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God and Goodness - A Reply

Over at his blog, my friend Dan Fincke posted a dialogue looking at the connection between goodness and God. He's created two fictional characters, a Christian named Robin and an atheist named Jaime, who start out by discussing whether it makes sense to call the God described in the Bible good. They later move to the topic of whether it makes sense to think of goodness at all, if God did not exist to create it. Jaime eventually works his* way around to an argument that the Yahweh described in the Bible can't be the God Christians claim to believe in.

I want to explain why Jaime's argument (at least some of it) doesn't really hold up for me. But first I want to go on Plato safari, because a lot of the arguments Jaime uses are eerily familiar to the Euthyphro dilemma about Divine Command Theory. I don't think I've ever explained that philosophical concept before, so I'll take the opportunity to do that now. That's section I. Then there are some important distinctions I think Jaime needs to take into account, which I'll explain in part II. Finally, I'll try to bring all these concepts together to critique Jaime's position in part III. If you know the basic gist of the Euthyphro dilemma you can probably skip down.

But first, a quick comment on Dan's dialogue. Dan usually takes great pains to use gender-neutral names in these dialogues, but these particular names sorted themselves into he's and she's rather quickly. That's because to my mind Jaime that name is pronounced HIE meh, a distinctly masculine name. As for Robin, I had a good female friend with that name so I thought of her immediately. Since gender-neutral pronouns typically drive me crazy, I'm going to go with "he" for Jaime and "she" for Robin, out of convenience. I don't mean anything else by assigning gender roles, and I hope Dan won't mind too much.


Part I: The Euthyphro Dilemma

At several places, Dan's dialogue looks at the connection between goodness and God. Robin claims that God is goodness, but also denies that God's actions are constrained by goodness because God cannot be constrained by anything, for example. Plato worked with these same issues in his "Euthyphro" dialogue. In this piece he has Socrates and Euthyphro meet just before Socrates's trial, and discuss the nature of goodness. Euthyphro, as it turns out, is about to put his father on trial for causing the death of a slave, something that was virtually unheard of in Greek society. Socrates notes that Euthyphro must be sure of the gods' wishes because this is precisely the kind of thing Greek myths taught the gods might kill someone for. (Disrespecting your family, that is, not the killing of a slave.) Since Socrates is about to face charges of impiety himself, he and Euthyphro decide to discuss the matter.

After several false-starts, Euthyphro suggests as a definition, "the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious." Later philosophers restated this in terms of a single God, and since Christians are prone to say God loves even the sinner, that bit was reformulated a bit as well: good is just whatever God commands us to do. And so Divine Command Theory was born. Whenever someone says the word "good," they really mean "commanded by God." But that leads to a problem. As Socrates puts it, "Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?"

It's a standard logical form known as a dilemma. Say you want to disprove the claim that McCain is the president. You start by assuming he is, and then you list a set of claims where if McCain is president then at least one of those claims has to be true. Perhaps you might say that if McCain is president, then either he was duly elected president by the electoral college, or else he "inherited" the office through the line of succession. If you can show both of those are false (and if they're really the only options), then it has to be false that McCain is president. The Euthyphro dilemma works along similar lines. Assuming "good" means "commanded by God," then either those things are good because God commands them, or else God commands them because they're good. Socrates argues that neither case can be true, so the original claim – "good = commanded by God" – can't be true, either.

Let's start with the second case, because it's actually the easier of the two to wrap our heads around (at least for me). Say that God commands us to act a certain way precisely because there's something other than God, this universal idea or quality or whatever of goodness, and the things God commands us to do have that quality. That means there's something other than God controlling whatever God commands us to do. In Plato's language, it meant there was something other than the gods controlling what the gods could love.

And if that seemed unsuitable to Plato, it's downright impossible for Christians because we believe God is omnipotent. Omnipotence is usually interpreted as meaning that if something is logically possible, God can do it. It's possible to do or command or love things that aren't good. We mere mortals do it all the time. So you would expect an omnipotent God to be able to do or command or love whatever He likes, and if He can't do that He's not really omnipotent. That would mean He's not really God, or at least not the kind of God Christians want to talk about.

This shoots down the second option Socrates suggests, but we could still salvage Divine Command Theory if the other option holds up. Perhaps a certain course of action is good because God commands it. That avoids the omnipotence hurdle, but it runs into other problems. For instance, it seems to make god's commands arbitrary and changing, so that genocide is at one point good and at a later point evil, which runs against many peoples' intuitions about morality. This is actually Jaime's point; he says it makes no sense to say genocide would be wrong today but was right when God commanded the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites. (To be fair, atheists like Jaime aren't the only one troubled by this; I know many Christians who are seriously troubled by this fact, and attribute it to a mystery. I am not particularly troubled by it, but that's not because I don't care or have an answer; rather, I just have been preoccupied with other things.)

I think you can get around this objection by pointing out that God doesn't change. Many Christian theologians and philosophers have described God as immutable. Of course, then you run into problems of how to deal with the apparent changes like where genocide was okay back then but today, not so much. Unfortunately, there are bigger problems. This half of the dilemma seems to commit us to the idea that genocide is only wrong because God commands us not to do it – forget the pain inherent in the practice and all the other things people point to when saying it's actually wrong. There's also the fact that this takes away a major reason for worshipping God. (As Leibniz pointed out, if "good" just means "God commanded it," then saying God commands us to do good isn't really a reason to praise Him; it just means that God commands what God commands.)

The upshot is, we run into problems with both halves of the dilemma. This seems to make it impossible for morality to be defined by whatever God commands us to do. So people like Jaime seem to have a point when they say that at best, we don't need knowledge of God's commands to know what right and wrong is. Making religions, holy texts, and all that completely unnecessary to living a good, moral life.

The teacher in me feels compelled to point out the ways you can criticize a dilemma. Either you can show that there's a third option that the dilemma didn't consider (so it's possible both options or wrong and the assumption you were trying to prove false was still true), or else you can show why one of the two options really can be defended. For example, some people say that God created morality along with everything else so right really is just what God commanded. But they also say that "right" is built into the nature of reality, so the only way God could make genocide or rape or kitten-torturing the moral thing would be to reinvent the universe so those things actually would be for the best. (In which case it would hardly seem odd that they were the good thing to do.) But I'm not going to go into all of that, because as it turns out the important thing for Dan's dialogue isn't the dilemma itself. It's this relationship between God, goodness, and independent standards for morality.

Part II: There's Good, and Then There's Good

One of the questions Jaime takes up is whether God's commands to the Israelites could be considered "good" by any reasonable standard. He points out that if someone committed genocide today and said God told him to, we'd expect (at a minimum) for him to spend several decades in a padded cell. More likely, we'd be clamoring for the most extreme punishment our conscience allowed – execution, life imprisonment without parole, whatever. The fact that he thought God had told him to act that way wouldn't get him off the hook. Nor would it if God actually had commanded him to commit genocide. But this is precisely the kind of thing Divine Command Theory tells us was the right thing to do.

This suggests that DCT is missing some part of the picture, but it also suggests that when God did command genocide in the past that this was wrong. That puts your Bible-believing Christian in a trick position because not only is God described as good (Ps 119:68), but He's also uniquely good (Mk 10:18). So either God was acting morally when he commanded the slaughter of Canaanite civilians, the stoning of folks who picked up a stick on the Sabbath, and the forced marriage of raped victims and their abusers – or else He's not good, in which case descriptions like the ones mentioned above make no sense. As far as I can tell, that's the case Dan has Jaime make here. The upshot being that the Christian God can't be God at all.

Not surprisingly, I think Jaime's wrong here. The key, I believe, lies in just how we define good. I think there are two related ideas at work here. First, there's moral goodness. There are of course lots of stories people tell about just what counts as "good" in this context, and I'm not really interested in parsing that difference her. For example, Jaime says that "Goodness is a matter of effectiveness relationships in the natural world," meaning basically that something is good if it helps us achieve some worthwhile end. There are other theories, too, of course. But whatever the specifics of the theory, I think there's this concept of moral goodness lurking in the background – essentially, good = the kind of thing we should praise.

I'm not sure God can be good in quite this way. The Euthyphro dilemma points out quite a few of those problems. There's also a philosophical concept called divine simplicity, which basically means God doesn't have any parts. It's a rather complicated idea, but the gist is that you can't break infinity into parts, so it doesn't make sense to say that God has any traits, goodness included. (This of course makes religious language "interesting," to put it mildly, and would apply to all traits, not just goodness. This is my dissertation topic in a nutshell, so I'll spare you all the details swimming around in my mind.) There's also the problem of free will. It seems to me that it only makes sense to say something is praiseworthy if it was the only option available, but many philosophers think God is incapable of change for various philosophical reasons. If God can't change He couldn't have done anything other than He does, so it doesn't really make sense to praise Him for what He does or doesn't do. That means God's not morally good. He's not morally bad, either; He's just not the kind of thing this trait applies to. Or any trait, for that matter.

But the Bible says God is good, and so I think it's worth asking what those verses mean if God isn't morally good. For that we need something I call ontological goodness. "Ontological" is a technical term referring to degrees of reality, which sounds technical and scary, but it's really not. Hogwarts has less ontological reality than Paris for exactly the reasons you probably think: Paris would go right on existing even if The Hunchback of Notre Dame had never been written, but the same can't be said for Hogwarts and Harry Potter. Paris has an independence that Hogwarts doesn't. So ontological goodness has to do with the kind of thing that exists and how well it fulfills the function of that kind of thing.

As an example, consider these two circles:

You might call both figures a circle, but I don't think there's any doubt the one on the left is the better circle. It has more goodness where circle-ness is concerned. (And as a mathematician will tell you, it's relative here because no drawn circle is perfectly good, since markers and pens have widths and because no figure can have infinite sides.) This is ontological goodness. You have an idea of what a circle is and the closer you get to that idea, the more complete the actual figure is, the more ontological goodness it has.

There's also the fact that there's a natural hierarchy as we acquire more of the perfections available in reality. So an imperfect deer has more ontological goodness than a perfect rock. If God exists then He must have every possible perfection, so He is by definition the most good thing there is – but in the ontological sense, not the moral. (Incidentally, as a Christian this is the kind of praise I believe God deserves: awe at what He is, not thank you for what He's done for me.) I think this distinction makes sense of Biblical talk about goodness without making God morally good. As odd as it may sound coming from a practicing Christian, I just think ascribing moral goodness to God will create more problems than it solves.

Part III: Critiquing Jaime

With that distinction in mind, I'd like to critique Jaime on a few point. First, Jaime offers an argument He thinks proves that God cannot exist:

Since grasping and applying moral categories is the prerequisite for determining whether your god is moral or immoral – independently of his arbitrary, self-serving alleged claims about himself – I am perfectly in a position to judge that he is in fact disproven as a candidate for existence. Yahweh cannot both exist and behave as described in the Bible and be perfectly good, given the wickedness he is purported to have carried out and commanded throughout both the Old and New Testament.

But this argument doesn't quite do what Jaime claims. At best it shows that Yahweh as portrayed in the Bible is a poor candidate for God – not that Yahweh doesn't exist, and not that there's not some other being that does satisfy this condition. What's more, Jaime's using moral goodness here, and I wouldn't say God is morally good. (To be fair, Jaime's a character in a dialogue answering another character, Robin, and she does describe God as morally good. Not only morally good but identical with moral goodness.)

Elsewhere, Dan has Jaime talk about being "good without God." I don't mean whether our hypothetical atheist needs religion to do already-defined good things (that's a no-brainer). Rather, Jaime is looking at whether right and wrong exist if there's no God to set up the rules in the first place.

Goodness is a matter of effectiveness relationships in the natural world. When I say that vegetables are good for me, I do not mean that they have an arbitrarily assigned property granted to them by an invisible supernatural super-being that makes the statement true independent of empirically and a priori analyzable real world functions. Instead, I mean simply they are good at effectively keeping me alive. And this effectiveness is wholly independent of my feelings too. Personally I hate vegetables, but they are good for me. I don’t even feel any special love for this fact that they are good for me—I rather begrudge it, truth be told! But it’s just true. And unless a god changed their effectiveness potentials to harm me in objective ways, no simple ascription of “properties of badness” by any god would make them bad for me.

The problem I kept bumping my head against was effective for what purpose. Cigarettes are effective at giving me emphysema; I assume even Jaime would agree that its effectiveness here is a bad thing rather than good! But what about more borderline cases. Someone loves the "high" of learning new things and so goes to grad school because studying Aristotle is an effective way to get that goal. Someone else loves material pleasures and so is willing to put up with a soul-crushing job that lets him take holidays in Key West and Aspen; the nine-to-five grind is effective at reaching this person's goals. How are we supposed to distinguish between the two? Because it's very, very hard to do both…

I'll be presumptuous and suggest an answer on Dan's behalf: goals are good if they help us become fuller human beings. In practice, I'd say this means a well-functioning mind and a healthy body to support it, along with the social relationships we need psychologically. (This is based on past posts of his I've read, but I could be completely off-base.) Jaime doesn't spell this out, and so I think at some level his morality does collapse into subjectivism. But I also think atheists can escape this problem, if they're willing to commit to a kind of universal human nature we can use to judge peoples' goals.

Third, Robin says that you can only judge God immoral if you implicitly assume God exists in the first place, a claim Jaime disagrees with. Here's a place I really wish Jaime had been more precise, because in a certain sense you can't talk about properties without having a subject to attach it to. Now, that subject can be an idea rather than a person – you can be talking about the definition God would have to meet without thinking anyone actually meets that definition – but Jaime skates pretty close near the edge of accepting God exists at a few places, and arguably even slips over the line. This blog post is already quite long so I won't go into all that now. But I don't think the issue is nearly as simple as Jaime's rejection of Robin's claim makes it seem.

Finally, of course, there's the elephant in the room. Dan has Robin defend the idea that God is good and love, to which Jaime incredulously asks, Did someone rip the entire Old Testament and half the New out of your Bible? And he's not wrong. Reading the way God is presented in the Bible, from our modern perspective, it's hard to defend Him as loving. But still I was reminded of a West Wing episode, "Take This Sabbath Day." The gang is trying to decide whether to pardon someone sentenced to death, and Toby and the president have a conversation about the Jewish perspective on capital punishment. Toby says:

The fact is that, even two thousand years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t stomach it. I mean, they weren't about to rewrite the Torah, but they came up with another way. They came up with legal restrictions, which make our criminal justice system look… They made it impossible for the state to punish someone by killing them.

Here Toby's hitting on something that happens in more than just the Jewish tradition: religious people interpret and re-interpret their scriptures throughout their histories. This is not revisionism, and it's not invalid IMO, because revelation is dynamic. Assuming it is revelation, of course, it's not like a computer file emailed from God to our minds, that we can open and fully read the contents on the first go. Rather, individuals are supposed to struggle against it and I think in this case be repulsed by it. I'm not going to insult the memory of the victims or cheapen other peoples' struggles with this particular text by explaining it neatly. Still, a part of me wonders if it can't serve this purpose in part. There's Biblical precedent in the story about the sacrifice of Isaac, for what it's worth.

I mention all this because, whatever the Canaan genocide says about God's moral goodness, I think the fact that Dan has Jaime keep bringing it up points to a difference between how I and a fundamentalist relate to canon. (And sadly, I think Jaime's interpreting the Bible on the same level as a fundamentalist here.) A fundamentalist will look at what the Bible statically and not really interact with it. For my part, I believe that if the most obvious reading contradicts what reason or history or whatever shows us, then it's time to dig deeper and try to understand Bible + reason better.

In this case, I think it does make sense to ask how do the different religious people who interpret these passages read them. Do we see it as a starting point we've moved so far beyond that it's an embarrassment to remember God once commanded people to do this and they actually said yes? On the one hand we cannot minimize the horror that those people carried out. But I think at the same time, it makes sense to see such events as a starting point rather than the end of the story.


I'd be interested in other peoples' thoughts. Do you think it makes sense to describe God as good, in either sense? (Assuming you believe God exists, obviously.) How do you make sense of things like the genocide of the Canaanites? And I'd welcome opinions from theists and atheists on any other point I raised, or that Dan raised and you want to talk about. Have at it!


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Feb. 3rd, 2012 04:57 pm (UTC)
I find myself fascinated by seeing the arguments laid out in this particular way.

I remember in one of my theology classes at college and argument about goodness and omnipotence, and one of them went sort of like this:

"God created everything, including goodness, and once He created goodness, He chose to constrain Himself by His own creation. So far as this constraint is His own choice, it does not change His omnipotence." I actually do not recall if the argument was considered a valid one or not, or what conclusions we came to about it. I suppose I could look up my old notes-- I've still got them stashed somewhere.

I do believe God is good. But I believe that our interpretations of God's intentions have not always had good results.

Your post has given me lots to think about, at any rate.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


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