March 03, 2008
The Euthyphro Dilemma Once More
Your work and contribution to philosophy and Christian thought in general has been an indispensable help in my own journey through life’s questions. I’ve been teaching in Thailand the past couple of years I often bring up some of your thoughts for discussion with other teachers. At present I and a fellow teacher are going back and forth on the merits of the moral argument. I’m a fan of it but have had some recent second thoughts. I would like to raise two issues that concern your response to James on the Euthyphro Dilemma in the Q & A.
I understand the difference (I think) between moral ontology (the basis or foundation of moral values) and moral epistemology (how we come to know those moral values), however I fail to connect the dots fully on how James’ question and your subsequent answer do not in the end cause problems for the major proposition of the moral argument--that being that moral values cannot exist (ontologically) without God. I can understand the argument that God is necessarily good and therefore moral standards of good cannot be said to exist independent Him or outside Him. However, it seems that this just pushes the Euthyphro Dilemma back one more step. If you reject the notion that God’s declared will or approval doesn’t make something good and opt for saying God’s approval is an extension of His necessarily good nature, then it raises the question: “If God’s nature rejects the raping of little children, but it is not an arbitrary rejection (rejected for no reasons), then would this not mean that God’s nature is good in accordance with good reasons? In other words, can we not say that God’s nature is necessarily opposed to the rape of children BECAUSE in every possible world it causes injustice and injury to the victim (i.e. good reasons)? Must we conclude that the reasons to not rape (unloving, unjust) would cease to exist if there was no transcendent, necessarily, good nature in existence? I see no reason why we should. As such if God’s necessarily good nature itself is to escape the charge of being arbitrary (it just IS good and just IS opposed to rape) then it would seem to me that God’s nature must be grounded in reasons- good reasons as to why X is good and loving and Y is evil and unloving. With this in view it would seem to me that the question becomes whether or not these good reasons can exist if God did not exist.
Moreover I am having difficulty understanding how the conclusion you and James have come to still doesn’t inevitably cause a theist to hold that God’s nature MAKES rape wrong as opposed to rape simply being wrong for various reasons. Where might the theological misfortune be in asserting that God’s nature is perfectly good in the sense that it is perfectly (always) aligned with the dictates of love and goodness, etc. Would not such a view ultimately magnify His glory in that He freely chooses 100% of the time to act in a manner which is good? This would be different than acting in a necessarily constrained manner due to a nature that MUST do such and such because of the impeccability of that nature.
It would be the difference between saying, “God is necessarily good simply because” and “God is perfectly good because He always chooses the good.” God could choose to be a malevolent, injurious, cosmic dictator but he has freely chosen not to be. His choices to love and do good in the midst of His freedom to do otherwise is essentially His glory. Does not a necessary moral nature that must love or must do the good as opposed to choose the good ultimately strip God of virtue and glory that can only be identified with a will that is free to choose? I’ll readily admit that if we jettison the premise that God’s nature is necessarily good we are left with a God whose nature is perfectly good only because He has a perfect track record in choosing what is good. Yet I’m not convinced that is all that bad given that a necessary nature seems to be an enemy of praise worthy freedom and requires that God must do X and cannot do Y. Let me just add that I have long been a staunch fan of the moral argument but these are some thoughts I have recently wrestled with in response to some discussions with others.
Let’s be sure, Matt, that we understand the view I’m defending before I address your questions. The position is not “that God is necessarily good and therefore moral standards of good cannot be said to exist independent Him or outside Him.” God’s being necessarily good is consistent with the view that in every possible world He conforms to some external standard. So that’s not enough. Rather the position is that God’s moral nature is the paradigm of goodness; what is good or bad is determined by conformity or lack thereof to His nature. By analogy think of some audio recording’s being “high fidelity.” Whether or not a symphony recording is high fidelity is determined by its approximation to the sound of a live orchestra. The sound of the live orchestra does not exhibit fidelity to anything else; it just is the standard that determines whether some recording is high fidelity or not. Similarly with God’s nature. Moreover, God’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties. Things are right or wrong insofar as they are commanded or forbidden by God.
Now you say this raises the question:
If God’s nature rejects the raping of little children, but it is not an arbitrary rejection (rejected for no reasons), then would this not mean that God’s nature is good in accordance with good reasons? In other words, can we not say that God’s nature is necessarily opposed to the rape of children BECAUSE in every possible world it causes injustice and injury to the victim (i.e. good reasons)?
I’d respond that there certainly can be reasons for what God commands. For example, He forbids raping little children because it would be unjust and injurious to them. But then the deeper question is, “Why is it wrong to cause injury to innocent persons? What determines what is just or unjust?” Eventually such questions must find a stopping point in the character of God. Kindness is good because that’s the way God is; cruelty is evil because it is inconsistent with God’s nature. Therefore He issues commands that forbid behavior which is cruel and prescribe behavior which is kind. Rape is cruel, not kind, and therefore it is forbidden by God and therefore wrong.
You rejoin, “Must we conclude that the reasons to not rape (unloving, unjust) would cease to exist if there was no transcendent, necessarily, good nature in existence?” Yes, in the sense that in the absence of God it’s not evident that cruelty would be wrong. Activity that looks very much like rape goes on all the time in the animal kingdom but without any moral dimension to the act. On atheism that’s all we are—just animals, relatively advanced primates, and it’s hard to see why human activity should have the moral dimension that is missing from the activity of other animals. So while rape in the absence of God would still be injurious, cruel, and demeaning, there wouldn’t be anything, so far as I can see, that would make an action having those properties morally wrong. One could try to defend some sort of atheistic moral Platonism, I suppose, but then one must answer my three-fold critique of Atheistic Moral Realism in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.
You say, “if God’s necessarily good nature itself is to escape the charge of being arbitrary (it just IS good and just IS opposed to rape), then it would seem to me that God’s nature must be grounded in reasons--good reasons as to why X is good and loving and Y is evil and unloving.” I think there are a couple of confusions here. First, we can give good reasons for why God commands what He does, as I have said. But that doesn’t imply that there should be good reasons why love, kindness, and patience are virtues, and why greed, cruelty, and hate are vices apart from the nature of God. Second, I think you’re confusing being ultimate with being arbitrary. If something serves as one’s explanatory ultimate, there can be no further explanation why that thing is as it is. But that doesn’t imply that it is arbitrary in the sense that it could have been otherwise and so just happens accidentally to be the way it is. God’s nature, like Plato’s Good, is ultimate, but as James discerned in his question, it is not arbitrary. Nor is taking God’s nature as paradigmatic of the Good arbitrary, for He is the greatest conceivable being and it is greater to be the paradigm of goodness than merely to exemplify it.
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?
Moreover, on the suggested view, what is the ontological status of the Good ? It seems you’ve embraced a sort of Platonism which is incompatible with God’s being the source of all reality outside Himself and which provides no source of moral obligation.
You ask, “Does not a necessary moral nature that must love or must do the good as opposed to choose the good ultimately strip God of virtue and glory that can only be identified with a will that is free to choose?” No! You’re thinking of God’s goodness and virtue in terms of duty-fulfillment: God perfectly executes His moral duties. But, as I explain in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, God doesn’t really have moral duties to fulfill, since He doesn’t issue commands to Himself. So we don’t praise Him for doing His duty. Rather He is to be adored for His moral character because He is essentially loving, just, kind, etc. It is because God is that way that these qualities count as virtues in the first place. So if we think of God’s goodness in terms of His possessing certain virtues rather than fulfilling certain duties, I think we have a more exalted and more adequate concept of God.