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Aug 12

What ethical system best describes God?

Ethical or moral systems can generally be described as consequentialist or non-consequentialist. Let’s consider a popular example to help define these terms – the trolley problem.

Imagine you are the driver of a trolley and you suddenly notice that your brakes have stopped working. But that is not your only problem. Just ahead are five workers who don’t seem to notice you. Take it as a given that if you do nothing, you will crash into these people and they will all die. Then, you see a side track with one worker on the track. You can switch tracks, but then you will kill the one. What do you do?

A good consequentialist will answer that they would switch tracks. Why kill five when you can kill one? The consequence, or outcome, determines the best course of action. The non-consequentialist makes that determination based on some other reason. Perhaps it is virtue or the inherent value of an action. They might argue in return that you have to act to kill the one worker in a way that doesn’t apply to the five. This is not always intuitively clear to people, but it should be if we alter the example some.

Instead of imagining yourself as the driver, you will be a bystander on a bridge. You see the driver is asleep and five people are ahead on the tracks. You then notice a man near the railing of the bridge. Consider it a given that you could push this man off the bridge to fall in front of the train, killing him, but saving the five. Would you do it? A lot of people who would have answered the initial case by killing the one decline to do so here. This would imply they think there is some virtue in not pushing the man off the bridge. The action drives your decision instead of the numbers/result.

Now that we have some foundation in the reasoning behind each, let’s turn our attention to God.

There is a lot going for a theory of God’s ethics being based on some kind of inherent virtue. We might argue for this in two ways. First, there are troubling cases for consequentialists in the Bible. God, on more than one occasion, kills many people*. Two examples that come to mind are Noah’s flood and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (this is assuming a literal interpretation of these two stories). Second, a virtue account seems more consistent with traditional notions of God as the ground of morality and instilling inherent value in things.

But now think about one of the most popular responses to the problem of evil that says God can have sufficient moral reasons for allowing bad acts. If this is correct, we have two reasons to question the initial virtue account. First, if the acts are inherently bad, how could God allow them? It should be the virtue, rather than the ultimate outcomes that matter. Second, it is the outcome that is often the type of example employed by the defender of this argument. They generally employ a response to the problem of evil along the lines of the suffering serving some greater good or preventing greater suffering. One variety: Perhaps a man dying in a crash would have otherwise killed the doctor who cures cancer.

Obviously, we have a tension here. If it weren’t for unexplained problems, like suffering in the world, I think theists would clearly favor a virtue account. But considering that problem won’t be going away any time soon, how do they think of God’s ethics in a consistent manner?

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*I think we would be right to question here whether this is even consistent with a virtue account, since God would be doing something not virtuous or sinful. The response to that is generally that God cannot sin or that God has no moral obligations, like we do. I’m not particularly convinced by either claim.

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2 comments

  1. Anon

    Couldn’t you also say that God wants as many people as possible to get into Heaven? That would make him a consequentialist.

  2. Mike

    Anon,

    I think to defend that, you’ll have to provide more support. I imagine the response would be an agreement with your first statement, but to say that it does not outweigh the value of free choices. So, only through free choices can we get to heaven. If the inherent value of these choices were less important than ultimate outcome, then everyone would be in heaven. If god exists, perhaps this is true, but it’s not the traditional view.

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