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Machines Like Us

God fails triple morality test

Thursday, 23 February 2012

What would a rational consequentialist say about the outcome of Jesus’ sacrifice, measured in terms of humanity’s salvation? Well, we are not given a timeline for the expected results to materialize (though there are passages in the New Testament where Jesus pretty clearly seems to indicate that the reckoning was expected to take place within the lifetime of some of his followers — needless to say, it didn’t). Still, judging from the amount of misery, death and destruction that human beings have inflicted upon each other in the course of the past 2,000 years (even accounting for Steven Pinker’s claim that violence has gone down of late), I’d say the sacrifice hasn’t worked out very well. And that’s without considering the countless sins of a sexual nature that seem to so obsess Republican politicians these days. It seems safe to conclude that God’s actions toward his Son are a moral failure also according to consequentialism.

We are then left only with virtue ethics, which can be traced to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Assessing individual moral actions isn’t the point of virtue ethics, as it is about having a good character, from which the proper actions follow. If we scan a table of Aristotelian virtues, however, it is hard to see how God’s character can be made to look good. For instance, beginning at the top of the table, clearly God was rash in his confidence of the positive outcomes to be elicited from the sacrifice of his Son. He is also self-indulgent in the kind of pain he allowed to be inflicted for the cause. In terms of honor, God comes across as a bit vane for pretending to save an entire species of free thinking creatures with a single act. The guy also seems irascible (too much anger), boastful (too much self-expression), boorish (deficient in conversation), cantankerous (bad social conduct), shameless, and somewhat malicious. All things considered, not at all a pretty picture, virtue ethics-wise.

Of course, consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics are not the only ways to look at the moral question. Perhaps there is an ethical school by which standards God comes across as the good guy, but I sincerely doubt it. Indeed, one of the things that strikes me as downright bizarre in people who worship the Old Testament fellow (which, technically, includes all Jews, Christians and Muslims) is precisely the fact that most of His followers are infinitely more moral than their God — and would readily realize that if they were not blinded by their faith. As Lewis Black puts it in the segment linked to above, “I would love to have the faith ... but I have thoughts. And that can really fuck up the faith thing. Just ask any Catholic priest.” Amen.