Phil Zuckerman, in his book "What It Means To Be Moral," shows how Christians who blindly follow God's rules are not moral agents.

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Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion and nonreligion and fellow OnlySky columnist, has written a superb book called What It Means To Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life that should be compulsory reading.

One of the early chapters, “You Will Obey,” is well worth dwelling on as it zeroes in on religious morality, and divine command theory in particular.

What is divine command theory (DCT)? Well, it is the position that morality depends on God and that moral obligation consists in obedience to God’s commands. The benefit of such a moral value system for its adherents is that it supposedly shows that you need God for morality. Our human moral actions make no sense, or are simply not moral, absent God.

The problem is that this system makes us robots and not moral agents.

It is a morally bankrupt system.

I would advise reading my piece “16 Problems with Divine Command Theory” as an introduction to the myriad philosophical and theological issues with DCT. But for the purposes of this piece, let us concentrate on the human element here as opposed to the metaethical questions about what makes the good good, or what makes God good.

Zuckerman exemplifies the human problem by talking about the reader being a new conscript in Vietnam under the seasoned Sergeant Rex. You start by obediently following orders to altruistically help a village, though, two days later, you are ordered to kill every man, woman, and child in another village.

This pattern just continues, day after day: whatever Sergeant Rex commands, you do. Whatever orders Sergeant Rex issues, involving this or that act or deed, you carry out. Willingly. Obediently. You do this because you have full faith in his wisdom and judgment, and you have granted him full authority, deciding to follow his orders. When he tells you to slit someone’s throat: open quotes Yes, sir!” When he asks you to write a letter home on behalf of a comrade who’s been injured: “Yes, sir!”… Whatever act it is—be it kind or sadistic, pain-relieving or pain-inducing, charitable or harsh—you do it.

Week after week, month after month: you commit violent or benevolent acts. And in doing so, you have proven yourself a reliable soldier, a dependable private of a well-functioning platoon, a dutiful citizen heeding your country’s call. You may certainly be all of these things—but there’s one thing you most definitely are not: a moral agent.

By deciding to so completely obey Sergeant Rex, by totally resigning yourself to his discretion, by willingly submitting to his every command, you have fully and wholly abdicated your own personal role as an ethical being who makes his own decisions and choices predicated on his own conscience. In purposefully handing over all decision-making to Sargeant Rex, you have given up your role as a moral contemplator: someone who considers the consequences of his actions, who thinks about the pain or pleasure he is causing to others, who ponders and justifies the motivations and intentions prompting his decisions, who is aware of his position, power, and privilege in relation to others, and who wonders if what he’s doing is ultimately making the world a worse or better place. You’ve given all of that ethical work and moral contemplation up. And by doing so, you have become functionally amoral, simply obeying the will of another, causing pain and suffering one day, joy and healing the next—all through no decision or choice of your own, but merely as one who follows the orders of another. You have willingly opted to take your own inner moral compass and, while perhaps not completely smashing it to pieces, you have plastered a thick portrait of Sergeant Rex across its face, so that you can no longer read its in the needle’s ethical calibrations. All you now read is the will of Sargeant Rex. And that is not being moral.

In fact, it’s just the opposite.

When we consider children, who are too young to be able to make moral decisions because they don’t yet know how to use moral rationale and reasoning, we can see that they are not effectively being moral agents. There is something similar going on with people who claim to adhere strictly to divine commands. They are not using moral rationale and reasoning. They are not being moral agents.

Charlie Company

This is exactly what the world witnessed in the actions of the infamous Charlie Company at My Lai in Vietnam: the My Lai Massacre. On March 16th, 1968, a unit of American soldiers attacked a civilian village and, in cold blood, murdered around 500 men, women, and children. Many adults and children were raped before being shot. The soldiers were given very clear orders to kill:

“The order we were given was to kill and destroy everything that was in the village… It was clearly explained that there would be no prisoners. The order that was given was to kill everyone in the village… It was quite clear that no one was to be spared in that village.”

[The night before] “Someone asked, ‘Are we supposed to kill women and children?’ and [Captain] Medina replied, ‘Kill everything that moves.'”

Michael Bilton & Kevin Sim (1992), Four Hours in My Lai, New York: Penguin, p. 99.

A handful of men refused to do the above, but these “heroically deviant” soldiers were in a stark minority. Everyone else “killed. Or raped and then killed.” (Zuckerman, p. 56)

One of the ringleaders of the massacre was a certain Lieutenant William Calley, who “not only aggressively and repeatedly ordered those below him in rank to kill, but…participated in much of the killing himself.” (Zuckerman, p. 56) In fact, he killed countless babies, children, women, and elderly.

Such an approach to divine morality accepts that the Christian, in this case, is simply not a moral agent. They are, instead, automata, following the orders of Captain God irrespective of those commands’ moral value.

This is what he said in his defense at his trial:

I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the misasion I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified as the same, and that’s the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy. I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the order that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so.

Michael Bilton & Kevin Sim (1992), Four Hours in My Lai, New York: Penguin, p. 335.

What is pertinent to our musings about ethical and legal principles is that this defense is a direct violation of Nuremberg Principal IV. It states: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international, provided a moral was in fact possible to him.”

In other words, you cannot simply ignore your own moral compass and reasoning when carrying out orders. Those orders don’t necessarily carry moral value. Being moral agents, people who receive those orders still need to be able to evaluate them on the basis of moral intuition or moral evaluation. “I was just following orders” is not a viable defense.

According to Spanish-American evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, humans are naturally endowed with three necessary conditions for morality: “anticipation of the consequences of one’s actions, the ability to make value judgments, and the ability to choose between alternative courses of action.” A strictly God-based ethical orientation ignores (at best) or utterly destroys (at worst) human moralityfor—it requires that deny and denounce the very thing that makes us free, self-aware, and naturally endowed moral beings: our ability to choose for ourselves, in given situations, how to act; our capacity to choose, based on conscious reflection and in the deliberation, how we ought to treat others; our ability to freely act upon our moral values.

Instead, in a presumed God-ruled universe, we must faithfully take orders. And as American philosophers Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse make clear, such theistic morality is actually quite pernicious, since it is “rooted in an abdication of moral autonomy.” It is, indeed, the very worst form of moral outsourcing. And it is observably more prominent within religious culture; various social-psychological studies have found that increased religiosity is correlated with amoral orientation based on following rules and obeying authority, rather than one based on empathy, compassion, or reasoned principles….

To be a moral agent, according to American philosopher David Brink, is to be responsible, and a responsible moral agent “must be able to distinguish between the intensity and authority of his or her desires, deliberates about the appropriateness of his or her desires, and regulate his or her actions in accordance with his or her deliberations.” And yet, pure theistic morality destroys all of that. For if our sole obligation is to dutifully obey God’s commands, then we are no longer acting as autonomous moral agents looking inward, using our own hearts and minds as our guides. We are no longer acting as yet is essentially free human beings that we are, beings who deliberate about the appropriateness of our desires, weigh options, consider alternatives, examine motivations, assess potential harm or flourishing that might result from our actions, ponder our situations and those of others, accept responsibility, learn from mistakes, adhere to principles, seek to embody values, reflect on our own experiences, check our intuitions and gut feelings, contemplate the implications of our choices for ourselves and those around us and the greater social context—no. For the staunchly religious, none of that matters. It is all for naught. Instead, under the demand of dogmatic theistic morality, we crumple up our existential freedom—and the moral obligation it entails—and toss it away. We then we look outward and upward, to a supposedly Higher Authority, to tell us what to do and how to act. And just like the young American private in the jungles of Vietnam who does whatever Sergeant Rex says, we become bipedal peons, doing whatever God says. We become functionally amoral at best, wilfully immoral at worst. And ethically bankrupt, either way.

It is for these reasons that post-Enlightenment visionary John Stuart Mill deemed any attempt to base our ethics on God as “the greatest enemy of morality.”

Zuckerman, p. 58-61.

This is excellent stuff from Zuckerman. He has joined the dots supremely well without really straying too deeply into the philosophical undergrowth.

Week after week, month after month: you commit violent or benevolent acts. And in doing so, you have proven yourself a reliable soldier, a dependable private of a well-functioning platoon, a dutiful citizen heeding your country’s call. You may certainly be all of these things—but there’s one thing you most definitely are not: a moral agent.

What he then continues to do is to connect this to the Bible.

We could talk about any number of genocides and atrocities that take place, any number of horrendous commands from Numbers to 1 Samuel and beyond. But one of the most famous moments of the Hebrew Bible is what sums this up the best.

Abraham and Isaac

Nothing says a good command better than ordering a faithful servant up a mountain with their beloved child so that they can stick a knife in then to kill them as some kind of blood sacrifice or even eventual burnt offering.


And this “infinite resignation” to God’s will was what Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard saw as true faith. Abraham was correct in his willingness to kill his son. This submission to orders, this obedience, is an example of the highest ideal of theism.

The problem here is that anything is on the cards. There is nothing off the table in terms of devout obedience. God could command any terrible thing and a faithful servant must believe that there is some kind of moral goodness in the command. It’s hard to even believe that a greater good could come about as a consequence of the command, because the adherence to divine command theory is almost certainly a detractor of moral consequentialism.

The crazy killers who claim that God commanded them to do whatever terrible acts they end up doing are an interesting and equally gruesome manifestation of this.

And the claim that God would never command such a terrible act is problematic given that Bible clearly says he did. As mentioned, there are abundant examples throughout the Hebrew Bible of atrocious commands to carry out morally abhorrent actions. The sort of military massacres, rapes, and enslavements that William Calley would feel right at home with.

To say that God would never command such atrocities, would never command rape, is to already know that those atrocities are atrocious. In other words, the theist is actually being an autonomous moral agent. They are evaluating these actions outside of God’s command framework. “God wouldn’t command rape” is to say that the believer already knows that rape is bad, feeding that moral evaluation into the expectation of God’s commands.

Which is not divine command theory.

Such an approach to divine morality accepts that the Christian, in this case, is simply not a moral agent. They are, instead, automata, following the orders of Captain God irrespective of those commands’ moral value.

As Zuckerman astutely observes:

It is always immoral to needlessly kill innocent people—be it children in a Vietnamese village, or your own child, or every single man, woman, and child of the Jebusite or Hittite nations, and it is always unethical to murder anyone for having sex with someone who isn’t their spouse, or for working on the Sabbath, or for being homosexual, and it doesn’t matter if anyone or anything here on Earth or up in the heavens orders you to commit such violent, savage acts. It should go without saying that to commit such atrocities is to cause unwanted pain and suffering, and therefore must never, ever be done Abraham and Kierkegaard got it wrong. The authors of the Nuremberg Principles got it right.

Zuckerman, p.64.

It should go without saying that Zuckerman is right. Morally right. Right on the money.

But don’t believe me because I am commanding you to, believe me because you can make these moral evaluations yourself.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...