are many cases where we need to take the intended or foreseeable impact of our actions into consideration. But we're not responsible or blameworthy for unpredictable consequences. Our duty is to make decisions based on the available evidence. 

If Thibodeau disagrees, he needs to show how that's inconsistent with Christian ethics. 

6. Apropos (5), when we talk about doing the right thing, that's ambiguous. That can mean either of two different things:

i) Right in the sense of morally right 

ii) Right in the sense of doing what's best, or making a factually correct decision

Put another way, there's an elementary difference between what's morally good or bad, and what's better or worse–in the sense of more ideal or less ideal. 

These are distinct and separable considerations. I have a obligation to do what's morally right and avoid doing what's morally wrong.

It doesn't follow that I have an obligation to do what's best or be correct:

a) To begin with, I may be in no position to know what's best. The future is unpredictable.

b) In addition, there may be no single best outcome. Different outcomes each have tradeoffs. 

c) It may not be possible for me to be factually correct if the evidence at my disposal is inadequate. 

I don't think it's blameworthy to do the "wrong" thing in the sense of (ii) if I lack the evidence to make a better-informed decision. And it's a commonplace of human experience that we must often make decisions, including momentous decisions, despite insufficient information. We can't be sure that we made the "right" choice–in the sense of (ii). But I don't consider that culpable. 

If Thibodeau disagrees, he needs to show how that's inconsistent with Christian ethics. 

7. From a Calvinistic perspective, our actions never thwart the good that God is aiming for. Rather, God uses our fallible decisions to further his goal. Even though our decisions may be individually unwise, they unintentionally contribute to a wise  and worthwhile outcome. (Unintentional from our blinkered viewpoint.) 


  1. I was hoping Jason Thibodeau (or Justin Schieber) would have responded by now. I didn't want to get in the way, so I didn't comment. They may still respond. But in the meantime, I've got some comments.

    I don't think you have shown that any person can forfeit the respect to which they are entitled. Even serial killers have dignity and their dignity deserves to be respected.

    Surely both of them know the common Christian criticism that on atheism and naturalism there really isn't such a thing as real objective dignity. That they can only be grounded in a transcendent God. If they disagree, then let them offer a secular alternative for objectively grounding such dignity and values. For Christians, it's because humans are made in God's (TRULY) infinite image that humans have value. The triune God has infinite value and has eternally known it. That Rational God imputes some of that value to His rational creatures by their being made in His rational image. That's a perfectly coherent explanation for genuine human dignity that also allows for human human demerit, culpability, guilt, condemnation and punishment.

    Thus, if skeptical theism is true, Kirk must be agnostic about his moral duty.

    Setting aside a general "skeptical theism", on Christianity (specifically Calvinistic) there are distinctions in God's will in most forms of Calvinism. Three common distinctions are 1. God's will of decree by which He has determined what will happen; 2. God will of Demand/Command (or prescriptive/preceptive will) whereby God has revealed what He morally requires of His creatures; and God's will of Delight (or Dispositional will) which refers to what God delights in abstractly all things being equal (irrespective of His will of decree). I personally have three more distinctions that I go into in my blogpost Distinctions in God's Will from a Calvinist Perspective I additionally refer God's will of 4. Device, 5. Direction and 6. Design.


    1. Irrespective God's will of decree, a Christian can often know his moral duty based on the moral requirements found in the Bible. That doesn't mean that his moral duty is always clear/obvious or straightforward. But he's not hindered by what God has decreed to do (something which is often hidden from and unknown to humans). Even non-Christians have "the work of the law" (Rom. 2:15) and a God given conscience that gives them some sense of morality that echos God's moral requirements.

      So, for example, God foreordained that Jesus would die on the cross, yet Pontius Pilate should have known not to condemn as guilty an innocent man (i.e. Jesus). It was best that Jesus die and make atonement for sin. Yet, Pilate is held accountable for not doing the morally good and right thing, viz. acquitting Jesus.

      The example of Kirk that Steve gave is just an analogy. Steve is not committed to saying that Kirk was morally obligated to allow Edith to die. The point is that analogous to God, Kirk saw beyond the present circumstances and limited perspective of McCoy. God has His prerogatives and man has his moral duties adapted to his finite/limited knowledge and (mental & physical) powers. Man is not required to act according to God's will of decree if and when it's hidden. Rather, man is to act according to God's will of Demand which reflects God's will of Delight. Having said that, there are times when God does reveal aspects of His will of decree. When He does, then sometimes we ought to help bring it to pass (e.g. when Elijah prayed for the 3 1/2 years drought to end, or Daniel praying for the 70 years captivity to end). Though, there may be times when our duty might be to do our best to bring about the opposite of what God has revealed He has decreed. For example, Moses was morally bound to do His very best to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Even though Moses knew in advanced that God decreed Pharaoh would not do so. Same thing with Isaiah and Jeremiah when they preached repentance to their Jewish contemporaries.