Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Heroism and the Duty to Rescue Demonstrate that there is No God

Contrary to the standard view that miracles are a blessing from God, a miracle, when performed by a being that has the power and the knowledge to do vastly more good than that miracle alone, is evil. The doctor who arbitrarily withholds a perfect vaccine from countless needy people and gives it to only a few would be morally reprehensible. In the bathroom of a Las Vegas casino in 1997, Jeremy Strohmeyer brutally killed a little girl in a Las Vegas casino bathroom and his best friend, David Cash Jr. watched and did nothing about it. Strohmeyer was tried and convicted for the murder, but even though he confessed to Cash, the law had no provision for prosecuting Cash for his gross failure of moral duty to report the crime. The California state legislature quickly passed a law obliging witnesses of felonies against minors to report them. The murder of Kitty Genovese in New York while dozens of neighbors listened and did nothing catalyzed the New York legislature to do the same. Most would agree that the doctor, David Cash, and the witnesses to the Genovese murder should have done something, particularly since so much good could have been accomplished with so little effort. But that moral judgment cannot be reconciled with a supernatural being who performs a miracle while idly standing by in the presence of so much suffering in the course of history. Such a being would be guilty of gross negligence, and unfairness. Furthermore, these final examples of the capricious doctor, David Cash, and Kitty Genovese suggest that if there are real moral obligations of stewardship towards those beings who are weaker than you, and a duty to rescue, then a supernatural being who performs a miracle is in violation of those moral duties too. Such a being, like Cash, the Genovese witnesses, and the hypothetical doctor, would be morally evil.

Whether or not there actually is a duty to rescue is a point of some controversy in moral theory, however. But even if there is no duty to rescue, there are reasons to think that a morally perfect being would go above and beyond the call of moral duty. Earl Conee has argued that “supererogatory acts are morally right alternatives that are morally better than other alternatives that are also right. Any morally perfect agent would do whatever is supererogatory at every opportunity, because this would be the morally best course of action and morally perfect conduct could not be improved upon.” 1 What we find most noble and most morally praiseworthy about heroic acts is that someone does so much more good than is required of them, sometimes with great sacrifice. If doing one supererogatory act is good, then doing them at every opportunity is better. And there are abundant opportunities that have been ignored by a God who is willing and able to perform miracles.

So there are three reasons why God would not perform miracles: The problem of omission/fairness—God wouldn’t perform one miracle while ignoring an endless list of others that are morally equivalent. It would be unfair to single out some and neglect others; God’s duty to rescue—moral decency requires that one help those in need, particularly when their needs are great and the required effort from you is so minimal; God’s supererogatory acts—going above and beyond the call of duty is good, doing it at every opportunity is better.

The final two arguments that I have offered concerning God’s duty to rescue and supererogatory acts for God provide us with a new argument for atheism. Morally good beings have a duty to rescue, but none of the mitigating factors that might absolve a human such as fear for their own life or inability will apply to an omni-being. Conee’s supererogatory argument expands God’s moral culpability. A morally perfect being would pursue every good act that is above and beyond the call of duty. By implication, insofar as there are rescues that have not been enacted and heroic acts that have not been performed, then we can infer that there is no morally perfect omni-being. And if there is no morally perfect, omni-being, then there is no God.

1 Conee, Earl. “The Nature and Impossibility of Moral Perfection,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LIV, No. 4, December 1994.

Ultimately, Conee employs this reasoning to show that moral perfection is impossible. He doesn’t draw out the implication that since moral perfection is an essential property of being God, then the existence of God is impossible (yet another disproof of God.)


Anonymous said...

There's a couple of loose assumptions that seem to have been made along the way in this article, but regardless of those, I want to respond to one element a Christian might latch onto that seems problematic.

The argument made seems to suppose God is standing idly by letting evil happen while in other cases He does not. Thus, God picks and chooses when he wants to intervene, and it is not morally righteous for such a being to act like that.

This argument seems to presuppose a certain justification inherent in God's actions in the miracles. It seems to rely on there being a distinct comparison to be made between one's standing idly by, and the hero acting as they do (lets just say it's morally good or better or self-evidently justified) and God's doing miracles. If that were the case, we would have to know God's reasons for doing some miracle and then wonder why he's standing around in other cases.

This falls back on the old Christian rhetoric that "God works in mysterious ways" and "it's all part of the plan." The challenge made from the argument doesn't appear to counter these tired old claims at all, since a Christian can still justify them based on the claim that God isn't just picking and choosing in immoral ways, but is doing so righteously.

The comparison to be made is that a person being a hero, not just standing by while evil happens, has a moral call to act, and we apply this to God saying he should go above and beyond the call of duty. He does not; he either can't or won't, but in either case he's not God. But it may not be a moral issue at all for God who is doing the miracle, and allowing the suffering, because of reasons we cannot understand.

Is God negligent? Maybe, but what court ruling or moral basis are we going to challenge it by? The Christian is not concerned with human comparisons. We can easily comprehend the human examples and say someone was heroic or someone was negligent, at least to some degree, because we have sufficient knowledge of the relevant facts. We base it off of a judgment that is possible to be made. In the case of God we do not have such knowledge, so such a judgment cannot be made without constructing the argument in such a way God loses (to which the Christian just does the opposite). That is an ad hoc approach which just seems untenable, and that is my ultimate concern with the kind of argument presented.

What is the justification for this comparison? Does the moral justification supersede any other counter-positions God might hold? We certainly allow that when someone isn't a hero because he fears for his own life, or rationalizes out any number of counter-positions for why he shouldn't do the morally right thing. Maybe, then, it isn't even a moral issue, so the moral justification disappears and we cannot hold God morally negligent. We permit people non-moral justification for not going above and beyond the call of duty for any number of reasons (maybe even evil acts!); so if the comparison is to be extended to God, then why cannot God be let off the hook for it not being a moral issue? It seems it is merely constructed as one. Nevertheless, we're still faced with the complete lack of any information to be used in the judgment, as mentioned above. The comparison, in that case, cannot even be made for no information to make an inference from.

I think there's just far superior arguments that aren't so limited, even in the realm of moral accusations. I think it's far easier to show God is not needed or an evil trickster by just using the problem of evil. But that is a wholly other topic.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for your comments Bryan. I get these kinds of responses frequently, so I'll try to sort it out:

How is it that the fact that there are some dogmatic and utterly unreasonable believers out there who will always play the mystery card a liability for any of my arguments? I present a clear, reasonable argument with premises that entail their conclusion, and someone always says, "Well, the Christians will just say that it's a mystery how God does that." You realize that such a response is dogmatic and irrational, right? When someone's only recourse to the logic of an argument is to reply that they still believe what they want to because God is a mystery, then they are acknowledging that their belief is irrational and without foundation. If it is a mystery how X could make sense, then believing that X is true is believing something that is contrary to the evidence.

Let me come at the point from the other side. Suppose you come upon a fireman who has a ladder, a water hose, and all the means necessary to save someone who is screaming for help from the upper floor of a burning building. But instead of saving the person, which the fireman could easily do and as would be his moral responsibility, he refuses and stands by watching while the person inside burns to death. When we ask him why he didn't do anything, he says, "I have my own reasons for refraining." Would you insist in that situation that we have grounds to conclude that the fireman is morally good? Doing his duty? competent? Loving? No, no, and no. If a doctor let a village of thousands die after he refused to give them a vital vaccine that he easily could have administered, would you conclude that he was a good doctor? Righteous?

You're invoking exactly the bogus double standard of moral goodness that I have been dismantling in post after post. Sure, Christians will make those responses, but you'd be foolish to think that this line of defense amounts to anything except a smokescreen that obscures the real issue. They don't get to perpetually insist on God's infinite goodness while explaining away his failure to do anything remotely good every time by claiming that his reasons are mysterious.


Anonymous said...

First, the "my premise entails my conclusions" is rather meaningless. I can state A & ~A therefore the sky is orange. It's valid, but who cares? The question is whether or not one's logical structure actual applies to reality. That requires a bit more.

I think you make the point nicely with the fireman example. If we claim there is a moral negligence, it is because we affirm a moral relation where the fireman ought to have saved the person. In fact, it goes hand in hand with the name the man obtains. Does God have a moral responsibility to perform miracles and prevent evil? What is the standard to use for that? In the worldly cases we can identify certain facts and relations, and a good moral theorist can argue out there is such a moral relation such that X ought to do Y. What is the basis for saying God has such a moral duty? What information, what data, are you making that inference from that applies to reality?

The argument you made need not be rejected by irrational Christians playing the ignorance card. Any reasonable person can challenge the moral suppositions of responsibility you have asserted here. The cases of the fireman and doctor are constructed toward your point because they come with the assumption of, the information, that there is a moral duty to do Y, therefore not doing Y is clearly a violation of the expected moral obligation. There are non-theist examples where the kind of argument you made are laughable as being "clear, reasonable argument with premises that entail their conclusion." What I argued was that your case was basically constructed to assume God in such a position he's clearly going to fail. We can make that kind of argument to show Republicans are the bane of society and atrociously immoral (I'll refrain from making such an absurd argument, though many liberals might agree with it anyway).

The point is that if you're going to infer God's lack of responsibility for not going above and beyond the call of duty, then how do we infer to his duty roles? If it's merely constructed that way, then a Christian or non-Christian alike can say they simply do not agree with those assumptions. Why are your premises to be considered cogent? Even if it is logically valid, we ought to provide applicable (real) justification for why the inference even applies.

What I found lacking was that there was no argument for why God has such and such responsibilities. If the information for X (say, the Bible) provides a basis for saying X ought to do Y, and X fails to perform Y, then that's a case against X (i.e., God, at least God as projected by the source of information, i.e., it's not universally referencing against all theism).

In addition to that kind of model for an argument against God using morality, we still have to rule out that X ought to do Y in light of any other information Z. As you hinted at in the article, we all would agree that there are cases in which some X has a duty to do Y, but because of other factors (say, preservation of one's own life) they have to refrain from doing Y. It's not a moral conflict, it's descriptive characteristics that apply to the inference being made about one's moral obligations. In this case, even if you can show God has the obligation he is failing to do, you still have to discount some Z factor which can play in for why God also doesn't have some arbitrarily attributed duty in spite of any other factor; i.e., God can also have other reasons for why, even in light of a duty to just help out humanity from all evil, that he has to refrain.

To draw that z-factor in, even in cases like the fireman and the doctor, it is easy to identify cases in which some z-factor applies for why the fireman has to let the person burn, or the doctor has to refuse releasing a life-saving medicine. Those concerns can be dismissed because they're ad hoc constructions to counter your claim for the fireman and doctor, but then again, those cases are ad hoc constructions of the same vitality.

In short, one does not need to adopt dogmatic irrational beliefs to object to the argument you made. I used those for the kind of Christian response you can expect, but underlying the irrational cries, there is a rational basis for discounting your argument. It is the one I have argued here since I am not a Christian, but I object to the kind of argument applied here. There's far better approaches and we're not faced with the dichotomy suggested that your argument is rational, or we're faced with irrational dogmatic objections. Why? Because all such inferences being made here, if to be applied to reality, require data. The argument was merely constructed. Does it apply to the world other than by assumption?

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for taking the time to work out such thoughtful replies, BG. I appreciate your taking my arguments seriouslys.

I think the answer to the central issue you bring up is pretty easy:

God is alleged to be good. Good beings do good things. If Smith stood on the dock and watched a child drown and all he needed to do was kick a life preserver out to the victim to stop it, we'd think he was morally negligent. The good thing to do, on any moral theory that's worth considering, is to help someone in need. And if you do something supererogatory, then so much the better.

I assumed that it was obvious that an all powerful, all knowing, all good being wouldn't have any of the mitigating excuses that humans do that sometimes vindicates their not performing their duty to rescue. God can't claim he didn't help because he was afraid for his life, or because he didn't know about the case, or because he lacks goodness.

We don't need a complicated moral theory to answer any of these questions, although I can trot one out if needed. It's obvious by any normal person's minimal set of standards for moral decency that if there is a supernatural being out there, he's grossly failing his responsibilities. It's become a widespread practice among believers to simply shut off the set of moral standards that they apply in a hundred obvious cases in their lives everyday when it comes to God. Their words and practices make it obvious that they hold x,y, and z in high moral esteem, but none of that is brought to bear on God.

Thanks again for your interest.


Anonymous said...

Thinking about it today, I should add the caveat to my previous comment that (a) I'm not defending a Christian argument, though that should have been implied by my previous statements. (b) As a naturalist I have issue with any assumptive theory. I consider such an assumptive theory any which posits merely from an a priori position, instead of, say, data. An inference made a priori is contingent upon its assumptions and without those being applied to anything we're just talking fantasy (though, say, abstract algebra falls into this camp to some regard, i.e., where it doesn't apply to any real-world relations, it still have value in and of itself just as any logic does, but that's beside the point).

Therefore, my point is about there being an argument made by construction to make a point. The inference you make about God being nullified by this a priori argument is qualitatively no different than the kind of dogmatic counter-argument a Christian might offer. Certainly we can say your position is better, but both are still assumptive. I clearly toss out both as not being specific from any data, from anything descriptive. Any inference made without substantial first-order information/data cannot provide any kind of higher-order meaning about the world. That's really what I'm getting at.

In regard to your last comment, you state "good beings do good things." But I would say I'm a good being. I also do bad things. Can God never do a bad thing? Can God always interfere (perform a miracle)? Might such an interference result in evil or something we cannot comprehend for which that, what I called, z-factor plays in? The point is we don't know. There's no basis to make such a judgment. The person on the dock suggests you're basically saying about God, "it's easy for him. Come on, why wont he do more miracles? There's all these problems he can fix with the snap of the fingers." I don't think a theist out there wouldn't find that a clear caricature and straw man of God. Is God's relation, as described by any people (that first-order information we should analyze), to the world so simplistic? It is if we straw man the position for God (the argument by construction).

So my point is not that God "wouldn't have any of the mitigating excuses that humans do that sometimes vindicates their not performing their duty to rescue." They wouldn't, obviously, be human excuses. But what about godly excuses? How do we conjecture as to what a God can or cannot do? What tools of inference do we have on that playing field? Even if that is the case, it presupposes that God even has the duty in the first place. Maybe part of creation comes with the anti-duty to get involved, save for specific loop-holes. God finds those loop-holes and shows his beneficence in what miracles he can do. "But isn't he all powerful? Can't he do whatever he wants?" Well, not necessarily. There's obviously problems like "can God create a rock so heavy he, himself, cannot lift?" We can only conceive that it's a paradox (one we cannot understand, maybe a more intelligent or more godly being could). The point is, we don't know and have no basis for that inference. It becomes a kind of argument from ignorance in that case, i.e., not the fallacy, but an inference made without information i.e., ignorance.

We cannot understand possible limitations to God, but there may be some, or at least they appear paradoxical and making sense of them is beyond our kind of logic. It is not a stretch, too, to conceive that the "z-factor" is beyond our logic as well. I mean, technically, talking about anything beyond our universe is beyond our ability to conceptualize. Not even a God, but a being, that can stand beyond our universe, if there is a hyperspace, would be beyond our perception (though, such a being would probably appear as being God-like, just like modern tools would appear like magic to cavemen). But I digress.

Lastly, you say if there is a God, then he's failing in his responsibilities. What are these responsibilities? "God is good" ergo, "God needs to perform more miracles and remove what we perceive as evil from existence." Are those two connected? Even correlated? How would you make that inference? And then we're back to my point about the kind of argument made. It's assumptive and no rational person has a basis to buy it (and not buying it doesn't make one irrational as the disjunct, mentioned earlier, seems to suggest).

Anonymous said...

PS, just so you know, you showed up third when I googled "proving the negative" which is a far jump from a month or so ago when I tried doing it and you didn't show up in the top 100! (I view 100 and you didn't show up)

Congrats on that Matt.

mikespeir said...

I keep coming back to see if you'll answer, Matt. Admittedly, I'm an uneducated dolt, but some of Bryan's points seem worth dealing with to me. Is there something obvious I'm missing?

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for being interested and attentive, Mike. And thanks again Bryan for your comments.

Frankly, I don't understand much of what Bryan has said. He's adopting a highly idiosyncratic view about his starting point and what sorts of assumptions he's willing to make.

There does seem to be this common ground: Bryan is insisting that there is a great deal about God we cannot know. We can see Bryan's points as agreeing with me on one level. My point is: if you are going to attribute omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience to God, as the major monotheistic religions do, then you get into all sorts of contradictions with the implications. I have brought out a couple that haven't seen much attention. I don't know if Bryan will agree, but we can see him as rejecting the Christian's starting assumptions about God's properties: we just can't know what sort of characterisitics God has--we can't know if he is good, indifferent, powerful, weak, etc. The argument that I am offering here is not an attack on that sort of agnosticism--agnosticism has a different set of problems. My argument is that if you understand God as the vast majority of believers do, then you get mired in a hopeless set of contradictions.


Anonymous said...

My point was that if you are going to make an inference it ought to proceed from some information. You gloss over that with quite a generalization about "what all major religions take God to be..." If you are going to infer something then what specific qualities are we drawing as contradicting? If it is for moral reasons then how does the contradiction proceed without any other possibility to discount the contradiction? I provide examples of cases in which we can construct further information for which some inference would say the person is clearly being immoral when he ought to be moral due to some duty he has and that further information shows that the first inference is incorrect, i.e., the "z-factor" I mentioned before.

If that is possible in cases we have information, on what ground do you present the overgeneralized case where God has no z-factor for which your limited information presents him as being in contradiction? Certainly you can say "the description we're basing the inference on does not contain any other factors for which we can discount God's necessary role in being moral where he clearly can." But my point is that your limited information not containing the z-factor is precisely why we cannot take it as deductively certain. The argument is too quick, too generalized and does not stem from an adequate source of description. That is why I said it is assumptive and constructs its own answer. You ridicule the dogmatic Christian for being able to find another factor which may discount the contradiction in a limited analysis, and in many cases they come up with weak supporting information for it (an assumptive z-factor). The point is as rational people we ought to have strong inferences, and this is not a case of it. No rational person should accept such a generalized argument for which the information the inference is based on is weak or highly limited. It's like trying to make a statistical inference based on a small sample. The conclusion may or may not be true, but it certainly doesn't provide strong support for its acceptance.