Religion and Morality - The Sacrifice of Isaac
1. There are universally recognized moral standards, binding even on the
atheist: (it is wrong to torture small children for fun); gratitude; property rights
(e.g. wrongness of depriving the isolated farmer of his produce).
2. These standards create non-specific moral obligations: the benefactor is
owed any (otherwise morally permissible) service he requests up to the limit
of the debt of gratitude; the owner can set any (otherwise morally permissible)
limits on the use of his property.
3. These standards can be applied to our relationship to G-d: we have a great
debt of gratitude to G-d; G-d owns the universe (perhaps minus human beings
- perhaps they cannot be owned in principle) since He created it. Thus His
commands of service and His limits for use (up to the relevant moral limits)
are morally binding.
4. The fact that there are limits to G-d's moral authority makes possible the
problem of innocent suffering. The problem is: if they are innocent, and if
their suffering serves no moral purpose, then G-d is wrong to allow their
suffering. (The solution is that one or both of the if-clauses is false.) Since
our moral debt to G-d is limited we can make this hypothetical judgment.]
5. There can be no distinction in principle between moral and ritual
commandments: since we have a moral relationship with G-d - He has moral
authority with respect to us - all His commandments (up to the limits of His
authority) are morally binding. Eating pork is theft; not putting on teffillin is
6. How can G-d command Abraham to "murder" Isaac? Answer: Life is a
continuous Divine gift; we have no right to more free life. The Provider of life
has the moral prerogative to decide when the free gift shall terminate. We did
not expect immortality! Even a perfectly led life cannot demand continuation.
Just as G-d can decide when life shall end "naturally," so He can order it to be
terminated by human action. Abraham's action is not murder.