More on Rauser and divinely commanded genocide

In a previous post I outlined a way of defending Rauser’s argument against genocide’s being morally permissible. My argument was intended as a strengthening of Rauser’s position, and defended that position against some alleged counter-examples.  But suppose a counter-example could nevertheless be produced, contrary to what I previously suggested.  That is, suppose an example could be produced such that most parties would at least concede the possibility of it being morally permissible to bludgeon a baby to death (recall that the bludgeoning of a baby is used as an example because it is a component part of genocide).

Would that render the argument I presented useless?  Not necessarily.  It would depend on the intended purpose of the argument.

If my intention was to defend the idea that one could form universal moral commands, unassailable by any kind of consequentialist concerns, then clearly on the hypothesis of there being found some counter-example, my argument would have failed.

But this was not the intention behind either Rauser’s original argument nor my development or strengthening of his position.  Rauser’s original point was that our moral intuitions surrounding genocide provide evidence that should convince us that God did not command the genocide of the Canaanites (Rauser, 2009, 41).  (Combined with the idea that an allegorical interpretation is illegitimate, this could be turned into an argument against biblical inerrancy.)  My strengthening of his ‘bludgeoning babies’ argument was intended to show that Rauser’s argument cannot be dismissed by an appeal to a simple counter-example.  In other words, it’s key aim was to show how very (very!) plausible is Rauser’s claim regarding the impermissibility of killing innocent children.  By tightening up on what we are doing when we articulate moral obligations, I showed how difficult it was to form a counter-example to Rauser’s claim.  And the answer was very difficult indeed.

Suppose, however, that a detailed, complex counter-example is produced.  (Perhaps we need to imagine, for example, some scenario where the fate of the entire human race hangs for whatever reason on the killing of one innocent child).  Would such an example win the argument for the person trying to claim the acceptability of God’s commanding the genocide?  I don’t think so. For I contend (on the basis of my previous argument) that if a counter-example can be produced, it would have to be something extremely fanciful, something extremely far from anything encountered in real life.  This would be a demonstration of the logical consistency of our typical moral intuitions surrounding genocide (the killing of children) with the thought it might, in extremely specific, rare circumstances be morally permissible.  But the situation described in the bible is not such a scenario: we are all too familiar with instances of genocide that are all too similar to the events being described.  So producing a counter-example is only the first step in showing the acceptability of God’s commanding the genocide; the next step would be bridging the gap between the kind of event the counter-example would have to be (i.e. extremely fanciful, or so I say), and the kind of event described in the biblical literature.


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