God Fails Triple Morality Test


Michaelangelo’s depiction of God

by Massimo Pigliucci

The other night I was with friends, enjoying a relaxing evening of Chinese takeout and a wine that was far too expensive to go with it, while we started watching favorite YouTube videos. One of them is ricky Gervais’ take on Noah’s Ark. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself, it’s a brilliant 15 minutes of hilarity at the expense of the Big Guy in the Sky, Old Testament version (for another priceless take on the same guy, you ought to watch this bit by Lewis Black).

Anyway, Gervais and Black got me thinking in terms of God and morality. I don’t mean the popular idea that morality comes from God. That was soundly refuted by Plato in the Euthyphro, and despite thousands of years of desperate theological pretzel twisting the refutation stands. I mean instead to turn the table and ask whether God himself is moral. Now of course this is an old trick up the atheist’s sleeve, usually based on a litany of God-endorsed horrors that appear in the Old Testament (and a few nasty things said by Jesus in the New version). But I wish to throw the light of ethical discourse on a single episode, the one that logically bridges Old and New Testament: what happens to Jesus, the Son of God.

In order to proceed I will set aside any qualms about moral relativism and related meta-ethical discussions, which have already been discussed several times at Rationally Speaking. What I will do instead is to briefly analyze God’s conduct toward his Son in the light of the three major approaches to moral reasoning: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Let’s see what happens.

Of course, in order for the discussion about ethics to proceed, we’ll have to make a few preliminary simplifying assumptions about history, metaphysics and logic. For instance, that the outline of the story of Jesus as recalled in the four canonical Gospels is even approximately true. Given a number of internal inconsistencies and the complete absence of independent historical sources, this is a pretty big, ahem, leap of faith. But we’ll make it for the sake of discussion.

A bit more problematic, perhaps, is the very idea of God’s Son. Having progeny was standard fare for the Greek-Roman gods, who mated human style both among themselves and with mortals. But in the case of the New Testament story we are faced with a biological impossibility: a human case of parthenogenesis. This raises the well known metaphysical issue of how an immaterial substance (God) could interact with a material one (Mary) in order to accomplish the deed — a problem similar to the one that gave endless headaches to Descartes. We are not told how God did it, but we are reassured that it was somehow performed via God’s Third Person, the enigmatic Holy Spirit.

However we work out the history and the metaphysics, there is also a problem of logic: God — in Christian doctrine — is supposed to be both one and three, which implies that He is also both the Father and the Son. Philosophical issues of personal identity aside, this seems to fly against one of the cardinal principles of classical logic: the law of non-contradiction says that ¬ (P ∧ ¬P), meaning that something cannot both be and not be something else (in this particular case, God cannot both be unitary and trinitary).

Again, for the sake of our discussion about the morality of God we will forgo any further examination of these historical, metaphysical and logical problems. Just keep ‘em in mind as further sources of philo-theological amusement.

Let’s then get started with what ought (logically, not morally) to be the easy case: deontological ethics. The most famous rendition of it is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, but of course the Ten (and other) Commandments themselves are a classic theistic deontological code. Here we already run into deep trouble. The second formulation of Kant’s imperative (found in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals) states:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

Jesus is only human in one sense, and divine in another (a second example of violation of the law of non-contradiction?), but still, you would think that the basic idea being expressed by Kant should apply to the case under examination. The problem is that, clearly, the Father is using his Son for a particular purpose (somewhat vaguely referred to as the “salvation” of humanity), i.e. He-F is using He-S as a means to an end, precisely the sort of thing Kant says is immoral. Strike one against the Almighty.

Let’s turn then to consequentialism, the idea — of which Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarianism are the preeminent example — that what matters in ethics are only the consequences of one’s actions. Here, then, we need to look again at the concept of salvation, since the sacrifice of the Son was planned by the Father in order to save humanity. There is a huge and convoluted theological literature on this, but the Wikipedia definition seems good enough for our purposes:

“Salvation is the phenomenon of being saved from the undesirable condition of bondage or suffering experienced by the psyche or soul that has arisen as a result of unskillful or immoral actions generically referred to as sins.”

Yes, yes, I know, now we should deal with the equally problematic concepts of soul/psyche and sin. Not in this post, we won’t.

What would a rational consequentialist say about the outcome of Jesus’ sacrifice, measured in terms of humanity’s salvation? Well, we are not given a timeline for the expected results to materialize (though there are passages in the New Testament where Jesus pretty clearly seems to indicate that the reckoning was expected to take place within the lifetime of some of his followers — needless to say, it didn’t). Still, judging from the amount of misery, death and destruction that human beings have inflicted upon each other in the course of the past 2,000 years (even accounting for Steven Pinker’s claim that violence has gone down of late), I’d say the sacrifice hasn’t worked out very well. And that’s without considering the countless sins of a sexual nature that seem to so obsess Republican politicians these days. It seems safe to conclude that God’s actions toward his Son are a moral failure also according to consequentialism.

We are then left only with virtue ethics, which can be traced to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Assessing individual moral actions isn’t the point of virtue ethics, as it is about having a good character, from which the proper actions follow. If we scan a table of Aristotelian virtues, however, it is hard to see how God’s character can be made to look good. For instance, beginning at the top of the table, clearly God was rash in his confidence of the positive outcomes to be elicited from the sacrifice of his Son. He is also self-indulgent in the kind of pain he allowed to be inflicted for the cause. In terms of honor, God comes across as a bit vain for pretending to save an entire species of free thinking creatures with a single act. The guy also seems irascible (too much anger), boastful (too much self-expression), boorish (deficient in conversation), cantankerous (bad social conduct), shameless, and somewhat malicious. All things considered, not at all a pretty picture, virtue ethics-wise.

Of course, consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics are not the only ways to look at the moral question. Perhaps there is an ethical school by which standards God comes across as the good guy, but I sincerely doubt it. Indeed, one of the things that strikes me as downright bizarre in people who worship the Old Testament fellow (which, technically, includes all Jews, Christians and Muslims) is precisely the fact that most of His followers are infinitely more moral than their God — and would readily realize that if they were not blinded by their faith. As Lewis Black puts it in the segment linked to above, “I would love to have the faith … but I have thoughts. And that can really fuck up the faith thing. Just ask any Catholic priest.” Amen.

Piece originally posted at Rationally Speaking | Creative Commons License