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Just Another Family Hike: Ethics and The Biblical Story of Abraham

Mount+Soledad+Cross%2C+Courtesy+of+Jason+Pratt
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Just Another Family Hike: Ethics and The Biblical Story of Abraham

Mount Soledad Cross, Courtesy of Jason Pratt

Mount Soledad Cross, Courtesy of Jason Pratt

Mount Soledad Cross, Courtesy of Jason Pratt

Mount Soledad Cross, Courtesy of Jason Pratt

by Brandon Edwards-Schuth

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Hello readers! The intention of this week’s post is to look at some philosophy of religion and ethics. It’s not about biblical interpretation or apologetics, but rather a dilemma between divine commands and ethical implications. So prepare your philosophic armchair and look out for your first short-answer at the end of the lecture, you can’t afford to miss any more points…

A recent reading in ethics class has caught my attention: Theological Voluntarism and the biblical story of Abraham*. So the story goes that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son on a mountain, which many interpret as a test of Abraham’s faith to God, and right before he was about to kill his son, God stops Abraham. Abraham notices there’s a ram in a nearby bush, and he sacrifices that instead. Abraham is therefore praised for his dedication that he was about to do God’s bidding, even if it sounded a bit ludicrous. Theological Voluntarism is roughly the claim that God’s will basically determines what good and bad is in ethics, and we have an obligation to fulfill his will.

So consider the following:

I) If God commands Abraham (or anyone) to do something, it’s not morally wrong to do it.

 II) God commanded Abraham to kill his son.

  III) It’s morally wrong to kill your son.

   Conclusion: … I need a split personality?

If we presuppose that whatever God commands is therefore our obligation, we run into some issues. Let’s say that God commands me to kill my boy, but God also stated prior that it’s morally wrong to murder. It appears that either way I’m caught in a dilemma of what I ought to do. Philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Immanuel Kant offer some advice by taking opposing courses of action.

Kierkegaard suggests that we should affirm II and deny III – kill your son because you’re covered by a “Teleological Suspension.” This “Teleological Suspension” exempts me from having to fulfill the prior command of “It’s morally wrong to kill your son,” because this new command by God is necessary in order to achieve a special goal.

However, if we adopt the Kierkegaardian position we’re forced to presuppose that there is a “Teleological Suspension” and that it isn’t just rationality created by humans, i.e. there is a divine, or supernatural, “Teleological Suspension” rather than just a natural “Teleological Suspension” that we decided. Outside of the story of Abraham, this stance appears to be the basis for justifying prejudice and harm to certain people or groups, on the grounds of higher decree. Does this appear to be a more extremist approach or answer?

Kant responds by affirming III and denying II, that what is true is that we shouldn’t kill, because we should be skeptical of who or what is asking us to kill our son. For Kant, he can’t be certain epistemically that the divine voice is God and so he would instead continue to obey that command of to not kill.

If we adopt the Kantian position, we hold prior commands as priority and adopt an attitude of skepticism to contrary willings. Kant argued that even if the divine voice was coming straight from (visible) heaven, he would still remain skeptical. This appears to be a less extremist approach, but does the skeptical attitude that is required in Kant’s position cause other problems, specifically regarding what to do/not do, and right/wrong?

Which of the two prior positions would you hold and why? Explain your reasoning in a brief comment below. Consider it your first short-answer quiz (worth ten hypothetical points).

On a side note, I’d be scared shitless to go on family trips after a dilemma like that. I’d much rather get “murdered” in a game of Wii Sports.

If you want to learn more about some of the philosophers discussed today, check out the following links:
Kierkegaard
Kant
Theological Voluntarism

Here’s some wisdom until next time:
Stop procrastinating right now, close your browser, and do what you need to do.

 

*This post was inspired by Chapter 2 of: The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory by David Copp, New York: Oxford UP, 2006.

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