Symposium on some immoral forms of prayer 09-16 December

Jewish Prayer

Discussion of Saul Smilansky’s (Haifa University) recent article, “A Problem About the Morality of Some Common Forms of Prayer” (Ratio 25:2, 2012) is now underway.

Please click here for opening comments by Professor Scott Davison (Morehead State).

Professor Smilansky has kindly agreed to participate in the symposium.


Event Details
  1. Saul Smilansky

    I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss my work and to Scott for his thoughtful comments. I won’t take up all of the varied and interesting points he makes but will focus on our disagreements. As a philosopher who’s ego is naturally connected to his views, I am glad that Scott thinks that the worries I raise are significant, and that by and large my case is convincing; although there is something in me that wishes matters were different. For my claim is that normative, otherwise good people, who quite naturally pray, are actually often doing something morally problematic, and this thought is disturbing – for I also sympathize with those people. There is something “crazy” about the thought that a mother praying in a conventional way for her son to be saved may be doing something very dubious, morally, but such a “crazy ethics” conclusion just seems to me to be the case in many real life situations.

    One matter which is perhaps mostly a matter of emphasis is the attitude of the people praying. Scott says that “the agents think that what they are doing has a real chance of achieving an end that they believe would be bad on the whole”. This is a bit stronger than I would go, and need to go. I think that, in the sort of examples I describe, people are or can become aware that there is a serious issue involved, i.e. that other human beings are very likely to pay the price if their prayers are answered, and they ought to notice this and take it into account. I do not think that I quite need that they believe that the end they are trying to achieve would be bad overall. Part of what I am trying to say is that people in such contexts should become more aware, and as it were understand their doings as actions (which then have to meet high moral standards), rather than as merely hoping or wishing.

    Later on, when Scott discusses my stance on the more objective aspects of the problem, he says that “if Smilansky is right to suggest that believers are not entitled to hold that God is omnipotent, then they are also not entitled to hold that their prayers can make a difference”. But I don’t see why. If we begin to see prayer ( in the sort of examples I describe) as a form of intentional action then, as long as the believer believes that God is a powerful agent, then the issue I raise seems to me to be relevant. The thought that he might not be quite omnipotent, or (and this seems to me even more salient) that the praying person cannot take for granted that God will always wish to intervene, and do so in a morally good way, is available even if God is not all-powerful and all-good. Indeed, my point is that in praying in such situations one is, as it were, “playing with fire”, under conditions of some uncertainty; and given the way our world seems to be morally far from perfect, it is reasonable to have doubts about the deity. Such doubts suffice to make prayer morally RISKY, and that is all I think I need for my argument.

    A third point where Scott and I seem to disagree concerns what I call the “Moral escape clause” (or MEC), the thought that one can pray as one wishes, for in the end God will “filter” one’s morally unacceptable aims and only deliver on those prayers that are kosher. Scott agrees that it would often simply be false to describe the phenomenology of the believers as incorporating a robust MEC but, based on the MEC, he seems to think that sometimes “there could be a difference between bringing about E on my own and asking God to bring about E”. But here I take myself to have given arguments why – even when the believers hold MEC – this is not the end of the worry. I won’t repeat all of the points I made, but in addition to the issue of uncertainty and risk I considered in the previous paragraph, it is not clear that subscribing to MEC suffices. That is why the example of the girl who prays that her head teacher be served with a cruel death is disturbing, even if she is convinced that her aim is just – it says something problematic about the character of the praying agent. My claim was that if we put all the emphasis on the MEC, then this case does not differ as much as we would wish from cases like AVALANCHE and HOSPITAL, where those praying are normative people engaging in socially acceptable practices. Likewise, but more radically, if simply leaving all the moral labor to God were acceptable, then we are faced with a problem: what, then, is wrong with trying to kill people, and then leaving it to God to decide whether he wants to do something about it? If, as I claim, praying is, like shooting, an action aiming to make a difference in the world, then we have a problem if we rely only on the MEC. For, the MEC is available just as much to the would-be killer, and (while I would not want to give any bad people ideas) – it does not seem plausible to assume, in our context, that it would be more difficult for God to stop the bullets than it would be to block the unacceptable prayers.

    1. Scott Davison

      Thank you for the comments on my comments. I wonder about your claim that in order for your moral criticism to go through, the agents you describe need not think that what they are asking for is, on the whole, bad. If the agents in question don’t believe this, or don’t have any firm belief either way, then doesn’t this remove the basis of the moral criticism?
      In your reply to my comments, you say that “in the sort of examples I describe, people are or can become aware that there is a serious issue involved, i.e. that other human beings are very likely to pay the price if their prayers are answered.” In your paper, though, you said that in these cases, “prayer is aimed at furthering a certain goal, whose achievement is believed to entail or depend, beyond any reasonable doubt, on an undeserved death.” It seems to me important to clarify this point. In the original formulation, the ‘undeserved’ in ‘undeserved death’ was doing all of the work, but it’s very hard to formulate this precisely. I struggled with my own formulation, because I can image similar cases in which less is at stake than the undeserved death of another person, but I am open to another formulation.
      Also, I don’t find it at all “crazy” to think that “a mother praying in a conventional way for her son to be saved may be doing something very dubious, morally.” I think that people display this kind of self-interested preference all the time, so of course it would show up in the life of prayer also. Thank you for your comments, again.

      1. Saul Smilansky

        Scott – thanks for your reply. I agree that prayer may be morally dubious even when the end does not involve an undeserved death; a serious undeserved harm may suffice, although in my paper I focused on death. As to your formulation, as I said, this is mostly just a matter of emphasis, but I am not sure that I should require a firm belief by the people praying that their actions would be bad, overall. They may in fact not care much, but still my point would be that they SHOULD be more aware, and care, and hence they may be liable to moral criticism. As to the “crazy ethics” thought: I did not mean that it would be crazy to think that we could have the sort of mother I was describing in my example, we both agree that this sort of thing happens all the time. This is in fact necessary in order for my arguments to matter in real life. My point is that there is something “crazy” – but still hopefully true – about my claim that normal, normative people, praying in a natural way for their loved ones under challenging conditions, are morally dubious. We do not typically think in this way of such people, but if my arguments are persuasive, we ought to see them differently than we do, and see such typical prayer in a different light.

        1. Scott Davison

          This is interesting. I would be curious to see what others think about this, because as soon as I know that someone has offered a prayer of the sort you describe, I immediately think of this as a moral failure on their part; I no longer think of them simply as “normal, normative people, praying in a natural way for their loved ones under challenging conditions,” without also thinking of them as having failed a test, so to speak. Perhaps this simply illustrates the deep degree to which I accept your conclusion. 🙂

    2. Dani Rabinowitz

      Thanks to Saul and Scott for a lively and interesting conversation.

      I am fascinated by the following lines in Saul’s paper: “The question of the objective rationality of the belief in the efficacy of prayer is not our central concern here. What we care about, when morally evaluating people who pray, is primarily subjective rationality: whether the praying agents themselves think that there is a real chance that their prayers will achieve their goals, so that, through prayer, they will have made a difference, and God will deliver what they are asking for.” I am interested to hear more about this distinction. As I understand these lines, a moral attribution is made on the basis of factors relevant to the subject not the ascriber. In other words, factors relevant to the subject performing the action determine whether or not the subject’s action is moral or immoral. This reminds me of the debate between contextualists and subject-sensitive invariantists about knowledge attributions where the two camps divide, roughly, as per which set of factors, the subject’s or the ascriber’s, which make for a difference in attribution. If Saul is pointing towards such a distinction, then am I correct in thinking that moral terms might be susceptible to the kinds of semantics at the heart of the debate about the semantics for ‘knows’?

      It seems to be that a person who falsely believes that pushing pins in a voodoo doll is not doing something immoral since her action brings no harm to the intended victim. That is, agents who are deluded as to the causal efficacy of their actions are not subject to moral censure. Or do I just have an unusual intuition about this?

      Lastly, on the question of MEC, perhaps people who pray for x assume that all things considered the state of affairs that includes x is overall better than the state of affairs that excludes x. That is, it is all things considered better that S survives than S does not survive. This may provide the skeptical theist with the requisite machinery for explaining why it is not immoral to pray for things that would ordinarily bring some harm to someone else. That is, it is morally permissible to ask God to bring about that harm to another person because the person offering up the prayer believes that it is all things better that that person comes to harm. Now that belief may very well be false. And it might be irrational for those supplicants who come to reflect on the kinds of defeaters for that belief discussed by Saul and Scott. But for the average supplicant, it is probably safe to assume that the kind of background tacit assumption discussed here will be in place, thereby opening the way for a solution to our problem resting on themes associated with skeptical theism. This picture needs to be worked out more and it will obviously invite the kinds of problems associated with skeptical theism.

      1. Saul Smilansky

        Dani – I do have a very different intuition about the voodooer. I might be glad that he falsely thinks that that’s the way to murder his enemies, but if this is his intention, then (assuming there is no justification such as self-defense) he is a bad person, with terrible intentions, and is therefore liable to moral censure. Moreover he is dangerous to have around, i.e. if he revises his methods. Morally, HE could not complain were we to detain him for attempted murder. At least that’s how it seems to me.

        On the MEC, my examples are supposed to be representative of typical believers. If they are, then on many occasions it would be false to say that the people praying believe that e.g. their survival would be all-considered morally good. In AVALANCHE, for example, this would entail that the person believe that all those children in the village deserve to die, and that seems highly implausible.

      2. Scott Davison

        Dani, I think you may be pointing to the distinction between evaluating an action and evaluating a person. When you say that “a person who falsely believes that pushing pins in a voodoo doll is not doing something immoral since her action brings no harm to the intended victim,” I think you are evaluating the action, and using an objective standard of harm. But would you say that this person is a good person, morally speaking? Here the subjective factors seem to carry the day.

        1. Dani Rabinowitz

          Thanks for this distinction Scott. I am inclined to think that if we can distinguish the action from the person when it comes to moral censure, then I agree that the person is liable to moral censure but the action is not. If this is the case, then there are not immoral forms of prayer after all, but rather immoral people offering up prayers that are causally inefficacious since they violate what a benevolent God can reasonably expected to do.

          1. Saul Smilansky

            Dani – thanks for your comments. But I don’t understand why you think that the acts are not wrong.

          2. Sam Lebens

            My intuitions are with you here Dani, but Saul is right to demand further clarification.

  2. Hayyim Rothman

    I think that if the issues raised in this article are to be considered in light of Judaism, they must be examined from within the specific context of Jewish theology and practice. For the sake of argument let us, first, adopt Maimonides as a philosophical and legal exemplar and, second, suppose that the problem can be reduced first to a question of the theory of providence and, second, to one of the laws of prayer.

    It is well known that Maimonides understood providence in terms of human agency. Namely, that “divine” providence is realized wherein men perfect their own intellects such that they make choices which will tend (on the whole) to improve their chances of living well and avoiding danger. To the same extent that the laws of nature are “providential” insofar as they were created by God, so too is the exercise of reason “providential” insofar as man was “created in the image of God,” granted an advanced mind.

    Following this reasoning, Maimonides could not advocate a notion of prayer which supposed its immediate efficacy. Maimonidean faith would preclude it because it would suppose that God acts directly in nature, not as mediated via the laws of nature or human intellect. If so, then prayer could not be regarded, even potentially, as an “act” in the way which Smilansky supposes it in the cases of avalanche, hospital, or school, as he states “There is little moral difficulty if the person does not really believe that his or her prayer has any efficacy of the relevant sort.”

    Again, while in principle, Maimonides recognizes that biblical law dictates only that one pray daily for ones needs and to praise god, actual Jewish practice has given prayer a required form. That prayer which has ritual significance is the amidah. Moreover, as in the aggadic case cited by Maimonides early in the Guide, additions to that formula are to be discouraged. As such, so far as the actual form of Jewish prayer speaks in general and not with respect to particular, potentially morally compromising cases, it evades the problem. I would, in essence, suggest that a distinction be made between “prayer” and “Jewish prayer.” The latter is halachic, formulaic, prayer only and, as such, lies outside the questions raised Smilansky because there will be no specifically “Jewish” prayer event in the cases raised by him (avalanche, hospital, school).

    Moreover, if Smilansky’s analysis be restricted to popular piety then I grant their relevance. However, popular piety is not necessarily a specifically Jewish concern. In fact, it seems to me that Jewish philosophy and law, at least as understood by Maimonides, sets as its (at least partial) goal the reform of popular piety, release from superstition.

    It is given that the cognitive dissonance underlying the prayer situations raised by Smilansky will nonetheless have ethical significance, which is not unimportant, but if we accept the boundaries of a specifically Jewish context, they will constitute prayer “acts” neither in terms of theology nor in terms of praxis. As such, they will have no uniquely Jewish import. This, I feel, is entirely consistent with Smilansky’s own article, wherein he makes no sectarian claims.

    1. Sam Lebens

      Though we have recognised that Hayyim’s point doesn’t speak to Saul’s paper in particular, I think it worth pointing out that even Maimonides might find himself caught in the headlights of Saul’s arguments.

      Certainly, somebody who is educated in Maimonidean philosophy will not believe in the efficacy of such prayer, and will pray in the formula of the Rabbis for the sorts of reasons that Hayyim alludes to.

      But, Maimonides is clear in both his Guide and in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishna, that there is plenty of room for folk-theology; that there are certain theological falsehoods that aren’t so damaging for the masses to believe in, and may even be good for them to believe in (for a variety of reasons).

      I think, therefore, that even in a Judaism conducted precisely according to Maimonidean guidelines, there will still be many Jews (albeit of an intellectual under-class) who would be brought up to pray the sort of prayers that Saul describes in his paper.

      And, if this is morally problematic, then Maimonides hasn’t got off scott-free.

      1. Hayyim Rothman

        I think Sam makes a valid point. I would add, however, that the specifically communal (and regulated) aspect of Jewish prayer does offer, on the whole, a way out of the conundrum. Case in point, see Taanit 2a. There, the prayer for rain is omitted from the amidah for several weeks following the holiday of Sukkot for the express reason that adding it would amount to praying that pilgrims returning to Babylon do so under difficult circumstances.

        This, of course, stands outside my comment on Maimonides, but it is relevant to the question of how or to what extent the larger problem pertains to a specifically Jewish context of prayer.

        1. Hayyim Rothman

          Correction: the reference is Taanit 10a.

          1. Sam Lebens

            I’d forgotton about this source, indeed, if I’d ever heard of it in the first place. It shows a lovely sensitivity to Saul’s point. Thanks.

  3. Saul Smilansky

    Thank you for your comments. I do not come to this discussion from a background in Jewish scholarship or, indeed, in the philosophy of religion, but from normative ethics. More specifically, my interest in the issue of prayer followed my earlier reflection over the question whether people can morally be happy when bad things happen to others, including innocent others. I concluded, surprisingly, that the answer sometimes is Yes (see the chapter “On not being sorry about the morally bad” in my book Ten Moral Paradoxes). From there I naturally began to think not only of attitudes towards past or present events but about trying to bring them about, through prayers – and what that says about the virtue of the agents. My concern over the position you attribute to Maimonides is that, philosophically, it seems to me too extreme. Morally, I would not think that we would want to make the “cut” there, so that almost all prayer is then relegated to the realm of problematic “popular piety”. Rather, much common petitionary prayer would be perfectly acceptable, and only some (such as in the problem cases I describe) would be seen to be morally problematic. Or perhaps we would also want to devise a third category, of prayer that is dubious because it is superstitious even if it is not morally problematic as such. In any case, again from the perspective of moral philosophy (and not from that of Jewish scholarship about which I am not qualified to speak), one would hope for a way to distinguish the great bulk of petitionary prayer which does not raise moral issues, from prayer in cases such as those I present.

  4. Hayyim Rothman

    I understood that in writing your article you were not coming at the issue from the vantage of Jewish studies or philosophy of religion. I focused on the latter only on the assumption that this is what was expected given the forum and, as I said at the end of my first comment, intended no attack on your work as it was conceived by you. I hope, and think, you took it this way.

    As to the question of popular piety and the need for a more liberal attitude toward it, I am uncertain myself. On the one hand I am inclined to agree with you if only to validate the spiritual expression of most adherents to traditional religions. On the other hand, I think that religious faith can be a very dangerous thing. One of the interesting things about a rigorous interpretation of Judaism along the lines I gestured at is that broader and uncontrolled explosions of religious enthusiasm are contained by significant constraints in place at a far more manageable scale of theology and praxis. If you are interested in this issue as it pertains to Jewish thought I would recommend Menachem Kellner’s “Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism.”

    1. Saul Smilansky

      Thanks for your reply; I did take your points as you intended them. I accept that religious “enthusiasm” can be dangerous, but for various reasons (such as my liberalism) I would want that religious people be allowed to pray in popular ways. I would only draw the line at certain forms of petitionary prayer, such as the ones I describe, for moral reasons; and see the need for more awareness by the people praying of what is involved. Since my claim here is more modest (although still surprising), and does not pertain to all prayer, it is philosophically stronger.

  5. Larry Dossey, MD

    I became interested in this issue on discovering a 1994 Gallup poll that found that 5 percent of Americans have prayed for harm to come to others. They are just the one-in-twenty who will admit it; the actual prevalence of using prayer to harm others is undoubtedly much higher (Gallup poll reported in Life magazine, March 1994).

    I have authored a book on this subject: Be Careful What You Pray For (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997).

    There are many scientific studies showing that intentions to harm living things actually do so. These studies are in non-humans because it is illegal to perform studies in humans whose purpose is to harm them (See: above book, section on “Scientific Evidence,” pp. 165-193).

    The possibility that people may use their intentions to harm others is not conjectural or hypothetical. Hard evidence supports this possibility. These intentions often take the form of prayer. I need not remind you that curses (in the name of God) or common in the Christian Bible.

    Very best wishes,

    Larry Dossey, MD

  6. Aaron Segal

    Thanks Saul and Scott for this very interesting symposium! I had some questions about Saul’s objections to the “moral escape clause”. The first is directed at the third objection (by my count), which is based on an analogy to a case in which one tries to harm another person, but invokes (?) a moral escape clause to the effect that if God doesn’t want that person to suffer harm, God will step in and stop it from occuring. Saul says, “It would be considered immoral for them to do those things even if they believe that God is an omnipotent, benevolent being. Yet surely it is no more effort for God to block human deeds than to perform those deeds for them. This further challenges the view that “I may pray for prima facie morally unacceptable things, and leave all the moral responsibility to God”.”

    But I don’t see how that’s to the point. There is a clear disanalogy between the cases, and it has nothing to do with the difficulty God might have in getting involved: it’s that in one case you are asking that God do something that you believe will cause someone else harm and in the other case YOU are doing something that you believe will cause someone else harm. And the disanalogy seems relevant for at least two reasons:

    (1) while most believers think that God will not perpetrate an evil, many — even among those who believe God is omnipotent and perfectly benevolent — still believe that God won’t prevent every human being from perpetrating an evil; moreover, it seems like a morally responsible person could hold such a combination of views, and I think many do. So I don’t think there *is* a moral escape clause there for a person to invoke in the case of a believer inflicting harm on another. (If the believer believes not only in an omnipotent and perfectly benevolent being but also in one who prevents every human being from perpetrating an evil, then this point falls away, but then I’m not sure what to say about cases involving such a person: the person seems hopelessly benighted and should perhaps be held morally responsible for acting in such a benighted state, but I’m not sure.)

    (2) For the deontological and virtue theoretic reasons you allude to, it might well be wrong for us human beings to directly bring about certain states of affairs (involving harm to others), even if they are ones that maximize (with respect to the alternatives available to us) overall goodness. But those considerations might not make it wrong for God to bring about those very same states of affairs (if there is anything at all that is wrong for God to do; Alston, I believe, takes issue with the notion of divine obligations). To take a Talmudic example, if Reuven and Shimon are in a desert and only Shimon has a canteen with just enough water to survive, but Shimon is a really rotten person and far and away the better overall state of affairs is that Reuven ends up with the canteen and Shimon dies (better, that is, than the reverse), it still seems that on deontological/virtue theoretic grounds, Reuven ought not take Shimon’s canteen from him, and even if Reuven *knows that the relative values of states of affairs*, he still ought not. (Interestingly, whether that further point accords with what the Halakha would say depends on how one reads the line in BT Sanhedrin that “Who says your blood is redder…”.) But it’s not obvious to me that God ought not (again, if God can have obligations) bring about that state of affairs. The basic point is that — at least for a believer — it’s not for man to *play God*, meting out desert and all, and it would be arrogant (at minimum) for him to take up that task. (I realize that these grounds might not align perfectly with those cited by deontologists.) But the same cannot be said of God, of course, since it *is* for God to mete out desert. So, even if the believer believes that God will always prevent him from bringing about less-than-optimal states of affairs, that doesn’t make it morally permissible for him to try to directly bring about just any state of affairs whatsoever. And yet, it might well be permissible for him to ask God to bring about that very state of affairs on the condition that it is in fact optimal, since when God does, God would be doing what’s right.

    I have a bunch of other thoughts/questions, but I’ve run out of time for now. Hopefully more tomorrow.

    1. Saul Smilansky

      Aaron – good challenges. I think my analogy is useful because (a) under my interpretation prayer of the relevant sort can be understood as a type of action, although it requires completion by God and (b) in both cases (when you pray and when you shoot) the thought would be of a division of labor, where the moral responsibility is pushed on to God. If that is so, then why not let God decide on both matters, i.e. whether to grant the prayer or stop the bullet?

      As to your two further points: (1) On the belief that God will never grant immoral prayers, and he will never(?) stop our wrongdoing: this seems a bit too contingent to me. Why not believe that God will sometimes grant one’s (morally problematic) wishes, and not only allow one to do the (morally problematic) work oneself? A watertight “doing versus allowing” distinction pertaining to the deity? The idea of getting your wishes granted (presumably irrespective of moral considerations) – say, any three wishes one expresses – is common in folk tales. And the world does not obviously seem to be one where a believer could be certain that God does not grant occasional morally problematic prayers. For a believer who wishes to be moral, better drop the MEC and not take the risk. (2) I agree that sometimes it might make sense for a person to think that God will do things that she may not, but the sort of cases I describe do not lend themselves easily to that description. I doubt whether the woman in HOSPITAL or the man in AVALANCHE care very much how their child or themselves, respectively, will be saved, and the thought that they will believe that this result will appear within the category of the permissible to God but not to man seems far-fetched here. To be morally safe, a believer should not pray for the sort of thing that she thinks she would not be permitted to do herself.

      1. Aaron Segal

        Thanks for the reply and sorry for the delay. I think we have to distinguish between two different strands in your criticism, one which prescinds from the rationality of reasonableness of the religious belief system of the one who is praying, relying instead only on what the person happens to believe (or hold with certainty), and the other which essentially relies on an alleged unreasonableness of certain beliefs (or of holding those beliefs with certainty), ones which but for their unreasonabless would perhaps morally justify the prayer.

        It’s not always clear to me when which strand is in play. For example, when you cite the folk tales about “being granted three wishes,” do you take that to be relevant because you think many (most?) believers in fact endorse such a view of prayer, or do you take that to be relevant because you think a believer is not rational in ruling it out? If it’s the former, then that’s an empirical claim which seems false to me, and at least with respect to the believers with whom I hang out, but I think we’d do best to investigate the question more systematically with standard empirical methodology (this relates to the discussion between you and Sam — I’m not sure what the “principle of charity” is that’s being invoked, but I would think the best way to find out the answer to the question of what believers believe is whatever the best way is to find out what anyone believes about anything). I suppose even if your empirical claim were false, your criticism would still apply to the group of people who “satisfy” your assumption; it’s just that I’m not sure it’s a “common form of prayer” and I’m also not sure anyone would find it “crazy” that there’s something objectionable about someone praying to what he takes to be more-or-less a genie for the death of many villagers.

        If you meant the latter — and the second strand is explicit in other comments of yours — then responding to the various ways in which you could elaborate the second strand would, I think, require a serious foray into the philosophy of religion. I don’t think it would be a good idea to try to do that here (especially with just one day left in the symposium!), but I do think it’s noteworthy that one can’t level the second sort of moral criticism while ignoring general questions in the epistemology of religion. (I’ll say that with respect to the particular issue of genies, the fact that there are folk tales with genies doesn’t seem to undermine in the least the rationality of someone who believes that God is not relevantly like a genie!)

        1. Saul Smilansky

          Aaron – good, I do feel that we are making progress. The cultural “three wishes” idea wasn’t doing any necessary work in my previous reply to you, and I could say all I need without it. My point there was merely that the thought is surely available to the believer, that dubious wishes may be granted, and therefore she should be careful. Dishonest exploitative merchants, or cruel soldiers of oppressive armies, pray all the time for God’s assistance. The world does not create the impression, for a believer, of being a place where such prayers are never granted. It is not as though only the prayers of the righteous seem to be working. Noticing this is not something I can claim any originality for. So this is one small block in the argumentative structure I am trying to construct, whereby people do not seem to be taking sufficient care in their prayers.

          My aim in the paper was to make us conscious of a set of practices that seem very curious, and morally problematic: normal people, who otherwise appear to be behaving according to proper moral norms, operate in dubious ways in prayer. This dubiousness appears given what we take them to be believing, and is increased once we reflect critically whether they can defend those beliefs. So, for example, if we take the MEC, I wanted to say both that this assumption is not always plausibly attributed in any robust operating- way to many people in situation such as AVALANCHE and HOSPITAL, and that even if it is, this does not completely get them off the hook. And I gave reasons for both claims. But I do not take myself to have said anything that would put my claims out of reach for believers. I think that believers should (and some have) agreed with me. As I said in the paper, I am not raising theological difficulties, but pointing out an odd, problematic but neglected moral feature of our world.

          Put this another way. If we review much of our fruitful discussion above, it can be characterized as an attempt to counter my claims by taking the concerns I raise and spreading them out into several harmless boxes: either praying believers do not really act, or no real believer will think X when acting in this way, or a real believer may think X when praying because she may take the MEC for granted, or if a believer thinks X then this shows that she isn’t a good believer in a way that we have known all along, and so on. I, on the other hand, have tried to argue in two ways: (a) first, often there are no separate boxes here so much as a continuum. (b) Secondly, even if we want to speak about boxes, and even if I grant that many people would go into harmless boxes, still a great many people who are normally quite moral would still be left, in the context of praying, in a place that is both surprising and morally disturbing.

  7. Sam Lebens

    Saul, I thoroughly enjoyed your paper. Thank you.

    I’d like to raise two points for further discussion.

    I think we can all agree that some prayers and religious ritulas are manifestly immoral, such as the BOARDING HOUSE case, or the vodoo case. Your contention is that, despite superficial differences, the AVALANCHE and HOSPITAL case are, on further anaylsis, morally equivalent to the manifestly immoral cases.

    But, I think it remarkably telling that most people who would engage in such prayers and rituals wouldn’t actively try to bring about the death of head-teachers, the destruction of villagers, horrible motorbike accidents, or even the thrusting of a pen into a boss’ face.

    So, there are a large class of people who would pray for immoral outcome x, but do no other sort of action to bring it about. Call that class of people, class A.

    Class A clearly divides into at least two sub-classes, call them classes B and C. Class B is the group of people who, all things being equal, would actively attempt to bring about immoral outcome x, not merely through prayer, were it not for some external obstacle. That is to say, the mother is afraid of going to prison, so she doesn’t poor oil on the roads to make motorcyclists slip; the vodooist uses her pen on the photo, believing that it will hurt her boss, because she fears doing it without the power of vodoo, because she’ll obviously get caught; or, she doesn’t have the guts. So, class B would happily bring about immoral outcome x themselves, were it not for some external fear or obstacle. Instead, they request that God, or the powers of vodoo act on their behalf. Class B seem clearly to warrant our condemnation.

    But what about Class C? Class C, I think is probably the larger class in actual fact of real life worshippers. Class C is the class of people who would pray for the immoral outcomes that you mention in your paper, but wouldn’t act to bring them about themselves. Not because they are afraid of the concequences, or lack the courage, but because they know it to be immoral, and they simply wouldn’t do it.

    The facinating question, I think, is this: Why does class C pray for outcome x when they couldn’t bring themselves to act on their own to bring about that outcome, because they wouldn’t be able to justify it to themselves? Why can they justify the prayer and but not the option of acting to bring about the outcome themselves?

    To me this suggests that more is going on in the minds of Class C than you seem to give credit for. You think it unlikely that many of them are thinking about the Moral Escape Clause (after all, many people believe in God but have cause to doubt his omnipotence and/or omnibenevolonce). I would suggest, on the contrary, that Class C, if they are at all rational, must, at least tacitly, be appealing to the MEC.

    A second option is that class C doesn’t really believe that God is going to act on their behalf. This would be a shocking finding: it suggests that the majority of people who pray the sort of prayers that you descirbe (all such worshippers who couldn’t morrally justify acting to bring about outcome x on their own, which I would bet constitutes a majority of Class A) don’t really believe in the efficacy of such prayers. So why do they pray? Perhaps their prayer is a primitive human instict of reaching out towards the loving embrace of God in a terrible time of distress. This isn’t to say that they are actually atheists. But, I’m suggesting, as a possible analysis of the motivations of Class C, that they are theists who don’t actually pray to bring about outcome x, but pray because they need to seek solace in their God in a terrible time of distress.

    The second point I’d like to discuss is this: perhaps the MEC is more plausible than you give it credit for. You raise the point that most people at least harbour some doubt as to the morality of God. Indeed, Abraham, the founder of Western monotheism himself, was heard to raise such a doubt, ‘Shall the judge of all the earth not act justly?’. But, to pray to God in the face of something that strikes the worshipper as unjust (his own untimely death at the hands of an avalanche, or the death of a child through organ failure) is specifically to raise you hope that God is moral; it is to raise the hope that, at the receiving end of your prayers, is a kind and loving God with the power to act with kindness and love to releive you of your situation. If that is the case, then perhaps prayer always comes hand in hand with the MEC. Becuase, if it is the good and loving God that you are trying to appeal to, in the hope that he really is good and loving, then you’re also tacitly hoping that he’ll find a way out of this situation for you and for the world that actually maximises goodness and kindness.

    1. Scott Davison

      Sam, these are great questions and comments. Thank you. I think that petitionary prayers do serve the other functions that you mention. It is also interesting to think about the differences between classes A, B, and C in terms of moral luck (some do not act immorally only because of luck in the form of external obstacles).

  8. Saul Smilansky

    Sam – thanks for the kind words and very helpful comments. I agree that your C people are our main focus. But I think that we need more letters… Clearly we are not interested in homicidal maniacs here, but not being ready to do things one feels might be morally dubious with your bare hands yet leaving them to someone else to do is not uncommon. Like many others, I regularly enjoy my Schnitzel yet would not do anything to a live chicken. I am too chicken. So part of what’s interesting in our topic is how normally normative people can function in what I claim are morally dubious ways, under conditions of severe anxiety or great impending loss. I do think that the MEC plays a big explicit and implicit role, and that is why I argued in such detail that it cannot carry all that weight. But I also think that other methods help normative people to be morally dubious. One is vagueness as to what prayer quite IS: if it is a mere hope or expression of a wish then moral standards are lax, if it is a species of action as I argue then it is more difficult to get away with murder (or even lesser wrongs). Another thing that helps is not paying too much attention to the moral price, through selective attention. For example, the woman in HOSPITAL might fantasize about a motorcyclist being dumped at the hospital gates, but is more likely just to avoid the thoughts as to where the saving organ will come from. And so on. In other words, we are thinking of otherwise normative human beings in a situation of severe potential cognitive and emotional dissonance, on various levels. Just as there will be a wide spectrum as to how helpless/trusting/optimistic believers in such situations will feel, there will be great variety in how far “they are willing to go”, personally and morally, and in the stories they tell themselves so as to make it easier to – if my claims are plausible – act in morally dubious ways in prayer.

    About your second point, that since the appeal in such prayer is to a loving and just God, “then perhaps prayer always comes hand in hand with the MEC”. Again, that will be a common pattern, and humans as it is tend to see justice as being on their side. But the “always” seems to me too rosy. People find it very easy to pray before or during sporting matches, for their team to win, and even more explicitly, e.g. for the star of the opposing team to be wounded. Many of them do not seem to be too troubled by the implications (it is easy to interpret such calls for external support as cheating, i.e. as being against the spirit of the game; and of course wishing harm on your sporting “enemies” can be more directly morally questionable). Even more seriously, it is easy to imagine a soldier praying for the safety of himself or for people on his side, even if he thinks that his side started the war wrongfully and is thus the unjust party. In other words, one can recognize moral rights and wrongs and yet pray in a partisan manner.

    1. Sam Lebens

      Thanks Saul for you response.

      I’d like to see if I can push you just a little bit further.

      Without thinking about homicidal maniacs, lets look at the class of people who wouldn’t butcher a chicken by themselves, but would buy and eat the meat – Let’s call that class, class 1.

      Class 1 clearly divides too. The following list certainly isn’t exhaustive, but here are some of the important subclasses of class 1. Class 2 is the group of people who wouldn’t kill the chicken because they couldn’t bring themselves to do so morally. I think this shows a real moral flaw in them. They think it immoral to kill the chicken but are fine with supporting the practice from a distance. Class 3 is the group of people who wouldn’t want to butcher the chicken because of aesthetic or emotional reasons, but don’t think that the practice is itself immoral (this class divides into the group who have an explicitly formalised ethical theory that explains why killing chickens for their meat is okay, and another group who don’t think they could formalise it for you, but are sure that it isn’t immoral). Class 3 seem to be in much better shape than Class 2.

      And, given a principle of charity, I think it fair to assume that more meat eaters are in class 3 than in class 2.

      I don’t think it’s a particularly profound point to raise ethical concerns with prayers to win a sporting event, or for a sportsperson to get injured. To those cases, your moral critique applies quite trivially. Your hope is to demonstrate that many more seemingly acceptable modes of prayer are just as bad. And thus, you hope to apply your critique to non-trivial cases.

      What makes the trivial sporting case trivial is that most people who pray such a situation don’t seem to deserve all that much in terms of a principle of charity. They are either trivialising prayer, or hoping to act as agents, through the mechanism of prayer, for non-moral or even immoral purposes.

      But what makes the non-trivial cases non-trivial is that most mothers praying for their dying children, or climbers in the face of tremendous peril, seem to deserve more from a principle of charity in interpretation. And I think your argument might underestimate the interpretative charity that is due to them. If there is an interpretation available to us that doesn’t make them immoral, perhaps we owe that interpretation to them.

      Given a principle of charity, your observations might force us into a different conclusion to your own. Your conclusion is that the HOSPITAL and AVALANCHE case are as bad as the SPORTS and BOARDING HOUSE case. But, if you plug in a clearly warranted principle of charity to the non-trivial cases, we might be forced to conclude that the mother and the climber don’t really believe that their prayer is actual agency. This would be a shocking finding to many: that most decent worshipers in these situations aren’t really relating to their prayers as any form of agency, even agency by proxy. But, the finding would be a very interesting one.

      And now, I can drop the ‘always’ that your rightly found objectionable. We can say that in the cases to which your arguments non-trivially apply, what makes them apply non-trivially is that the supplicants in question have good reason to think that justice is, in some strong sense, on their side (which isn’t to say that they think that justice is against the village or the young motorcyclists in the vicinity). Plugging this detail in makes it fair to assume that the MEC is a real part of their prayer (if, indeed, they are relating to their prayer as agency). But, I agree that you do give us reason to think that the MEC isn’t necessarily enough.

      However, I wonder whether the principle of charity owed to the worshipers in your non-trivial cases can’t also help us to flesh out the other tacit assumptions they must be making in order that their prayers should be interpreted as immoral.

  9. Scott Davison

    Saul, I have to ask a picky question: you use the word ‘normative’ occasionally to describe the people we are talking about (as in “normally normative people”). I am familiar with the use of this word in other contexts, where it is applied to claims (“this is a normative claim”) and fields of study (“I work in normative ethics, not meta-ethics”), but I have never seen it used in this way. When you say “normally normative people,” do you just mean people who are typically good people, morally speaking?

    1. Saul Smilansky

      Yes, sorry, just shorthand for something like “people who normally follow common moral norms”.

  10. Sam Lebens

    Despite the critical comments I’ve made, or the directions I’ve wanted to push your arguments in, Saul, I just wanted to point out two things.

    1. Your article has certainly made me think twice about praying that I get any of the particular jobs that I’m applying for; because, if I get it, then other worthy candidates will be rejected. I’d rather win on my merits, fairly, than having God interceded unfairly!

    2. It’s interesting to note how even Jewish folk-theology so often takes into consideration some of the arguments that you raise. For instance, the famous nomenclature, יהי רצון מלפנך, ‘May it be Your will that…’ doesn’t pray for God to intercede, but rather expresses the hope that the outcome you’re rooting for is also willed by God. Presumably, if it turns out that your favoured outcome is actually, unbeknownst to you, immoral, then it goes without saying that we don’t think that God (who we at least hope to be loving and kind) would will it. Instead of saying, please God let my date fall in love with me, the more traditional Jewish prayer, is either (a), may I soon find the right match; or (b) may it be your will that this particular person falls in love with me, which is basically equivalent to saying, may it turn out that this one is the right match for me, and that she falls for me!

    So, may it be God’s will that I get one of the jobs that I applied for!

  11. Saul Smilansky

    Sam – apologies for the late reply, and may you get job offers for all your applications! Just a clarification before I go on to respond to your call for more charity for the people I’ve been considering. The clarification is about the people praying in sporting events: I imagine that there is some variety there as well, and some sporting prayers may be kosher, but I agree that most are problematic in a trivial way. However, I wasn’t using this example as a further case in addition to AVALANCHE and HOSPITAL, just responding to your own claim that people praying would be praying with the thought that God was loving and just. Again, many would be, but the sporting examples (and the more serious war ones I gave) show, I think, that many people seem to pray in the hope that they (or “their side”) win, without much thought that they are seeking impartial justice or the like, i.e., in a blatantly partisan way. That is not a very charitable thought, perhaps, but it seems truer of many of the people praying.

    How many people pray without thought of agency? I don’t know, surely some. But then they would just be off the hook, viz. my concern. How charitable should we be with the others, who are trying to make a difference in the world through their prayers? Well, as always in life, there will be great variety here among persons, and even those who will not seem very admirable to us, may be excusable, or at least merit our sympathy, given that they confronted tragic situations. Not having been (I am assuming) in situations like AVALANCHE or HOSPITAL ourselves, we should not be quick to judge people who are. Yet at the end of the day, as Scott said, we will still have many cases of moral failure here. Surely the man praying in AVALANCHE or similar cases is more disturbing than almost any case of sport-related prayer. So I doubt whether plausible charity can cover all the significant cases of agency-prayer.

  12. Perry Dane


    A fascinating and thought-provoking paper. We all agree that the girl in BOARDING SCHOOL should be morally condemned, whether or not God actually listens to her prayer. So you’re right that the “moral escape clause,” which if taken seriously would cover her case, is unsatisfactory — it simply sweeps too broadly. But the BOARDING SCHOOL case is different from the other two because the girl in that case is praying for something that is wrong in itself, and not merely wrong in what it entails. So I’d like to suggest a narrower qualification; let’s call it the “divine economy escape clause”: We can, without moral condemnation, pray for a result that is not morally wrong in itself and leave to God whether or how that result can fit into the larger plans of Providence. In fact, it seems to me that this qualification is consistent with the sort of moral latitude we give ourselves in the rest of our lives having nothing to do with prayer or divine intervention.
    Consider the HOSPITAL case, for example. The son who’s urgently waiting for a liver transplant is presumably on a list of potential donation recipients. If he receives a transplant, somebody else lower on this list won’t, and might die. So is it immoral for the son to ask the hospital for a transplant? Of course not. Morality does not necessarily require self-sacrifice. And the son (as long as he doesn’t engage in bribery or deception) can legitimately rely on the medical system to decide where on the transplant list his case belongs. Or consider a variation on the AVALANCHE case. A man is stuck on a mountain in a snowstorm. So are many others. The man uses his cellphone to call for help, knowing that many others are stuck on the same mountain, that the rescue services are short-handed, and that if he is saved, someone else on the slopes might end up being killed. Again, he’s not acting immorally since he can legitimately rely on the rescue services to sort out the appropriate priorities among potential victims.
    Similarly, I propose (subject to one further caveat) that, as long as what we’re praying for is moral in itself, we can legitimately leave to God how and whether the result for which we’re praying fits into the larger divine economy.
    Here the caveat, though: In the HOSPITAL case, the mother is not praying for a specific otherwise-avoidable death, but only that a death that she knows is statistically likely to happen in any event happen sooner rather than later. Moreover, the sacrifice involved is proportional to the good result she’s praying for. In that sense, the AVALANCHE case is actually harder than the HOSPITAL case: the skier is, at least by entailment, seeking the death of a lot of people, and for that matter a lot of people who would not otherwise have to die, simply for the sake of saving his own life. I still think, though with only some confidence, that relying on the “divine economy” is an acceptable escape clause, but I would be more comfortable if the skier could pray: “Dear God, please save me, in whatever way you see fit that fits into the larger divine plan, and please, while you’re at it, save me without sacrificing any innocent victims for my sake.”

    1. Saul Smilansky

      Thanks very much, Perry. I think that your suggestion may help to move some people into “safety”, away from the difficulties I have created, but most people will remain in trouble. I like your analogy of the transplant and mountain-rescue cases. But these work because there is no prima facie difficulty in the nature of what one is asking for. One is ill, hence there is no moral issue about asking to be considered for a transplant, one is lost, so one merits consideration for a rescue mission. One is not asking for anything problematic. But in (many and probably most versions of) HOSPITAL, and in (nearly all) versions of AVALANCH, and similar cases, people are praying for something that, on reflection, they should feel is dubious. It is not of the form of BOARDING SCHOOL, but it is dubious nevertheless. The mother is not spreading oil on the roads, but – to put it bluntly – she is eager to get a body with a serviceable organ for her son, quickly and without too much concern over how this comes about, and is praying in order to further that result; the man is not detonating the snow towards the village, but he is pushing for a solution to his personal problem, while believing that this solution will come at the expense of many innocent people. So they are praying for something that morally they could not go out and get for themselves; that it would be wrong to do. The people in your two cases are in a different state. If we imagine that they would be the ones setting priorities, and epistemically had all the relevant priorities right, which they would then follow, then we would not see it as wrong for them to arrange a transplant or a rescue for themselves (we don’t want people deciding in their own cases, but that’s a separate and mostly just a pragmatic concern). Hence we see that there can be nothing wrong in what the people in your cases are doing, but this is not the situation in my cases. The analogy does not seem to work. I think that you recognize this to some extent, and therefore at the end retreat to a formulation of the content of the prayer in AVALANCH that is very moralized. Of course we can have a similar formulation of the prayer in HOSPITAL too. However, as I say in my paper, this is not likely to be the case in most cases of this sort; you would almost need to be a saint in order to pray in THAT way, and there is no reason to attribute such sainthood to the phenomenology of the typical person.

      I think that the combination of tragic situations and the psychological “safety” of “mere” prayer, leads many normal and otherwise decent people to pray in morally problematic ways. That is simply not present in your own two cases, which I agree are not problematic. And if one wants to deal with this problem by greatly moralizing the content of the prayer, as you do at the end, then you succeed in overcoming the moral problem, but have lost most of the relevant people in the process, for they do not pray in this highly moralized way. If they did, we wouldn’t have had the problem in the first place.

      1. Sam Lebens

        Saul, the symposium is, officially over, so feel no pressure to respond. But it seems to me that your reply to Perry, though mostly to the point, doesn’t get to grips with the full power of the analogies he seeks to draw.

        You want to place a wedge between the rescue and the transplant cases (the Perry cases) on the one hand, and HOSPITAL and AVALANCHE (the Saul cases) on the other hand. The basis for doing so is that, in the Perry cases they are not desiring anything inherently immoral. But, in the Saul cases, they are; they are hoping for the speedy death of some young person, or the re-routing of an avalanche that stands to kill many innocent people. In the Saul cases, moral convictions would stop these worshipers bringing about these outcomes on their own, which isn’t the case in the Perry cases.

        But, one interesting feature of the HOSPITAL case, which I think Perry was trying to bring to our attention, is that, as any acturary could tell you, there is a statistical near certainty that there will be exactly n motorcycle fatalities in region p this year (where n is some number that can be predicted with stunning accuracy by a good acturary for any well defined region p, given the right data). All the mother is praying for is that one of these already, so to speak, pre-ordained, fatalaties happens sooner rather than later. That is to say, using Perry’s terminology, the mother prays that the fatalaty will come about in a way that is consistent with Divine providence and Divine calculations much like the hope that the rescue team will come for us, but only as a result of their taking the right considerations to heart, when prioritizing you over others.

        This makes the HOSPITAL case look much more like a Perry case than you seem to give him credit for, although the AVALANCHE case still looks difficult!

        1. Saul Smilansky

          Glad to continue the discussion as long as anyone disagrees with me 🙂
          Sam, you are of course right, apologies to Perry, I wanted to address this point as well but forgot (I replied last night a short while after completing four hours of teaching). I am afraid that I am not convinced at all, even in the HOSPITAL case. I feel that we are making life too easy for ourselves, and then no wonder that sort of solution doesn’t work with the AVALANCH case and many other cases that surely exist. The Perry interpretation of HOSPITAL is simply too contingent. All we need in order to see that the prayer is dubious is to be more specific in certain quite realistic directions. For example, if we position the praying mother not in a huge hospital centered at the heart of a busy metropolis, but in a regional hospital of a rural area, where there are much fewer accidents, then the move doesn’t work. The statistics cease to support the moral legitimacy of the prayer, under the proposed solution, for the supply of accidents is then too meager. If there is a fatal accident only once a month, yet the son needs one today, then we are back to square one. We can get a similar result by complicating the needs: I know nothing about liver transplants, but surely in many such medical emergencies what matters is not just getting any odd body, we would need someone below a certain age, or with a particular blood type, or some more specific fittingness. But surely parents with dying children constantly pray even if they are NOT living in huge cities, or have children with rare medical conditions who are thus in need of solutions which are NOT easy to provide. They pray, and this is the main point, in the SAME way. The mother who prays in the city doesn’t really care about the statistics, she is desperately aiming at a solution, and would aim at the same solution even if she were in the country-side. It doesn’t make sense to think that her prayer only becomes morally dubious once she is moved to the countryside, or if her son’s medical condition is slightly modified. The problem is inherent in the nature of such prayers in tragic situations. We can sympathize with the people, but their prayers are typically morally very problematic.

          1. Sam Lebens

            You’ve convinced me! 🙂
            This has been a great discussion. Thank you Saul, and everyone else who took part.

  13. Saul Smilansky

    Thanks, Sam, you leave me with no choice but to let you have the last word…
    Thanks again to the organizers for taking up my work and for the invitation to participate, to Scott for your response and later posts, and to everyone who participated in this excellent and enjoyable debate. Feel free to write to me with new arguments. RATIO does accept replies to published papers so it’s worth trying if, as Clint Eastwood would say, you feel lucky 🙂

  14. Scott Davison

    Does anyone have any suggestions for something that I might read concerning יהי רצון מלפנך, ‘May it be Your will that…’? I confess that I am not very familiar with the tradition here, and I would like to know more. Thank you.

  15. M. Young

    Thanks to all for this fascinating discussion. A request to the moderators: Would it be possible to post a synopsis of the main points that were discussed, argued or assented to over the course of the symposium?

    This would be a nice resource for visitors to the site who might want an overview before (or after) delving into the details.

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