#114

June 21, 2009

Is God Morally Praiseworthy?

In one of your responses to the Euthyphro (Question #46), you make the following claim:

The theological misfortune in saying that ‘God could choose to be a malevolent, injurious, cosmic dictator but he has freely chosen not to be’ is that on such a view God is not essentially good. There are possible worlds in which God freely chooses to do evil. Are you really prepared to say that God could have been evil? In such a world, He would not be worthy of worship. But a being which is not worthy of worship by definition is not God. So on your suggested view it seems that God could have failed to be God. This just doesn’t seem to make sense--would atheism be true in such a world? Or would someone else have been God? Would God, then, have been created by that God?

I want to suggest that for God to be worthy of worship, it must be possible for God to fail to be morally virtuous. Here is my argument:

1. For agent S to be morally praiseworthy, S must freely choose to be virtuous.
2. For S to freely choose to be virtuous, there must be a possible world in which S fails to be virtuous.
3. God is a morally praiseworthy agent.
4. Therefore, there is a possible world in which God fails to be virtuous.

I would add that for God to be worthy of worship, God must be morally praiseworthy; there is no merit in acting from necessity since one could not have done otherwise. So being worthy of worship is not an essence of God.

Now to be clear, I believe that in all actualizable worlds, God acts morally praiseworthy - he is the ultimate paradigm of transworld sanctity, as some have called it. But even so, since God does not necessarily act virtuously, he cannot ground moral values. Without some external standard of goodness, he is only acting arbitrarily.

Thank you,

John

As I explained in answer to the earlier question, John, I think that God is essentially good and that it makes no sense to say that a being which failed to be perfectly good could be worthy of worship and therefore be God. It is therefore incoherent to say that there is a possible world in which God is not perfectly good. You’ve got to deal with that argument or your (4) constitutes a reductio ad absurdum of your argument.

Your final comments seem aimed at addressing this concern, but I think they’re confused. You want to affirm that “in all actualizable worlds, God acts morally praiseworthy - he is the ultimate paradigm of transworld sanctity.” But, John, when philosophers speak of possible worlds, they’re talking about actualizable worlds. A possible world is a maximal state of affairs, or a complete description of reality, which is actualizable. If in every actualizable world God is morally good and the paradigm of virtue, then it is, in fact, broadly logically impossible that He act in an unvirtuous way. There is no possible world in which He fails to be good. Therefore, necessarily, He does act virtuously on your view. Far from turning back the force of my argument, then, you actually affirm its conclusion.

Now as for your argument, I think two of its premisses are false. First, it seems to me that (2) is false, both on philosophical and on theological grounds. Philosophically, I’m persuaded by arguments such as have been offered by Harry Frankfurt that free choice does not entail the ability to do otherwise. Imagine that a mad scientist has secretly wired your brain with electrodes so that he can control your choices. Suppose that in the last Presidential election, he wanted you to vote for Obama and had determined that if you were going to vote for McCain he would activate the electrodes and make you cast your vote for Obama. Now as it turns out, you also wanted to vote for Obama, and so when you went into the polling booth you marked your ballot for Obama, and therefore the scientist never activated the electrodes. I think it’s clear that you freely voted for Obama, even though it was not possible for you to do otherwise. What this thought experiment suggests is that the essence of free choice is the absence of causal constraint with respect to your choices; it is up to you alone how you choose.

Now in the case of God, if God is essentially good, then there is no possible world in which He does evil. But does that imply that God does not freely do the good? Not if Frankfurt’s analysis is right. For God acts in the complete absence of any causal constraint whatsoever upon Him. It is up to Him and Him alone how He acts. He therefore acts freely in doing the good. That God is acting freely is evident in the fact that His will is not inclined necessarily toward any particular finite good; He chooses to do whatever He wants.

Theologically, this account of freedom sheds light upon the temptations of Christ and his impeccability. Christ is held by orthodox Christian doctrine to be not merely sinless, but incapable of sinning: he is impeccable. Yet he freely resisted temptation. How is this to be understood? According to the model of the incarnation I have defended (see Question #112), Christ had an ordinary human conscious life. He therefore felt the allure of temptation in all its power. But he summoned his strength and resisted it. I contend that he resisted temptation freely even though there is no possible world in which he succumbed to temptation and became himself a sinner in need of redemption. The Frankfurtian conception of freedom makes sense of Christ’s freely resisting temptation despite his impeccability.

So for reasons quite independent of your argument, I’m convinced that (2) is false.

Perhaps more surprisingly, I also think that (3) is false. Moral praise and blame have to do with duty fulfillment. Someone who fulfills his moral obligations is morally praiseworthy. But as I have explained in my treatment of God’s goodness, I don’t think that God has any moral duties. For moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, and presumably God doesn’t issue commands to Himself. Therefore, He has no obligations to live up to. Borrowing a distinction from Kant, we can say that God acts in accordance with a duty but not from a duty. Because God is essentially loving, kind, impartial, fair, etc., He acts in ways that would for us be the fulfillment of our duties.

This surprising consequence of Divine Command Theory of morality was first pointed out by Thomas Morris in his fine book Anselmian Explorations. Morris seeks to answer the question, then, in what sense is God to be praised. Morris answers that God is to be praised for His supererogatory acts, that is, His acts of goodness that go even beyond one’s obligations. I think there’s a better answer. I think that our praise of God for His goodness is rather to be properly understood in terms of adoration. God is the paradigm and source of infinite goodness, and therefore we adore Him for who He is. We don’t offer Him moral praise in the sense of commending Him for living up to His moral obligations; rather we love Him because He is goodness itself.

I think, by the way, that this is one of the best illustrations of the salutary benefits of philosophical reflection for one’s spiritual life. One’s awe of God is deepened and one’s worship of Him enriched for seeing clearly how we ought to adore Him for Who He is.