Thursday, May 14, 2015

Moral Duties to Flawed Gods

Suppose that God exists and is morally imperfect. (I'm inclined to think that if a god exists, that god is not perfect.) If God has created me and sustains the world, I owe a pretty big debt to her/him/it. Now suppose that this morally imperfect God tells me to wear a blue shirt today instead of a brown one. No greater good would be served; it's just God's preference, for no particular reason. God tells me to do it, but doesn't threaten me with punishment if I don't -- she (let's say "she") just appeals to my sense of moral obligation: "I am your creator," she says, "and I work to sustain your whole universe. I'd like you to do it. You owe me!"

One way we might conceptualize a morally flawed god is this: We might be sims, or model playthings, in a world that is subject to the whims of some larger being with the power to radically manipulate or destroy it, and who therefore has sufficient powers to be properly conceptualized as a god by us. Alternatively, if technology advances sufficiently, we ourselves might create genuinely conscious rational beings who live as sims or playthings, and then we would be gods relative to them.

It is helpful, I think, to consider these issues simultaneously bottom up and top down -- both in terms of what we ourselves would owe to such a hypothetical god and in terms of what we, if we hypothetically gained divine levels of power over created beings, could legitimately demand of those beings. It seems a reasonable desideratum of a theory that the constraints be symmetrical: Whatever a flawed god could legitimately demand of us, we, if we had similar attributes in relation to beings we created, could legitimately demand of them; and contrapositively, whatever we could not legitimately demand of beings we created we should not recognize as demands a flawed god could make upon us, barring some relevant asymmetry between the situations.

Here are three possible approaches to God's authority to command:

(1.) Love of God and/or the good. Divine command theory is the view that we are obliged to do whatever God commands. Christian articulations of this view have typically assumed a morally perfect God, whom we obey out of love for him, or love of the good, or both (e.g., Adams 1999). A version of this view might be adapted to the case where God is morally flawed: We might still love her, and obey her from love (as one might obey another human out of love); or one might obey because one admires and respects the goodness of God and her commands, even if God is not perfectly good and this particular command is flawed.

(2.) Acknowledgement of debt. Other approaches to divine command theory emphasize God's power and our debt as God's creations (for example, Augustine: "Unless you turn to Him and repay the existence that He gave you... you will be wretched. All things owe to God, first of all, what they are insofar as they are natures" [cited here] and the conclusion of the Book of Job). A secular comparison might be the debt children owe to their parents for their creation and sustenance, for example as emphasized in the Confucian tradition.

(3.) Social contract theory. According to social contract theory, what gives (morally flawed) governmental representatives legitimate authority to command us is something like the fact that, hypothetically, the overall social arrangement is fair, and we would agree to it if it were offered from the right kind of neutral position. God might say: Universes require gods to create, command, and sustain them -- or at least your universe has required one -- and I am the god in that role, executing my powers in a manner that would be antecedently recognizable as fair. Surely you would agree, hypothetically, to the justice of the creation of your world under this general arrangement?

Now when I consider these possible justifications of a morally imperfect God's authority to command, what strikes me is that all three seem to justify only rather limited power. To see this, consider three types of command: (a.) the trivial and arbitrary, (b.) the non-trivial and arbitrary, and (c.) the non-arbitrary and non-trivial.

It is perhaps legitimate for a god to make trivial, arbitrary demands -- like to wear a blue shirt today rather than a brown -- and for a created being to satisfy them, in recognition of a personal relationship or a debt. Similarly legitimate, it seems, are non-arbitrary demands that God makes for excellent reasons, justifiable either interpersonally or through social contract theory.

My own sense, however -- does yours differ? -- is that arbitrary but non-trivial demands should be sharply limited. Suppose, for example, that God says she wants me to go out to the student commons and do a chicken dance -- not for any good reason but just as a passing minor whim, because she wants me to. I'd be embarrassed, but no serious consequences would ensue. My feeling is that God would not be in the right to make this sort of demand of me; nor would I be in the right to demand it of my creations, were I ever to create genuinely conscious beings over whom I had divine degrees of power.

It seems to me that would be wrong in the same way that it would be wrong for my mother or wife to ask this of me for no good reason: It would be a matter of someone's treating her own whims as of greater importance than my legitimate desires and interests. It would violate the principle of equality. But if that's correct -- if an imperfect god's whims don't trump my interests for that type of reason -- then in the relevant moral sense, we are God's equals.

You might say: If a god really did create us, our debt is enormous. Indeed it would be! But what follows? My parents created me, and they raised me through childhood, so my debt to them is also enormous; and my government paid for my education and my roads and my protection, so in a sense my government has also created and sustained me, and my debt to it is also enormous. However, once I have been created, I have a dignity and interests that even those who have created and sustained me cannot legitimately disregard to satisfy their whims. And I see no reason to suppose this limitation on the morally legitimate exercise of power is any less for gods than for fellow humans.

A morally perfect god might be different. Necessarily, such a god would not demand anything morally illegitimate. But I think a sober look at the world suggests that if there is any creating or sustaining god of substantial power, that god is far from morally perfect. If that god tells me never to mix clothing fibers or never to work on the sabbath, she had better also supply a good reason.

Related posts:

  • Our Possible Imminent Divinity (Jan. 2, 2014)
  • Our Moral Duties to Artificial Intelligences (Jan. 14, 2015)
  • [image source]


    Callan S. said...

    Is it the whim that's the issue, or the implication that any whim at any time must be forfilled? An unlimited number of whims, as opposed to, say, one chicken dance per week at most?

    Maybe it's another topic, but also what's with the debt thing - I mean, if you're not being helped to survive, what's the point of acknowleding debt here? Bring someone into the world but leave them to survive, then expect something from them for giving them the privilege of doing all the work of keeping themselves alive? If you left a baby in the woods and then came back years latter expecting service (assuming the baby lives to be a child), most people would consider you a heartless monster!

    If this is debt, shouldn't the slave feel a debt to the slaver for providing them food?

    Anonymous said...

    What about preference utilitarianism, with God as a utility monster?

    chinaphil said...

    I agree with all this, so far as it goes. To the extent that a god can affect us, it is in our world, and subject to normal moral strictures; if it is not subject to moral constraints, then it is not in our world, and we owe it nothing.

    You're in some danger of trying to reinvent theology here, aren't you? This is what Augustine and pals spent their entire lives on.

    I think this model suffers because whoever the god is, we are only thinking about a tiny part of its moral universe: its relationship with its creation. We are a chicken, looking at a farmer, asking, why is he debeaking me? The answer only makes sense from the farmer's perspective. Similarly, if we are all sims, then it's pointless trying to understand the simulators through our window onto them. We have to look beyond that: why are they making this sim? E.g. Perhaps they've run it a billion times, and humanity always blows itself up; they're hoping that they can find a version where we don't in order to fix their own world. That gives them their moral context, and would help us to understand how their actions work.

    As an analogy, I find it very disturbing when journalists and bloggers seem to think that they know a person (celeb) because they've read their tweets. They claim to offer insight into how a Kardashian thinks, or what Sam Harris is like. Trying to understand god/The Programmer from the inside of its creation only is like trying to do psychology via Twitter.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Callan: It is a strange, complicated thing, this issue of owing someone a debt for bringing you into being or sustaining you. A slave's "debt" for food and housing is clearly more than paid, and maybe never even existed at all; a child's possible debt to neglectful parents is a mess, but merely having contributed sperm and nothing else doesn't seem to generate much if any obligation.

    On the one chicken dance per week: A clearly delimited number of whims seems okay, especially if it were thought of as an exchange respectfully entered or something done in the context of a loving relationship.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    chinaphil: Right, reinventing theology, without the assumption of a perfect God! The result will look rather different from Augustine, of course. But I am informed by some knowledge of traditional theology, which I am adapting, and if my thoughts continue these directions, I will learn more.

    Yes, if we are sims, we can know only a little about the simulators -- a slice of what they happen to reveal to us. So we'll have to make our judgments based on that, with an appropriate sense of our epistemic limitations in doing so. Now *if* we knew that God was morally perfect, then we could trust her commands and trust that all the seeming evil and suffering in the world is there for compelling reason. But from where I stand, the evidence seems to favor an imperfect God if there is any, so all I can do is make my judgments based on that. I suppose that's exactly what it is to lack faith.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Anon May 14: Brilliant! Maybe you said this in part because you saw my post last year on AI, utility monsters, and fission-fusion monsters. If not, you might check it out:

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    (Hm, not last year -- February!)

    Callan S. said...


    A slave's "debt" for food and housing is clearly more than paid

    What if you're a bad slave and haven't done your assigned work?

    (okay, slightly unfair to use 'bad' as a reference here, as bad is always bad - though measures of what is bad and what isn't varies)

    On chicken dances, it's interesting how 'on my whim at any time' pretty much grates on oneself because (perhaps) it's essentially a kind of slavery.

    I'm not sure about the child - what of contributions of food and shelter? Can the child act as if the food and shelter just dropped out of the sky and actively resent any implication they owe anyone the least act of picking up socks, as much as if someone had implied they owe something for the air they breathe?

    Anonymous said...

    where is God if he exists?

    why he does not help you solve the mystery of his existence or non existence so we can have it done?

    he does not like you or what is it?

    maybe he is reading your post, fingers crossed.

    Carl Johnson said...

    I had previously had a thought experiment about utility monsters:

    Suppose that there is either planet containing a monster that has 1 trillion times the normal amount of utility or, if that's impossible, 1 trillion monsters with the normal amount of utility. Further suppose that the monster or monsters watch Earth from their telescope and are happy when we suffer and suffer when we are happy.

    I take it as a refutation of utilitarianism that clearly (dangerous word in philosophy!), we are under no obligation to suffer in order to make these aliens happy. Yes, net utility would be improved by our suffering, but who cares? We owe no debt to the monsters. Let them suffer for their stupid preference of enjoying our suffering.

    On the other hand, suppose the monsters created the Earth thousands of years ago precisely because they wanted to get joy from watching our sufferings. In this case, I think we still wouldn't owe the aliens the duty of suffering, but… it wouldn't be as simple as just saying "screw them." We would be obliged to relieve their suffering in a way that I don't think is true in the case of aliens who perversely chose to start watching the Earth without a prior casual connection to us.

    chinaphil said...

    Carl: "clearly" is definitely the most dangerous word in philosophy. In the case of your thought experiment, I think you're expressing an intuition based on in-group/out-group divisions which don't hold up.

    Consider an example closer to home: my cat likes to bat my legs, and sometimes this causes me mild pain. Nevertheless I continue playing this game with the cat. Obviously there are complicating factors here: I have a relationship with the cat; I like to watch it play. But the point is that as soon as we discover your aliens, we will enter into a relationship with them as well. So long as they're just a figment of your imagination, you can very easily "other" them and say you don't give a fig about their happiness. But if we really discovered them, we'd send people to look. We would witness their suffering, and that would affect us. We would enter into a curious affective feedback, and who knows where it would end.

    To get a better grip on the subject, I suggest thinking about a real life example: foie gras. Despite what the gourmets tell you, it's not really better than other pate. Its supposed value comes precisely from the suffering of the animal - it's another example of the magical thinking about food that makes people eat rare animals (if it's rare it must be good) or hard to catch animals (...) or potentially poisonous animals, or whatever. In the case of foie gras, we've caused an animal all this distress, and we've caused a change in its meat - therefore the meat must be better! Otherwise, why did it suffer?!

    If you look at attitudes to foie gras and how they've changed, I think you'll get a better idea about how utility inversions play out in reality.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Callan: Right, it's hard to imagine a realistic circumstance in which the slave would have a genuine moral debt to her master. The child case seems very different, and complex -- too complex for me to have (yet) thought out very well.

    Anon: God, if you're reading this post, be nice. We're real!

    Carl/chinaphil: I think I share both of your intuitions about your different cases (if "intuition" is the right word). I think it's likely that our intuitions don't form a coherent set. Although Utility Monsters get all the press, I think it's also possible to create problematic Monster cases for deontological approaches that focus on individual rights -- such as the Fission-Fusion Monster who can divide and recohere at will, dividing to claim rights then recohering to minimize obligations.

    Anonymous said...

    the discussion was wrong to begin with.

    if bible is to be believed, then he spoke to some chosen ones and made them believe he exists and also made them feel special, like they were chosen.
    so he has this ability, if what is written in the bible is true.

    but even so, its wrong to be overwhelmed and it is wrong to have such insightful thoughts out of a sudden, it does not seem too conscious or rational. even if it is from god.

    it is a different story when you are in a great need and you feel powerless and there is nothing else to turn to.
    if you need help, then you need help.

    I do not really believe god is watching us right now or this particular blog.
    I wish he would and will help all the problems.

    Anonymous said...

    Utility monster came to my mind the instant I read this too (but maybe that is because I think along amazingly similar lines to you).

    If god was a utility monster it implies his powers are severely limited because otherwise why doesn't he fix this utility structure such that our interests (if they have any value at all to him) are generally aligned with his interests (for example making us naturally want to wear his shirts as opposed to telling us to do it).

    I find when considering god I am usually not only forced to assume he is not purely 'good' but also that he can't be anywhere near 'omnipotent' or the world would be highly unlikely to work how it does now.


    Anonymous said...

    I do have a defense for god though... Which is also a defense for obeying his arbitrary requests.

    Maybe it is all about diversity.
    God wants to create every possible outcome (the multiverse) that is better than a certain level of suffering (if he is good) and as a result he will request random things just to create another outcome which is a 'good' - in the same way that you and I existing is a better scenario than just me existing.