(A)theism, Absolute Morality, And The Death Penalty

Bending over backward to avoid pre-judgements, the situation which inspired this post is thus:

A person by the name of Tiller, a doctor, was killed, allegedly by a second person named Roeder, in response to actions Tiller had taken at the request of other persons who were his patients, which actions (depending upon whose definitions you accept) led to the demise of yet other persons, or of fetuses whose continued carriage threatened the life of Dr. Tiller’s patients.

Both Tiller and Roeder are (or were) self-described as followers of the moral teachings of a person named Jesus, as were some but not necessarily all of Tiller’s patients, albeit none of the putative persons killed (since none of them were yet capable of moral decisions).

Both Tiller and Roeder claimed to have based their actions (the murder, or the operations which might be considered such) on the teachings of this person Jesus, which they both considered morally authoritative, or upon older teachings which said Jesus himself considered morally authoritative.

Is that confusing and murky? It shouldn’t be. This is a glimpse into a world of moral clarity. This is, in fact, the world of absolute morality.

Atheists like myself hear this one so-called argument from theists (or, to be fairer, Abrahamic theists) all the time; they claim that without religion there can be no ‘absolute’ basis for morality, and therefore an atheist’s morality is bound to fail in relativistic thrashing about and in a general sliding down of every slippery slope toward the lowest and most selfish of behavioral norms possible.

What that argument fails to recognize is that an attempt to define morality as following the wishes of God is itself a moral decision, and not necessarily an admirable one. Quite apart from the difficulty of deciding what God’s wishes actually are – a dispute which the Tiller/Roeder incident throws into high, sad, relief – there is the inescapable decision, in the end, of whether to obey them. You cannot pass that responsibility on, no matter how much you’d like to. It is the only moral decision you cannot escape, cannot hand off.

If your notion of absolute moral values is that you absolutely follow someone else’s decisions as to what is moral, or worse yet someone else’s unsupported claim as to what a third party has decided is moral, then your only absolute moral decision is an abdication of moral responsibility.

It really doesn’t matter what the status of the other personages may be – your parents, spouse, cult leader or even what you believe to be a deity – you are a moral coward trying to pass the buck.

What’s even more pitiful is that the attempt to do so is foredoomed. “Just following orders” doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for choosing to follow evil orders, no matter whose orders they were.

Followers of the Abrahamic religions should know this; it is built into the first myth of their scriptures, in the fable of the Fall (as flawed as that story is). You cannot abdicate this responsibilty by claiming you were only following God, because it was your decision whether to follow God. Sadly, though, following God is also represented as the indisputable good; the most despicable story in the Bible is the very one which the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) were named after.

The story I refer to, of course, is where God orders Abraham to murder his son Isaac to prove Abraham’s love for God (whose actual name is Jealous, according to Scripture, so we can’t say we weren’t warned). Abraham starts to do it – has the deed in his heart, you might say – when God relents and lets him pointlessly slay a dumb animal instead. As a reward for being willing to murder his own child Abraham is blessed beyond his wildest dreams, becoming the progenitor of nations.

If Eden was the tale that first made me doubt the Bible’s claim of veracity, this was the one which made me doubt its claim of morality. I can’t imagine a more dysfunctional, cruel, heartless, downright evil thing that you could ask someone to do than to murder a child, any child, let alone that person’s own, for no reason other than because you asked. It’s breathtakingly callous on the part of God; He asks a father to literally slit the throat of his son, without offering the slightest justification, making a point of refusing to justify his request. More to the point of this essay, it’s breathtakingly cowardly of Abraham to agree to do it.

Imagine for a moment a different story as the base of Jewish, Christian and Muslim morality; imagine that Abraham had refused to do it, had said to God, “No, I will not sacrifice my son Isaac to you, for he is my child, the pulse of my heart, and innocent of wrong. Ask my life if you will and I will give it to you, but Isaac’s life is not mine to give, and it would be wrong for me to take it even if it is you who ask it.”

And then God relents, and sends the ram instead, or better yet, says “From this day forward, for respect of the love you have shown me, I wish no blood sacrificed to Me.”

How different would the morality of our society be then, with that small change?

The message of Abraham’s sacrifice is that you must abdicate the choice, that you must hand over to another the choice of whether to kill or let live. It is a false choice, one which literally cannot be made, because Abraham is still making the choice of whether to murder at God’s behest, or refuse him. He can’t stop God from killing Isaac if that is God’s wish (God on the other hand can stop Abraham from killing Isaac).

There is only one respect in which Abraham and God are equal: Abraham cannot force God to kill Isaac, but God cannot force Abraham to kill Isaac either. He can ask, He can command, He can threaten utter disaster, He can promise infinite reward, but when Abraham puts the knife to Isaac’s throat it is his choice alone, not God’s.

This is the true face of absolute morality, and it is the same for theists and for atheists. You cannot pass it off, you cannot pass the blame on to God or anyone else; when you choose to act, it is your choice to act so, whether or not any other directs you, be it a deity or a Fuehrer or a properly enacted statute in a body of law.

Dr. Tiller chose, in full knowledge of the risks to his life from people like Roeder, to perform late-term abortions for women who needed them; he didn’t believe he was killing babies, he was aborting fetuses in order to save women’s lives. Mr. Roeder chose, in full knowledge of the fact he’d likely face life in prison or death for the act, to kill Tiller in order to stop him from (in Roeder’s view) killing babies.

My personal sympathies are with Tiller, since I see abortion as the termination of a fetus and not the killing of a child, and I am far more concerned with the health and welfare of actual women whose humanity is not a matter of semantics. However, I am empathetic enough to be able to see Roeder’s viewpoint, and to understand why some are able to regard him as a hero (though those people are completely ignoring the effect of Roeder’s actions upon the women Tiller was helping.)

What I do not accept, can not accept, is the argument that anyone’s actions were justified because they were what someone else wanted, even if those wishes were the wishes of a god, much less the merely putative wishes of a god, as conveyed by people.

Roeder killed Tiller, over a difference in moral viewpoint. Society at large’s viewpoint coincides with that of Tiller (as is demonstrated by the legality of Tiller’s actions). By the very code Roeder uses to justify his actions, the lex talionis of “an eye for an eye”, his life is forfeit.

The funny thing is that, because he was a follower of Jesus Christ and a believer in ‘absolute’ morals just as Roeder is, Tiller would probably let him live – he’d take his liberty but not his life.

I’m an atheist, and I’m not sure how I feel about the death penalty for terrorist murderers like Roeder. If you think that’s evidence that my moral decisions aren’t based on an absolute bedrock, you’re completely wrong; they’re based on the absolute bedrock that if I choose to support a death penalty, every legal killing is morally my responsibility.

I don’t kid myself that it’s anyone else’s decision, and in that respect, to the extent that I do support a death penalty for terrorist killers like Roeder, I remind myself uncomfortably of terrorist killers like Roeder; the express purpose of such a penalty is to terrorize people like Roeder, by killing them.

I do support such a penalty, but I can’t say I’m comfortable with doing so. I guess that’s the fault of my atheism – I just lack the moral clarity that people like Roeder enjoy.


~ by B.T. Murtagh on June 3, 2009.

3 Responses to “(A)theism, Absolute Morality, And The Death Penalty”

  1. […] to B.T. Murtagh at the quarkscrew blog for this excellent framing of George Tiller’s murder within theistic absolute morality.  The money quote: If your notion […]

  2. This is a great post, particularly your point about the “abdication of moral responsibility.”

    Special thanks for referring to the Christianist assassin as a terrorist, because that’s exactly what he is. I find it interesting that the Right is still hung up on Sixties-era episodes of violence while recent murders are all committed by their ideological allies: the Unabomber, Tim McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, etc…

  3. Since I’m referencing this from T h e F u t u r e (insert eerie whooshing noise) of 2014, I’ll add that I no longer support the death penalty at all. I will eventually get around to writing a post explaining why my position evolved.

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