This morning, I watched a debate on the BBC’s The Big Questions programme. During a debate about faith, one panellist claimed that he had remained faithful to his wife for 15 years, not through his own agency but because the Holy Spirit had ‘moved in him.’ Later, he claimed that he’d been moved, again by the Holy Spirit’ to give to a homeless charity. I found these claims deeply troubling for several reasons.
First, the claim that he only acted morally because the Holy Spirit compelled him is troubling because it amounts to a denial of free will and agent-responsibility. If the reason we do good is because a spirit moves us to do good, then we don’t do good because it is right, but because we are compelled to do so. It’s possible that the gentleman intended making a weaker claim than he did – perhaps that he is commanded rather than compelled by the Holy Spirit. Which brings me onto my second concern.
If someone says that they did good because they were instructed to by a spiritual being, then there’s that worry there’s no moral judgement being made by the individual. It’s very hard to call obedience to command a moral theory. Indeed, if we only do right because we are commanded, then we’re not really moral beings at all. The concern is that they’ve subscribed to Divine Command Theory – that what is good is what God says is good. This means that the person receiving commands would obey whatever they believe comes from the Holy Spirit without assessing rightness (because rightness is assured by the fact that it’s a command). And, if someone does whatever they believe to be a command from the Holy Spirit moving within them, then they would be as willing to torture children as they would to remain faithful to their wives or give money to homeless charities. That’s pretty alarming.
I suppose that the gentleman on the panel might reply that he doesn’t always act on command of the Holy Spirit, and that he usually acts on an assessment of the moral worth of an action. But then I would question whether he would be prepared to refuse the command of God – if not, then he doesn’t really act morally when he is ‘moved by the Holy Spirit’, he merely acts obediently. If this is true, then others around him will never be quite sure whether he’s currently acting morally or on what he believes to be the will of God. All this means that he could act on a perceived command to do something terrible in the sincere belief that he acts rightly, or he might act in the belief that his will is not his own.
All in all, this makes it pretty hard to trust someone who claims they act on command of a spiritual presence that makes itself known to them. Would you trust someone who claims to be receiving spiritual instruction or control, and would not question the morality of acting according to whatever the voice in their head commanded? I don’t think I could.