Not Even if it’s the Right Thing to Do

Not Even if it’s the Right Thing to Do November 16, 2011
Overturning tables (and also paradigms)

So after kicking around the idea of sin-eating — trying to take on the burden of someone else’s evil, I still think it might theoretically be a moral act, but I’ve come around to recommending that nobody do it.  It seems to fit neatly into the type of ethical injunctions Eliezer Yudkowsky recommended for computers (and people):

“You should never, ever murder an innocent person who’s helped you, even if it’s the right thing to do; because it’s far more likely that you’ve made a mistake, than that murdering an innocent person who helped you is the right thing to do.”

And once you spend a long time discussing the ethics of a decision you know you should never make, you should suspect you’ve strayed into High Energy Theoretical Ethics — a nice place to visit, but a bad place to stay.  So I’d like to change topics to a different instantiation of don’t do [X] even when you think it’s right, and this one has a little more real-world applicability.

In the RCIA class I attend, everyone was asked to read the Gospel of Mark and share their impressions of Jesus. I was struck by the revolutionary nature of Jesus’s preaching. In the space of the shortest gospel, he breaks the Sabbath by performing miracles, disavows the old halachic rules for food, and overthrows the law of Moses as a stop-gap measure, not the fullness of truth.  It’s a radical revaluing of values, and I wanted to know how the Jews were supposed to know that they were right to take a leap of faith and value their own judgement of Jesus’s power above the ethical injunction that would have told them to stick with Moses.

You don’t need to wait until the New Testament to find an example of people overriding their ethical safeguards; it’s hard to do better than the story of Abraham and Isaac.  And I still find all these stories frightening.  I expect that when you’re willing to trust enough to murder your son, you’re probably over-trusting in a number of other circumstances, even if they’re less dire.  How important is the divine signal, and how much noise are you prepared to treat as holy edict?

This is pretty much the “how do you pick a teacher” question writ large.  Do we trust ourselves enough to know which moral rules we’re wise enough to ignore?  I doubt it.  I have trouble imagining how you can be so open to radical moral shifts without making a lot of high stakes mistakes.  You don’t need to be an atheist to acknowledge that the vast majority of people who hear a god telling them to do counterintuitive or frightening things are misguided.

So, even if the lay Jews listening to Jesus were correct to throw over their old allegiances and ethics, how could their decision be epistemologically justified?  What cognitive framework lets you make correct leaps of faith without making a lot of false positive errors that can put you and everyone you love in serious danger?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Child sacrifice was pretty much the name of the game in the time of Abraham. Surely the convention broken was that he didn’t have to kill his son.

  • @BenjaminBaxter, I don’t think that should matter. [Especially since in early versions of the story, there wasn’t a last-minute reprieve saving Isaac, and Abraham did kill him].
    What matters is that anyone who is prepared to over-ride all moral considerations because “God said so” is not safe for other human beings to be around. I would respect Abraham if he had refused; that could have been a very useful lesson that defying authority is sometimes the only moral course of action. As it is, I think him contemptible, and I am surprised that Isaac did not flee his father at the first opportunity thereafter.
    Child sacrifice is never and has never been morally okay, and for an allegedly moral God to demand it overthrows his claim to allegiance from any moral human being.

    • dbp

      Slow Learner:

      Your parenthesis is, perhaps, not nearly as certain as you suggest.

      My take: in the Old Testament, God very often allows humans to act as mediators of the divine will: where God would seem to be overly severe, he allows human repentance or intermediation to ‘sway’ him from his supposed will. We see it in Abraham’s pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (although ultimately even Abraham gives up), we see it in the repentance of Nineveh, and in other places.

      The Catholic interpretation of this doesn’t allow God’s will to change or be thwarted, in that God himself cannot change. But he can work in time in such a way that human will is given the chance, with real efficacy, to shape the way that will plays out.

      In my own (layman’s) opinion, this is an absolute bedrock principle of God’s interaction with man throughout history, both in the Old and New Testaments and in Church history thereafter. In a way, it’s making good on the (lying) promise of the serpent: where we were tempted and in fact persuaded to try to be as God, in the fallen world God actually does give us the chance to be workers of divine mercy (or justice, say) in the world.

      This is key to why the Church is as it is: we are made participants in the economy of salvation in ways that really ought to make us tremble: through the sacraments, through the responsibility of evangelization, etc. That’s not to say that God won’t cover for our mistakes (thus baptism of desire, for instance), but it does mean that we have a truly important role to play.

      And in the case of Abraham, I think we can see this at work. What Abraham did is probably not the only path he could have taken: had he protested the charge on the ground that human life was sacred and God in his justice should spare his son, I think it could have worked out just as well because it would have been an act of faith in the goodness of God. And, in fact, the effusiveness of God’s response almost seems like this alternative would have been just fine, but that he went far above this.

      On the other hand, if he had either refused out of mere disobedience, or simple preference (where he would, say, have sacrificed someone else without a qualm), I doubt it would have gone so well for him. In fact, I believe the sacrifice is to be understood as made with both an honest and full love of his Son and a respect for the sacredness of his life, but an even more complete conviction that he was speaking with God, and that nothing God required could be wrong. In this sense, the completeness of the sacrifice and the utter display of faith involved– the painful sacrifice of one’s only, innocent son– is so strong that it provides a fitting prefiguration of the sacrifice of Christ and allows God to respond in a way that, similarly, goes far above and beyond the demands of mere, common justice.

      As to whether this is “healthy:” it depends. It need not be to, to show the points illustrated above; not everyone should aspire to be a martyr, either. But I think people who judge this overly harshly are being less than completely circumspect. We don’t know the full extent of the empirical evidence Abraham was given that his interlocutor was, in fact, God Almighty; we certainly know that entire cities were engulfed in fiery doom at the latter’s command, which would seem to me to be some rather objective confirmation of the theory that it isn’t all in his head. So if Abraham has been given full and sufficient assurance that the person talking to him is in fact his Creator, his son’s Creator, and the origin of all justice, I think it might not be so wrong for him to comply.

    • Christina

      dbp did a great job of answering this, but I’d also like to add a precaution about judging people with the knowledge you have.

      While child sacrifice was never “morally okay”, it was legal and widely practiced at that time (as was slavery and a bunch of other things we now consider evil). To expect someone to rise above the common viewpoint of his time (not given any instruction contrary – remember he was the first to follow God) and refuse this powerful deity’s request would make him nearly a god in himself.

      Remember, Abraham was promised a son in his old age by this God — and God provided. He observed this God’s destruction of two of the most prosperous cities of his day. He knew God’s providence and power and also remembered that God had promised that Isaac would be his heir. Practically every other deity of his time required child sacrifice, why should this one be any different? And surely if Isaac was to be his heir then God had something miraculous planned (raise from the dead maybe?)

      It’s almost like a woman living in a land where abortion is completely legal and praised, pro-life literature is non-existent, where her life is in danger because she will be killed if she bears a child…and yet she still knows the humanity of her child and refuses. To rise above this level of darkness in any age can only be by a special grace from God.

      • I would go so far as to cautiously say that this event on the mountaintop was the means of that grace.

        God talks in sucker punches, and bends situations into near contradictions as a show of omnipotence. For all that YouTube atheists might complain, saying, “Why isn’t God a perfect communicator,” they take an opposite tack when confronted with God ever speaking. Mealy-mouthed He ain’t.

        I would say He’s Chestertonian, but something tells me that’s putting the cart before the horse.

    • Gilbert

      Wait a minute. You say in an earlier version Isaac actually gets killed. That would make at least the surviving version of Isaac into a fictional character. And then you are “surprised that Isaac did not flee his father at the first opportunity thereafter”, interpreting the version we now have as an actual event.

      Now myself I don’t know how much of Abraham and Isaac is history and how much is morality tales not based in actual history. I’m pretty sure there are elements of both (because the strict distinction is basically a modern invention) but the weightings are surely up to debate. But: One and the same event can’t be both historical and ahistorical, either it happened or it didn’t.

      So I’m pretty sure you are contradicting yourself here.

  • Joe

    I’m not sure the Jews hearing the preaching of Christ were considering what he had to say philosophically. I think they were moved by His miracles and His willingness to call out the phaiases for there hypocrisy. They could also probably see that Christs teaching on marriage was greater then Moses’s. I’m not sure there is a proper cognitive framework for making correct leaps of faith. I think love is the only framework called for here. But you are right taking a leap of faith for Jesus could cause a great deal of harm to yourself and your family in His time. Just ask St Paul before his conversion. Or any Christian living in the Mid-East today.

  • Quid est veritas

    Having not read the Gospel of Mark yet, (I’m still wading through Deuteronomy) I’m probably not qualified to comment. But, one asks: Wasn’t Jesus doing other things that qualified Him to “modify” the Law of Moses? I mean things that proved Him to be the Messiah?

  • Gilbert

    I think we must distinguish the actual moral law from derived rules useful in implementing it.

    Yudkowsky’s version of an “ethical injunction” operates entirely on the second level. That must be so as a matter of elementary logic: By definition not doing the right thing to do can’t actually be the right thing to do.

    This, however, gives them a recursion problem: What if, in addition to deciding X is the right thing to do, I also decide breaking the injunction against X is the right thing to do? Is there a meta-injunction against doing so and then turtles all the way down? For an AI he proposes that the illegal conclusions should lead to self-destruction, so that the second step of the recursion would never be reached. I think that is actually a good design principle. But it doesn’t generalize to humans. So how exactly is a human supposed to react upon reaching an injunction? Humans simply can’t not act, because not acting is an action. If the answer is a moral obligation to act against the moral law how is that different from the moral law prescribing the other action in the first place?

    I do see a use for non-recursive injunctions. That basically reduces the injunction to a rebuttable presumption that some conclusions are wrong. I think we all employ such non-recursive injunctions against belief change. That is a good thing, because the human mind is both error-prone and unable to keep all relevant arguments conscious simultaneously. Without such an injunction we couldn’t stick to our beliefs long enough to maintain identity. It’s analogous to math: Some results are a lot less likely than, say, an odd number of sign errors. So someone who arrives at such results should redo the calculation, look for typical errors, ask friends to check the work and so on. But in the end there is also a remote possibility of a surprising result being right. And that can be resolved by checking and double-checking; it doesn’t need any new evidence. I think it is wise to treat radical ethical or metaphysical insights the same way. Also almost everybody has non-recursive injunctions against disagreeing with some authorities. That, too, is fine.

    So throwing Yudokowsky’s reason aside, can some belief-changes be actually immoral? I think the answer is yes again, because we have a conscience giving us direct knowledge of many aspects of morality and numbing it is itself sinful. But that set of moral core beliefs is fairly small and, by definition, doesn’t include any beliefs dependent on evidence beyond that of the conscience. For people in Abraham’s time and culture it wouldn’t have included the rejection of human sacrifice, because that culture pre-numbed almost everyones conscience in that regard. This isn’t true for us with regard to this particular atrocity, but still I’m pretty sure of some beliefs I’m not that sure of. For example that there is a God, that abortion is wrong, that there is a moon, and that I am presently awake.

    So I have admitted to an absolute moral injunction against changing some moral beliefs and to a non-recursive one against overthrowing my general moral theory. Should I also have an absolute injunction against changing the theory? The argument that I might otherwise mistake my way into a theory providing for objective atrocities doesn’t count, because I may already be holding a theory providing for objective atrocities. After all there is no a priori reason why modern western liberalism should be the first and only civilization to be morally right on everything. In fact I already found it wrong on abortion, the central moral question of its time. So no, there is no absolute moral injunction against changing moral theories. By the way I’d like to note that having such an injunction is exactly what Internet atheists typically accuse us religious people of. They call that alleged injunction “faith”, which totally misses the point of actual faith, but that’s a question for another day.

    For the Jews listening to Jesus that basically means the injunction to stick with Moses simply wasn’t that strict, it could be overcome by the evidence Jesus was providing and some very careful checking.

    And that leaves us with the question of how we might check whether our own moral theory needs changing. As you say, this is pretty much the “how do you pick a teacher” question writ large. So I’ll repeat the answer I gave there: consistency checks and extracting predictions in unlikely areas plus the sure judgments of our conscience.

  • alconnolly

    Exactly right, regarding the dangers of “faith”. Which is what the post come down to. All cults stress the virtue of faith because it allows people to short circuit warning bells. This post takes on an ironic twist now that the author has decided to take that leap of faith which she cautions the danger of in this post.