Is it Morally Permissible for Some People to Rape and Murder?

Atheist moral philosopher Erik Wielenberg recently argued that Divine Command Theory is implausible as an explanation of objective morality because it fails to explain how psychopaths have moral obligations. His reasoning is as follows: In an attempt to explain how and why everyone has certain moral obligations, some Divine Command Theorists have proposed that God has issued commands to people, and therefore they have moral obligations, if they recognize moral requirements as extremely authoritative and as having imperative force. However, because psychopaths don’t recognize these things, they wouldn’t have moral obligations under Divine Command Theory. If they don’t have moral obligations, then everything they do is morally permissible and nothing they do is objectively wrong. Thus, according to Divine Command Theory, it’s not objectively wrong for some people, i.e. psychopaths, to rape and murder. Since it’s implausible for actions such as rape and murder to be morally permissible (not objectively wrong) for some people, Divine Command Theory is an implausible explanation for objective morality.

In my paper I explain that most divine command theorists haven’t grasped the weight of Wielenberg’s psychopath objection because they mistakenly think it’s about moral accountability whereas actually his objection has to do with moral permissibility. Many argue that DCT doesn’t face a difficulty with psychopaths because they just wouldn’t be held accountable if they didn’t know right from wrong and that they should do what’s right. It’s reasonable that, if DCT is true, God wouldn’t hold someone morally responsible if he doesn’t know these things. But that’s not the issue—the problem Wielenberg is pointing out is not that under DCT psychopaths can’t be held morally responsible, the problem is that under DCT psychopaths can’t do anything wrong in the first place.

In my response to Wielenberg’s objection, I explain that everyone agrees the consciences of psychopaths don’t work as they should, but there’s disagreement among experts as to whether:

A. The consciences of psychopaths don’t inform them of what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right OR

B. The consciences of psychopaths do inform them of these things but merely don’t generate the appropriate moral emotions.

I argue that, based on the psychological research, that B is more likely than A and thus under DCT psychopaths do have moral obligations because their consciences inform them of what’s right from wrong and that they should do what’s right. I also argue that even if A is true, God can, and does, make psychopaths aware of what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right through other means such as rationality, society, parents, culture, direct verbal commands, etc. Therefore, even if A is true, then psychopaths still have moral obligations under DCT because they do know what’s right from wrong and that they should do what’s right. Lastly, I also turn the tables on Wielenberg and point out that his theory is even worse than DCT when it comes to providing an explanation of the moral rights and obligations of psychopaths.

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