The “God Commands ‘Kill a Child'” Hypothetical: Part 1: Handling Hypotheticals

Moral Subjectivity In the Bible?

I came across the following video on my Facebook feed about a week ago from Frank Turek’s page.

https://www.facebook.com/drfrankturek/videos/1163327913798730/

In this video we have the challenge being put forward that would suggest God’s morality is subjective, or Biblical Morality is subjective. It is done in the form of a hypothetical that is used rather often, though often within the context of sacrifice, which is how it is taken by Dr. Turek in his response:

“If you were told by God to kill a child, and you knew for certain that it was God telling you, would you kill the child?”

Now, of course, the questioner has to put himself in the clear and setup the emotional contrast he is trying to make between Dr. Turek and himself (the questioner’s being the morally superior one, or sane one, but of course) by saying he would never kill a child. This is where we see how hypotheticals most frequently tend to be used. Ask a hypothetical question, the answer to which is intended to go both ways in favor of the personal opinion or emotional bias of the questioner. Make the speaker look like some crazy person, you get to go home with your worldview unchallenged in its own issues, while the speaker’s worldview is put to shame, and the crowd goes wild. At least, that is how this rhetorical device is most often utilized, sadly.

However, using a hypothetical in this manner is without a doubt a very cowardly tactic, and ultimately it provides us with little to no argument either in favor of or against the speaker’s worldview or general argument. A commenter had posted in response to my own comments that “The answer to the question shows the dangerous implications of a person who holds Christian beliefs.” What danger? Oh, right, the presupposed thinking that all Christians are going to hear God tell them to kill innocent babies like the Israelites did (but really didn’t because the bible isn’t true…or is it? Well, when I can use it for my own arguments it is, just not when it gives credit to Christians). But wait, non-theist’s rationalizations tell them it is ok to kill babies every day, and even older children too. So, why is that any different? Wait…wait…let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Let’s first take this from an understanding of how to properly handle hypotheticals.

The Hypothetical Device in Rational Criticism

A Hypothetical is a question that is posited in the form of some scenario or challenging question that is asked in order to consider the implications of some belief. These are more generally known as “What If” scenarios or the “Moral Dilemma”, and are most frequently used as “gotcha” moments in debates where one opponent is attempting to make the other appear inferior for their views. They are often asked as a “pre-planned” tactic, where the possible answers have already been considered, and generally, either answer one could give would result in some contradiction or embarrassing response on behalf of the responder. In this one, say yes, and the questioner calls Christians crazy. Say no, and you are disobeying God, how hypocritical of you Christians!

However, Hypotheticals do serve a purpose in rational discussions. They are most fitting in environments where two or more people are discussing a topic within a Worldview’s context that is shared between the parties of the discussion. The overall shared worldview’s system of beliefs are known by all the parties, and the hypotheticals are being considered to address subjects that go into the more “application” or “superficial” levels of the Worldview. This is where a civil, rational discussion can be had, and the implications of the hypothetical can be discussed without concern for anyone attempting to attack anyone else because of how they respond.

The benefit of a hypothetical is that it challenges the individual to really question their belief system. It can be a “crucible” of sorts, weeding out the weak arguments and drawing the raw truth out of its emotional context. The objective of using a hypothetical is to sort through where emotion is being drawn out to justify instead of sound truth and logical justification. If used with the intended purpose of better understanding a worldview’s beliefs, they can be very helpful. However, this requires the questioner and the respondent to be objective, unemotional, and on their intellectual “A-game” to really hash out the underlying truths that must be addressed and accepted to control emotion, and not allow it to cloud our sound judgment.

In most cases, however, this is not the context within which a hypothetical is being presented. It is most often utilized when two people of opposing worldviews are challenging one another’s beliefs. It does remain possible, however, to have a rational discussion utilizing hypotheticals in such an environment though. This requires a great deal of careful and thoughtful consideration of both parties involved if it is to be accomplished without falling into a childish game of Ad Hominem attacks.

Rules for Using Hypotheticals in Rational Discussions

To prevent a discussion from falling into an irrational back and forth, driven by bias and emotion, there are certain rules that must be followed. This is the only way to keep the discussion coherent and rational, but most importantly, civil and beneficial for all involved. Just like how football without any rules turns into nothing but a dog pile, so too can a rational discussion (where truth can be discovered) be derailed into a pathetic cat fight, without certain rules being followed. These rules are fairly straight forward.

  1. When a hypothetical is put forward, it can not be changed once the question is asked.
  2. There can be only one Worldview within which the hypothetical is operating.
  3. The individual asking the hypothetical must accept as true all of the aspects of that Worldview in considering the answer to the hypothetical.
  4. There can be no cherry picking of individual beliefs to inject and then remove later on, or vice versa, in challenging the answers given to the hypothetical.
  5. The answer to the hypothetical may only be considered in the context of the hypothetical’s Worldview.

Setting the Hypothetical

The first rule is about keeping consistency in the discussion. Once the Hypothetical has been put forward, it is important to clarify it so that there is no confusion. The individual who is putting forward the hypothetical is the one responsible for doing this, however, it is more beneficial and helpful if both parties ensure the hypothetical is fully stated and all variances are ironed out. This is where having a computer screen or notepad in hand is so that the parties can write or type out the hypothetical so that there won’t be any arguments over discrepancies, and the discussion can continue without falling into a bickering match of foolishness.

Setting the Worldview

The next rule is all about understanding which Worldview is applying to the hypothetical. This is most important before an audience that is observing the discussion between the parties involved. You can not allow there to be a mixture of the contending worldviews. To do so would itself be an irrational thing to do. No one would be able to make sense out of what was being discussed or what is being addressed by the hypothetical. This is where most hypotheticals often begin with the somewhat confrontational “Well let’s just say that ________ is true…” Very well then. If we are going to posit a hypothetical, we must do so within the Full Context of that Worldview, which brings ut to the next rule. But before moving on, it is important to point out that the remainder of the discussion in relation to the hypothetical must then remain in the context of that Worldview being true.

Full Context is Accepted as True

This rule brings to bear the full system of beliefs. If we are going into a hypothetical world, then we must deal with the full Worldview of that hypothetical world. To not take into consideration all of the beliefs of the worldview as true would be dishonest and irrational. In any worldview, all of the individual statements of belief are considered true because of the others. It would be intellectually, professionally, and civically dishonest to attempt to pick and choose what is and is not true, and then attempt to attack the worldview as invalid based on the response to the hypothetical. Here is why:

No Cherry Picking or Planting

If you put forward a Hypothetical, but then tell the one you are asking that their worldview does not apply to the hypothetical, and then criticize their worldview based on how they respond to that hypothetical, you really aren’t making an argument against that worldview. Instead, you have cherry picked only certain beliefs to be true, have then added others into the mix, and in the process, you have formed a worldview that is entirely different from your opponent’s worldview. You would then, based upon how the opponent answers the hypothetical, criticize this third worldview while acting as though you are criticizing the opponent’s worldview.

This is a dishonest practice often called the “Straw Man Tactic.” You fabricate some argument or issue, feign it off to an audience as being one belonging to the opponent, attack it (successfully or not) and once you have demonstrated this fake thing to be false, attempt to claim your opponent’s worldview is false as though this newly fabricated one was equivalent to his own. This is a fallacious act, a truly dishonest one, and is most certainly a demonstration of irrational behavior and emotional bias.

Such things have no place in civil discussions, let alone rational ones. So, when putting forth a hypothetical, the whole system of beliefs must be brought to bear in considering the answer to the hypothetical. This is how one uses a hypothetical to its rational purposes. The hypothetical is an excellent device for demonstrating potential contradictions within a system of beliefs. But it can only do so within the context of that system, not some other. What may not work in one system of beliefs, can certainly work and be coherent in another system, and vice versa.

The Critic Must Use the Same Worldview

The final rule is one that applies to the critic, or perhaps, to the challenger of the worldview under scrutiny via the hypothetical device. We are here shifting focus from the questioner to the audience intended by the respondent. For simplicity, let’s consider ourselves to be that audience. As people observing a debate between Person A and Person B, we come to a point where Person B is challenging Person A with a hypothetical. Person B, in asking the hypothetical, must ask it within the full context of Person A’s Worldview (the worldview being scrutinized or considered). As Person A gives his or her answer to the hypothetical, we, being the audience, must take into consideration the answer within Person A’s Worldview, not our own!

Remember, the purpose of a hypothetical is not to be a “gotcha” tool, unless you are being childish and irrational. However, if we are trying to be rational, decent human beings, seeking after the truth, we would accept (for the sake of the hypothetical) all of Person A’s Worldview to be true. Based on the answer given by Person A, we would then determine if that coheres within the Worldview. If it does, then we must accept the response in light of that Worldview as being rational and their Worldview as being acceptable. However, if it does not make sense within Person A’s greater Worldview context, then we could legitimately criticize Person A for holding to contradictory beliefs, or some other such thing.

Failure to do this results in dishonest criticism, where the audience places their own worldview into the position of judge, and judges the individual based on their own presuppositions which are not being placed under scrutiny. The result becomes a rational analysis of the coherence and rationality of the Worldview within its context. It then also causes the audience or critic to evaluate their own worldview in handling a hypothetical that is similar to the one that has been set forth, but placed within the proper context of the critic or audience’s worldview.

Conclusions

With all of this being said, it is important to consider this final point about hypotheticals. We will all evaluate how a person answers a hypothetical, especially a “moral dilemma” type of hypothetical, from our own personal bias. Our worldview may oppose the worldview of the person answering the hypothetical. However, we can not analyze the person’s answer to the hypothetical from our own Worldview and still be honest. We can certainly take their response and criticize it from the context of our own worldview, but in so doing, whatever difficulties we come across, it is because we have mixed our Worldviews with the respondent’s, and there will be no sense made of it. What would be the point in that?

The end run goal of doing hypotheticals is to discover the principles that form out of the underlying system of beliefs that properly addresses with rational consistency all possible hypotheticals. The hypothetical will aid in bringing forth those principles which remain true and useful in real life situations, making the “livability” of the Worldview more clear. It can expose falsehoods and aid in clarifying areas of ambiguity within a worldview and even aid in discovering new truths not otherwise known. For the individual who does not hold to the worldview under scrutiny, it can aid this person in gaining better understanding of the respondent’s worldview. Remember, we want to learn about the opposing Worldview, removing our own ignorance about it, and allowing the one who holds to the worldview the ability to justify their position and teach us about how their worldview works. In the end, all are able to come to greater knowledge, and we can even find where worldviews can come together and find areas where they agree or can see “eye to eye.”

This particular hypothetical, the “God Says Kill a Child” one, is an excellent one for demonstrating why it is so important that these rules be applied. As it stands right now, anyone hearing a Christian say that, “If I knew for a fact that God told me to kill a child, I would obey,” would be shocked! This is an immediate emotional reaction to a hypothetical. That is what these challenges are intended to do. Draw out some emotional reaction from the audience in order to turn the attention away from the rational discussion being had, and to fall into a state of disarray, leaving the questioner free from criticism. The speaker is then placed in the position of having to defend themselves from a vacuum that now has to be filled in order for anyone to make sense of how they responded, and it is not very often this is done appropriately, and worse, the respondent usually does not have enough time to give a proper explanation.

As we continue in this breakdown of the “God Says Kill a Child” hypothetical, please be sure to keep your personal bias in check, and apply these rules as we go along. At the end, you’ll come to find out that there is not much disagreement between the Christian Worldview and the Non-Theist Worldview on this subject. But the difference that remains is a stark one.

 

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