On "Argument by Outrage"

Many critics of the Bible use of a tactic called "argument by outrage" (if you like Latin phrases, call it argumentum ad cerebrosus, per a reader's suggestion). It runs more or less like this:

  1. The critic finds some event in the Biblical text that they find morally offensive: The slaughter of the Canaanites; the stoning of the man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath, eternal punishment.
  2. The critic recounts this event in such a way as to imply that by itself, the event is enough of a moral outrage that there can be no argument or counter to it.

    Or as Glenn Miller has put it, similarly:

    ....an individual's personal moral intuitions, if they run counter to moral intuitions of other experts and peers, may need further analysis and qualification, before they could function plausibly in constructing a logical argument of God's non-existence.
    In other words, the argument that I THINK someone might make about this might look like the following:
    1. The biblical God CANNOT commit any unjust act (Authority: theological tradition)
    2. God ordered the killing of children (Authority: biblical text)
    3. The killing of children can never be a 'just' act, regardless of competing ethical demands in a given situation. (Authority: someone's personal moral intuition)
    4. God, therefore , ordered an 'unjust act'. (authority: substitution of terms)
    5. The ordering of an 'unjust act' is itself an 'unjust act' (authority: not sure--this is somewhat controversial in ethical theory, but I will grant it here for the purposes of illustration)
    6. The biblical God, therefore, committed an unjust act. (authority: substitution of terms)
    7. Therefore, the biblical God CAN commit an unjust act. (authority: from the actual to the possible)

In general reply, we may note that simply stating outrage is not a sufficient form of argument. It is merely a substitute for true argument, with the intention to win over the prospective convert by means of emotional appeal. What must be done -- but I have seldom seen done -- is an analysis proving that a given action/directive by God was indeed unfair and/or cruel.

No doubt the reason I have never seen this done is that no critic has yet been informed enough about the social situation of the ANE to make such judgments. The tendency is simply to assume, "the punishment is undeserved, and can never be justified."

Again as Miller tells us:

But notice the problem--the whole thing stands or falls on the accuracy of the personal moral intuition in Step 3. It there is no reason to believe it applies WITHOUT EXCEPTION, then our attempt at constructing a hard contradiction this way fails....This, of course, puts the ball back in the individual's court to do one of two things: (1) show that these exceptions do NOT hold... or (2) show that although there ARE legitimate exceptions, there could not be any valid exceptions that would be operative in our biblical case.
But in any event, someone would still have much, much work to do, to be able to even offer the 'it is a contradiction' position as an argument. Without such work, this objection is simple assertion, unsubstantiated opinion (e.g, 'hunch'?), or emotional statement.

In light of repeated use of this tactic by critics, it's a good time to issue some advisories on what such an arguer truly needs to do to make their "argument by outrage" more than just an emotional appeal. This world is not their (the Biblical writers') world; our thoughts are therefore not their thoughts; their values are therefore not our values. The critic tends to assume that people who lived in this day and age were "just like us" and would have reacted with the same immediate moral outrage as they did. That is simply not the case.

Mere statement of data on a broad level argues for nothing; a moral hierarchy must be examined and established. Take these two statements:

We are rightly filled with moral outrage at the first one. But why? The obvious reason is that we know about Hitler and we know about his Master race schemes; we know about his attempt to seize power; we know from the data that he was morally wrong.

The core of "argument by outrage" is to take something like the second item, however, and shake out the "least common denominator" so that the moral equivalency is made to seem to be the same.

However, what if we start defining out the second one so that:

  1. "Blekthorp" is the leader of the Harlanian race, a peaceful people who only wish to be left alone.
  2. The "Refrons" are a predatory and parasitical race -- say like Star Trek's Borg -- whose only goal is to assimilate others into their culture or destroy those they consider inferior.

Now that we have the context, whence is the "argument by outrage"? I have chosen a clearly extreme illustration, but between these extremes of black and white lie shades of gray which are a combination of black and white. We would suppose that any critic would agree that the Harlanians have a right to defend themselves. If the Refrons refuse to give up -- are willing to fight to the last to achieve their goal -- is it a moral outrage that the Harlanians exterminated 6 million of them? How indeed if the total population of Refrons was somewhere around 70 billion and executing 6 million was the only way to get the Refrons to decide that the cost of conquest was too high?

Lest anyone think this a fanciful idea, consider the key parallels to the arguments over whether or not to drop a nuclear bomb on Japan.

To the end, then, of defusing "argument by outrage" tactics we will offer for consideration the following points that any "argument by outrage" must supply before it can be taken seriously. We will draw here upon a couple of Glenn Miller's items, one on the Canaanites and the other on the Amalekites.

Miller closes his item on the Amalekites with a comparison to a famous "lifeboat" scenario in which students are asked to select one passenger who will die so that 29 others may live. His assessment should be familiar to us:

Some students will try to avoid the issue altogether, by talking about 'taking their chances' on the boat, on the sharks, or on the rate of travel toward the island. But the scenario is not constructed that way--the 'there must be some other way' fantasy options don't exist...just as in real life tough decisions...just like decisions public leaders in governance have to make some time...If you the captain take a chance (especially given the odds stated above!) and lose all 30, when you could have saved some/most, this is generally considered unacceptable (assuming you value human life, of course).

By the same token, it is not enough for critics to object that there "must have been some other way" for an omnipotent God to have avoided these events that they find morally outrageous. Until they have loaded up their Turtledove Time Machine, such an argument is based merely on emotional speculation; those that argue (for example) that, i.e., God could have provided food for all of the Midianite or Amalekite refugees rather than have them killed are of the same sort who prefer a God that doesn't enforce and rules they don't like, and cannot escape their own hypocrisy.

Our conclusion: "Argument by outrage" as it is now commonly used is not a valid approach to criticism of the Biblical text.

One final, related note. Matthews and Benjamin in Worship and the Hebrew Bible make a similar point about war passages in the OT that speak of such atrocities as ripping open the pregnant or raping the enemy's women. War in the Biblical world was raged on several fronts: The one we relate to is simple "warrior versus warrior" in the present tense.

But there were other confrontations on other levels as well. The actions of killing the young and unborn, were a way of warring against future generations of the enemy and keeping them from rising up against you in vengeance at a future date. Descendants who were of mixed heritage (due to rapes) would not so readily rise up against their own ancestral peoples.

Such tactics were a matter of national preservation as they would not be today. David's bit about dashing infants against rocks (Ps. 137:9) was no sick desire to witness acts of random cruelty, but a lament that such action would be taken as needed to preserve his own people from the future acts of cruelty of the Babylonians, which would inevitably come to pass.