• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Does Objective Morality Depend Upon God?

Nazi Troops

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today kicks off an eight-part debate on the resolution, "Does objective morality depend on the existence of God?" Over the next eight days, we'll hear from two sharp young thinkers. Joe Heschmeyer, a Catholic seminarian in Kansas City, Kansas, will argue the affirmative view. Steven Dillon, a gifted philosopher and a former Catholic seminarian, will argue the negative. The eight parts will run as follows:

Monday (11/4) - Joe's opening statement (affirmative)
Tuesday (11/5) - Steven's opening statement (negative)
Wednesday (11/6) - Joe's rebuttal (affirmative)
Thursday (11/7) - Steven's rebuttal (negative)
Friday (11/8) - Questions exchanged (three questions each)
Saturday (11/9) - Answers (Joe and Steven answer each other's questions)
Sunday (11/10) - Joe's closing statement (affirmative)
Monday (11/11) - Steven's closing statement (negative)

Both Joe and Steven have agreed to be present in the comment boxes, so if you have a specific question for them, ask away!
 


 

The Question: Does Objective Morality Depend Upon the Existence of God?

 
The resolution that I’m affirming is that objective morality depends upon the existence of God. I should probably explain what I understand that to mean, and what it doesn’t mean. In calling morality “objective,” I mean that the morality of certain actions exists independently of our subjective assessment.

(I’ll leave to one side the question of whether the morality of all actions is objective.)

As William Lane Craig puts it, “to say that the Holocaust was objectively evil is to say that it was evil, even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was good, and it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everyone who disagreed with them, so that everybody thought the Holocaust was good.”

So when I say that certain actions are objectively immoral, for example, I don’t mean “everybody knows that they’re immoral.” I mean, “they’re immoral, regardless of what you or anyone else thinks.” Another way of putting this is that binding morality depends upon the existence of God. If morality is objective, then it is binding upon everyone, even the most powerful. If it’s not objective, it’s not binding, except to the extent that the strong can enforce their will upon the weak.

So that’s the playing field. I’m not addressing, at least directly, whether or not God actually exists. Nor am I arguing whether or not atheists can behave morally. (Full disclosure: yes, and yes). Nevertheless, this argument certainly has large implications for how we approach the topics of Christianity and atheism, as well as how we discuss morality.

Argument 1: We Can’t Ground Objective Morality in Anything Other than God.

 
The easiest way to prove this claim is to begin with a simple three-prong test. To whatever extent possible, let's reformulate the moral philosophy in question in this format: “If you want to achieve X, you must do Y.” (Obviously, this works in reverse as well: “if you want to avoid X, you must avoid Y,” etc.). Now, ask three questions.

  1. Could there exist a person who doesn’t want to achieve X?
  2. Could there be some good other than X that an individual values more than X?
  3. Is there another means of achieving X besides Y?

If the answer to any of these three questions is yes, your system is neither objective nor binding. This test should serve as a helpful guide, and will quickly show that the non-theistic moral systems fail. (If you’re going to contest this point in the comments, try to provide an objective, binding moral system in this format that doesn’t require God).

For example, consider the following four ways of accounting for morality without recourse to God:

  1. Social: An action is moral or immoral based upon whether society approves or disapproves of it.
  2. Personal: An action is moral or immoral based upon whether I feel it to be moral or immoral. (Going against conscience is the only sin.)
  3. Biological: Morality is “hardwired into our genes as an evolutionary survival mechanism.”
  4. Utilitarian: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” - John Stuart Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP).

Why am I bound to obey society, or even my own conscience? Why am I obliged to act upon my genetic predispositions, or to act in such a way that it produces the greatest aggregate happiness? At a minimum, the social, biological, and utilitarian bases fail the first prong: we can easily imagine a person who is a social misfit, and who isn’t particularly concerned with survival of the fittest or the GHP.

All four theories fail the second prong of the test. Martin Luther King gives us an example of someone who valued a good (social justice) over the societal morality laid out by the Jim Crow South. Indeed, the entire notion of social progress is based upon the idea that we’re not bound to blindly accept social mores.

As for personal morality, the only reason that conscience is binding is because we believe that it corresponds to something higher than ourselves. If it’s our own creation, we are its master, not its servant. A guilty conscience would be, at most, one factor to be weighed in decision-making. In deciding to cheat on your wife or rob a bank, you’d weigh the amount of guilt you’ll feel compared to the amount of pleasure. If that’s the case, conscience is no more binding than indigestion is “binding” on my decision to eat eight tacos.

And if morality is merely biological, why not treat it as accidental or vestigial, like the coccyx? After all, couples routinely act directly against the propagation of the species by contracepting, choosing careers over marriage, etc.

Finally, utilitarianism. Why pursue the GHP? After all, this isn't how moral decision-making works. If it were, we would stop taking care of our families, and send that money to the world’s neediest people. In practice, even utilitarians like Peter Singer abandon the GHP when they have to make important decisions. Moreover, utilitarianism leads to unconscionable results. No action—slavery, rape, genocide, torture, etc.—could ever be described as objectively evil. We’d have to determine how much pleasure the slavemaster, rapist, genocidaire, and torturer derive (along with the pleasure or displeasure of the general public). Only after we’ve weighed all of those factors, could we determine whether the action is right or wrong.

Argument 2: We Can Ground Objective Morality in God.

 
At this point, I anticipate an obvious objection: how does God solve this problem, exactly? Isn’t it just as subjective and arbitrary to say that we should do Y because God says so? What if I don’t want to do what God says? This objection is based off of two misconceptions about the nature of God. So hold on to it for a second, consider what we actually mean by “God,” and see if you still find the objection to be convincing.

First, I want to draw a parallel to the question that Socrates asks Euthyphro: “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?” Given their polytheistic theology, the Greeks were unable to convincingly resolve the question. I think that Christians can fare better, because we believe that God is Good essentially, rather than by participation.

When we say that God is good, we mean this in a different way from the way that we mean it when we say that some human is good. For us, goodness is a participation in Goodness: we can participate more or less, by degrees, and therefore, we can be better or worse. That’s not what we mean when we say that God is good.

Think about the difference between saying “the dog is wet” and “liquid is wet.” We can imagine the dog being not wet: it’s an attribute he possesses right now, but with a good toweling off, he won’t possess it anymore. We can imagine wet dogs and dry dogs, and everything in between. But when we say that liquid is wet, we mean that wetness is an essential attribute of what we mean by “liquid.” If someone claimed to have a dry liquid, we’d have to conclude that they misunderstood what’s meant either by “liquid” or “dry.”

So it is with God. The virtuous are good in the way that dogs are wet. God is good in the way that liquid is wet. But there’s also a relationship between the wetness of liquid and the wetness of the dog, of course. The degree to which the dog is covered with liquid is the degree to which he is wet. The dog’s attributive wetness depends upon the degree of participation or conformity with the essential wetness of liquid. Likewise, the attributive goodness of the moral law logically flows from its conformity with the essential goodness of God.

So it isn’t like there’s God on one side, and Good on the other. God and Good are One. What we mean by objective goodness and what we mean by the Divine nature are the same thing. (This, by the way, also shows why it’s literally incoherent to ask, “What if God asks you to do something evil?” You might as well ask, “What if white is black?” or “what if that triangle turns out to have four sides?”)

Hopefully, you see how this solves the dilemma that Socrates raised. God is bound to do and will good, but He is bound only by His own nature, not by something external to Himself.

Second, examine the question teleologically: the goodness of a thing can be determined by examining its end. The mid-twentieth century philosopher Peter Geach showed this in a fantastic little essay, "Good and Evil". A beautiful clock that can’t tell time is a bad clock. It may be a beautiful decoration, but it’s bad qua clock. And just as we can make this evaluation based on the function of an object, we can do the same thing with the purpose of human beings. This is true on a micro level (a good firefighter, a good husband, etc.), and a macro level (a good man, a bad man, etc.). So, if all of Creation was created by God for specific purposes (including us), we can determine the goodness or badness of thing by its conformity with the Will of God.

Finally, we’re ready to address the core question of how God can solve the problem of objective morality. Let’s put the answer in the form of a syllogism, using the “If you want to achieve X, you must do Y” format I laid out above:

  • P1: If you want to achieve the good, you must do what is consistent with God's will (and avoid what is inconsistent).
  • P2: By nature, everyone wants to achieve the good. As Aquinas put it, “the good is that which all things seek.” Even our immoral actions are done in search of some perceived good (wealth, fame, honor, pleasure, etc.).
  • C: Therefore, everyone is bound to do what is consistent with God's will.

Ralph McInerny discusses this at greater length in Ethica Thomistica, which is worth reading.

Argument 3: Why Theistic Morality Succeeds, and Non-Theistic Morality Fails

 
Let me close this opening case by laying out a slightly different way of approaching the whole problem, that I think helps show why all of these non-theistic systems fail:

A. Objective moral obligations point to the existing of a universally-binding end. That’s because all moral obligations are ordered to “ends” (in the philosophical sense, as a purpose, goal, or destination; the way we use it when we talk about the ends not justifying the means). So, if I want to keep my dog in the yard, then I must close the gate. If I don’t care if the dog gets out, I have no obligation to close the gate. The obligation is only as binding as the end.

B. Our end is either given to us from God, or it’s arbitrary. The standard objection to this claim is that we can give ourselves our own purposes. This runs into three problems:

  1. Self-given ends are subjective, by definition.
  2. Self-given ends are arbitrary: why choose one end over another? That answer is either “no reason,” or by appeal to a higher end.
  3. Self-given ends are not binding: if I’m giving myself my goal, I can change it. After all, I’ve already changed my end once, from having no end (or whatever end I was born with) to having the end that I gave myself.

C. Since arbitrary ends cannot bind, objective moral obligations require the existence of God.

That’s the basic case. Now what do you think?
 
 
(Image credit American History)

Enjoy this article? Receive future posts free by email:

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • DannyGetchell

    Joe, two questions:

    (1) Are you specifying that only the Christian God can be the source of morality??

    (2) Can two fallible humans, in good faith, disagree upon whether a particular action is in accord with God's will??

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Danny,

      Good questions.

      (1) I'm defending the "God of the metaphysicians" (i.e., what can be known about God short of revelation). If a religion other than Christianity were true, it could ground objective morality if (and only if) the God of this system was Goodness Itself.

      Certainly, if God was Goodness Itself, but not Triune, He could still serve as the source of objective morality. But somebody like Zeus couldn't: He's metaphyically inadequate.

      (2) Yes.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • josh

        By the same token, we know that the God of the Israelites is metaphysically inadequate, as of course is the God of the Christian sect.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Josh,

          Forgive me for feeling unpersuaded by that bare assertion.

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • josh

            Do they have irony where you are from? I'm just replying to the bare assertion that Zeus couldn't be the source of objective morality with the observation that neither the tribal God of Israel nor the God-man of 1st century Palestine are a substantially better candidate for 'Goodness Itself'. Zeus was born of Rhea and Chronos, which might seem a little parochial for such an abstract concept, but Jesus was born of a human mother circa 4 BC, which kind of takes the cake.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Josh,

            You argument seems to be that since Jesus was born of a woman, He can't be the Incarnate God, and hence, not the God of classical theism.

            I don't understand how any of these premises lead to this conclusion. Can you spell out your reasoning?

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • josh

            My argument is that 'Goodness Itself' can't be incarnate, nor can it speak from flaming shrubbery, nor can it die on a cross, nor create mankind, nor judge the living and the dead, etc. If you want to argue that it incomprehensibly can be all these things, then there is no obstacle to anyone else arguing that Zeus fits the bill as well.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Josh,

            Why can't "Goodness Itself" be Incarnate, etc.? It seems like you're just dismissing a couple thousand years of Christian philosophy on the basis of a just 'cuz. Are you assuming that Goodness Itself is impersonal? Or that the Incarnation requires God to cease being the ground of all Being?

            As for Zeus, it's a polytheistic system. The Greeks didn't even claim that Zeus was Being Itself, nor could they, given their religious beliefs. The Greek view of Zeus was just a super-powerful creature (again, he's a created being). The great Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, ended up looking outside their religious system for a single transcendent God, because that's what philosophy points to. Christianity provides that, and it's not a coincidence that the earliest Christians found the summation of Greek philosophy as a preparation for the Gospel.

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • josh

            "Why can't "Goodness Itself" be Incarnate, etc.?"
            Because the concepts are logically separable, hence the 'Itself' part can't refer to another separable piece, like the 'fully Human' part. You yourself have argued that the Ground of Being, whatever that means, can't be thought of as a being. But Jesus, the itinerant rabbi, clearly is a being. You may as well argue that God is 'Liquid Itself' (What else could ground the concept of liquid?), and Jesus is God so Jesus is simultaneously a liquid and a 30 year old man.

            On Zeus, I'm afraid you simply have a naive and unsophisticated view. Zeus is begotten, not created. He is king of the gods, demonstrated in the Iliad to be capable of overruling the entire pantheon, just as Yahweh can overpower the angels. Plato and Aristotle indeed tried to abstract away to an idealized, impersonal, disembodied God. (This isn't what philosophy leads to by the way, you should catch up on philosophy in the last 2000+ years.) But the early Christians didn't have that, they had a mystery cult derived from Jewish tribalism. There are greek influences in the rejection of the earthly body, but that's not surprising since they were living in a greek-roman culture. Later Christian intellectuals tried to syncretize the two systems and apologists like yourself have been trying to deal with the ungainly frankenstein's monster ever since.

          • http://shackra.bitbucket.org/ shackra sislock

            You really need to read this book and this one too.

          • Montague

            I'm not certain what you mean by "Because the concepts are logically separable, hence the 'Itself' part
            can't refer to another separable piece, like the 'fully Human' part." But if you mean that Divine Aseity is violated by the taking on of the Human Nature in Christ, then the issue is addressed in the Creed: "One Person, Two Natures" - that is to say, there is one Person (personhood is an attribute of Being) who has both the Nature of God-as-Being as well as the Nature of Man-as-carnate-being. Thus Goodness Itself is not a contradiction, in that there exists one entity or Person, with both natures.

            Assuming that He has been orthodox in his reasoning, I believe he most likely argued that "the ground of being cannot be thought of as existing within a ground." Obviously the Ground of being is Being. The ground of the concept of liquid is not liquidity, but Being; that is, in order for the being of things to exist, there first must be the Being of being, a Ground on which being can exist. Basic Plato.

            As for Zeus, I think you clearly have the wrong concepts of "begotten" and "created" - in the Christian creed, begotten (when used of Christ) means not created, not a creature. . Zeus obviously did not created himself, but was produced by (mythical) sex; that is, he was created. He is begotten not in the same sense as Christ, as another person of the same Being, but rather in the human sense of "genetically fathered." He is a creature, produced by other creatures.

            The early Christians obviously understood the Greek philosophies, as is shown by Paul in Athens and John in his Gospel.

            ["Ungainly frankenstein's monster" - at this point, I will simply loose it and call you an uncultured idiot. Please understand that this is merely an emotional outburst now, and anything I say in this portion should not be considered argument. Anyway. I really don't like it when fools as yourself berate thousands of years of beautifully refined philosophy, art, literature, and so on, without the merest inkling of even what it looks like; with no more than a tribal muddle of mythology about real myths and real philosophies, which you neither appreciate nor understand. I can only hope that you may sometime actually attempt reading the actual sources, instead of rely on (false!) rumors and impressions. I must apologize for this rude outburst, but as I love Dante and plan to study this beautiful system as my job, I hardly can agree with your sentiments.]

          • josh

            Hi Montague,

            Yes, I understand an emotional outburst when I see one. I'm sorry you can't accept that some people can see the weaknesses in your philosophy, or that they might actually know more than you. There is some fine literature and art that has come out of the catholic tradition, as there is from many other religious traditions, and this doesn't say word one about the truth of those systems. The philosophy that came out of these systems, and it came out in particular ways for socio-historical reasons, is crude and silly. The point of the Zeus example is to show that the same games can be played with any mythology.

            Asserting something in a creed doesn't resolve the logical contradictions. 'Two natures' is still two logically separable things. For that matter, one personhood is logically separable from Being itself. You agree that Being itself is not the same as Liquid? Then you should be able to see that Being itself cannot be the same as The Good, and especially isn't the same as Jesus.

          • Montague

            I think you misunderstand me. I confined my immature emotions to the bracketed portions of my comments.

            Putting aside your presumptuous assertion of my motivation - though of course I cannot vouch for any humility in me - I am one with a vast and nuanced tradition in denying the relative crudity/material cause of our philosophic system. Not denying that currents of thought were significant - since we have said for thousands of years that the gospel was preached "in the fullness of time" - it is still intellectually crude to ignore the enormous difference between popular thought and Christian thought, through any age of time. This gap perennially leads to heresies cropping up. Your Zeus example merely shows a childish misconception and ignorance of relevant theology.

            I think you do not understand Platonic forms or Aristotelian genus/species relationships, or any combination thereof which is inherent in Christian Philosophy. Goodness and Being are not separable, since they cannot be separate. Non-being cannot be called good. Ideals are the being-of-a-thing; therefore, there must be a being-of-being, which grounds the existence of other being-of-things. The Good is Being; because Being is the basis of the being of lesser beings; a good man existing is dependent on "man-ness," and that being/ideal depends on Being.

            Being is not liquid-ness, because it is at a higher level of being. That's like saying Animal-ness itself is koalas, because the idea Animal is the ground for koalas. Of course not! But the idea of liquidity depends on the idea of ideas; or the being of beings, etc.

            Being itself must have multiple persons; as well as personhood. The first, because ultimate being must have multiple-ness and single-ness in order for logic to exist (distinction and sameness). The second, because reason exists, and reason belongs to persons; so for reason-ness to exist, the ultimate reality must be a person.

            God-ness is not human-ness; Christ encompassing this in one personhood is not a negation of God/Good's self-ness. Creeds are important because they tell you actually what we believe, rather than, say, monophysitism.

            This... rambled. Apologies. To everyone. It would be so much simpler to refer you to someone who has taken more time and wisdom to explain clearly, such as Boethius, or the CCC, or Lewis, etc.

          • josh

            It's your immature philosophy I'm concerning myself with. I'm familiar with the arguments you're trying to make, they just aren't any good. Aristotle was a critic of Plato's forms, although he had his own version. But Aristotle's version of philosophy didn't really come into Christianity until reintroduced from Islamic sources and synthesized by Aquinas and others. These ideas became de rigueur in Catholicism over time but there are many other strains of Christian thought, before and after. Clearly nothing in the preaching of Jesus, nor of the Old Testament Yahweh, has anything much to do with rarefied greek philosophy.

            Anyhow, it's bad philosophy either way. Like this: "Goodness and Being are not separable, since they cannot be separate." That's circular. "Non-being cannot be called good." Neither can it be called bad. Being isn't the same as goodness.

            "Being is not liquid-ness, because it is at a higher level of being." Yes, that was the point; by the same token being is not Goodness. (Although, we could equally say that 'being itself' is at a lower level. One could also argue with equal validity that 'being itself' depends on 'beings' existing and is thus less fundamental.)

            " Being itself must have multiple persons; as well as personhood. The first, because ultimate being must have multiple-ness and single-ness in order for logic to exist (distinction and sameness). The second, because reason exists, and reason belongs to persons; so for reason-ness to exist, the ultimate reality must be a person."

            Logic is our way of grasping reality and it does indeed rely on distinctions, but that is hardly a proof that logic must exist. Simply in making a distinction between being and non-being you already have multipleness, we then proceed to make further distinctions in what we call being. So far so good, but we haven't provided a reason why those distinctions are as we think they are. Recall that the Catholic God is supposed to be simple, so if 'ultimate' reality has multipleness, he isn't it. Your second statement is another version of the fallacy I pointed out above. It's like arguing that earwax exists and belongs to persons, so for earwax to exist ultimate reality must be a person.

            "God-ness is not human-ness." Good, we agree. Then, God, who can be defined by God-ness, isn't logically the same as a human. So God, who is supposed to be a necessary being in one half of your theology, can't be a human, since it isn't necessary that he is. So Jesus isn't God. QED.

            Don't worry, Boethius, the CCC or Lewis don't have substantially better versions of the old stuff you are trying to articulate. If you are ticked at me just go do something else for a while and leave it be. But I hope you will reconsider that you have been mislead with slick but hollow answers from your religion.

          • Montague

            Well, I find it amusing that you call immature a philosophy propounded by many brilliant minds since the axial age, but I was certainly immature for attempting to convince you of it when you are (supposedly) familiar with authors of far greater skill and intellect than my poor self, and yet are not convinced by their vastly superior ethos, pathos, and logos. I can hardly argue for Thomistic or Augustinian theology with anything like grace. So I hope you excuse me on account of brash youthfulness.

            While I will continue to value your less-than-subtle reasoning as so much dross (straw implies Thomistic dignity) I will therefore abandon this project here (to our mutual relief) after a bit of post-mortem quibbling.

            While I cannot vouch for anything like humility on my part, I should think that you would be awfully more convincing were you not so patronizing. Calling the Summa nothing but straw is the business of those who have devoted some passion to writing and studying it, and your contempt for Platonic thought seems to betray "slick but hollow answers" rather than the exhausting mental exercise and meticulous reasoning which went into developing those theories. For this one thing is very certain, that we Christians have chewed on these mysteries and philosophies for thousands of years; whereas you and I have spent only a few years glibly frolicking on the "seashore" splitting nary a hair.

            Also, I am pretty certain the simplicity of God is in Nature or Being, not Persons (seeing that we believe in the Trinity).

            Your refutation of Goodness=Being was circular, or at least, purely an assertion; my on the other hand was at least a probabilistic argument: "one cannot conceive of something good having non-being, and something being being-not-good." But as that relies on supporting arguments you by default deny, I am again being useless...

            So yeah, enough of that. Hope you have a good evening.

      • DannyGetchell

        DG - "Can two fallible humans, in good faith, disagree upon whether a particular action is in accord with God's will??"

        JH - "Yes."

        Can we then conclude that two fallible humans can in good faith disagree upon whether a given action is good or evil?

  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    First it needs to be pointed out that we are not all necessarily thinking of the same thing when we say "morality" here.

    But my main criticism is the dodge on the Euthyphro dilemma. Even if God's essence or nature is moral goodness, the question remains, did God choose his nature or essence? If not, then it is determined by some other truth than God himself. If he did choose his nature, upon what basis? If he was not being arbitrary, then he had to again rely on some other truth than himself. In either case the source is external to God.

    • Ben Posin

      Forever this. If we discovered today that God's nature was dishonest (and he'd lied in the bible about this, naturally) would the author here declare dishonesty to be a virtue? If the author declares God's nature cannot be dishonest, whence comes this restriction? Such a claim is tantamount to admitting that there exists some standard of goodness beyond God, constraining his nature if God's nature must be a good one.

      This is hardly original thinking, and the author's choice to ignore it (or ignorance of it) does not bode well for this debate.

      • Nicholas Escalona

        This is the God of the classical theist. What you suggest is a contradiction in terms. If we discovered today that God's nature was dishonest, we would conclude that the God we had spoken of does not exist, and that what we now call "God" is utterly unlike what we had spoken of.

        In other words: the classical theist refuses to call God dishonest; if you "proved him wrong" you would either be demonstrating that God does not exist or speaking about something other than God.

        • Ben Posin

          But this is exactly the core of the issue. I get that the classical god is defined as good. But why is the classical god defined as honest? What makes this particular characteristic integral to being good? Why couldn't a dishonest god be perfectly good? The discovery of a dishonest god only disproves the classical God if there is some reason, extrinsic to God, that makes honesty good.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Why couldn't a dishonest god be perfectly good? "

            Would you consider it more good to lie or tell the truth?

          • Ben Posin

            I have a hard time imagining a question that more thoroughly misses the point I am driving at. If you want to play socrates with me, can we start with my questions above?

          • David Nickol

            Would you consider it more good to lie or tell the truth?

            This question makes me think of the arguments made recently that God did not try to bring humans too quickly along the path to moral perfection, and consequently tolerated certain immoral behavior among otherwise good people in the Old Testament. God, presumably, overlooked offenses committed against himself and his law so as not to overwhelm people with rules of behavior for which they were not yet ready. But of course God is omniscient and omnipotent, so was there no other way for him to convey to the Israelites what true goodness and the quest for perfections was? I wonder if toleration of evil by God is not a form of lying on his part. (It has always seemed to me, also, that God is not particularly truthful in telling Adam he will die if he eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.)

          • Sqrat

            It has always seemed to me, also, that God is not particularly truthful in telling Adam he will die if he eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

            Oh, let's come right out and say it -- he lied.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Oh, let's come right out and say it -- he lied."

            How did God lie? In the Genesis narrative, Adam ate from the Tree and he did die.

          • Sqrat

            "And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good an evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest therof thou shalt surely die."

            Adam died at the ripe old age of 930, not on the day he ate from the tree.

            If you read the story for what it actually says, and not through the lens of a much later Christian theology, what it seems to be saying is that God never wanted man to be mortal; immortality and the knowledge of good and evil were jealously-guarded divine prerogatives. But I suppose we can at least give God credit for not killing Adam and Eve on the spot for their disobedience.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Sqrat,

            The Fall results in the loss of the preternatural gifts, including immortality: hence, through Adam, death enters the world immediately. The loss of immortality doesn't mean that they immediately perish. But they go from being immortal to mortal beings.

            It's significant that both the Jews and Christians viewed God's warning as coming true. So isn't it possible that, instead of all of them misreading their Holy Book, the error is on your reading?

            I.X.,

            Joe

            P.S. In any case, the question of whether God behaves morally in the Bible assumes the existence of an objective morality. What's your basis for this assumption?

          • David Nickol

            The loss of immortality doesn't mean that they immediately perish. But they go from being immortal to mortal beings.

            It is very clear that Adam and Eve were not immortal, otherwise it would not have been necessary to prevent them from eating from the Tree of Life to prevent them from becoming immortal. If you maintain that Adam and Eve were created immortal, then you must assume—if they lost their immortality by sinning—they could have gotten it back again by eating from the Tree of Life. As I said elsewhere, taking the story at face value, it appear that God himself has no control over whether Adam and Eve live forever or not if they are able to eat from the Tree of Life. This is why God expels them from the garden:

            Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever" -- therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

            It is probably pointless to ask this kind of question, but why doesn't God just destroy the Tree of Life, or turn it into an ordinary tree, the fruit of which does not confer immortality? Why not simply destroy the garden? What is the point of letting it continue to exist? And is it still there?

            It's significant that both the Jews and Christians viewed God's warning as coming true.

            The story of Adam and Eve, once conclude, is never mentioned again in the Old Testament. In Judaism, little is made of it. There is no doctrine of "the Fall" in Judaism. Jews do not use the story of Adam and Eve to explain why human beings die, why they have to work, or why childbirth is painful.

            The Fall results in the loss of the preternatural gifts . . .

            This is not to be found in the Old Testament, but in Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. Genesis does not say anything about Adam and Eve receiving or losing "preternatural gifts." Adam and Eve, to the extent they are depicted with any human characteristics at all, seem like very simple, naive, idle children. And despite any presumed "preternatural gifts," they sin without hesitation the first the one and only act of disobedience that they can possibly commit is suggested of them. They are given only one rule, and they can't even keep that! They are at the stage of moral development of small children who know they must be obedient only while they are being watched.

          • Sqrat

            It's significant that both the Jews and Christians viewed God's warning as coming true. So isn't it possible that, instead of all of them misreading their Holy Book, the error is on your reading?

            Oh, it's "possible," in the sense of "It wouldn't violate a law of nature." However, I think you're going to have to do more than ask a rhetorical question to refute the argument that they did, indeed, misread their holy book.

            P.S. In any case, the question of whether God behaves morally in the Bible assumes the existence of an objective morality. What's your basis for this assumption?

            Our time might be better spent by first discussing what is meant by the phrase "objective morality." What do you mean by that? What distinguishes objective morality from non-objective morality?

          • David Nickol

            How did God lie? In the Genesis narrative, Adam ate from the Tree and he did die.

            My father was a food chemist, and consequently we always turned to him with questions about food poisoning, food safety, and so on. I won't go into the story here, but once I happened to eat a meal with a lot of butter (including a piece of bread and butter), only to realize afterward that the odd taste of everything was rancid butter. I immediately called my father and said, "I just ate quite a bit of rancid butter. Am I going to die?" (I was being somewhat facetious, since I was concerned about getting sick, and not really about dying.) However, to my question, "Am I going to die?" my father answer, "Yes!" After a short pause, he said, "But not from that. We all will die, and that includes you, but you're not going to die from eating rancid butter." (I did not even get sick.)

            According to the RSV:

            And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;
            but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."

            My Jewish Publication Society translation has, "For as soon as you eat of it, you shall die."

            Now, there are a number of translations, such as the NAB, that have something akin to, "The moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die."But it seems to me (and admittedly I don't read Hebrew) that those translations are based on the Christian belief that Adam would not have eventually died had he not sinned. To be fair, I suppose it can be argued that since Adam did not die immediately upon eating the forbidden fruit, it is necessary to read "for in the day you eat of it you will die" as meaning something other than what it literally says. But it seems to me that, based on my best understanding of the text from reading multiple sources, God tells Adam that if and when he eats from the tree, he will die.

            The serpent, however, says, "[A ]You will not die. [B] For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Part B of the serpent's statement is directly confirmed by God himself—""Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil." There can be absolutely no question that Part B of the serpent's statement is true. It appears to me that Part A is correct, as well. Adam and Eve do not die from eating the forbidden fruit. They don't even, it seems to me, "bring death into the world." They still seem capable of living forever, but God says, ". . . . and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever" it is necessary to banish Adam from the garden. Adam does not die as a result of disobeying God. He dies as a result of not being able to eat of the Tree of Life. Perhaps it is taking the story a bit too literally, but God does not himself seem to have the power to make sure Adam does not live forever. He only has the power to keep Adam from eating from the Tree of Life. If Adam does eat from the Tree of Life, he will live forever, and it doesn't seem that God would have to power to prevent it. The Tree of Life does not seem to be within God's power to control.

          • Susan

            Would you consider it more good to lie or tell the truth?

            Are you asking for a subjective response? Just a human opinion?

          • Sqrat

            I get that the classical god is defined as good.

            No, he's not. He's typically DESCRIBED as good, but is seldom DEFINED as good.

          • Ben Posin

            Meh, I hear you, but these guys want to go with that definition, so let's just take it as it comes.

          • Sqrat

            Let's define "God" as "non-existent Goodness" and then both sides can be happy.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            What is your basis for this claim?

            I'm not sure what you mean by "seldom," but I could point you to about a thousand years worth of Western philosophy and theology that define God as the perfection of the transcendental properties of being, including goodness.

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Sqrat

            OK, go ahead.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Start with Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy as a starting point, and work through the Scholastics and Late Scholastics. For that matter, you get some sense of this definition of God in Plato, Aristotle, and certainly Augustine (all writing prior to Boethius).

            So what's your basis for your original claim?

          • Sqrat

            The basis of my original claim is that if you pick up any dictionary of the English language and look up "God" you are very unlikely to find one that includes "good" as part of the definition.

            When you wrote, "I think that Christians can fare better, because we believe that God is Good essentially...." were you trying to say, "Christians believe that this is what the word 'God' means"? It had understood you to be saying "This is what Christians believe that God is like."

          • Steven Dillon

            Two terms can refer to the same object without meaning the same thing, as for example H20 and water refer to the same substance, though considered under different aspects.

            The classical theist only says 'God' and 'Goodness' refer to the same thing. They don't say--or at least aren't committed to saying--that 'God' and 'Goodness' mean the same thing.

          • Sqrat

            The question, however, is not whether "God" and "Goodness" refer to the same thing, but whether "Goodness" is part of the definition of the word "God." Joe is claiming that it is. He is also asserting that this somehow expresses some Profound Truth about God. "God and Good are One," just like "Liquid and Wet are One." The capital letters are apparently intended to impress, and the force of the analogy is weakened a bit by the fact that there are lots of liquids that people would not necessarily describe as "wet" -- molten iron comes to mind.

            Thus, if there is a supreme being, but that supreme being is not good, then that supreme being would not be God, because it doesn't meet the definition. That's really all Joe's argument amounts to, and it's simply wrong if, in fact, "good" is not part of the definition of "God" in zee English as she is actual spoke.

          • Steven Dillon

            You're right, sorry I replied on my way out, should've read the other comments :/

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Steven,

            This perfectly captures what I was trying to say. Thank you!

            I.X.,

            Joe

        • josh

          Nicholas, it's not a contradiction in terms, Ben is just pointing out that the author has completely failed to solve the Euthyphro dilemma. Either you define Good in terms of God (e.g., whatever God says is Good) or you define God in terms of Good (something can be God only if it conforms to a standard of goodness). The former solves the objectivity problem in exactly the same way that any of the other non-theistic systems could solve it, by arbitrarily defining good according to some standard (which we don't have any way to actually check). The latter option allows 'good' to be non-arbitrary and therefore potentially to line up with our everyday usage, but it shows that 'God' has nothing fundamentally to do with it. You might wish to only call a Good god 'God', but such a thing is incidental to the existence of Good and, as you say, need not exist at all.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Josh,

            Why must Good be defined in terms of God or vice versa? Why can't they be coterminous?

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • josh

            Joe,
            Because defining both in terms of the other would be an empty, circular definition. If a triangle is defined as 'a thing with 3 sides' and 'having 3 sides' is defined as 'being triangular', then we can never check whether or not something is triangular or has 3 sides. It becomes meaningless and the opposite of an objective standard.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Josh,

            Are you claiming that "a triangle is a thing with three sides" is a meaningless statement? It sounds to me like a definition.

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Geena Safire

            Are you claiming that "a triangle is a thing with three sides" is a meaningless statement? It sounds to me like a definition.

            You didn't understand what Josh was saying. Let's try a simpler one. If a dictionary gives the definition of 'kasha' as 'buckwheat' and then gives the definition of 'buckwheat' as 'kasha,' It is "an empty, circular definition." It is trivially true, but functionally meaningless.

            In the same way, your definition of goodness and God completely tries to sidestep the Euthyphro dilemma. Please reread Josh's comment on that and respond to it directly rather than just claiming, with all kinds of fancy verbiage, that God is the source of goodness and goodness is from God.

            You're dialoguing with atheists. It is pointless and actually insulting to use that kind of definition when we anglophone humans have a human-based meaning for the word good, involving such qualities as desirable,, approved of, morally right, beneficial, virtuous, etc, with no deity required. Especially when you use that kind of definition, requiring your posited deity, and then claim victory by default.

            "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

            "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

            "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all." Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

          • josh

            Geena covered this for me. You can define one thing in terms of the other (although that doesn't make it an appropriate definition), but defining both terms with reference to the other is circular.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Josh,

            I'm not defining them circularly. See above.

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Geena Safire

            Why must Good be defined in terms of God or vice versa? Why can't they be coterminous?

            First, because of logic. Because they are two different things/ideas/concepts.
            'Good' didn't create the universe. 'Being kind to strangers' isn't an example of God.
            You posit that the two things/ideas/concepts have a relationship and
            the relationship should be defined.

            Second, because you are
            talking with atheists, not with your fellow theists. We have not been
            convinced by any of the evidence we have considered that any gods exist.

          • William McEnaney

            Geena, I'm a Thomist. Thomists don't believe that anyone can define anything into existence. We do believe believe that definers depend on someone or something for their existence. Even Richard Dawkins admits that science doesn't know why there's something rather than nothing, From what I can tell, he doesn't care.

            Dawkins and others seem to think that they disprove theism when they ask, If everything has a cause, what caused God? In his first-cause arguments for God's existence, St. Thomas Aquinas says that everything that begins to exist has a cause. He doesn't say that everything has a cause, including God. "First cause" means "most fundamental cause," not "the cause that comes before the second cause." The first cause, the most fundamental one, prevents the vicious infinite regress of causes that Dawkins and many others believe they've discovered in St. Thomas's first-cause arguments. That's why Thomists say that God is the uncaused cause. Every other cause derives its existence and its causal abilities from Him. No, we can't define anything into existence. But if God sustains each person, each place, each animal, and each thing, He sustains our ability to define anything we can define.

          • Michael Murray

            Hi William, Geena was banned awhile back in one of the frequent purges of atheists. She asked me to reply to you. You can catch up with her (and many other banned atheists) here

            http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com

            or more directly here

            http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/estranged-notions-quantum-physics-and.html#comment-1450888474

            Michael

          • Nicholas Escalona

            No - the classical theist identification of the Good with the nature of God is not a matter of definition. It is the conclusion of an argument. (Which argument? It depends on the theologian.)

            Good is best taken as a primary idea that cannot really be defined, but can be described as that which is objectively desirable. God should also resist definition, but (a good candidate for) the primary thing we can say about him is that he is the uncaused cause. Classical theists do not define good as God, nor do they define God as good.

          • josh

            NIcholas, I didn't say that they did. I said that Heschmeyer had failed to avoid the Euthyphro dilemma. Please read more carefully. Some people attempt to thwart the dilemma with a circular definition. I pointed out that this is not a legitimate option and Heschmeyer apparently didn't understand why.

            If you want to define God as an uncaused cause (all sorts of problems with this but that's another issue), then you have embraced one horn of the Euthryphro dilemma. God's goodness is in question and must be shown in terms of an external standard, which means God himself is not a necessary condition for objective morality, if such a thing can exist at all.

          • Nicholas Escalona

            Mr. Heschmeyer has in several replies shown that he understands what a circular definition is and that he does not intend to define God by the Good or the Good by God.

            I reject both horns of the dilemma, and I don't understand why you think my naming of the uncaused cause as God commits me to one horn.

            You beg the question with "God's goodness... must be shown in terms of an external standard." This is only another way of saying that God is not the Good.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      "First it needs to be pointed out that we are not all necessarily thinking of the same thing when we say "morality" here."

      What do you mean when you say morality, and how do you think Joe's usage differs?

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        I mean conduct that is consistent with furthering human well-being. I think Joe is talking about conduct that is consistent with God's nature.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Brian,

          What do you mean by "furthering human well-being"? Can that goal be pursue without a consideration of human nature?

          It seems like you're defining morality teleologically, but without ascribing any sort of end.

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            This would take much more time and space than is appropriate in a comment section.

            Please respond to my argument re the Euthyphro dilemma.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Brian,

            Good timing - I just did. Would you at least entertain the question of whether you can pursue "human well-being" without a consideration of human nature?

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            I will certainly entertain that.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Brian,

            I asked earlier whether "furthering human well-being" was a goal that could be pursued without a consideration of human nature. Do you have an answer to this?

            I.X.,

            Joe

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Brian,

      A) It's not a dodge: the Euthyphro dilemma assumes that the two choices
      are that morality is volitional (whatever God wills, good or evil,
      becomes good by dint of being willed), or an external constraint (God
      is bound by some higher thing: goodness). But if God is
      Goodness, we see that this is a false choice.

      Ex. 1: We can imagine a dog being wet or dry, because the wetness is external to it. But we can't imagine liquid being dry, because the wetness is
      internal to its nature.

      Ex. 2: Our will operates the same way: it is bound by its nature to pursue real and apparent goods. Whenever we choose anything (even if that's something self-destructive), it's out of a perceived good: the pursuit of some pleasure, the avoidance of some pain, the pursuit of some goal, etc.

      But it's not as if there's some external force actively preventing us from willing contrary to our nature: our will flows from our nature, so it's simply incoherent to imagine willing something contrary to nature.

      B) You attempt to apply the two horns of the Euthyphro dilemma to God's nature: that it must either be chosen volitionally, or be handed down from something higher.

      The first of these is impossible: will flows from nature, so it's impossible to will your own nature. In every intentional action, we act in pursuit of some goal. That goal can't be to give ourselves an overarching goal, because without any goal, we could never act (even to give ourselves a goal).

      But the second of these is also impossible, since it would result in an infinite regress: if God's nature is determined by a higher truth, then what determines that higher truth, etc.?

      But this wouldn't just apply to God, of course. If these two horns of the dilemma were true, we would have to reject any objective truth, period; and we would have to deny human nature (and all natures), since we could play the same game with natures, as you've shown.

      C) Fortunately, there is an easy solution to this. God is unlimited Being, which means that He's unlimited Goodness. He doesn't choose it, nor does something higher than Himself give it to Him: He's simply the Infinite, Subsistent Being Itself.

      God as all-Being (“I AM WHO AM”) includes God as all-Good. Good exists, and existence is good (all things strive to preserve/maintain existence). In contrast, evil is parasitical off of the good. For this reason, there could be no evil without good - there would simply be non-existence (since existence is a good). But there can be good without evil: pure existence, by definition, is pure and unlimited good.

      A good analogy would be to health and illness. We can speak of diseases, but these are parasitical, as we see in two ways: (1) the virus, parasite, bacteria, etc., is itself healthy (so illness relies upon health in that sense); and (2) if the virus successfully killed everyone, there would be no more virus. So we can only speak of viruses in relation to health. But of course, the opposite isn't true: eliminating all viruses wouldn't thereby eliminate health.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • Ben Posin

        I appreciate your replying to so many comments, Joe! But respectfully, this answer is pretty unsatisfying. Regarding the application of the euthyphro dilemma as applied to God's nature, you seem to be more playing with the wording of a particular formulation than the underlying problem, so let me rephrase:

        Are the attributes of God's nature good because they are part of God's nature, or does God have these particular attributes because they are good? It would be appreciated if you could acknowledge that choosing either of these horns provides a problem for your view, the same problem set by the original euthyphro dilemma.

        Your attempt to prove this a false dilemma and go between the horns (as it were) really doesn't get us far. You can't define your way out of this by describing God's nature as identical to good, because (as discussed elsewhere in this thread) that removes all meaning of the word good, making calling God good a tautologic statement that provides no information. It just tells us that God is Godlike, it no longer provides us any impetus to think that "good" is something to value or care about.

        Worse, you argue that an external source of Good is a problem because of infinite regress. As in creation arguments, that's not really my problem; you're the one trying to claim it's a sensible or necessary, or even meaningful, statement that God is the sum of all being, or whatever exact phrase floats your boat. We don't know that there isn't an infinite regress for creation, and we don't know that (if there is a God) there isn't some external standard of morality that informs his choices. I'm always amazed that theists don't intuitively get that you can't just define your way to victory; reality may simply not match your definitions.

        I would highly encourage you to respond to my initial post about honesty and dishonesty (further down this chain), as I think that would help clarify where you stand on this.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Ben,

          I appreciate both your tone and your questions. I'm sorry that we don't see eye-to-eye on Euthyphro's dilemma, but let me try to address it again, using the water analogy:

          Imagine that I were to pose a "dilemma" in this way: "is liquid wet because wetness is simply whatever liquid decides to be (such that, if a liquid decided to be solid, we would call that 'liquid'), or is liquid wet because some external thing ascribes it as a property to liquidity?"

          I think you would agree that neither of the horns of that dilemma accurately describe why we consider liquid "wet." The two horns of volitionality or external compulsion don't account for a third option: internal nature. What I'm saying is that the exact same thing is true here, for God.

          I do agree that, any system that ran afoul of those two horns would be in serious trouble. But as I suggested in my last comment, that's good for goose and gander alike: if you're right that these are the only two options for explaining natures, then atheists are equally left with an impossible problem: there's no such thing as human nature (or any nature) anymore.

          This, I think, is a good reason to treat the "dilemma" as a false one, even if you're not convinced of the alternative.

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • Geena Safire

            H2O is not 'wet.' 'Wetness' is an emergent property of a certain quantity of H2O.

            In addition, not everything that is liquid is wet. 'Liquid' means 'flowing freely but of constant volume.'

            'Wetness' means 'the condition of containing or being covered by a liquid (especially water).'

            Or to quote Philo1965: "I think you misunderstand what the term 'water' means, because you misunderstand what its referent is supposed to be.

            You seem to think that for something to be water, it must be wet. But that's not what 'water' means, nor is it a fact simply given what the referent of 'water' is, that water must be wet. Wetness is an emergent property of enough molecules of H2O for the same reason that wetness is an emergent property of enough molecules of water, viz., because water is H2O.

            So if you're thinking that for something to be water it must be wet, that doesn't follow from what the term 'water' means, nor from the fact that referent of the term 'water' is the stuff we find in lakes and streams.

            A molecule of water can't be a molecule of H2O unless water is H2O, and neither of those things can be known a priori. It is not tautological that 'a molecule of H2O is a molecule of water,' because the term 'water' and the term 'H2O' do not have the same meaning."

            In short, your analogy is all wet, so to speak.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Geena,

            What you'e saying is true of individual water molecules. I've tried (admittedly, I've been inconsistent in the comments) to refer instead to "liquid" as wet, which is accurate. As for whether or not we can describe a liquid itself as "wet," we can: Dictionary.com lists the following as the first two definitions of "wet":

            1. moistened, covered, or soaked with water or some other liquid: wet hands.

            2.in a liquid form or state: wet paint.

            The first of those is wetness by participation, the second is wetness as a mode of being. They're distinct, but analogically related. That's what I'm trying to draw out with the illustration: I'm not really looking to break any ground on fluid mechanics.

            The final paragraph is wrong:

            A molecule of water can't be a molecule of H2O unless water is H2O, and neither of those things can be known a priori. It is not tautological that 'a molecule of H2O is a molecule of water,' because the term 'water' and the term 'H2O' do not have the same meaning."

            Saying that water is H2O is tautologically true, a fortiori. It's saying "liquid H2O is H2O," which is undeniable. It's true that we don't know this a priori, but Kant shows in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that Hume is mistaken to conflate a priori / a posteriori with analytic / synthetic statements.

            A statement can be both tautologically true and a posteriori, and "water is H2O" is an example of this (as is "all bachelors are unmarried males").

            I.X.,

            Joe

            P.S. I did enjoy the "all wet" pun.

          • Geena Safire

            "liquid" as wet, which is accurate

            That is not true, as I already said. 'Liquid' means 'flowing freely but of constant volume.'

            Mercury is a liquid but it is not 'wet' because it has no ability to make anything wet (due to its bonds). Pitch looks like a solid, but it is a liquid -- and it is certainly not wet.

            "liquid H2O is H2O," which is undeniable

            Denied! Water is not liquid H2O.

            Ice is frozen water. Vapor is gaseous water. Also, water contains a significant quantity of hydrogen ions (H+) and hydroxyl ions (OH-) and, usually a surprisingly large amount of other stuff (suspended particles, dissolved inorganic and organic compounds, microorganisms & biomolecules, and dissolved gases) -- not just H2O. (It is possible to get "pure H2O" for lab purposes [although it still has H+ and OH-] but it costs about $70 per milliliter.)

            In everyday speech, it could be said that water is H2O. But we're talking philosophy, and particularly theology, in which the precise meaning of words is significant.

          • MichaelNewsham

            Is this following Kripke? Hmmm...

          • Ben Posin

            Thanks for replying, Joe.

            EDIT: Geena, having just read your post, don't rip my head off! You have to fit the tongue to the ear, so to speak...

            You've used this liquid analogy throughout, and seem fond of it, but I don't see how it moves the ball forward. It's just not a good comparison. When we say that a liquid is wet, we are not providing any new information, because, semantically, the two things are the same. They are synonyms. However, when we say that God is good, we are hopefully trying to provide new information, to say something ABOUT God; just as saying God is bad would be saying something about God. If you start redefining the words so that the word good doesn't provide any new information, then we need to stop using it as if it has any independent meaning.

            Your human nature analogy suggest you don't get what I and others are talking about when we discuss God's nature being constrained. I think it would really be helpful for you (and us) if you addressed my honesty questions, which I'll reproduce below. But to some up: God's nature is only constrained if A. you think that certain characteristics like love/kindness/honesty etc. are good and B. you think God's character has to be good. In that case, God has to have these characteristics. But people AREN'T defined as being good, and so they are not constrained.

            Anyway, my super sneaky questions: if you discovered today that God's character was one of dishonesty, and he had lied about it all along in the bible, would you decide that dishonesty was a virtue? Maybe you were wrong all your life in thinking honesty was a virtue! If God's character is identical with the good, well, that's how it must be, I guess, and if God IS dishonest, surely he could have fooled you all this time. On the other hand, If you think that God COULD NOT be dishonest, why do you think honesty is necessarily one of his characteristics? What about honesty makes it something God must have?

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Ben,

            Good comments and questions. Two thoughts:

            (1) In regards to the liquid analogy, you say:

            When we say that a liquid is wet, we are not providing any new information, because, semantically, the two things are the same. They are synonyms. However, when we say that God is good, we are hopefully trying to provide new information, to say something ABOUT God; just as saying God is bad would be saying something about God. If you start redefining the words so that the word good doesn't provide any new information, then we need to stop using it as if it has any independent meaning.

            In other words, both "God is good" and "liquids are wet" is a synthetic proposition, just like "triangles have three sides." If you understand the definitions of the terms, they're tautologically true.

            But they still tell us something. For example, if you didn't have a clear idea of triangles, or liquids, or God, these statements would have explain what was meant by the terms. Conversely, if someone posed a hypothetical about a four-sided triangle, dry liquid, or an evil God, then we would know that they were starting from a false premise.

            Thomas Aquinas has a fascinating question on why we say "God is Good" and "God is Being" when the one statement logically entails the other. The whole question is worth reading, but particularly on point:

            "Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea; which is clear from the following argument. The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. i): "Goodness is what all desire." Now it is clear that a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect; for all desire their own perfection. But everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists; for it is existence that makes all things actual, as is clear from the foregoing (3, 4; 4, 1). Hence it is clear that goodness and being are the same really. But goodness presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present."

            Note that Aquinas isn't defining "Goodness" as simply "God." He's defining Goodness as "what all desire," and then showing how this rests upon being, so that unlimited Goodness must also be unlimited Being.

            (2) This response serves to explain why God can't be dishonest, and dishonesty can't be a virtue. Aquinas again, this time on why "truth" and "being" are different aspects of the same reality:

            "As good has the nature of what is desirable, so truth is related to knowledge. Now everything, in as far as it has being, so far is it knowable. Wherefore it is said in De Anima iii that "the soul is in some manner all things," through the senses and the intellect. And therefore, as good is convertible with being, so is the true. But as good adds to being the notion of desirable, so the true adds relation to the intellect."

            Lies are parasitical to truth, and are a rejection of being (in that they affirm the non-existent, and deny the existent). So unbounded Being couldn't also contain falsehood, since it's contrary to what we mean by "unbounded Being." Hence,a lying being wouldn't be God... and this fact can be known prior to examining revelation.

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Mikegalanx

            "In other words, both "God is good" and "liquids are wet" is a synthetic
            proposition, just like "triangles have three sides." If you understand
            the definitions of the terms, they're tautologically true."

            In the case of "triangles have three sides" and "liquids are wet" don't you mean "analytic proposition"?

            I mean, "triangles have three sides is the standard example of an analytic proposition - even on Wiki.

            [quote]:"analytic proposition: a proposition whose predicate concept is contained in its subject concept
            synthetic proposition: a proposition whose predicate concept is not contained in its subject concept

            Examples of analytic propositions, on Kant's definition, include:
            "All bachelors are unmarried."
            "All triangles have three sides.""[/quote]

            Then the question is whether "God is good" fits into this category

            1)A bachelor is an unmarried man: analytic- a definition,a tautology

            2) Mr.Smith is an unmarried man: synthetic- gives new information.

          • MichaelNewsham

            Okay, should have read your first reply to Geena more closely,as I see you're following the Kropke/Putnam argument for anaIytic posteriori- not sure I agree, but it's above my pay grade.

            OTOH, I still don't think it applies to the "God is good" example- this is not a two-name case; it's claiming a property.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Michael,

            Good catch. I meant "analytic," although it probably would have been wiser for me not to even go down that road (since I'm using Kant's categories, but disagreeing with his view of metaphysics). This has "potential for confusion" written all over it.

            All I meant to say is that even analytical statements tell us something. We have some vague sense of "good," so saying that God is unlimited is not a meaningless statement... even if "God is unlimited good" is true by definition.

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Ben Posin

            Saying triangles have three sides explains something because we have concepts of "three" and "side" that don't depend on triangles, that aren't identical to them. The point of this conversation is trying to figure out what the word good means (and now) what it means to call God good. So the semantic content is still zero, until you're able to give a definition/standard of good.

            Unless, of course, you want to rely on your Aquinas quote, which seems to say that "good has the nature of what is desirable." That sure sounds like a definition of good that does not depend on the existence of God (and is arguably subjective anyway), so I imagine it's not one you want to use.

            You seem to be very comfortable making up rules for this odd concept "unbounded Being." You really can't define your God into existence, or at least you can't be expected to be taken seriously by atheists when you do.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Ben,

            I'm quite comfortable using Aquinas' definition of the good: that it has the nature of what is desirable. This is the reverse of Spinoza's idea of the good.

            In Spinoza's view, something is good because we desire it: goodness originates in me, the subject; in Aquinas' view, we desire a thing because it is good.

            Goodness is a property within the thing that makes it capable of (and worthy of) being desired. Like all transcendental properties of being, it permits of gradation: some things are more desirable than others. Good can then be subdivided into ontological and moral good.

            Have you considered the question of ontology before: of what being is, and where it comes from?

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Ben Posin

            Oh for the love of...I guess I hadn't got what you meant by that Aquinas quote, and interpreted more in the manner you attribute to Spinoza. So you're saying that something is good/moral/etc. if it's capable of and worthy of being desired? And some things/choices/etc. are better than others? And you think this adds to the conversation? I don't see how after all this talk we're any closer to understanding what things are worthy of being desired, and, to the extent there can be some objective criteria for desirability, how the existence of a God is necessary for it. We're just back on the same merry go round.

            Joe, I think this thread is bad for my blood pressure, which is of course my own problem, and points to failings in me. Thanks for your efforts and responsiveness, but I think it's best for my physical and mental health if I'm able to make myself sit the rest of the rounds out. References to Aquinas apparently make me break out in hives.

          • Geena Safire

            EDIT: Geena, having just read your post, don't rip my head off! You have to fit the tongue to the ear, so to speak...

            Ben, how could I have 'ripped your head off'? I didn't respond to you at all during this thread, but only to Joe. And all I did there was to note the factual scientific fallacy of Joe's water analogy. (OTOH, I am intrigued by that tongue and ear thing...)

          • Ben Posin

            I was (tongue in cheek this time) acknowledging that I was participating in a bad analogy, and trying to forestall your wrath. Not suggesting you had "ripped my head off."

          • Geena Safire

            Ah, thank you for the clarification. Apparently, my reputation exceeds me.

  • Matthias Wasser

    First, let me say that this essay made me realize that the moral argument from the perspective of classical theism is more plausible than that offered by theistic personalists. (Some) Protestants, in some sense, face the same problems as Hellenic polytheists. So good job on that, and shame on me for not realizing the obvious. However, 1) it still seems to me that you're being systematically uncharitable towards "so what" responses to atheistic morality and charitable in the case of theistic ones. Or to put it another way: it's not clear what you mean by "bindingness" here. And 2) your definition of objective morality is still consistent with the language-game of moral discourse as employed by nonrealists, given that they're employing moral language indexically.

    With respect to (1), you seem to engage in elision between whether "binding" means "successfully psychologically compelling" or "adhering to the criterion in question." For instance, you speak of conscience as non-binding because there is no guarantee that persons will follow their conscience (would that there were!) But God is binding because he's Goodness himself. Well, things either correspond to one's conscience or they don't; and (as Christianity, at least, would have it*) we don't always act as theistic morality would demand. It seems to me that unless I've drastically misunderstood you, you should choose one or the other.

    (In the case of utilitarianism I think this is even worse: with your comment to the effect that the utilitarian can't seem to say whether anything is wrong without some analysis, you seem to be saying that a moral theory can't ever be correct if it ever requires discernment or doesn't give *obvious* answers. So much for morality then!)

    I'm also mighty suspicious that you're engaged in a sort of linguistic trick here with "Goodness." That God is good in the ordinary English sense of the word is not obvious; in any event, certainly theologians have meant very different things by the term. That pleasure is intrinsically good and suffering intrinsically bad - in the way that water is wet - is more obvious (at least to me.)

    With respect to (2) you quote (ugh) WLC to the effect of defining objective morality as:

    “to say that the Holocaust was objectively evil is to say that it was evil, even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was good, and it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everyone who disagreed with them, so that everybody thought the Holocaust was good.”

    But a subjectivist who believes that the truth or assertibility of moral sentences depend upon the moral commitments of the speaker will find nothing to disagree with here. I, the speaker right now, have moral commitments that imply the Holocaust is wrong. These extend to possible worlds where I don't exist, where my counterpart has very different commitments, &c. Consider language we already use indexically: words like "here." "Here" refers to where the speaker is at the moment of the utterance, not where the speaker would be subjunctively. If I am in New York, and I say "were I in Pennsylvania, the Statue of Liberty would still be here" I mean that were I in Pennsylvania the Statue of Liberty would still be in New York, not that it would still be right with me. Likewise, a metaethical subjectivist/normative utilitarian can say "were I to believe that maximizing pain were good, it would still be bad" in precisely the same way.

    Of course, it's always possible that I have misinterpreted you, &c. My apologies if so!

    *It seems to me that classical divine attributes would imply that all creatures must be in accordance with divine will, but that's another debate.

    • Sqrat

      I'm also mighty suspicious that you're engaged in a sort of linguistic
      trick here with "Goodness." That God is good in the ordinary English sense of the word is not obvious.

      Holy cow, yah THINK??? The implication that "God" literally means "goodness," and "goodness" literally means "God," is an abuse of the English language that grates on me like fingernails on a blackboard.

      And what's with the capital "G"? Is the intent to try to assert that this claim has the status of a Profound Truth?

      With respect to (2) you quote (ugh) WLC to the effect of defining objective morality as: “to say that the Holocaust was objectively evil is to say that it was evil, even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was good, and it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everyone who disagreed with them, so that everybody thought the Holocaust was good.”

      If the Holocaust was allowed by, and perhaps indeed caused by, "Goodness," why should one be so quick to condemn it as "objectively evil"?

      • josh

        Note that WLC is infamous as a defender of biblical genocide.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          Note that our commenting policy specifically prohibits ad hominem attacks. WLC's interpretation of OT events is irrelevant to the statement Joe quoted. Your comment was simply an attempt to smear WLC's character. You're better than that, josh.

          • Susan

            Josh's point speaks directly to the issue.

            WLC points to Yahweh as source of goodness and defends the slaughtering of men, women and children as a "good" act because Yahweh commanded it

            Which is why we need to define "good". Why bother using the word at all?

          • robtish

            Brandon, I have to disagree. The original post introduced the topic of WLC's moral reasoning about genocide. That makes the topic fair game. You can argue whether Josh is correct or incorrect, but not whether his statement is relevant.

          • josh

            Actually, my point was that WLC apparently believes that another (likely fictional) holocaust was caused by 'Goodness' and he then feels bound to not condemn it, but in fact to praise it. This is an answer to Sqrat's question.

            Most people would see this as a problematic stance, since the goodness or badness of genocides on this account don't seem to have much to do with people being slaughtered and more to do with whether or not Craig thinks his God approves. Craig's position, meant to represent an 'objective' morality, looks indistinguishable from the Nazi apologist he cites as an example of subjective morality.

          • Geena Safire

            I agree. WLC has admitted that the only difference between the complete annihilation of the Amalekites and the destructive goals of Islamic terrorism, in terms of morality, is that the latter are worshiping the wrong God.

          • MichaelNewsham

            Quite. WLC says that an evil such as the Holocaust would remain evil under any circumstances-and then gives an example of genocide being justifiable- again,the question of whether it happened or not is irrelevant; what WLC is saying is if this extermination happened, commanded by God, it was good.

            "Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves.
            Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?"

            Yeah, that would really be traumatic. Note well, Craig is saying the killing itself is fine- it's just the effect on an Israelite soldier's morale that's a problem- PTSD and all that.

            It is not a smear, but a simple statement, that the closest thing I have come to WLC is this:

            " Most of you know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 lie there, or if 1,000 lie there. To have gone through this, and at the same time, apart from exceptions caused by human weaknesses, to have remained decent, that has made us hard."
            Heinrich Himmler's Posen speech..

            In fact, if you compare WLC and HH's reasoning side by side, the similarity is astounding

            http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/HimmlerSpeeches.html

            lwww.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "I agree. WLC has admitted that the only difference between the complete annihilation of the Amalekites and the destructive goals of Islamic terrorism, in terms of morality, is that the latter are worshiping the wrong God."

            This is not exactly true, and I'd challenge you to provide a direct quote to support this assertion. What WLC has consistently claimed is that the morality of a particular act depends on who authorizes it.

            Surely you would agree? For example, if I lived in 1940s America and decided to travel to Germany and indiscriminately kill fifty people, that would be an egregious act of murder. But if the US military, exercising its legitimate authority, declared war on Germany, and killed fifty people in the process, it would involve killing but nor murder.

            The analogy has its holes, but I hope you see my point: the same act, committed by two different people, can have different moral results depending on the *authority* of who authorizes the act.

            Thus when considering the OT story, as WLC points out, we need to recognize that God taking someone's life is of a different moral category than a human--who has no right to anyone else's life--doing the same thing.

          • Andre Boillot

            "This is not exactly true, and I'd challenge you to provide a direct quote to support this assertion."

            Well, I think you'll find your challenge met: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites

            Now how does all this relate to Islamic jihad? Islam sees violence as a means of propagating the Muslim faith. Islam divides the world into two camps: the dar al-Islam (House of Submission) and the dar al-harb (House of War). The former are those lands which have been brought into submission to Islam; the latter are those nations which have not yet been brought into submission. This is how Islam actually views the world!

            By contrast, the conquest of Canaan represented God’s just judgement upon those peoples. The purpose was not at all to get them to convert to Judaism! War was not being used as an instrument of propagating the Jewish faith. Moreover, the slaughter of the Canaanites represented an unusual historical circumstance, not a regular means of behavior.

            The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God. If the Muslim thinks that our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, then I agree with him.

          • David Nickol

            Thus when considering the OT story, as WLC points out, we need to recognize that God taking someone's life is of a different moral category than a human--who has no right to anyone else's life--doing the
            same thing.

            I think it is impossible to make the argument that God himself is a "murderer," since God created life and death, and it is (according to Christian and Jewish belief) only by his will that anyone lives in the first place.

            It is quite another thing for God to command human beings to kill other, innocent human beings. It seems to me that if that happened (as with, say, the Amalekites), God is commanding human beings to murder. To somewhat oversimplify, I do not think God can delegate his authority kill innocent people. And think of it as a practical matter. Say you had been an Israelite soldier and were commanded to kill children. How could you possibly be certain that God himself had commanded such a thing? What if a soldier today were commanded to kill children, refused, and then was told that it was God's will that he should kill children?

            If the pope, or a very saintly man or women, should come to you and say they Jesus had appeared to them and told them to command you to kill a baby, would you do it?

            And if it is permissible for God to command human beings to kill other innocent human beings—babies—how do you argue that God may not command human beings (including you) to steal, torture, or commit any other immoral act?

            What about the alleged voice of conscience in the heart of all human beings? I think most people today would be horrified at the idea of killing a child with a sword. Do we really imagine that God would require a person to do such a thing, even if God could delegate his authority to take life? Remember that if these Bible stories are true, the Israelite army was made up of real men who were husbands and fathers themselves. Even if God may in theory delegate his power to take innocent lives, what kind of God would tell a husband and father to kill other people's children? Any decent, sane man would be horrified at the idea of running a child through with a sword or beheading it. Do we imagine God saying, "It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it"?

          • Geena Safire

            Paraphrasing Christopher Hitchens, If the Judeo-Christian deity existed and if said deity appeared before me and ordered me to kill my child, I would tell him to f**k off.

            I didn't ask to be born, so I'm under no obligation to this posited entity that, for whatever reason, created me, nor is anyone else. So, in a way, I recognize that said deity's wishes regarding killing people are in a different moral category: the category called 'no right whatsoever.'

            Along the same lines, that proposed deity also has no right to order genocide. The Israelites were simply morally wrong when their leaders imagined (or made up the story) that they been given a divine command to slaughter tens of thousands of people because (they said) their supposed deity said they had the right to those people's land, and told them not one of those people deserved to live.

            Should all the world's Catholics have been killed because the perverted, grotesque Vatican leadership during and before the Renaissance killed people, stole billions (in today's $$), and destroyed countless lives if Martin Luther, instead of posting his 95 theses, had been commanded by his deity to wipe them out? If you can't say yes, amen, hallelujah to this then you can't support the other.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            Geena, did you find the WLC quote to back up your accusation that:

            "WLC has admitted that the only difference between the complete annihilation of the Amalekites and the destructive goals of Islamic terrorism, in terms of morality, is that the latter are worshiping the wrong God."

          • Geena Safire

            As requested:

            "“Now how does all this relate to Islamic jihad? Islam sees violence as a means of propagating the Muslim faith. Islam divides the world into two camps: the dar al-Islam (House of Submission) and the dar al-harb (House of War). The former are those lands which have been brought into submission to Islam; the latter are those nations which have not yet been brought into submission. This is how Islam actually views the world!

            By contrast, the conquest of Canaan represented God’s just judgement upon those peoples. The purpose was not at all to get them to convert to Judaism! War was not being used as an instrument of propagating the Jewish faith. Moreover, the slaughter of the Canaanites represented an unusual historical circumstance, not a regular means of behavior.

            The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God. If the Muslim thinks that our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, then I agree with him. But Muslims and Christians differ radically over God’s nature. Muslims believe that God loves only Muslims. Allah has no love for unbelievers and sinners. Therefore, they can be killed indiscriminately. Moreover, in Islam God’s omnipotence trumps everything, even His own nature. He is therefore utterly arbitrary in His dealing with mankind.”

            William Lane Craig

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            Thanks for the quote, Geena! I figured that's the article you were referring to, but I wanted to make sure.

            Now that we see your quote and his matched together, I'm afraid you've misrepresented his point, albeit subtly. The fatal flaw of Islamic morality is not that they worship the wrong God, as you say.It's that they ground morality on a mistaken understanding of God, as WLC says.

            This is a subtle yet important clarification. I'd agree with you that if we're talking simply about a difference in worship, it would be an arbitrary distinction. But we're concerned with a fundamental difference in God's character--on whether he arbitrarily issues commands or not.

          • Geena Safire
            [Islam] has got the wrong God

            This is a subtle yet important clarification.

            No, it's a distinction without a difference. 'They worship the wrong god' and 'They have the wrong god' are both ways of saying: 'They are wrong about the true (per WLC) nature of the deity.'

          • Andre Boillot

            "The fatal flaw of Islamic morality is not that they worship the wrong God, as you say.It's that they ground morality on a mistaken understanding of God, as WLC says.

            This is a subtle yet important clarification."

            Perhaps you'd like to elaborate more, since it's so subtle yet important.

          • Paul Boillot

            Never let it be said that I don't have your back Brandon: I'm gonna toss you the quotes again so you can rethink your response.

            "WLC has admitted that ...[Muslims] are worshiping the wrong God" -GS
            "The problem with Islam ... is ... that it has got the wrong God." -WLC
            "you've misrepresented his point, albeit subtly" -BV

            You're wrong: she hasn't. There's nothing "subtle" here, he said they worship the wrong god. He...literally said...exactly those words.

            Sometimes you've just got to admit you were wrong, bro.

          • Andre Boillot

            Brandon, any plans to elaborate a bit more on this clarification? I think it might have been too subtle for some of us to grasp.

          • Andre Boillot

            Guess you missed it the first time.

          • DannyGetchell

            Brandon -

            Among skeptics of all flavors - atheist, deist, agnostic, pantheist - WLC is known as a fast-talking debater with next to nothing backing up his standardized patter. Anyone citing him as a source in a serious discussion does so at their own peril.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Matthias,

      Thanks for this thought-provoking and charitable comment. I'm pleased with your distinction between classical theism and theistic personalism. Most of the criticism in this thread so far assume the latter. And in fact, I think Euthyphro's dilemma would be a very serious challenge to the theistic personalist. (I also think that nearly all atheists assume that "theism = theistic personalism," but that may just be my experience.)

      Regarding conscience, my argument wasn't that conscience is non-binding "because there is no guarantee that persons will follow their conscience." It's that "the only reason that conscience is binding is because we believe that it corresponds to something higher than ourselves. If it’s our own creation, we are its master, not its servant." If conscience is something that I create, why should I follow it?

      Certainty, I agree with you that both God and conscience can be disobeyed. But disobeying God and/or conscience is only wrong if we ought to obey them.

      When I'm asking about objectively morally binding principles, I'm asking about a system capable of serving as an objective ought for all people, regardless of their subjective feelings, views, etc.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • Matthias Wasser

        Could you expand on what you mean by "ought?"

        I mean, certainly we both know how to use "ought" competently. As a subjectivist I'm fine with operational explication. But as a realist you're committed to some further meaning of the term, which I'll have to admit I find... mysterious, at best. But never say never! What do you mean by it?

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Matthias,

          In its most basic form, an "ought" claim is a form of prescription, as opposed to a descriptive "is" claim.

          So in other words, objective moral values are ones that are prescribed for all, independent of one's preferences or moral-philosophical views. In other words, even if your system tells you murder is okay (say, murder reduces some greater evil later), murder is still wrong -- and therefore, ought not be done.

          Does this clarify the meaning?

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • Matthias Wasser

            Well, we can refer to an action as "prescribed" in the sense that someone is recommending it (my doctor prescribes me some medicine, someone tells me to stick it where the sun don't shine, and so on) or in the sense that someone finds compelling reasons to do it (if I want to have a pleasant morning we might say it's prescriptive that I not have thumb tacks for breakfast.) Are you referring to one of these or to something else?

            It seems to me that moral discourse refers to acts of prescription, i.e., when I say that torture is moral, I am asking people not to torture, &c. This seems to meet your formal criteria, insofar as we sometimes make universal prescriptions. But I also suspect you would not agree with this sort of expressivism!

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Matthias,

            The thumb tacks example is a good one, and is, in fact, the very example that Ralph McInerny used in Ethica Thomistica. In that case, it would be a conditional prescription, unless we're bound in some way to desire a pleasant morning. But as you can see, this requires some teleos: in this case, a pleasant morning.

            What we want is a prescription that isn't conditional in this way (or is "conditioned" upon something that is inescapably part of the human condition, in such a way that it's impossible to avoid that end). So objective morality ends up turning upon the existence of an objective teleos.

            I.X.,

            Joe

            P.S. I tried to think of some good puns to go with this, but they were all tacky.

          • Matthias Wasser

            Okay, so from this and some of your other comments I think I have a better sense of your metaethics. Is this a good summary?:

            "Everyone desires various things because they have various qualities that they desire (pleasurable, prudent, beautiful, whatever), or because they are mistaken about them such that they have such qualities (for instance, when I eat thumb tacks thinking they're nutritious, or when a Nazi mistakenly thinks that Jews are inhuman parasites and pursues their elimination as a good comparable to the elimination of polio.) And so iff there is something that's the absolute package of everything everyone wants can we say that there are universally compelling reasons to take certain courses of action over others."

            Is that right? (I have some tentative criticisms and concessions to offer, but want to make sure that I'm laying siege to the right castle, as it were.)

          • Geena Safire

            [E]ven if your system tells you murder is okay (say, murder reduces some greater evil later), murder is still wrong

            Another problem with terminology. 'Murder' means a human death contributed to by a human that is unlawful.

            That is, to say 'murder is wrong' is a simple tautology.

            Every society on earth has rules regarding what kinds of human death are considered lawful (and by whom) (e.g., in warfare, certain kinds of retribution, state-sanctioned execution, self-defense) and which are considered unlawful.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Geena,

            Are you saying that it's tautologically true that it's always wrong to violate a law? What's your basis for this?

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Matthias Wasser

            Obvious charitable interpretation: "murder is killing that is unacceptable."

            (Consider slogans like "meat is murder," "abortion is murder," "taxation is theft," "property is theft." These all seem to imply tautological readings of murder and theft being wrong. And on which Geena is exactly right: all societies do disallow what they consider to be murder and theft, in the sense that they impose some form of regulation on what types of killing and taking are acceptable.)

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Matthias,

            I'm not sure what it means to define murder as "killing that is unacceptable." If we mean that it is unacceptable in a utilitarian framework, this renders it true by tautology. But that strikes me as a pretty radical redefinition of murder, as well a purely semantic debate that doesn't address my point.

            My point was that, under certain conditions, utilitarianism would permit the deliberate killing of innocent people. If you want to use another example (that it would permit torture, rape, genocide, etc.), feel free. All are true. The semantic debate doesn't address the substance of this critique.

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Matthias Wasser

            I was talking about Geena's use of "murder," or a charitable interpretation of the same, not addressing your critique of utilitarianism. Obviously that's a separate question.

            (As to it, as a normative utilitarian I'm happy to just bite the bullet and don't see why one wouldn't. The objection is like saying "if we were given certain evidence, the scientific method would suggest the moon is made of green cheese!" Well, yeah. So what? I'm pretty sure that no one ever held a non-incidentally correct belief that their raping or torturing someone would be felicitous - do you disagree? What about a so felicitous genocide? (An example that suggests itself is the forced population transfers of ethnic Germans after WWII, which probably meets the current legal definition of genocide if not the popular one of "attempt to wipe out an ethnic group." I'm not an expert on the situation but it's at least plausible that those who carried it out did so because of a justified belief that it was necessary to prevent a third world war. Would you hold that, were this the case, it would nevertheless be obviously wrong? I don't want to proclaim that it's obviously correct, either, but if you're appeal is to common sense I think the commonsenseness of avoiding these bullets is a lot less clear when you actually draw out the "certain conditions" in as vivid detail as those conveyed by "genocide," "torture," and so on.))

          • David Nickol

            I'm not sure what it means to define murder as "killing that is unacceptable."

            Certainly murder must be defined, and one part of the definition is and always has been that murder is wrongful killing. Likewise stealing must be defined. There are many circumstances under which killing human beings is not murder—in battle, in self-defense, in carrying out lawful executions, in accidents, in acts of violence in which killing happens but was not intended—but the word murder is used only to identify wrongful killing of one human being by another. It makes no sense to say the bubonic plague bacillus, a brain tumor, a lion, or even God "murdered" someone.

            I have always felt the fifth and seventh commandments from the Decalogue (you shall not murder, you shall not steal) tell us exactly nothing, since murder and stealing are wrong by definition, but the commandments do not define what is murder and what is stealing.

            In a utilitarian system, murder could never be sanctioned, because killing that is morally sanctioned is not murder. If I say that capital punishment is murder by the state (which is close to being my actual position), I am quite clearly condemning capital punishment, because to call a type of killing murder is to condemn it.

          • Geena Safire

            Are you saying that it's tautologically true that it's always wrong to violate a law? What's your basis for this?

            No, I wasn't saying that, and I don't appreciate your twisting my words, nor your tendency to trivialize human suffering to play semantic games.

            In general, in human societies, laws are based on the moral beliefs of the society. In this way, law can be considered a society's moral poetry.

            We have laws defining what murder is (and isn't) because we believe these definitions of murder are the kinds of human human killing that are morally wrong, that they act against societal well-being and harmony.

            But societal values change, so laws change. Anti-gay laws, for example, were once considered to be contributing to individual and societal well-being and were thus moral. Today, Western society considers anti-gay laws not to contribute to individual and societal well-being and thus immoral, so those laws are being repealed.

      • Matthias Wasser

        Also (although noncentrally) surely you agree that our conscience is not something that we "create" or are master of? Moral dispositions are just not volitional. I can't will myself to approve of torture any more than I can will myself to believe that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1493.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Matthias,

          I certainly would, but precisely because I think that conscience points to something external to myself. If I thought conscience was, say, the merely incidental product of internal biological impulses, I would have no particular reason to trust it more than mere emotions.

          In other words, there would be no reason (at least, none that I see) to view your conscience's call "you ought not murder" over your emotions' call to murder someone you're angry with.

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • Matthias Wasser

            Well, I don't "trust" my emotions - they aren't propositions or people, after all - but I do have and act on them.

            It's true, of course, that there is no a priori reason why someone will always find a claim of conscience more compelling than claims of anger, or hunger, or whatever - as evinced by the obvious fact that people do not always follow their consciences. So I would aver that conscience is not universally prescriptive in the sense of always according with the best way of fulfilling the agent's goals taken as a whole (it does not seem that anything is.) But of course that's not what we usually mean by "ought" - by moral senses of "ought" we mean what the conscience (of the speaker, not necessarily the subject of the prescription) calls out for.

            By analogy, consider the prudential uses of ought. Prudential considerations are not always universally prescriptive in the sense of not always according with an agent's goals all-around. For instance, a corporate whistleblower might risk her career and maybe even extralegal retaliation but go to the press anyway. That doesn't make her actions prudent - she ought, prudentially, to have kept her head down! In this case she found the moral considerations more compelling.

            Likewise, if she were to find the prudential considerations more compelling, we would still be able to say that she did the morally wrong thing.

  • Loreen Lee

    I understand that Kant's deontological ethics is not recognized as being the representation of 'divine goodness' by the 'Church', but I am disappointed that you did not include it in your list. Kant of course, places his categorical imperative as a proof God's existence, although I have read that during the dotage of his old age he may have come to the 'opinion' that duty/'conscience was sufficient. However, that conscience, is in his principle, based on the criteria of universality and necessity, and thus Kant distinguishes the subjectivity of what he outlines as pragmatic choice from the law governed activity (and the relational element) implied by his ethic.
    However, this talk could get us off topic. But because Kant bases his 'law' on what he terms the 'moral' issues of universality and necessity, (which however are held to be regulative rather than constitutive (does this recognize the sinfulness of our natures?) there is no 'guarantee' of acting in accord with the moral law in this case. However, that is not my main concern here. I understand that the Church bases the criteria of morality, not on a moral law, unless that the objectivity of divine goodness, but rather the reasoning involved with 'natural law'. The goodness I associate with Kant's practical reason, that is the will. But I feel that Kant's moral law is actually another rendition of the 'logical' elements that would be involved in natural law. Is our morality then limited by the all too human characteristic of being under the influence of our 'limited' intelligence, or Kant's pure reason, rather than the manifestation of love, which I can only associate with agape, as an expression of will, rather than 'intelligence'.

    There is certainly a difference between the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative. Could you help me by elaborating on this perplexity, specifically by clarifying the distinction, which I understand to exist, between moral and natural law. Thank you.

    • Loreen Lee

      I wanted to confirm that I now understand that you might place Kant's ethics within the framework of the 'personal'. But the Trinity is also Personal, is it not? . Granted God's perfection is a rationality that is defined as being 'absolute' - yes? But I can't equate the personal with objectivity as I understand the personal to 'mean' or 'involve' subjectivity. I thus wonder if or how God's 'goodness' could, within a human criteria!! at least, be considered objective. (Say, from His point of view!!!) Or is this where 'free will' comes in?

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Loreen,

        Great questions. In hindsight, perhaps I should have included Kant's deontology. I haven't heard it used as a defense for objective morality among atheists, but it was certainly very popular among philosophers for much of the twentieth century. My oversight.

        As for Trinity, we're using it in different senses. The Trinity is Personal in the sense of containing Three Persons (although this is only knowable through revelation; short of that, we would simply know that God is Personal, and nothing more). But "Personal" doesn't mean subjective in God, in the sense of volitionality (that is, it's not the case that goodness is whatever God arbitrarily decides it to be).

        • Loreen Lee

          Thank you for the response. I have since writing my query thought that objectivity could be a form of 'purposeful behavior'. Kant meets this criteria for instance with his Kingdom of Ends. This objectivity of purpose however, I would agree with you, is far richer within the concept of a perfection of personhood, seen within a theistic or atheistic perspective, I would think. To this 'end', we have through St. Aquinas the demand for greater development of 'character' within an Aristotelian 'virtue ethics'.
          The golden rule: Love your neighbor as yourself, is I believe incomplete without the 'for the love of God'. I consequently do not agree with some ethics such as that of Richard Rorty who would confine morality to the sphere of eliminating such things as 'cruelty', within a specifically human context alone. For me, I have abandoned my reading into this post-modern perspective because I feel it is inadequate. However, I still appreciate Kant because he does have this 'higher goal or end'. within his philosophy'': one that unlike pragmatic goals is not based on some form of self-interest. Thanks again.

  • robtish

    Can you justify your argument that God is Good? Can't I just define Good to be My Conscience, and then say: Therefore everyone who wants to achieve something good is bound by the dictates of My Conscience.

    Sure, that sounds pretty arbitrary, but so does your defining Good to be God. Can you explain why your definition of Good is better than my hypothetical one?

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      robtish, it sounds like you think Joe is beginning with the idea of God, and then assuming he must be all-good. But Joe and other classical theists first reason that the existence of objective morality points to an all-perfect being (i.e. the Good), and that being we call God. The order is reversed.

      Also, Joe has shown in this post why grounding morality on individual consciences is ultimately subjective, but to clarify, is that what you believe? Do you hold that acts are moral or immoral depending on how they jive with the acting person's conscience?

      • DannyGetchell

        Grounding absolute morality upon what we conceive to be God is no less subjective, unless we all have access to precise knowledge of what God's will is in every situation.

      • robtish

        No, Brandon -- that's why I called my definition hypothetical. Also, I don't see how your characterization of Joe's argument is accurate. In his Euthyphro section, he seems to be starting from a definition of Good as God, not proving that Good is God.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Robtish,

          Classical theism proves the existence of God as Pure Being, and shows that other properties (truth, unity, goodness, aliquid, etc.) follow from this.

          For purposes of this debate, I'm saying that if they're right, that's an objective ground for morality (and conversely, that there's not another objective ground for morality).

          In the comments, it's clear that atheists want me to prove that the classical theistic definition of God is correct. I'm happy to do my best on that score, but it's not what the resolution is calling for.

          If we're going to go down that road, how familiar are you with transcendental properties of being and/or classical metaphysics? Also, how familiar are you with Thomas' Five Ways, and what are your reactions to them? That should give us a good place to start.

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • robtish

            I'm familiar with these proofs, though I've read only excerpts and know them mainly through WT Jones 5-part history of philosophy and the Stanford philosophy encyclopedia. I find them unconvincing because they seem to be a lot of semantic trickery.

          • robtish

            ALERT! Joseph, I'm extremely alarmed by your statement this article depends on the notion that classical theism is correct. If you're going to begin by requiring that concession, then in what way are you engaging in a dialog with atheists?

            Put another way, you seem to be saying you've only demonstrated that objective morality required God's existence *if God exists.* But then that reasoning will *in no way* demonstrate to a nonbeliever that objective morality requires God's existence, and your statements do not engage with our views at all.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Robtish,

            No need for alarm. I'm not asking you to assume that classical theism is correct. I'm saying that if it is correct, objective morality has a coherent ground; and that if it isn't, objective morality doesn't.

            Nothing in that requires you to have a pre-existing belief in God, as understood in the classical theistic way. You could affirm the above as an atheist, as an argument against objective morality.

            Think about it in terms of a math problem. If I say X plus two is 5, I might say, "If (and only if) X is 3, this is true." That doesn't assume that X is 3: it treats it as a conditional. But the truth of "X + 2 = 5" depends upon the truth of "X = 2." Either both are true, or neither are.

            I.X.,

            Joe

            P.S. Hopefully, this clarifies that my argument is not that "objective morality required God's existence *if God exists.* It's that objective morality requires God's existence, absolutely. But this doesn't prove the existence of either: it just shows that both are equally true or false.

          • robtish

            Joseph, thanks for clarifying. I did get a bit alarmed, didn't I?. :)

            In that case, I still don't see how you've shown that without God, there can be no objective morality. If human beings have a nature, if that nature is not arbitrary, if that nature is not under my deliberate control, then human nature is not subjective, and it can be the basis for objectiver morality. It will require an axiom to start with, as all philosophies do, but Harris' equation of "good" with "well-being of conscious creatures" seems strong enough to serve, as it seems hard to deny without contradicting oneself.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Harris' equation of "good" with "well-being of conscious creatures" ends up conflating the aggregate and individual good.

            So if murdering one innocent person prevents two other innocent people from being killed, the GHP would say that, all other things being equal, this is "good" and you have a moral obligation to do so.

            I don't think that moral system is particularly hard to deny. Even its most basic proponents, like Peter Singer, abandon it when it comes to making hard choices, because it leads to absurd and impractical results.

            Even more to the point, there's no reason that utilitarianism can give for why I ought to pursue the GHP over my individual good, except that pursuing the GHP is better for the GHP. That's circular, and not a basis for binding morality.

            I.X.,

            Joe

            P.S. I'm not understanding your argument against us being objectively bound by human nature. Can you elaborate?

          • robtish

            Human nature exists independently of our personal opinions of human nature.

          • robtish

            "So if murdering one innocent person prevents two other innocent people from being killed, the GHP would say that, all other things being equal, this is "good" and you have a moral obligation to do so."

            Perhaps (only perhaps!), but the fact that this objective moral code leads to conclusions that we find repellent does not disqualify it as an objective moral code -- after all, ANY objective moral code requires that we subordinate our subjective emotional responses to that code.

          • Andre Boillot

            It should be noted that, to the extent that Harris is to be found using the utilitarian train track analogy, it's to show how our moral intuitions can vary wildly despite the same outcomes, or flat out fail us -- as in the study he cites where there's a negative correlation between charitable giving & compassion as the number of needy child recipients goes up.

          • Andre Boillot

            "So if murdering one innocent person prevents two other innocent people from being killed, the GHP would say that, all other things being equal, this is "good" and you have a moral obligation to do so."

            Well, 1) it's wellbeing, not happiness, that Harris proposes -- and he distinguishes between the two in his work. 2) the key phrase in your scenario is, of course, all other things being equal. 3) I think that Harris would object that a world were people were routinely being murdered in order to save innocents would not be one where wellbeing was being maximized.

          • David Nickol

            Even more to the point, there's no reason that utilitarianism can give for why I ought to pursue the GHP over my individual good, except that pursuing the GHP is better for the GHP. That's circular, and not a basis for binding morality.

            Part of the assumption about the GHP is that true individual happiness comes through pursuing the happiness of others and the general good. Selfishness may at first glance seem to bee the way to individual happiness, but selfishness doesn't bring true happiness. So an individual who is interested in being happy, if he or she is made aware of where true happiness lies, will strive to make himself or herself happy through seeking the happiness of everyone.

            This is not at all incompatible with Christian ideas of happiness. A selfish person will not be truly happy, whereas a selfless person, even one who suffers in efforts to benefit others, can be happy.

          • David Nickol

            So if murdering one innocent person prevents two other innocent people from being killed, the GHP would say that, all other things being equal, this is "good" and you have a moral obligation to do so.

            You are vastly oversimplifying utilitarianism, of which there are many variants. For example, rule utilitarianism, according to Wikipedia, "is a form of utilitarianism that says an action is right as it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good, or that 'the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance.'" (Murder, it seems to me, is always wrong, by definition, no matter in what ethical system. So the murder of two people to save one would never be right, because murder is defined as wrongful killing.) But in a system of rule utilitarianism, there could be a rule that "murder" (or sacrificing the lives of innocent people) is wrong. In rule utilitarianism, one lives morally by follows the rules. One does not attempt to live morally by analyzing each and every action one takes to determine if it will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            David,

            Murder isn't always wrong within the utilitarianism. That's one of the reasons why "rule utilitarianism" was viewed as a compelling alternative. They're not the same philosophical system.

            Utilitarianism says that we ought always to choose the action that results in the greatest possible pleasure (or some variation: happiness, "utils," or some other currency), and avoidance of pain.

            Rule utilitarianism replaces "the action" with "the rule" in order to make a weird deontological / utilitarian hybrid.

            It means that you blindly follow a generally-good rule even if, in this particular circumstance, you know that it'll have disastrous results. One of the points of rule utilitarianism (and deontology more generally) is that it allows no exceptions. This quickly becomes unworkable.

            But: (a) who gets to make the rules? and more importantly, (b) why should we follow the rules?

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Geena Safire

            Sam Harris emphatically does not mean, by his proposal, simple consequentialism or utilitarianism, nor the 'greatest happiness principle.

          • Geena Safire

            Physicist Lawrence Krauss famously has a T-shirt that says: "2 + 2 = 5, for sufficiently large values of 2."

            That is, mathematics is not as simple as first grade addition in the same way that the posited Christian deity is not as simple as kindergarten's invisible old man in the sky.

            (Plus, I think your comment has a typo. That is, I think you meant for your last X to equal 3 instead of 2. Unless you agree with Krauss.)

          • robtish

            And I'll put it a third way, if you begin with the assumption that classical theism is true, then your argument seems to be: "If we assume that God exists, then if God does not exist there can be no objective morality."

            And that I understand not at all

      • robtish

        My point with what I wrote about "My Conscience" is that Joe seems to be setting up an arbitrary (or at least unproven) identification of Good with God, and that everything he says in Argument 3 depends on that unjustified identification.

        But until he explains why I must logically accept Good as God, then I can make any different arbitrary identification (Good is: My Conscience, or an Obscure Book, or the Whims of Miley Cyrus) and then I can use the reasoning in Argument 3 to create an empty tautology showing that objective morality cannot exist without, say, Miley Cyrus.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Robtish,

          See above for a more thorough answer of this. I'm not saying that you must accept "Good as God." I'm saying that if the classical theist is right that God is pure subsistent Good, then objective morality holds. That's not a redefinition of good, as far as I can tell.

          Do you have some definition of good that you would opt for us using?

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • Susan

            Do you have some definition of good that you would opt for us using?

            You wrote the OP and have participated in the discussion without once ever having addressed this question.

            What is "good"? Define your terms. It's fundamental.

            I asked Brandon. I asked you. Many eloquent commentators have made valiant efforts to probe the point.

            Neither one of you has answered.

            All the "wet" metaphors and "ifs" in the world are meaningless until you explain what "good" is.

          • Geena Safire

            In addition to Susan's request for a definition of 'good,' I'd also appreciate a definition of 'objective' and a definition of 'morality.' They should be definitions that can be agreed upon by Catholics and atheists; that is, no 'presupposition' allowed.

            (Presupposition ~= First accept that my positions and definitions are right and then we can start to talk.)

          • Susan

            a definition of 'good,' I'd also appreciate a definition of 'objective' and a definition of 'morality.'

            Thanks Geena. We really DO need to cut to the chase here.

            "Objective" I will accept as defined as "That which is a fact, no matter what our limited human reasoning processes individual or collectively say about it." If someone can refine that, it's my best bludgeoning definition, I will be happy to restructure my definition.

            Now, how do we determine that?

            It's fascinating to note that every theist argument I've ever heard fails to address how we can know we have an "objective" fact and claims "objective goodness" and "objective morality" without feeling obligated in any way to justify that claim by defining its terms. Therefore, Yahweh. QED.

            This article and the catholic responses are just more of the same.

            Wait and see if they define their terms and support their claims. They do everything but.

            That only sounds snarky if you're a theist. It's fundamental in philosophical terms.

            So, let's make it simple. What does "objective" mean? What does "morality" mean? And what does "goodness" mean?

            Until each one of those is agreed on, this is a fake discussion.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Susan,

            Tardy on responding to this one, sorry. See above.

            I.X.,

            Joe

      • Ben Posin

        "But Joe and other classical theists first reason that the existence of objective morality points to an all-perfect being (i.e. the Good), and that being we call God. The order is reversed."

        Can you point to where Joe does this? Because I think you have the order reversed. Joe brings up the problem of trying to base an objective morality in various sources other than God, then brings up the Euthyphro dilemma himself to acknowledge the possible objection that God may not get us out of this trap either. His answer to the objection is to state that God does not make arbitrary moral choices, but instead bases moral decisions in his own nature, which is identical with "Goodness." He then explains that when one is being good, one is essentially modelling/partaking in the nature of God. So it sure looks like Joe is pointing to God's nature and saying that's the source/meaning of morality, which is subject to robtish's claim of arbitraryness.

        Maybe you have a different argument than Joe's that you want to make? But to do so you'd first have to prove the actual existence of objective morality, which Joe in no way does. Best of luck.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Ben,

          If objective morality can only exist if there is a God, then the existence of objective morality proves the existence of God. Either argument would be the logical converse of the other. Otherwise, see my response to Robtish above.

          I.X.,

          Joe

  • Nicholas Escalona

    Joe, I don't understand why you've accepted the reductionist premise that morality is reducible to statements about what one must do to achieve an end. That is at best a sort of conditional normativity. Even if the condition is always true (that we seek the good), this does not generate the unconditional normativity that is essential in morality.

    To be sure, your argument 2 is sound, but because you've accepted this reduction, you have not proved anything about morality. Argument 2 has become a non sequitur. Morality has no dependence whatsoever on our personal intentions or desires; if something has a dependence like that, it is not morality.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Nicholas,

      As for the first prong, the idea is this. Even if an atheist can prove, "If you want to achieve X, you should (or must) do Y," that is only binding if wanting to achieve X is binding.

      Many formulations (like Sam Harris') can be reduced to saying, "If you want to maximize human pleasure / reduce human pain, you should (or must) do Y." But if you were to ask why we should want to maximize human pleasure (as opposed to, say, our own pleasure), the answer ultimately ends up being question-begging. Why? Because he can't show that everyone must want to expand aggregate human happiness.

      Likewise, I could say, "If you want to be a good burglar, rob the homes of people who are on vacation." That statement, as far as I know, may well be true. But it's not universally-binding, and so it holds no objective moral force. And that's precisely because we're not obliged to want to be a good burglar.

      The one exception to this is where the end in question, X, is "the good." And that's because by nature, we can't not want to seek the good. When we sin, we're approaching an evil as if it is a good: and we approach is as an apparent good, not as an evil. Even suicidal people act in search of a perceived good (avoidance of pain or some other thing). It's as much a part of our nature (as things created by God) as three-sidedness is a part of a triangle's nature. We literally can't imagine a person behaving otherwise.

      This is why only Christianity (and particularly Catholicism, rooted, as it is, in Thomism) ends up with a coherent answer to the Is/Ought dilemma that plagues moral philosophy.

      I.X.,

      Joe

  • gwen

    I'm really tired of seeing the same, worn out example of the Holocaust/Nazi authority used to make a case for objective morality/immorality. Is the author willing to admit that genocidal policies carried out towards Native Americans in this country is also objectively immoral? Or that the pervasive consequences of settler colonialism are objectively immoral?

    And for all the discussion in this article about objective morality, it's never clearly laid out or defined-if we are supposed to believe that objective morality exists courtesy of a "God" then what exactly is this morality composed of? It's acceptable moral behavior to tell people with other non-Christian belief systems that they are deceived and must submit to Christianity but it's not acceptable moral behavior to make love while wearing a condom? Just what exactly is this objective morality the author extols?

    • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

      Hey Gwen - But what is objectively moral is a separate question than the possibility of objective morality at all. What Joe is discussing here is meta-ethical - i.e., in what is morality grounded metaphysically? - not normative ethics, i.e., what is right and wrong? Personally I think the first set of questions is far more interesting. It can be so dull (and of course unproductive) shouting back and forth about whether some action is wrong or not, but never taking the time to ask why the act is wrong (or neutral), much less how right and wrong are even discernible or real apart from human convention.

      • gwen

        I understand the thrust of the article but my questions are also relevant. In discussing the meta-ethical, the author uses various examples to suggest what objective morality is and is not. I question those examples, which have been repeated ad nauseum around here. Why a specific act is right or wrong is what I want to know too and the author doesn't seem up to answering that question at all.

        The underlying implication in this article too is that human behavior is very robotic and simplistic (i alone decide what is moral or society tells me what to do), a thesis that is proved over and over and over and over to be grossly incorrect and one need only to glance at social science for a plethora of examples and helpful concepts to talk about this more intelligently (Bourdieu's "habitus" anyone? anyone?)

        • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

          Why a specific act is right or wrong is what I want to know

          But again, this is a completely different question. The question at hand is, does objective morality depend on God or no? What's your take on that question?

          • gwen

            It's a different question but very much a part of the article above; I disagree with the framework and premise of the entire article.

          • Susan

            How can we possibly address that question without defining our terms? How can we discuss "morality" without discussing "right" and "wrong"?

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Gwen,

      I'm using the Holocaust example because it's one that virtually everyone acknowledges immediately. Certainly, I would agree that the barbaric way this nation acted treated Native Americans (including my ancestors) was objectively immoral, but how does that advance the debate in any way?

      And you're right: I'm not trying to spell out the full contours of objective morality. The question of whether objective morality exists precedes the question of its contents.

      It sounds like you're arguing for objective morality in the first paragraph, and against it in the second. Can you clarify?

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • gwen

        I don't think you advance your argument by reducing a period of complex historical events and experiences into a convenient example of objective immorality; i find it suspect that the Holocaust (and American slavery for that matter too) is repeatedly used as an example to advance Christian posits for the existence of God, morality, etc.

        I find the examples and perimeters of the argument unconvincing.

  • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

    Joe - I have to congratulate you on a wonderful piece of writing. In a short time you cover a lot of territory very thoroughly and carefully and I think atheists and Catholics alike will recognize that.

    I would only add that the case for having to ground objective morality in God is so strong that many philosophers simply see no other option but to re-define "objective" until it means nearly its opposite, or abandon moral realism altogether. Sharon Street, a philosopher at NYU, concludes that moral realism is completely incompatible with a Darwinian account of the origin of moral judgments, and abandons the former in loyalty to the latter. Any façade of objectivity constructed sans God (e.g., by Sam Harris, Thomas Nagel and others) seems doomed to arbitrariness for the points you make so clear in Argument 1.

    It strikes me as at least honest and consistent when philosophers who deny the existence of God confess that they've also abandoned belief in the objectivity of morality.

    • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

      I generally subscribe to Sam Harris' description of objective morality. It aims at a standard of human well-being which is about as objective as human health. I take exception to your suggestion that I am being arbitrary when I make decisions aimed at increasing well-being and reducing suffering. This may be subjective to an extent but is certainly not arbitrary.

      • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

        Hey Brian - Many eminent philosophers (Simon Blackburn, Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn, etc.) ultimately rejected what Harris attempted with "The Moral Landscape" for good reasons. The NY Times and NYRB reviews were scathing. Also, the debate with Craig at Notre Dame is revealing and a must-watch. It may have been a clever iteration of utilitarianism and an honorable attempt to eschew moral skepticism, but people have been trying and failing to derive an objective ought from an objective is for centuries and Harris has hardly broken new ground.

        You're right that it is subjective (the opposite of objective) to an extent (I would argue to a large extent). The arbitrariness comes down to this question: who determines human well-being? If the answer is "we in society do," what could possibly be more arbitrary and non-objective than that? Ultimately, Harris laid a veneer of "ought" over what "is" that cracks at the slightest push.

        • Andre Boillot

          "Also, the debate with Craig at Notre Dame is revealing and a must-watch."

          Respectfully, I think that one's review of this debate breaks down pretty neatly with whoever you're a fan of, with just as many thinking that Craig comes off as overly-reliant on debate tricks and unimpressive on substance.

          "The arbitrariness comes down to this question: who determines human well-being? If the answer is "we in society do," what could possibly be more arbitrary and non-objective than that?"

          Harris doesn't ground well-being in society's opinion, that's sort of his whole point regarding the use of science to determine well being in a similar manner as we do with "health".

          "Ultimately, Harris laid a veneer of "ought" over what "is" that cracks at the slightest push."

          Could you elaborate?

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Respectfully, I think that one's review of this debate breaks down pretty neatly with whoever you're a fan of, with just as many thinking that Craig comes off as overly-reliant on debate tricks and unimpressive on substance.

            Maybe this is my nagging sense of objective truth talking but I don't think that's right at all! Craig debates the same subject with Shelly Kagan and quite clearly is outmatched there. I'm not so blinded by faith that I can't call a spade a spade! Though you're right, people will have to watch the debate and decide for themselves.

            The thing is, Harris' heart is in the right place. He's perfectly right to inveigh against skepticism. I share his outrage and confusion at someone like Nita Farahany comparing moral judgments, even about torturing the innocent, to mere "opinions." But his construction is groundless, and is flanked by the same old fact/value problem: whose well-being? Or, as Alasdair Macintyre put it: "Whose justice? Which rationality?"

          • Andre Boillot

            "But his construction is groundless, and is flanked by the same old fact/value problem: whose well-being?"

            As I've already asked, could you elaborate on why you think Harris' construction is groundless / cracks at the slightest push. You seem to think this is self-evident, I have yet to see how.

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Simon Blackburn hits the nail on the head:

            It is one thing to say that behaving well requires knowledge. It clearly does, and the more we know about the world the better (and worse) we can behave in it. But it is quite another thing to think of “science” as taking over the entire domain of morality, and that there is a reason that it cannot do so. While it is one thing to know the empirical facts, it is another to select and prioritise and campaign and sacrifice to promote some and diminish others.

            Aristotle himself thought that ethics concerned wellbeing. But he appreciated, as Harris does not, the twists and turns involved in that simple sounding idea. According to Aristotle, wellbeing is the state of living well, in favourable relationships with the world around one. My successes and failures, knowledge, social relations, memories, hopes, fears and loves make up my wellbeing. This could not be indexed by a brain scanner, which would be insensitive to the difference between a person in a fool’s paradise, largely deceived about his relations with the world, and a person who has got them right.

            Harris’s view of wellbeing is nearer to that of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, who saw it as a simple balance of pleasure over pain. Perhaps sufficient knowledge of the state of someone’s brain could help to measure this ratio, and it would no doubt be quite high for the citizens in Brave New World. But in spite of Dawkins’s enthusiasm, that does not really help, for if Bentham’s hedonist is in one brain state and Aristotle’s active subject is in another, as no doubt they would be, it is a moral, not an empirical, problem to say which is to be preferred. Even if this were solved, how are we to balance my right to pursue my wellbeing against the demand to help maximise that of everyone? Striving to maximise the sum of human wellbeing is making oneself a servant of the world, and it cannot be science that tells me to do that, nor how to solve the conflict, which was central, for instance, to the utilitarian thinking of Henry Sidgwick. Harris considers none of all this, and thereby joins the prodigious ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it very badly.

            I could summarize that or say it in another way if you like, but that's the crux of the problem.
            Source: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/blackburn-ethics-without-god-secularism-religion-sam-harris/#.UnfpmMwo7mI

          • Andre Boillot

            If that's what your impression of Harris, I feel that it is mistaken. I've found Harris to be quite forthright in his stating what he feels are the limitations of science in this domain. He never claims to be able to come to one objective conclusion on precisely how one should live. His argument is more akin to the many ways there are to skin a cat. That some will be better than others, and that we can come to know and measure these differences objectively.

            I would argue that Mr. Blackburn has presented a misleading account of Harris' views, reducing them to a "simple balance of pleasure over pain". This is simply not how Harris presents his idea of wellbeing, and he explicitly deals with how hedonistic ideas of pleasure/pain aren't always indicators of wellbeing.

            I would invite people who would like to hear what Harris' actual views are to check out:

            http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-response-to-critics_b_815742.html

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            He never claims to be able to come to one objective conclusion on precisely how one should live.

            Isn't this the definition of objective morality?

          • josh

            No, or at least it is the position of some that one can make pragmatic advances in an objective sense without a formally complete theory. This is very common in the sciences.

          • Andre Boillot

            "Isn't this the definition of objective morality?"

            I think we might be confusing capital letter 'Objective Morality' in the theistic sense, and the lower case 'objective morality' which Harris seems to be presenting. More to the point, nowhere does Harris say that science can give us to the tools to identify the one perfect way to live. Merely that science can give us unbiased, fact-based ways of making value judgments. Blackburn mis-characterizes him.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Brian,

        Ross Douthat rebuts Harris' (and now your) claim that his utilitarianism is as objective for morality as health is for medicine.

        Medicine includes health as an end, by definition. But morality doesn't include GHP as an end, by definition, or nobody was concerned about morality until Bentham & Mill. Harris is playing unsupportable linguistic games.

        I.X.,

        Joe

        • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

          I think we all are in this context. I certainly use a different definition of objective than you are, as well as morality and it can be confusing.

    • Andre Boillot

      "I would only add that the case for having to ground objective morality in God is so strong that many philosophers simply see no other option but to re-define "objective" until it means nearly its opposite"

      Could you give examples of where philosophers have done this?

    • josh

      It's the other way around Matthew. The impossibility of absolute, objective morality/authority is one of the ways I know there is no God (so defined).

      • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

        Hey Josh - Well, whichever way one reasons (moral subjectivism to God's non-existence or vice versa), these two positions seem to me to be inextricably linked - which is why it will be really interesting to see what line of reasoning the rebuttal takes.

        • josh

          Well, my point was that they aren't linked both ways around. If one defines God as something objectively absolutely good, then the incoherence of such a good makes God an impossibility. On the other hand, if, contra my position, one thinks there can be an objective absolute notion of good, then one can think so with or without God in the picture.

  • Sqrat

    The resolution that I’m affirming is that objective morality depends
    upon the existence of God. I should probably explain what I understand
    that to mean, and what it doesn’t mean. In calling morality “objective,”
    I mean that the morality of certain actions exists independently of our
    subjective assessment..... So when I say that certain actions are objectively immoral, for example, I don’t mean “everybody knows that they’re immoral.” I mean, “they’re immoral, regardless of what you or anyone else thinks.”

    When I say that certain objections are objectively immoral, I mean "they're immoral regardless of what God thinks."

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      You're imagining God as a being. I'm arguing for God as Being. Do you see the distinction that I'm drawing?

      See Matthias' comment distinguishing classical theism from theistic personalism. You're assuming the latter, while I'm explicitly arguing for the former. Edward Feser explains classical theism succinctly:

      "The classical theist tends to start from the idea that whatever else God is, he is essentially that reality which is absolutely ultimate or fundamental, and the source of all other reality. He not only does not depend in any way on anything outside him, but could not even in principle have depended on anything outside him. Nothing less than this would be God, so that to say that there is no being who is absolutely ultimate in this way is in effect to say that there is no God."

      If you take God, defined this way, your argument doesn't make sense, because it starts from a false premise. If you're holding God to a higher moral code, then who is the Lawgiver for that higher moral code?

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • Sqrat

        I'm imagining God as a being because that is what the word "God" ordinarily connotes in English (as for example, in the OED definition of God "In the specific Christian and monotheistic sense. The One object of supreme adoration; the Creator and Ruler of the Universe" ).

        I don't see the point in your "arguing for God as Being." You could just stop using the word "God" when you mean "being," and vice versa -- although it would be most helpful if, when you used the word "being," you meant "being" and not something else. I suspect, however, that by "Being" (big "B") you do not have in mind any of the common definitions of "being" (little "b"). But at an absolute minimum, please, could I ask you to stop referring to God as "he"? That clearly implies personhood (if not necessarily the presence of male reproductive apparatus). Use "it" instead.

        Perhaps you should have entitled your article "Does Objective Morality Depend on That Reality Which is Absolutely Ultimate and Fundamental, and the Source of All Other Reality?" That would have made things clearer. Then again, maybe not.

  • David Nickol

    I am having a hard time with a strange question that occurs to me, and that is the following: If objective morality exists, where does it exist? Morality, it seems to me, is a concept or set of concepts or rules about how human beings out to interact. Before the existence of human beings, was there such a "thing" as morality? It would seem to me there wasn't. And it is difficult to know what it means to say that God is good without bringing human beings into the picture. It is inaccurate in a way to talk about God in temporal terms, but it is difficult to do otherwise, so although it is a flawed question, nevertheless I would like to ask what it meant to say that God was good before the creation of angels or men. Sam Harris has made an analogy between the concept of health as objective and identifiable for medicine and the concept of human flourishing as objective and identifiable for the morality. It strikes me that health and human flourishing both mean nothing without human beings. So I am a little confused about the concepts of good and morality being applied to God. It seems that without God's creation, it is meaningless to talk of God's goodness. Think of existence in which there is no creation but only God. What does it mean to say that God is good under such circumstances?

    • David Nickol

      Or, in short, do the concepts of good and morality have any meaning at all if we remove human beings from the picture?

      • Ben Posin

        This is a key question (though I guess we could phrase it in terms of minds instead of humans if we want to?). I think this question leads towards abandoning any sort of "objective" morality that isn't based on the properties of existing minds--and thus certainly subjective in the sense that if thinking being operated differently than humans do now, moral rules could be different...

        • robtish

          Ben, I don't think that makes it subjective. In fact, your statement that, "if thinking being operated differently than humans do now, moral rules could be different" actually argues that these moral rules are objective -- that is, they depend on the objective reality of how thinking beings operate.

          • Ben Posin

            Hmmm. Can't really disagree, it does sound like I'm stating some sort of objective meta-rule for deciding what is and isn't moral. Of course, I can't ground that rule in anything but people's (supposedly subjective) desire to maximize the well being of minds!

          • David Nickol

            One could ask if there were no people, is the statement 1 + 1 = 2 a true statement. I think most people would say that it would still be true (but those who believe mathematics is a human invention would disagree, presumably). But one could ask if there were no people, would murder, or rape, or stealing be immoral. The answer, it seems to me, would have to be that such things didn't exist, so it would make no sense to call them immoral.

            I am reading a book now that asks the question whether or not money is real. The answer seems pretty clear to me that it is real as long as people believe in it. And if people lose faith in a particular currency, it becomes worthless. Confederate bills became worthless after the end of the Civil War, and although they are valuable collectors' items now, they are, strictly speaking, not money (legal tender, currency).

            It seems to me rather difficult to conceive of morality without reference to human beings. It also seems to me difficult to articulate overarching ethical principles (fairness, justice, etc.) without reference to human beings. So the question in my mind is whether morality actually exists independent of human beings, or whether it is contingent on the existence of human beings. One might ask the question if motherhood existed before sexual reproduction. Life on earth may be 3.5 billion years old or more, but apparently sexual reproduction came along between 500 and 600 million years ago. Prior to the existence of males, females, and sexual reproduction, there was no such thing as motherhood.

            I think that motherhood is unquestionably real in some sense, but it has no timeless, eternal, cosmic existence. Maybe the same is true of morality.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Ben:

          I agree with this tweaking of David's question. "Good" requires sentience (human or divine) to be a coherent concept. Thus, a theist can hold to transcendent good, but it's not clear to me that an atheist can.

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • josh

            ? I don't know many atheists who don't believe in human sentience. Divine sentience on the other hand, is not an obviously coherent concept.

      • Sqrat

        While this might be strictly hypothetical for now, what about:

        1. Intelligent aliens from another planet?
        2. Sentient robots?
        3. Higher animals?

        EDIT: The question moral obligations to animals is hardly hypothetical....

  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    It needs to be pointed out just how subjective the example of "objective morality" is here. We all agree the Holocaust was immoral, but as the author notes, our agreement on this point is not what he means by "objective", he means regardless of what anyone "thinks". Then why do we say the Holocaust was objectively immoral? Surely not because it harmed so many people and was contrary to human well-being, Joe rejects this as subjective morality.

    It cannot be because we feel it to be immoral, or it just seems obvious to us all, again that would be agreement on immorality.

    Is it because it violates gods essence? It may, but how would we know? The Bible? Written and interpreted by humans with our sinful nature and filled with God-sanctioned genocide.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Brian,

      I don't think you can eat your cake, and have it, too. You can't argue in one breath that the Holocaust isn't objectively immoral, and then argue against God because the Bible is allegedly "filled with God-sanctioned genocide" in the next breath.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        I'm not saying it is objectively immoral, and I don't think it is according to your definition. I shouldn't have used "we". The criticism stands, why do you say it is objectively immoral?

  • BrianKillian

    You will hardly even get to the question of God as the ground of morality, because most materialist/atheists don't even believe in objective morality. Objective moral values are too weird for a materialist ontology, so they go with moral non-realism and moral non-cognitivism.

    • Octavo

      This is actually a pretty good point. I think this is why so many of the debaters here are referencing Sam Harris, one of the very few non-theists who tries to defend some sort of objective morality.

      Personally, I'm more of an emotivist with a strong bias toward ethical systems that focus on compassion or the alleviation of suffering.

      ~Jesse Webster

    • robtish

      Brian, that's disputed by the mere existence of atheists on this thread denying that God is necessary for objective morality. Or, put another way, if what you said were true, then there'd be no need for this article because everyone -- theist and nontheist alike -- would simply agree with it.

      • Octavo

        I think the point is that there are few atheist philosophers who go in for objective morality. So far, I've only seen Sam Harris cited as a supporter. There are definitely quite a few atheist internet commenters who go for it, which is why they're all citing Harris.

        ~Jesse Webster

        • David Nickol

          I think the point is that there are few atheist philosophers who go in for objective morality.

          I am not sure this true. One would have to have some criteria for who is to be considered an atheist philosopher and who is to be considered someone who is an atheist who is expressing a philosophical opinion. Derek Parfit, Thomas Nagel, and Peter Singer are all extremely influential atheist philosophers, and the first two believe in objective morality. Last I read anything about Singer, he was leaning that way. I don't know whether Sam Harris, much as I respect him, is a philosopher, or at least a philosopher in the same sense as Parfit, Nagel, and Singer. He is a neuroscientist who takes an interest in philosophical questions. We are all philosophers to the degree we are interested in and discuss philosophical questions. But if one wanted to do a survey and say, "Four out of five philosophers believe that X is the case," I think you would want to narrow the definition of philosopher.

          • Octavo

            It sounds like you're probably right. This is just a result of my not having read any of Parfit or Nagel. Thanks.

            ~Jesse Webster

          • BrianKillian

            Nagel isn't a materialist. Perhaps being a materialist is more indicative of one's stance on morality than being an atheist.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Brian,

      Agreed. I am aware that, at least in principle, a great many thoughtful atheists actually agree with my point. But where I hold to both objective morality and God, they would hold to neither.

      My point is that the Sam Harrises of the world are attempting the impossible in trying to have objective morality without God (he falls into a version of utilitarianism).

      Of course, this means both that (a) if God isn't real, then there's no objective morality, and (b) if there is objective morality, then God exists.

      The irony here is that this turns much of popular atheistic apologetics on its head. If there really is objective evil (the Holocaust, etc.), that's a proof for God's existence, not against it. Theodicy is turned upon its head.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    • MichaelNewsham

      The Philpapers survey:

      God: theism or atheism?
      Accept or lean toward: atheism
      678 / 931 (72.8%)
      Accept or lean toward: theism
      136 / 931 (14.6%)
      Other
      117 / 931 (12.6%)

      Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?
      Accept or lean toward: moral realism
      525 / 931 (56.4%)
      Accept or lean toward: moral anti-realism
      258 / 931 (27.7%)
      Other
      148 / 931 (15.9%)

      Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?
      Accept or lean toward: cognitivism
      612 / 931 (65.7%)
      Other
      161 / 931 (17.3%)
      Accept or lean toward: non-cognitivism
      158 / 931 (17.0%)

      http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

  • BurningCrow

    This whole so called debate seems to be only an exercise in circular reasoning, and has been argued ad infinitum in many public debates, both within the church and in public venues. To posture this old argument disguised as a new and profound question in the form of a "debate" on an obviously biased website is really just childish and silly. On this matter there is "nothing new under the sun".

    • Octavo

      There may be nothing new under the sun when it comes to apologetics (or counter-apologetics), but why gripe about it? These sort of questions mean a lot to people on several sides of the issue, and moral systems are always going to be worth debating. Yes, the website's biased toward Catholicism, but they're inviting an ex-Catholic to debate the other side, if I understand correctly.

      ~Jesse Webster

      • BurningCrow

        Pardon me....I am not "gripping" about anything....I am expressing an opinion, and a legitimate observation if I may add. The fact that an ex-catholic is going to "debate the other side" is neither here nor there. My observation is still valid....no matter who is on which side of the so called debate. My critique still stands....and the fact that someone is on the opposing side of the "debate" is not a matter of any relevance.
        You should make more of an attempt to be "Objective" in your assessment of others' comments....since "objectivity" is the main subject of the article.

        • Octavo

          Referring to the article as childish and silly is rude and it violates the comment policy.

          ~Jesse Webster

          • BurningCrow

            Who are you....the moderator?...this was not said in the comment to which you are replying to. I you are referring to another comment?... please give a direct quote and the reference to the comment to which you are referring. Are you trying to start an argument....seems so. Hello...moderator..!!!!

  • BurningCrow

    To Joe......I admire your zeal for your new found faith and your dedication and decision to enter the seminary....but remember....balance....and moderation in all things...including the faith.

    • catholicchristian

      BurningCrow, it seems to me that in an article which is specifically called an "introduction" that it is not only proper, but required, to "tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em;" in other words, to touch on every point you intend to make.

      “Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.” ― Anne Sexton

      “Moderation in all things, especially moderation.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Peter Piper

    As pointed out by Nicholas Escalona, Joe is assuming here that any objective account of morality must be of the form `if you want to achieve X, then you must Y', where Y is the morally prescribed action. This isn't at all obvious, and certainly can't just be assumed.

    Joe goes on to suppose, without giving any reason, that in any objective account of morality X must also satisfy 3 conditions. The third condition is simply that the statement `if you want to achieve X, then you must Y' is true, so is not entailed by the objectivity of the moral claim at all. The first two conditions are, firstly, that everyone wants to achieve X, and secondly, that nobody values anything more than X. Again, it isn't clear why these conditions are required for the objectivity of the account.

    Essentially, Joe is assuming, without reason, that any objective account of morality must look very much like his own.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Peter,

      See my explanation to Nicholas, above. I'm not assuming it without reason: I just lacked the space, in 2000 words, to spell out why objective morality must involve objective teleology.

      If you think that there's an alternative, what is that alternative?

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • Peter Piper

        In your explanation to Nicholas (which for me is below), you simply restate the claim that any objective account of morality must be teleological. Admittedly, you also point out that your account of Utilitarian morality fits this framework. But this just serves to make clearer that the other three accounts (social, biological, personal) don't fit this model.

        Will you spell out the reasons for your assumption that any objective account of morality must look like your own in a later post?

        It isn't up to me to provide alternatives. Perhaps the true account is too complex to be encapsulated in any comment here.

        What does I.X. stand for?

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Peter,

          I agree that social, biological, and personal accounts of morality don't fit that model - I would add that I don't think utilitarianism does either, but it at least attempts to.

          To be honest, I'm not sure where the confusion is. You're suggesting that there might be alternatives, but refusing to provide any. I'm not sure what argument that leaves me to respond to. I've explained in the comment to Nicholas why this is necessary: if person P doesn't share goal Y, then saying "you must do X if you want to achieve Y" isn't morally binding on them. Why would it be?

          So if a claim "you must do X if you want to achieve Y" is objectively binding upon all, then "you want to achieve Y" must equally be objectively binding upon all. Do you agree or disagree with this?

          "I.X." means "In Christ." If nothing else, I find that signing comments this way acts on a check on me being a jerk. :-)

          Joe

          • Peter Piper

            Luckily, Steven has now provided an alternative, so I don't have to. In response to your specific question: from the objectively binding character of `you must do X if you want to achieve Y', it does not follow that `you want to achieve Y' is objectively binding. Why should it? It does not even follow on the extra assumption that `you must do X' is objectively binding.

            An example may help here. Imagine John Doe has the nasty habit of spitting on you. Both `You must not murder John Doe' (as a moral claim) and `You must not murder John Doe if you wish him to continue to spit on you' are objectively binding. But `you wish John doe to continue to spit on you' is not objectively binding: you may well not want to be spat on.

            If some logical misunderstanding like this was your reason for thinking that objective accounts of morality must take a teleological form, then I hope you will now be able to reevaluate that assumption. If not, then what is the real reason why you hold to that assumption?

  • josh

    A thought experiment for analogy: Imagine one is taking a test in a class. Suppose I tell you that a certain student always gets all the right answers on the test. We might say that by her nature that student will always get the right answers. Generally we would argue about whether any such student could exist, or whether any alleged student actually is the rumored perfect test taker. But usually we would agree that even if such a student exists, her answers are not what makes the right answers right. This person might be great to cheat off of, but the answers are right or wrong independently of what she answers, even if she is always right. Simply in stating the situation, we have implied an external standard in our notion of 'right' answers to which the good student conforms.

    Now a second situation: We define the right answers to be whatever a certain student answers to every question. Grading will be entirely relative to that student's answers. This is consistent and objective in a sense, but seems completely arbitrary. In fact, since the only criteria is what the chosen student puts down, the 'correct' answer is divorced from the question. Now maybe to get around this one wants to posit that the 'nature' of the student determines how they will answer a given question. But then we could apply the rules of the nature and determine its selected outcome without the student ever existing, so we are back at the first case. Moreover, the obvious question is why we should care about this student's answers. You may say 'well, that's just the way the test is graded' or maybe 'that student set up the course'. But this puts the question onto why we should care about the grades. Then the answers tend to become 'because you will be rewarded or punished based on your grades'. But if so, then what makes an answer 'right' isn't really important, the ultimate principle is our self interest. However, if our self interest is the ultimate principle then this could be true in any number of situations and there is nothing special about the case where the chosen student's answers are used to grade. The 'right' answers would be equally set in any deterministic universe.

  • Susan

    God and Good are One

    This in no way solves the dilemma. It ignores it completely.

    What is "good"?

    • David Nickol

      Although it is very interesting, I am not sure I accept the analogy of a dog being wet and water being wet. I don't think water is wet. Under certain circumstances, putting water on something makes that something wet. But that does not mean water is wet. If I am out plowing a field, my shoes and clothes may bet dirty. But the field (or the dirt of the field) isn't dirty. Also, if water were the only thing in existence, it seems to me it definitely could not be though of as wet.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        David,

        I'm glad you're interested in it. Marshall McLuhan is accredited as saying, “I don't know who discovered water, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't a fish.” That seems to be the challenge you're raising.

        But consider the fields of metaphysics: it's the study of being as being. That's like studying the dirtiness of dirt, or the wetness of liquid.

        Your other challenge is whether we should think of water as wet. I certainly think so. Imagine melting a piece of ice of perfectly frozen ice. The mass of H2O starts off dry, and becomes increasing wet, as the ratio of water:ice increases. It would be an odd result if, at the end of this, when 100% of the mass had been melted, we declared that it was no longer wet.

        That said, you're absolutely right that when we call liquid "wet," and when we call a wet dog "wet," we're using the term analogically: it doesn't mean the same thing in the two cases, but there's a logical relationship between the two meanings. Likewise, when we describe God as "Good," we mean something analogical from calling a good person "good."

        I.X.,

        Joe

    • James Hartic

      The run of the mill "believer", no matter what the imagined god is, for the most part always seem to equate good with god....to equate love with god. Supposing that there was a god, or intelligent entity behind creation....why does it have to be good, caring or loving. Why can this intelligence not simply be indifferent.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        James,

        You asked:

        The run of the mill "believer", no matter what the imagined god is, for the most part always seem to equate good with god....to equate love with god. Supposing that there was a god, or intelligent entity behind creation....why does it have to be good, caring or loving. Why can this intelligence not simply be indifferent to man and his concerns.

        The answer to your question is that good exists as a transcendental property of being, meaning that the ground of all being (who we call God) must be all-good. An apathetic Creator wouldn't account for (a) the existence of Creation, or (b) the presence of good without Creation.

        If goodness doesn't exist within God, how does it exist within Creation?

        The rest of your argument seems to proceed from this premise.

        I.X.,

        Joe

  • David Nickol

    St. Augustine famously said,

    What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

    The more I think about morality, the more I have the same experience Augustine had regarding time.

  • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

    I feel like a broken record. What about Spinoza's morality? Or Kant's morality? Neither of these need a supernatural being to exist, although Kant thought the supernatural being was needed as an exemplar, so that human people could be moral.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Paul,

      Can you show me how either of those theories would account for the three prongs that I laid out above? For example, why am I bound to follow the Categorical Imperative?

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

        Why would you be bound to follow God's idea of the good?

        According to Kant, all personal natures, human, angelic, divine, have the same binding power, not that they determine what is good by what they want, but that goodness is part of their very nature.

        If any two people existed, their own natures would supply all moral values that they would need to follow, whether or not God was one of those two people.

        The difference with the divine will is that the divine will always wills the good.

        Also, Kant wouldn't go along with:

        let's reformulate the moral philosophy in question in this format: “If you want to achieve X, you must do Y.”

        The act Y is moral or immoral in itself, regardless of the end result of that action. "Do your duty, though the heavens may fall."

      • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

        Spinoza's system works even better. Spinoza rejects the concept of free will, to the point that every action is determined in a strict cause-and-effect relationship.

        For Spinoza:

        X = "What the person wants most." only
        Y = "What that person is necessarily determined to do in order to achieve X." only

        Could there exist a person who doesn’t want to achieve X?

        Could there exist a person who doesn't want to achieve what that person wants most? Obviously not.

        Could there be some good other than X that an individual values more than X?

        Could there be some good other than what an individual wants the most that the individual values more than what the individual wants the most? Obviously not.

        Is there another means of achieving X besides Y?

        Is there another means of achieving what a person wants most besides what the person will necessarily do in order to achieve what the person wants most? Also obviously not.

  • Slocum Moe

    God may be perfect but each person must arrive for themselves at God's always righteous, objective, moral law because the religions that claim to transmit such law to us and the personally flawed, human. priests who do so, are always, to a greater or lesser extent, corrupt and self serving.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      So, all religions have priests? And all priests are evil? You don't think that characterization is a gross and bigoted overgeneralization?

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • Slocum Moe

        No, I'm not saying that. I'm only saying they are human. As such, they are no more representative of God's voice than anybody else and to the extent that they follow the party line, correspondingly less so, the more specific their moralizing the more likely wrong.

        • Slocum Moe

          Priests, imams, lamas, shamans, rabbis, whatever.

        • Slocum Moe

          When the overwhelming majority of a faith believe differently than the leaders, I believe that the majority can be closer to God's moral truth. Not an absolute but likely. Each person must ask these questions of God personally and form an answer based upon their own conscience. I think this is what most people do. Priests usually insist that the laity have not received adequate catechization. This is a paternalistic slur and an insult to the faithful,

  • James Hartic

    Joseph....You said.....An apathetic Creator wouldn't account for (a) the existence of Creation, or (b) the presence of good without Creation. If goodness doesn't exist within God, how does it exist within Creation?"

    We can go around and around like dogs chasing our tails....but what exactly is this elusive objective GOOD? And why would an intelligence that supposedly created the universe necessarily be imbued with same. A creative intelligence may choose to
    be indifferent or not. Good is likely nothing more than a human concept, a psychological construct that is relative and largely determined by culture, religious or otherwise, and environment. Moral relativism seems to make sense, at least in the human species. The rest of nature does not struggle with this dilemma.

    Excerpts from Jesse Prinz of the Philosophy Now publication

    "Objectivism holds that there is one true morality binding upon all of us. To defend such a view, the objectivist must offer a theory of where morality comes from, such that it can be universal in this way. There are three main options: Morality could come from a benevolent god; it could come from human nature (for example, we could have evolved an innate set of moral values); or it could come from rational principles that all rational people must recognize, like the rules of logic and arithmetic. Much ink has been spilled defending each of these possibilities, and it would be impossible here to offer a critical review of all ethical theories. Instead, let’s consider some simple reasons for pessimism."

    "The problem with divine commands as a cure for relativism is that there is no consensus among believers about what God or the gods want us to do. Even when there are holy scriptures containing lists of divine commands, there are disagreements about interpretation: Does “Thou shalt not kill?” cover enemies? Does it cover animals? Does it make one culpable for manslaughter and self-defense? Does it prohibit suicide? The philosophical challenge of proving that a god exists is already hard; figuring out who that god is and what values are divinely sanctioned is vastly harder."

    http://philosophynow.org/issues/82/Morality_is_a_Culturally_Conditioned_Response

  • Geena Safire

    I disagree that morality requires a deity. And there may exist certain objective moral values, but very unlikely an objective moral system.

    Morality is innate. It is a description of the traits that are necessary for a species to be a social species, at least for mammals.

    Michael Shermer lists the following characteristics that are shared by humans and other social mammals:

    "attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group"

    You could say that morality is an "ought" that "is."

    Patricia Churchland, the pioneer of neurophilosophy, in Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, notes that neuroscience is finding, increasingly, that the reward, punishment, and motivation systems in our brains, in response to behavior that is positive, negative, or desirable for our personal homeostasis and well-being, are the same systems that are used related to people to whom we are emotionally attached. For example, the same parts of our brains are active during personal emotional pain as during social emotional pain (being shunned or left out).

    In addition, some neuroscience findings are indicating that attachment and morality are essentially the same thing, or perhaps regions along the same spectrum which measures the significance of outcomes. For example, the same parts of peoples' brains are active when they view social scenes and moral scenes.

    I'm not saying that our innate morality is or can be the sufficient or best moral system in our crowded and complicated society. But we are not going from an "is" to an "ought," but rather from an "ought that is" to an "ought that ought" -- movement along a spectrum rather than a change of category.

  • Joseph Heschmeyer

    Everyone,

    Thanks so much for a lively debate on this. The questions and comments have been thought-provoking and civil. I haven't been able to answer everyone's questions, but I hope to continue engaging you all in the days to come.

    A number of questions turned on whether it was arbitrary or circular or a cop-out to say that God is unlimited Good and unlimited Truth. Let me give a (very truncated) answer to this.

    (1) All existent things share a commonality: being. This is easy to overlook, because it's the air we breath. We're so surrounding by being that non-being is literally unimaginable (all that we imagine exists, in a limited sense, as "mental being").

    (2) We tend to imagine being backwards. When we do imagine being, we think of it as a lowest common denominator, that everything else is added to. This is entirely backwards: if we started with being, what could we possibly add to it? Non-being? Or more being?

    (3) In reality, being is limited by essene. Our essences - that which makes us "us," and not something else - is a limitation on being. So instead of thinking of essence as something added to being, think of it as something that restricts being to such-and-such a type of thing.

    (4) God is unlimited Being. God's essence is His existence. That is, He doesn't have a limiting essence in the way that we do. This is what we mean when we talk about God as "infinite," etc. And this must be true, because if something else limits God, who? or what?

    It would require something more powerful, and you'd end up with an infinite regress to pure and unlimited Being... which is what we mean by God. And this is almost certainly what God means when He reveals Himself as "I AM WHO AM."

    (5) If God is unlimited Being, He is almost unlimited Goodness and Truth. Here's St. Thomas Aquinas' explanation on why we say "God is Good" and "God is Being" when the one statement logically entails the other. The whole question is worth reading, but this part is particularly on point:

    "Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea; which is clear from the following argument. The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. i): "Goodness is what all desire." Now it is clear that a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect; for all desire their own perfection. But everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists; for it is existence that makes all things actual, as is clear from the foregoing (3, 4; 4, 1). Hence it is clear that goodness and being are the same really. But goodness presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present."

    Note that Aquinas isn't defining "Goodness" as simply "God." He's defining Goodness as "what all desire," and then showing how this rests upon being, so that unlimited Goodness must also be unlimited Being.

    And here is Aquinas on why "truth" and "being" are different aspects of the same reality:

    "As good has the nature of what is desirable, so truth is related to knowledge. Now everything, in as far as it has being, so far is it knowable. Wherefore it is said in De Anima iii that "the soul is in some manner all things," through the senses and the intellect. And therefore, as good is convertible with being, so is the true. But as good adds to being the notion of desirable, so the true adds relation to the intellect."

    This is probably easier to see with truth than goodness. Lies are parasitical to truth, and are a rejection of being (in that they affirm the non-existent, and deny the existent). So unbounded Being couldn't also contain falsehood, since it's contrary to what we mean by "unbounded Being." Hence,a lying being wouldn't be God... and this fact can be known prior to examining revelation.

    (6) This isn't Pantheism. One common reaction to this metaphysical explanation of God is to conclude that, if God is unlimited Being, then He must be every being. You, me, the trees, the colors of the wind: all God. That's pantheism, and doesn't follow.

    God is boundless being, to the extent that He can't be described as a being, just as infinity is boundless number, to the extent that it can't be described as a number. It would be a mistake to conclude that infinity is every number, as if 2, 3, and 4 were all "infinity."

    (7) God is infinitely Personal. We possess personality in a limited an imperfect way, by dint of our rational natures. But God possesses both rationality, and by extension, personality, in an unlimited way.

    This last point is vitally important, because metaphysics points to a very transcendent God, but it's precisely for that reason that He is both immanent and personal (a smaller "God" would be incapable of being omnipresent, e.g.).

    I.X.,

    Joe

    • DannyGetchell

      Joe

      I want to thank you for joining in the discussion. You are among the very select company of article authors here who have done so.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Danny,

        Thank you for your warm welcome! Speaking as someone who has posted on this blog before, I can say that the comments thread can be overwhelming for an author. There's so many questions, and so little time to address them substantively, and people get annoyed if they think you're ignoring their questions, etc. I find with these threads it's important to jump in early.

        You raise a good question about the knowability of the natural law. I would argue that there are layers of moral truths, and that the most basic layer is so fundamental that we can't not know these things to be true.* Other truths require more reflection, and permit errors in moral reasoning.

        I.X.,

        Joe

        P.S. Baylor's J. Budziszewski makes this case in a particularly compelling way. His work is worth checking out, if you're interested (and I know that he has some talks on YouTube, if you prefer).

    • Ben Posin

      Joe,

      This is where I get off. These statements, apparently foundational to your argument, are neither obvious nor proved, and in some cases they may not be coherent. A lot of them also seem to be attempts to define your way to victory. There's nothing here for an atheist to bite his teeth into, nothing of any persuasive value to someone who doesn't already share your beliefs, nothing that makes sense as an argument to me. I AM left feeling you've copped out on dealing with the circularity/lack of meaning problem of identifying God and Good. I am left with no idea of what you mean when you call God good, what it means for God to be good.

      But hey, that's one guy's opinion. If other people feel differently, I would really appreciate knowing, to make sure I'm not missing something here.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Ben,

        These arguments are foundational to proving God as subsistent being, but they're not foundational to affirming the resolution. I'm just laying out the basic classical theist argument for those who are unfamiliar with it, who think that I'm defining God as good, and defining good as God. I'm doing neither of those: even in saying that God is unlimited good, that's not a definition of God, just a description of particular and necessary attributes.

        I also don't see the circularity you're alleging. You'll see from the above that I'm not defining good as "whatever God does." As Aquinas notes, we can speak of goodness as "what all desire" or "what is desirable." Good is the object of the will: the sake of which a thing is sought.

        Obviously, we could drill down further on any of the points that I laid out: metaphysicians have devoted their entire lives to these questions, and I'm laying it out in a blog comment. Is there a particular point or argument that you find circular or evasive? I am also curious if there are any points that you agree upon: for example, the essence/existence distinction.

        I.X.,

        Joe

    • josh

      1) This is more question begging with definitions. Do you define being as 'that which all things share'? How do you know that all 'things' have being? Why isn't 'nothing' a thing that lacks being for instance? I'm not looking for a long debate on this relatively innocuous statement, I just want people to understand how unrigorous this whole line of reasoning is.

      2)You can't start with being unless you also start with non-being. You start by positing that they are distinguishable. Then you add further distinctions, so one specific being is distinguishable from another, but both are distinguishable from non-being. (Note that being and non-being are always relative terms.) Distinguished being is different from non-distinguished, so this is what you are adding.

      3)'Essence' has all sorts of metaphysical garbage attached to it, but these distinctions are what make one thing not another. You already used one in distinguishing being from non-being. They aren't limitations, they are like definitions. A singular being can't be two without distinctions. So a singular being is already limited in that sense.

      4)You just said that essence is a limitation, now you turn around and say that God's essence is to be unlimited, a contradiction. But here you slip into clumsy anthropomorphism, assuming that distinctions or limitations must be imposed from some 'higher' source with 'more power'. At this level of dialogue they are simply a part of the description of the whole, they aren't imposed from anywhere. Undistinguished being doesn't have 'power' to impose distinction and if it did it would immediately cease to be. 'Being itself', as the quality that all 'beings' share does not have any power and from it you cannot derive any of the relations between beings.

      5) 'Badness is that which all desire to avoid. We wish to avoid something only so far as it is imperfect. But a non-existent thing cannot be imperfect, therefore being is the essence of imperfection. Therefore Badness is the same as unlimited Being.' -This is the level of argument Aquinas brings. Perfection and what is desired aren't identical. Goodness and what we desire aren't obviously the same thing. That we want good things to exist in no way makes 'unlimited existence' identical with goodness. Again, you may as well argue that unlimited being and unlimited itchiness are identical.

      Truth is a description of being and non-being, and should include any further distinctions we make within being. Hence it is not the same as 'unlimited being'. An 'unbounded being' doesn't tell truths or lies, it can have no conceptions of the distinction.

      6) Infinity isn't a number. It's not a boundless number. Infinity doesn't create numbers. It doesn't distinguish them. It is a description of the fact that there is no limit to the number of distinguishable members of certain sets.

      7)And now we take a flying leap away from even the pretense of argument and proclaim that 'unlimited being itself' is personal. I'm afraid this is word salad. What does 'unlimited personality' mean? I don't think Joe, or anyone, knows.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Josh,

        You make a lot of claims, so I hope you'll forgive me for addressing the most basic ones, and leaving the other ones aside for now.

        1) You say, "This is more question begging with definitions." I didn't actually provide a definition. The standard definition for "being" is "that which is." The "is" connotes existence, and the "that which" connotes the existant's "essence" or "mode of being." The obvious problem is that proper definitions (a) define things in more basic terms, and (b) have a genus and species. Both of those are impossible with the most basic categories of being.

        You seem to blithely dismiss all metaphysics and ontology (not just Scholasticism) because you don't understand it. It would be like me rejecting quantum physics because I don't believe that quarks can have strange flavors, and refusing any technical use of terms like "strange" or "flavors" as question-begging. If you start with an ironclad assumption that you have nothing to learn from Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Boethius, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Garrigou-Lagrange, Maritain, etc., then you'll probably walk away feeling vindicated by that.

        But this really isn't question-begging, nor are Thomists the only ones to make this argument. One of the most important philosophers of the twenty century, Martin Heidegger, raised the same point, as W. Norris Clarke notes:

        “Martin Heidegger, the great contemporary German metaphysician – not himself a Thomist at all – complained that the whole of Western metaphysics, from Plato on, lapsed into a ‘forgetfulness of being,’ not of what things are, their essences, but of the radical fact that they are at all, standing out from nothingness and shining forth to us. One of the few exceptions is the ‘existential metaphysics’ of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), which Heidegger never came to know in any depth…”

        In response to this, you ask, "Why isn't 'nothing' a thing that lacks being for instance?" You're asking why no thing isn't a thing? That question seems to answer itself, as long as you accept the principle of noncontradiction: it can't simultaneously be in the same manner both x and non-x. It's either something or nothing: it can't be both.

        Your claim in (2), that "You can't start with being unless you also start with non-being" seems to be based on the same error that nothing is something. It's not, obviously. Again: the principle of noncontradiction.

        There was a camp of pre-Socratic Greeks who thought that non-being could exist, but that argument was put to rest several thousand years ago. The simplest form of the argument is that "'is' is, 'is not' is not" or that "existence exists, non-existence is non-existent." The alternative is to affirm that "non-existence exists," which is impossible and self-refuting.

        Thoughts on what I've said so far?

        I.X.,

        Joe

        • josh

          "Thoughts on what I've said so far?"

          Joe, first let me say that I do appreciate you replying to so many comments. Second, you just spent several paragraphs lecturing me on a point I said was innocuous rather than the meat of the comment.

          I didn't start with the assumption that assorted historical philosophers had nothing to teach me, I read their arguments and decided what works and what doesn't. What's strange is to act as though all the 'big' questions were solved 1 or 2 millenia ago.

          That's true even of this small point. You didn't provide a definition for your terms which is why it is question begging to then assert things like you do. 'Being' is 'that which is' is 'something that connotes existence' is 'something with an essence' is .... You admit that these are hard to define but then blithely proceed with assertions that don't have a clear meaning or proof.

          The problem is you are mixing up your 'gut level' feeling of how words work with formal definitions. So let's start with nothing defined as 'not that which is a thing'. If a 'that' is a 'thing' is it not nothing and vice versa. This is symmetrical. Nothing and 'a thing' are equally fundamental. This is what I referred to in (2). But a 'that' can be 'nothing' with these definitions. Let's turn to 'existence'. If existence is defined as synonymous with 'a thing' then you haven't proved anything, just offered a definition. If it isn't then it is in principle possible to allow that both nothing and a thing can have or not have existence.

          Another possibility I offered was to define 'nothing' as a thing which lacks existence. That's an alternative set of definitions but no better or worse than the first, except perhaps that you find it more non-intuitive. Now if you are careful, which you haven't been so far, you may be able to lay out a consistent set of definitions. But it is very dangerous to think that you have thereby proved something metaphysical.

          I realize this is all a bit abstract, so maybe an analogy will help. Consider the classic 'optical illusion' of a vase or two faces. Or consider the yin-yang. One 'thing' is defined as not the other. But the background and foreground are a matter of perspective or convention. Absence and presence are relative terms. You may want to say, "but the black and the white are both things, not nothing", but I am pointing out that 'nothing' and 'thing' is just pushing the issue back a step.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Here is a OP which came out today which sheds a huge amount of light (maybe all the light necessary) on this subject.

    http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/11/11150/?utm_source=RTA+Miller+Nature+and+God+in+Ethics&utm_campaign=winstorg&utm_medium=email

  • Joseph Heschmeyer

    I've seen a few requests for a definition of "good." We can define goodness as "what all desire" or "what is desirable." Good is the object of the will: the sake of which a thing is sought. Maritain explains:

    The radical notion conveyed by the term "good" is "suitableness to an appetite or desire." Using the word, then, in its radical meaning, we say something is good for a being which that being desires -- i. e., which is the object of its appetites. And the good is the object of the being's appetites because it tends in some manner to the perfection of the being; for the wise Creator has made all things such that they tend to what promotes their perfection. Hence we call that a physical good which contributes to perfect a being physically -- as, for example, food for the animal nature. We call whatever benefits the intellect, e. g., truth and science, an intellectual good. So, too, that which perfects a free being, as such, we call a moral good.

    To the atheists on this thread: do you agree or disagree with this definition of good? If you disagree, what would you propose instead?

    I.X.,

    Joe

    • Geena Safire

      "...; for the wise Creator has made all things such that they tend to what promotes their perfection. ... To the atheists on this thread: do you agree or disagree..."

      Do you really expect us to agree with a definition that includes reference to a deity? Seriously? In what way do you imagine we could agree?

      You might try starting with something more along these lines: From the most simple life forms on earth to the most complex, natural selection favors those with a survival instinct -- an impetus or drive to seek what is good for survival and well-being and to avoid what threatens them. In animals with any kind of nervous system (all animals except sponges), the function of the nervous system is to consider all input from outside and inside the animal and generate the appropriate motivation in response -- signals to maintain homeostasis, to flee in danger, to eat if energy is low, to reproduce and so forth. Pain, for example, is a motivational emotion.

      In addition to motivation signals, the nervous system also generates a positive signal in response to an appropriate behavior and a negative signal in response to a dangerous behavior. These are generally called the reward and punishment systems.

      Social animals -- some mammals and most birds -- have a nervous system that has been altered such that the same motivation, reward, and punishment systems are triggered by the homeostasis and well-being of others to which the animal has an emotional attachment. These adaptations allowed a social way of life. Sociability and attachment are on the same scale as morality, a scale of seriousness of potential outcomes.

      What we call morality is a constraint-satisfaction process. The various needs, dispositions, and skills of the self and the attached others are considered and weighted. In each society, a culture emerges which has gathered together and teaches the behaviors that the group has found, over time, to enhance the well-being of the members and the harmony of the group, how they achieve fairness, exchange reciprocity, what kinds of violence are and are not allowed, and how they resolve conflicts and effect reconciliation after conflict or violation. In a larger, complex society, these moral systems become more formalized and codified, and various justice systems emerge.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Geena,

        There isn't a reference to God in the definition. There's a reference to God in Maritain's explanation, which I provided for purposes of elucidation. Obviously, I don't expect that you would elucidate the definition in the same way.

        As for your own definition, you seem to be defining "good" as an evolutionary survival mechanism. If I'm reading that correctly, that's the exact question-begging you're accusing me of: you're defining "good" in such a tendentious way that it requires only one view (in this case, the biological view I discussed in the original post). If that is not how you're defining good, could you clarify?

        I.X.,

        Joe

        • Geena Safire

          If your definition of 'good' didn't require a reference to God, then why did you provide an explanation that provides one?

          It seems like you can almost talk to atheists without mentioning God but, even in a comment, you cannot resist referring your presupposition.

          As far as my proposed definition, I'm surprised that you accuse me of being tendentious, when my proposal is based on a huge body of physical, provable facts and yours is based on unprovable ancient teleological reasoning about reasoning.

          It's pretty fundamental that human morality has to be based on our being human, and our being human is provably based on our biology.

          You would likely counter that 'being' is more fundamental than biology, and 'being' itself shows that God must exist as the ground of being, etc. But that's an unprovable conjecture.

          Going back to your original comment, you propose a definition: "We can define goodness as 'what all desire' or 'what is desirable.' Good is the object of the will: the sake of which a thing is sought."

          Perhaps that definition could work, except that I, as an atheist, probably have a very different idea from you of what "the will" is, since you would likely need to add that the existence of our will must be justified by some cosmic origin, some Ultimate Will, etc., etc., therefore God.

          Reading your articles reminds me of the story from 1854 that it's turtles all the way down. We are on Earth, Joe, and the Earth doesn't have to be standing on anything. We humans exist and our existence doesn't have to be explained by anything. You may, like many others, want an explanation for -- a grounding of -- our existence and conclude that therefore there must exist an explanation, therefore God.

          I'm generally fond of having explanations, but I don't believe that we should make stuff up (or believe other people's stuff) in order to satisfy our desire for explanations. Just because we want something doesn't mean we can have it -- or that it even exists.

          You dismiss that idea that such an explanation may not exist in your rebuttal article: "This is not an answer. It’s a shrug of the shoulders and a 'Just because'.” It's like you're saying the Earth cannot be floating in space but has to be supported by a fundamental turtle.

          No, Joe, it doesn't.

          An explanation is something you desire, something that, by your proposed definition, you would consider to be good, and (you would likely continue) it is, in fact, Goodness itself, therefore God.

          In another comment (to Josh), you write, "[T]hose are impossible with the most basic categories of being. You seem to blithely dismiss all metaphysics and ontology (not just Scholasticism) because you don't understand it."

          No, Joe, it's not that I "dismiss it because I don't understand it." I just fundamentally disagree with you. I don't believe an explanation for our existence necessarily exists, at least as an answer to "Why?" (although science is increasingly unveiling the "How?").

          I understand that, as a seminarian, God must be centrally important to you, the fundamental center of your being and the universe. And, therefore, you must assume that my life, as an atheist, must be absent a fundamental center. At least I assume that's why you treat atheists as objects of, alternately, derision and pity.

          Please stop it, Joe. We're not stupid and empty; we just disagree with you. Please acknowledge, for the sake of dialogue, that other points of view exist. Engage them rather than constantly dismissing them as worthless absent a deity.

          Even if your underlying purpose is to ultimately bring each of us into your deity's bosom, it is at least counter-productive to attempt to do so by constantly repeating "(Anything), therefore God."

    • Susan

      Forgive me. I find that a rambling paragraph. Don't even get me started about the Maritain link.

      I can ignore pretty much all of it for now though and focus on the "moral good" definition.

      "... that which perfects a free being, as such, we call a moral good."
      That doesn't clarify anything.

  • zkeysersoze

    (consider Ann Frank)"A Lesson in Lying" Immanuel Kant-Prof.Sandel

    Kants stringent theory of morality allows for no exceptions. Kant believed that telling a lie, even a white lie, is a violation of ones own dignity. Professor Sandel asks students to test Kants theory with this hypothetical case: if your friend were hiding inside your home, and a person intent on killing your friend came to your door and asked you where he was, would it be wrong to tell a lie? If so, would it be moral to try to mislead the murderer without actually lying?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PTXwN-MJ8Q&feature=youtu.be&t=2m50s

  • Joe Ser

    Simply put - a mind has to set a least one truth first. The pointer has to be pointing toward true morality. One of God's attributes is pure truth.

  • mriehm

    This criticism isn't central to the case, but perhaps it's telling of the logical quality to come. The author states:

    "If you want to achieve X, you must do Y.” (Obviously, this works in reverse as well: “if you want to avoid X, you must avoid Y,” etc.)

    This "reverse" does not follow. If Y is necessary, but not sufficient, to cause X, then you can have Y without causing X.

  • cminca

    True story--
    A goat, living on a farm, leads a blind horse to and from a pasture, morning and evening, day in, day out, for years.
    Another true story--
    A family owns a mastiff that, due to a degenerate eye disease, is going blind. They adopt another mastiff, who takes over as the blind mastiff's caretaker--making sure that the blind dog knows when to come in and out, breaking up play it considers too rough, etc.
    Neither the goat nor the second mastiff are getting anything out of the relationship. They were not "trained" to perform the functions. They just did.
    Are you suggesting that they needed to understand the finer points of Christian theology before we can consider these actions "good"?

  • Jack Picknell

    RE: The virtuous are good in the way that dogs are wet. God is good in the way that liquid is wet.

    "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good--except God alone.
    Luke 18:19

    Since morality is ultimately the seeking of goodness (over badness), and Jesus in Luke 18:19 asserts that there is no good to be found except in God, and we are not God, it follows that all human morality must necessarily be subjective.

    Your assertion that "...we can participate more or less, by degrees, and therefore, we can be better or worse" infers an objective standard, but also infers the improbability of attaining that standard. (Which is congruent with Luke 18:19)

    Since you hold that we can only be in some given location or other on a moral spectrum, and we each hold some place or other on the spectrum, it should be possible for us to detect some form of relative morality but that is inherently subjective.

    Since morality is inherently about interpersonal acts, and all persons fall onto a scale, it follows that a true objective morality is unassailable by we creatures.

    • robtish

      Your argument depends on the notion that Luke 18:19 is true. Until you prove that, there is no reason to accept it.

      • Jack Picknell

        Context my friend. Joe here is asserting God exists and further, he asserts that His existence is the basis for his entire argument. I am merely using the words spoken by Joe's God (in the person of Jesus) as written in the definitive book that Joe holds was authored by God (via the Holy Spirit). Therefore I am valid in using it as a basis for argument.

        Were I responding to his opponent, your criticism would be valid.

        • robtish

          Ah, I experience the dangers of trying to follow too many threads at once.

          • Jack Picknell

            Actually, if you read only the final 3 paragraphs of my criticism it eliminates the need for a Biblical reference and is applicable to the argument on both sides.

            My assertion is that there is no such thing as objective morality. Therefore this entire exercise is meaningless, as to argue for that which is not true is not the purpose of philosophy. Philosophy is a search for truth.

  • PGies Chan

    Step one would be to show that secular morality is fallacious. So I agree with this article

    Step two would be to attack morality based on God (Euthyphro problem would be a good start here)

    Boom - moral skepticism appears :D