From time to time I hear the argument that because God created us, he has the right to destroy us whenever he sees fit. This is a similar authority-based argument to the one that says we are obliged to worship God, or that we should refrain from asking him too many difficult questions (I’ve written previously on those topics here and here).
So does God have the right to kill whenever he likes, simply because he created us? This seems to be the approach we usually take to the ownership of inanimate objects: if I own a car, I’m perfectly within my rights to swing a baseball bat through the windshield. People might think I’m a little daft for doing so, but they’re not likely to see it a morally reprehensible act. It’s my property, and I can dispose of it as I will.
However, inanimate objects are not self-aware. They have no sensations or emotions. And if they have no sensations or emotions, then they have no interests – no desires or needs. It is the property of self-awareness, I would argue, which is key in determining how we treat the objects, animals, and people around us.
When an object lacks self-awareness, it is very easy to place it at a lower level of ethical importance than our own. A rock obviously does not deserve the same moral consideration as my mother. Nor, for that matter, does a bacterium, a plant, or a moth, since none of these appear to be self-aware. And if they are not self-aware, then they have no interests to pursue.
As soon as a being is self-aware, however, and has interests to pursue, it is much harder to place that being on a lower rung of the ethical ladder. We instead have a much closer comparison: my interests must be weighed against those of the other being.
In comparing these interests, we cannot appeal to extraneous factors like gender, species, intelligence, etc. These factors do not make one being’s interests inherently more valuable than another’s. This is, I believe, what is really meant by the claim that all people are equal: they are equal in the sense that their interests are all given the same weight. (Their interests may certainly differ, but no one is handicapped or given special treatment when these differing interests are compared.)
An important part of this equality is that might does not make right. People’s importance in ethical considerations does not increase in proportion to their physical or political power.
This is problematic for the theists’ claim that opened this post. If might does not make right, then why should God’s interests (which may include killing people) supercede our own?
Perhaps we should look to the parent-child relationship to illuminate this issue. Parents can be said to have created their children. Perhaps this creator-created relationship gives parents the right to kill their children whenever they wish? This is not, of course, what we see in real life. Most people recognize that once a child is born (or perhaps at some later stage in development), it becomes self-aware and autonomous, and therefore attains the same moral status as its parents.
Perhaps we should look instead to situations in which killing is condoned in modern society. Some countries, for instance, legalize killings performed in self-defense, or issue the death penalty for especially heinous crimes. What gives governments the right to allow such killings? In both cases, proponents of these practices might argue that death is justified on the basis of the immoral behavior of the attacker (in the case of self-defense) and the criminal (in the case of the death penalty).
So maybe we should conclude that God’s right to kill has to do with our own immorality – if we’re bad enough, we deserve to die. Yet this is also problematic, because God allows entirely innocent people to be killed on a daily basis. Starving infants in Somalia are not dying because they’ve committed a grave crime worthy of the death penalty. Why, then, does God permit these deaths?
Without an answer to this problem, it seems to me that the original claim must be doubted: no self-aware, autonomous being – not even a god – can claim to have a vastly superior moral status to another, because moral status is not dependent on those features that make gods gods and humans human.