Episode 93 – “The Little People”

Peter Craig is no god. But he has discovered a race of people on a planet who are so much smaller than he is creatures, that David Hume might have described these small people as “though rational, [they are] possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they [are] incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment” (See “To Serve Man” for the full quote ).  A consequence of Hume’s view is that Peter Craig is not bound by the rules of justice in his treatment of the little people, since the conditions of justice are lacking. But Hume would say that Craig ought to be charitable, and treat the little people “gently.”  However, if the conditions of justice don’t apply in cases like these, then treatment of those subjugated to such authority will depend on the arbitrary will of the subjugator. As we see, the little people under Peter Craig’s thumb are unlucky.

If Peter Craig is not bound by the rules of justice in his treatment of these little people, then neither is God bound by justice in his/her/its treatment of us.  God is not required to be just in its treatment of us. How does this square with the idea that God is morally perfect?  For one thing, it doesn’t prohibit God from creating the rules of justice that we are bound to in our treatment of each other, and it doesn’t prevent God from tracking our adherence to those rules in the ultimate judgment of our worth.  In The Monadology, Leibniz says that there will be “no good deed without its reward” and “no evil deed without punishment.”  These can be the case even though the ultimate one who judges is immune from the application of those standards to Him/Her/Itself.

Leibniz offers a further description of God as a being who is not just an engineer, but also a legislator. This characterization may be apt, insofar as God lays down the moral law. Yet Leibniz also  describes the relationship we have to God as a social relationship, and this is less compelling, if God is not bound to obey the rules of justice as we are.  In fact, the more we reflect on the differences between an absolute deity and ourselves, the harder it is to make sense of the idea that we jointly occupy a social space with such a being.

When we respect the property rights of others, we don’t do so because we love them and wish to treat them gently. Rather, it’s because others are capable of making their displeasure with our failure to respect their claims known to us. Hume’s point is that we can’t make our displeasure known to God or any other being vastly more powerful than ourselves, and there would be no point in trying, in part because such a being would have no interest in our property to begin with. Yet, as the case of Peter Craig demonstrates, a god could make our lives miserable, as Craig does with the little people he’s found. If the only argument against such despotic tendencies is to appeal to the deity’s moral sense, its compassion. But can one feel sympathy for beings to whom one is not in a social relationship? Peter Craig doesn’t have the affective repertoire to pull that off.  Perhaps he would have been served by reasoning about the possible case in which he is a little person in relation to others.

Further Reading:

Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777) Section 3, “Of Justice”

Leibniz, Gottfried W., Monadology, in Leibniz, Gottfried, Selected Works, Hackett Publishing,  1989.


“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”
"It's a Good Life"
This entry was posted in reflections and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.