Thursday, November 18, 2004

Good To Know God Still Has Something To Do...

I am on the mailing list of a Philosophy department at a major University which shall remain nameless, and I recently received this email regarding their Theology Forum:

Since Plato's Euthyphro, it has been problematic to try to provide a divine justification for normative claims. For if something is good merely because God loves it, then his love seems arbitrary and capricious and so unworthy of moral allegiance; while if God loves something because it is good, then he is responding to some independent standard of value rather than providing such a standard himself. I argue that the first possibility -- that something is good or valuable because God loves it -- becomes more plausible and appealing if we consider various ordinary and everyday examples of ways in which love can confer value on the object loved rather than responding to its prior loveability. This opens the way to provide some (limited) role for God as a source and ground of value.

Before I make a couple of comments, I want to make sure people are familiar with the issue typically labeled, “Euthyphro’s Dilemma.” Socrates once discombobulated an interlocutor (poor Euthyphro-how would you like to be immortalized for loosing an argument?) by spearing him on the horns of a dilemma regarding the nature of the gods and goodness. The dilemma is this: Are good things good because God commands them, or does God command good things because they are good?

If you answer in the affirmative to the first half of the dilemma, you have made the god’s commands arbitrary, saying they can command anything they want to and it would be deemed good. If you like the second half of the dilemma you have agreed to a position in which the gods are inferior to a higher standard of goodness to which they are bound.

As a Christian, how does one respond? Do we grab the horns and prepare to be philosophically impaled claiming we hold to Christian goodness on blind faith? There may be another way to handle the problem before the blood-letting begins.

An influential paper written on this very issue a few years ago was entitled (something like), “What Euthyphro Could Not Say.” The point of the article was that Euthyphro was successfully impaled on the horns because there was no third way out of the argument. In other words, if Euthyphro could argue that the dilemma was a false choice and that there was another way to see the issue, then he might have escaped Socrates’ famous question. But given the nature of the pantheon of Greek gods, Euthyphro did not have another theological escape valve. It appears that believers in the God of the Bible do.

The article goes on to point out that the best way to escape the dilemma is to argue that God’s very nature determines what is good. That way, God’s commands are not arbitrary because His good nature determines what He commands, and God is not beholden to something outside of Himself. Avoiding the arbitrary charge, God could not command, “torturing babies is good,” because it would go against the goodness of His character. Additionally, humans have a nugget of that goodness built into their natures, giving further accountability to what is good and not good. We know (morally speaking) that torturing babies is evil, and if God commanded it, we would still know it was evil. But because we were created with the image of God implanted within us, we share (on some analogous level) God’s sense of goodness.

Having touched on the dilemma, we can now talk briefly about the issue raised in the e-mail.

Does God Provide Some Level of Moral Grounding?

The proper notion of God provides the only source of moral grounding. Ultimately there are two sources of possible moral grounding-something human and something superhuman (beyond the physical-not Clark Kent). The variants of “something human” are multifold. Maybe morality is built into our DNA. Maybe morality is a kind of shared, communal experience. Maybe morality is a matter of personal choice. Maybe morality is a matter of pragmatism.

Though the DNA option is a popular one, it fails for the reason that a physical, descriptive state of reality can never produce a prescriptive injunction. Because something is the case does not mean it ought to be the case. Justifying the ought of morality takes more than describing the is of physicalism.

The other sources of moral grounding reduce to some flavor of relativism, be it cultural or individual. Even if a large culture develops a moral structure over time, there is nothing which binds other cultures to that ethic. For example, there is no moral justification for going to war against people like Hitler. So what if Hitler wants to commit genocide? Maybe that is just what his culture has decided to allow him to do. Even if Hitler attacks our country directly, that may be the moral value of their culture and who are we to impose our sense of peace on them? But if a culture wants to stop a maniac like Hitler, it has to believe that its moral code has some kind of trans-cultural authority. At that point we are beyond human sources of moral grounding.

It is a pretty major concession for a non-theist philosopher to grant that God plays some role in grounding morality. Good to know that God still plays some role in the modern, enlightened world…


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Jeremy Pierce said...

I'd be careful about ought being underivable from is, because the very solution to the Euthyphro problem derives the ought from the is of God's nature. Virtually every moral theory derives an ought from an is. Utilitarianism starts with the is of facts about what makes people happy. Kant and social contract theorists both start with the is of which actions you would be willing for everyone to do. Social contract morality starts with the is of what actions a community of self-interested people. Ayn Rand starts with the is of what's in your own self-interest. Even subjectivists start with the is of what they happen to approve of, and cultural relativists start with the is of what the culture happens to approve of. The only views that don't do this are emotivism, which says moral claims are neither true nor false, and nihilism, which says moral claims are all false.

Phil Steiger said...


Thanks for the response. You are right that the “ought/is” relationship is nuanced, and far more complicated than can be dealt with in this kind of forum. What I am directly concerned with is a derivation of a moral ought from nothing but a natural is. I believe that in order to derive any kind of binding moral ought, there needs to be a transcultural, teleological source. Otherwise, the moral ought becomes indistinguishable from the descriptive is of human behavior. As humans we know that “ought” is connotatively and denotatively distinct from “is.” It is the very reason we don’t actually take human behavior, describe it and classify it, and then call it morality. We go to great lengths to judge behavior when determining what is moral; we concern ourselves with what is right and wrong as opposed to what simply is.

Have you run across any good resources concerning this issue? It has been a while since I have read anything fresh.