The death of Osama bin Laden has reminded me of the arbitrariness of divine command. This may not seem obvious at first, so I’ll start with what I hope is not too contentious of an idea.
The idea is that, almost certainly, bin Laden did not consider himself to be an evil man. Indeed, it was probably just the opposite. I suspect bin Laden thought of himself as highly moral. He saw himself as fighting for justice in an unjust world.
History is littered with such people, and institutions. I doubt very much if the leaders of the Inquisition or the Crusades saw themselves as evil monsters. Rather, they saw themselves as doing what was necessary to uphold the will of God. Similarly, both Catholics and Protestants in Ireland saw themselves as defending what they believed to be God’s will. Even Hitler, whatever his motivations, likely did not see himself as the monster he was.
We thus have people who strongly believe they are being just and moral, yet their concepts of justice and morality directly contradict those of other people who feel just as strongly. And each person or institution is condemned, by all the others, as deeply evil.
We must ask, then, how it can be determined which of these people (if any) is right? Do any of them have access to a profound truth that is indeed worth fighting for?
We can include secular groups here, too. Inasmuch as the United States government can be considered secular, is it justified in performing violent acts to citizens of other countries in the name of democracy and liberty?
It seems that the only way we can answer these questions is by applying a single, universal measure of morality that lies above the individual details of any single system of thought. And to me, it seems that the only such measure that stands any chance of being defended, is the simple measure of human happiness or contentment.
The state of human well-being is, after all, the only evidence we have of the effects of moral prescriptions. We cannot measure how happy God or Allah or Vishnu is when we kill in their name. But we can measure the great suffering of humanity that accompanies such violence.
In short, then, we cannot condemn the violent acts of Osama bin Laden unless we condemn all violent acts of his kind: acts that do not have the welfare of all people in mind, but whose primary purpose is to meet untestable, indefensible standards of justice.
To condemn such violence, then, is to hold up a humanist conception of morality that makes no assumptions about the supernatural, even if one does, in fact, believe in gods.