On an objection to Rauser’s argument that God would not command genocide

Rauser (2009) has argued that because we can judge acts such as genocide to be wrong in an unqualified manner, condemning them, as we do, without question, we can therefore know that God would not command such acts.  As a result, we know that God did not command the instances of genocide which he is described as commanding in the Old Testament.

This argument relies on accepting a universal moral principle: that it is always and everywhere morally wrong to commit genocide.  (Rauser makes his point especially vivid by focusing on one component of genocide: the killing of babies (2009, pp.33-5)).

One way of undermining Rauser’s argument is to find counter-examples to this universal moral principle.  Here is one putative counter-example, offered by Matthew Hart (personal communication, but also see his (2011)):

A family is trapped in a house and the baby has had a bomb placed in his brain by some sadist.  There is no time to try any complicated surgical procedure.  Either the baby is bludgeoned to death to remove the bomb (which can be easily defused, let us say) or the bomb detonates and kills everyone in the house.

I do not think this constitutes a counter-example to Rauser’s principle.  Here are the beginnings of a response:

  • First, note that moral responsibility is tied closely to intention, and that therefore because intention is an intensional concept, so is moral responsibility.
  • This means that different ways of describing the same action are not equivalent when it comes to making judgements of moral responsibility.  If we accept Davidson’s way of individuating actions, responsibility only enters in at the level of description (we’re not responsible for actions qua actions (i.e. qua particular events), but for aspects of actions).  If we accept a fine-grained approach to individuation, then different descriptions pick out numerically different actions.
  • Second, note that actions are not intentional under all their descriptions.  This means that when intention is not explicitly mentioned in a moral principle, that principle will be ambiguous.  For example, the principle ‘killing babies is always wrong’ will, strictly speaking, pick out some actions where the description ‘the killing of a baby’ is accurate, but where that description is not one under which the action is intentional.  Imagine, for example, someone who performs some action which, unknown to the agent, kills an infant.
  • This helps us see that picking the correct description when formulating a moral principle is vital.  Not only do we need to be careful which description we pick, arguably, we also need to make explicit mention of the intention.
  • To strengthen Rauser’s argument then, we need to precisify or disambiguate his moral principle.
  • I suggest something like this:
    • It is always and everywhere wrong to kill what you take to be a healthy baby.
  • This phrasing ensures we’re picking out actions that were intentional under the description which we take to be morally problematic (as opposed to picking out actions that might fit that description, but which weren’t intentional under it).
  • The addition of the adjective ‘healthy’ does a lot of work in blocking putative counter-examples.  It seems clear this is part of Rauser’s intention, as he uses the word in referring to the kind of evil he’s talking about (2009, p.33).  Most importantly though, this is not an ad hoc addition.  To forestall any potential objection along the lines of “you’ve qualified the principle to capture just those cases you want”, we can note that:
    • The principle makes reference to an intrinsic property of the infant; a property, moreover, that is plausibly deemed important to the integrity of the infant.  It is significant that to arrive at an even remotely plausible potential counter-examples, big changes are needed to the intrinsic properties of the infant.  (The infant has a bomb placed in its brain, is horribly diseased, is horribly deformed, etc).
    • The principle seems to fully capture the content of the original moral judgement that healthy human beings have in response to cases of genocide.
    • To argue that it is ad hoc is also, I suggest, to miss the force of the point regarding the intensionality of moral responsibility.  For any given action there will be a set of descriptions under which it is intentional.  Now, even if the agent was always morally responsible for the action under each and every intentional description (and this can be questioned), the principles formed using each of those descriptions will be far from equivalent because once we quantify over all actions, they will not always apply in the same circumstances. There is no reason, then, why any of the descriptions under which the action is intentional can’t be at our disposal when attempting to construct a universal moral principle, and this is so even if one description is favoured in our ordinary talk.
  • If all the putative counter-examples fall outside the realm of this principle, and if it accurately captures components of the Israelite’s killing of the Canaanites, then Rauser’s argument stands.


Hart, M., 2011. “Utterly destroy them…show them no mercy” – Can the ethical problems raised by these Biblical commands be satisfactorily resolved?. IVP ‘Young philosopher of religion’ winning essay, 2011.

Rauser, R., 2009. “Let nothing that breathes remain alive” – On the problem of divinely commanded genocide. Philosophia Christi.


Comments on this approach and its consequences very welcome.