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January 24, 2013

Hitler's TV Show for Kids

OK, so here's one of the quirkiest things I've ever read in an InterVarsity Press book: philosophical speculation about a children's television show hosted by Adolf Hitler.

Believe me, I don't make light of Hitler and his crimes against humanity (not to mention God), and I know that the author of this passage, Michael Ruse, doesn't either. But here's what he writes, in our new book, God & Morality: Four Views:

If a being can exist that has freedom and yet always does the good, why — since we humans are made in the image of God — don't we have freedom and yet always do the good? Why…didn't Hitler go in other directions, perhaps into television with his own children's show, Mr. Schicklgruber's Neighborhood? (165-66)

Philosophers do this kind of thing often. Spinning out extreme "edge cases" can help find either holes in an argument or promising lines of thought needing pursuit. This case, of course, might be just creepy — as we imagine Adolf crooning, "Won't you be my neighbor?" — but it does keep a book of academic philosophy lively!

That's certainly how Prof. Ruse himself sees this scenario. He immediately goes on to confess, parenthetically:

(I want to go on record as saying that this wonderful image will impel me — whether freely or not — to buy hundreds and thousands of copies of this book and give them to all of my friends.)

Even in an admittedly comic, autobiographical aside, a real philosopher can't pass up the chance to get in a little dig for his argument ("whether freely or not"). Well played.

Note to the sales department: Have we held him to his promise to buy lots of copies? :)

God & Morality: Four Views

Update: See Mark Linville's comment and my reply below for an important clarification.

Posted by Jon Boyd at January 24, 2013 9:12 AM Bookmark and Share

Comments

In all fairness to Professor Ruse, I should confess that he was likely playing with an example that I had included in a footnote to my main essay. I am the guilty one. :-)

"Normally, we suppose that one’s moral properties are intimately related to whatever nonmoral or
“natural” properties they display. I think that Hitler was depraved. Ask me why, and I will cite a list of his nonmoral properties: His anti-Semitism, his will to power, monomania, indifference to human suffering and the value of human life, and so on. I might say, then, that Hitler’s depravity is constituted by some
such set of nonmoral properties, P1, P2, P3 and P4. Suppose you observe that, say, Stalin displayed precisely the same set of properties, P1, P2, P3 and P4, and note that he too must have been depraved. You would be puzzled if I agreed that the two were exactly alike in their relevant nonmoral properties, but that, while Hitler was morally depraved, Stalin was a moral saint. We appear to have the same sort of disconnect here between God’s alleged moral property of goodness and whatever nonmoral description holds true of God and his actions. It is as if we were to insist that Hitler would have been “depraved”
even had he grown to be the kindest of men with love in his heart, good will for his fellow man, and his own children’s show Mr. Schicklgruber’s Neighborhood."

Comment by: Mark Linville at January 24, 2013 9:47 AM

Oh my! That's my fault, Mark, for not reading the footnotes carefully enough, and so failing to give credit where credit was due. I definitely would argue that it's "credit" we're talking about, not "guilt." :)

For the record, Prof. Linville's original line is on page 141, footnote 10.

Comment by: Jon at January 24, 2013 9:59 AM

Perhaps I should add--also in defense of Professor Ruse--that he does not seem to me to be using an extreme "edge case" in quite the manner you suggest. (And, beyond all of this, I would be the first to defend such "edge case" thought experiments--of the sort I think you have in mind--in testing out the implications of proffered principles and theories.)

His point is that if theists believe that God has significant moral freedom and yet always acts in ways that are morally right or good, then they are committed to the logical possibility of such a combination. But if it is logically possible, and if God's omnipotence ranges over all such possibilities, they it would seem that God had it within his power to create creatures with such freedom, who always exercise it in morally right ways. Ruse was simply helping himself to an example that was already a part of the "correspondence." His point (to which I think there are some plausible replies) could just as easily have been made with some more mundane example.

I guess that's about it. :-)

Comment by: Mark Linville at January 24, 2013 10:06 AM

@Mark: I see what you mean. The edge case I had in mind, however, was the historical counterfactual you both were using to such good effect, that of history's archetypical moral monster conflated with one of our most unassailably pure-hearted secular saints, Mr. Rogers. As an historian myself, it's that aspect of the thought experiment that initially stuck out most prominently to me as an example taken usefully ad absurdam.

(By the way, did I sound as if I wasn't praising edge cases? On the contrary, doing so was very much my intent here. The words quirky and strange aren't pejoratives in my vocabulary. :)

Comment by: Jon at January 24, 2013 10:27 AM

Thanks,Jon.

Yes, such examples are often used to press a sort of reductio ad absurdum. In my case, however, such examples are often spawned from an acute *sense* of the absurd, fostered by the likes of Gary Larson and, probably in this case, Mel Brooks. Recall the theme song of the play in Mel Brooks' film The Producers: "Springtime for Hitler (...and Germany/Winter for Poland and France)." To imagine a sweatered Hitler-like character in a Mister Rogers role cracks me up.

I would like to think that Professor Ruse picked up on the example because he has a similarly twisted sense of humor. :-)

Comment by: Mark Linville at January 24, 2013 11:09 AM

Ha! Brooks is the perfect reference.

I think we need to get you as a guest writer on Saturday Night Live so this Mr. Schicklgruber's Neighborhood sketch can come to life.

Comment by: Jon at January 24, 2013 11:22 AM

I don't know. It would be awfully hard to beat Eddie Murphy's SNL skit, "Mr Robinson's Neighborhood."

Comment by: Mark Linville at January 24, 2013 2:38 PM

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