Friday, February 10, 2006

Good God?

This is another long post, because it again goes into theory, examining in depth the relationship between goodness and God. I start off with the standard Euthyphro argument, but ultimately my objective is to examine the thesis that Euthyphro can be answered by 'identifying' goodness with God.

DNA asked a number of questions about the relationship between goodness and God that I promised to answer some day. Today is that day.

My exchanges with DNA have taken place in the comment sections of several postings, which have been necessarily brief. Here, I am going to take a bit more room in order to go into the subject in more detail. This post will, unfortunately, be somewhat long.

Yet, the core concepts are important, for how can an atheist who does not believe in God tell the difference between that which is good and that which is bad?

In this post, I will begin by looking at two of DNA's comments on the possibility of an atheist knowing what is good.

First, he expressed his own inability to understand how it is even possible for an atheist to understand what 'better' is without a God.

Second, when I stated that Plato (through Socrates’ alleged discussion with Euthyphro) defeated the idea that goodness depends on the love of God 2500 years ago, DNA responded that it was possible to answer this objection by claiming that 'good' was somehow identified with at least some component of 'God'.

Of course, I hold that God does not exist. Yet, this will be my 154th post in this blog in which I make use of value-laden terms; pointing out how some states are better than others.

I have argued that a state with an omnipotent president is a threat to its citizens who will inevitably come to regret handing any fellow human unlimited power. I have argued that deception or "bearing false witness" is wrong and that good people would have an aversion to it.

I have responded that the only appropriate response to offensive speech, even if it is truly offensive, is speech; that good people would condemn any who responded to offensive speech with violence.

These are three of a long list of possible examples. They illustrate my position that even though I do not believe that there is any God, that the concepts of good, bad, better, worse, right, and wrong still make sense.

Good Is That Which God Loves

As I said, Socrates (according to Plato) defeated the idea that goodness is that which is loved by the Gods 2500 years ago. Only wishful thinking and a willful disregard for reason keeps the old claim alive.

To briefly paraphrase Socrates argument: Let us assume that things can only be good or bad to the degree that God loves them. This means that if God were to be the type of person who gets giddy and happy at the sight of the torturing of a child, then torturing a child would be good. I am not talking here about torturing a child because it will fulfill some great purpose (like saving society from extinction). I am talking about torturing a child simply because God enjoys the sound of a child's scream and the feel of a child's suffering.

If torturing a child can be bad, even if it were the case that God loved the sight and sound of a child being tortured, then the badness of torturing a child must be independent of what God loves. Its badness has to be found somewhere else.

DNA responded to this by claiming that the argument can be defeated by identifying God with goodness. Thus, it cannot be a part of God's character that he loves the torturing of children. Goodness is the essence of God.

Identifying Goodness with God

In my response to DNA, I pointed out that the 'identity' defense creates a biconditional, that the Euthyphro argument defeats one of the two legs of the biconditional, and that because of this the 'identity' defense cannot stand.

Allow me to go into that argument in more detail.

First, identifying goodness with God sets up a biconditional. If it is the case that A is identical to B (which, in this case, we take to be some attribute of G), then whatever is true of A is also true of B. And whatever is true of B (e.g., that it is an attribute of G) is true of A. If there is any differences between the two, then they can be no identity between them.

Formally, this is expressed as:

A <-> B implies (A -> B) and (B -> A).

Now, let us say that M = (A -> B) and N = (B -> A). This is a simple substitution. I am doing this because I do not want to write (A -> B) or (B -> A) all the time. I will simply write M and N instead.

Now, it is true of any conjunction that if one of the conjuncts is false, that the conjunction itself is also false.

So, the phrase "Phreadd is a bald man" is a conjunction of "Phreadd is bald" and "Phreadd is a man." Let us take m = "Phreadd is bald" and n = "Phreadd is a man". If we can prove that one of these two things is false, then we can prove that the conjunction is false.

If we can prove either one of these two components to be false – if we can prove that Phreadd is not a man, or that Phreadd is not bald, then we have proved that Phreadd is not a bald man.

Or, in other words, we get:

Not-m -> not (m and n)

•Not-n -> not (m and n)

DNA objected that the claim that identifying goodness with some component of God is not a conjunction of two parts. Yet, in fact, it is a conjunction of two parts. It is a conjunction of “If X is of God, then it is good” and “If X is good, then it is of God.”

Accordingly, if we can disprove “If X is of God, then it is good” or “If X is good, then it is of God”, we have disproved the claim that good can be identified with that which is of God.

In other words:

• Not-M -> not (M and N)

• Not-N -> not (M and N)

When it comes to the relationship between goodness and God, the Euthyphro argument already disproves the statement, “If X is of God, then it is good.” It does so with the example that if God got off on watching a child scream in agony, that it would still not be good. The Euthyphro argument establishes “not-M.” The Euthyphro argument already defeats attempts to identify goodness with God.

Goodness Proves God

Furthermore, the thesis that “If X is good, then X is of God” (or ‘N’) can also be proved false.

A person such as myself who does not believe in God still recognizes and perceives the negative value of that which results from sticking one’s hand in a hot fire, for example. If faced with a choice between sticking my hand in a hot fire and playing with the red-hot coals, or not doing so, I have no problem evaluating the two options and categorizing them as ‘better’ and ‘worse’. Those who think that an atheist would have trouble answering that type of question are as wrong as those who think that the misery of a young child would be good if God enjoyed it.

It does not take a concept of God to understand why putting my hand in a hot fire has less value than keeping my hand out of a hot fire. It takes an understanding of the fact that I am the offspring of those beings that evolved an aversion to pain caused by burned flesh – the offspring of beings that enjoyed the sensation of burned flesh have long since died out.

“If X is good” does not imply “X is of God”. It is quite consistent with, “We have acquired an aversion to X – an aversion that can be explained through totally natural processes.”

Diversion: The Euthyphro Argument Against Subjectivism

By the way, just as an individual can have an aversion to the sensation that results from sticking his hand in a fire, he can have an aversion to his child or spouse coming to any harm. He can have an aversion to leaving a motorist stranded on the side of the road. He can have an aversion to lying. He can have an aversion to totalitarian governments whose leaders think they can do whatever they want and that their actions are not bound by moral constraints.

Note: I am not saying that, “If I have an aversion to X, then it is wrong,” or “If I desire something than it is right.” This would run into the same sort of objection as the Euthyphro argument raises for those who identify goodness with God. It would imply that if I loved the suffering of a young child, that causing a young child to suffer would be right. So, this view – the subjectivist view of ethics – is just as objectionable as the view that identifies goodness with God.

Moral value is far more complex than this. I have described how I think it works in “Desire Utilitarianism”, and I am already out of room for going into details here. Basically, I would argue that morality concerns whether we desire things that tend to harm or help others. Having those wants that tend to help others is good, and wanting things that tend to harm others is evil.

Circular Reasoning

The tactic of identifying goodness with God has superficial appeal (it looks like a good argument to those who do not actually take it apart and sees that it does not work) because it is a circular argument.

It is a tight circle, no different from

(a) Everything I say is true.

(b) Nothing that I say is false.

If somebody challenges my claim that everything I say is true, I simply answer that it must be true because nothing I say is false. Then, if somebody were to ask me how they can trust that nothing that I say is false, I simply answer that it must be that way because everything I say is true.

Identifying goodness with God is just as tight a circle.

(a’) X is good because it is loved by God

(b’) X is loved by God because it is good.

Why is it bad to enjoy the suffering of a child? Answer: Because God does not enjoy the suffering of a child. Why doesn’t God enjoy the suffering of a child? Answer: Because the suffering of a child is bad.

A circular argument is a type of reasoning that people use when they want others to think that they are saying something profound, but they are just repeating themselves. Circular reasoning effectively says, “If I repeat the same statement twice in two different ways, that proves that it is true.”

It proves nothing.

There is no relationship between goodness and God. When humans invented the concept of God, they already knew that some things were better than others. They already had a concept of goodness. Therefore, when they invented God, they attributed goodness to this invention.

The reason that the concept of God cannot escape the Euthyphro problem is because the concept of goodness came first. The concept of goodness reigns supreme, such that even God cannot be good unless he allows himself to be governed by his concept.

Hate Mongering

Hate mongers wish to depict atheists as creatures to be hated and feared by claiming that we cannot comprehend morality. As such, they claim that we are dangerous. They tell the people that for their protection the atheist must be shunned, ostracized, and cast out of society. We must be one nation ‘under God,’ and people must be made to realize that “We” trust in God, and that those who do not trust in God must never be included in the group called “We.”

In fact, if one actually listens to what many atheists say about the relationship between goodness with God, atheists argue that goodness rules even above God. The Euthyphro argument is a complaint that goodness cannot come from God, because even God cannot violate its rules and still be good. God cannot enjoy the suffering of a child -- sit back with a bag of popcorn and enjoy the sound of a child's screams -- and still be though of as good.

Morality does not only govern what humans may or may not do. It even governs what any God, if one were to exist, may or may not do. In just the same way that the rules of logic are "above" God so that it makes no sense to say that he can create a rock so heavy that He could not list it, the rules of morality are also above God so that He cannot make the enjoyment of a child's suffering good.

God does not dictate what is good. Goodness dictates even what a God may and may not do.


Anonymous said...

Yes, the symbols are a bit confusing. It would be helpful if you could restate that section in words, or provide a key to the symbols.

I'm glad you're finally taking on this issue. The emptiness in defining "good" as what ever God says or feels it is seems obvious, and yet, many theists routinely use such a definition.

The obvious problem is this: what if God deems something "good" that seems evil, like torturing children? Usually, the answer is: "well, God wouldn't say that is good." But why not? If the only thing that determines "good" is God's nature, then why couldn't it be in God's nature to enjoy torturing children? To be logically consistent, a theist who uses such a definition of good must accept that if God thought torturing children is good, then it is in fact good. There is no way around it.

Of course, that means that pain and suffering are not inherently bad things. They could indeed be very good things. There is no way to tell by looking at the nature of pain and suffering. The effects they may have on people are utterly immaterial -- they don't matter in the least. The one and only thing that matters is whether God happens to like pain and suffering and so deems them good, or whether God happens to dislike them and so deems them bad.

Of course the situation could be more nuanced -- perhaps God only likes or dislikes pain and suffering in some situations but not others, or for some people but not others, and so on. But that does not change the fundamental fact that, under such a system, "good" and "evil" merely represent the arbitrary nature of God. If God happened to have the same nature as Satan, then all the evils that many theists now attribute to Satan would suddenly become virtues.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr.

Ultimately, I would have to say that a more polite response would have been, "I fear that you might have missed my response," or something similar.

In fact, you can find the text in the article.

It is a conjunction of “If X is of God, then it is good” and “If X is good, then it is of God."

Euthyphro defeats the implication from "X is of God" to "X is good." Such a claim would mean that if finding enjoyment in the suffering of children was "of God" then it would be good. Clearly, this is an absurd implication, giving us reason to reject, "If X is of God, then it is good."

If one tries to answer that enjoying the suffering of children could never be of God, one then has to ask, "Why not?"

If the answer is that it is not good, then that person is saying, "If X is good, then X is of God."

This is the opposite of saying that goodness depends on God. This statement instead says that God's qualities would have to depend on what is good.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo: "If one tries to answer that enjoying the suffering of children could never be of God, one then has to ask, "Why not?""

dna: This answer to this half is, I believe, "because it isn't."

Dna's answer does not really address the core issue: If this 'God's-nature-is-what-is good' definition is right, then it really doesn't matter what is in God's nature. It could be favoring torturing children, or loving your neighbor. There is no way to say that the content of God's nature -- no matter what it is -- is bad. Indeed, there is no way to make a list of things that "should" be in God's nature and another list of things that "shouldn't" be in God's nature.

What arguments like dna's ignore is this unspoken implication: "As it turns out, torturing children is not part of God's nature. And that sure is good."

But feeling that it is good that torturing children is not part of God's nature makes no sense. It implies that there is something inherently wrong with torturing children. In other words, that torturing children is, by it's nature, wrong. But that denies the standard for determining "good" -- God's nature.

Dna, do you not see that you would be forced to declare the torture of children to be morally good if it were demonstrated that God's nature approves of it? I don't care how much you pray or read the Bible, you cannot know the full content of God's nature. It is therefore possible that God does enjoy the torture of children, and that, according to your definition of morality, torturing children is morally good.

Further, one cannot say "the pain and suffering endured by child victims of torture is what makes torturing children wrong." No it isn't. That children endure pain and suffering is immaterial. Who cares about that? No one should, under this absurd theory of morality. We can't see such suffering and say "that's wrong." We can only turn to God and ask "is that wrong?" If God says "No, in fact it's good," then we have no choice but to embrace it.

Anonymous said...

don jr. said: "'If X is loved by God, then X is good' completely ignores the fact that that conditional can be construed in two ways (descriptively or causally). The Euthyphro dilemma only defeats the causal construal (X is good because it is loved by God) of that conditional but not the descriptive construal."

Okay then, why is X good? Can DCT explain the cause of X being good?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr.

A biconditional does not require that the two items be separate things.

If one were to say that bachelors are unmarried males, this would imply both:

(a) If Jim is a bachelor, the Jim is an unmarried male.

(b) If Jim is an unmarried male, then Jim is a bachelor.

And if we could then find reason to reject either one of these two claims -- if we could come up with even a hypothetical case in which Jim was an unmarried male but not a bachelor, or was a bachelor but not an unmarried male -- then we could diprove any claim identifying one with the other.

In this case, we cannot do so because being a bachelor is, in fact, identified with being an unmarried male.

With the biconditional involving God and goodness, we can in fact disconnect the idea of being of God, or loved by God, or any of hundreds of possible phrases, with the idea of being good.

With this biconiditional, we can in fact consider hypotheticals such as the suffering of young children being loved by God, but it not being good.

We can do this in ways in which we cannot consider Jim being an unmarried male, but not being a bachelor.

Anonymous said...


I've gotten the impression that you misunderstand the argument. I havn't read the background fully (your two articles) so please correct any misunderstanding. Regardless of how it's phrased, or re-phrased, the 'disproof' is the same.

You have the statement "God is goodness" - or "goodness is God", or "if X is loved by God, then X is good" - it almost doesn't matter. What it boils down to is:

God and goodness are not synonyms. If goodness is based on what God likes, then if God likes torturing kids, then it will be good. If you say "God will never like that", then you suggest that God's nature is governed by something else, by "what you consider good".

The important thing to do is to not get two seperate things confused into one. God and goodness are not the same, so you can't respond to that with "but God IS goodness, he is not governed by it, he simply IS, so he cannot do what is not of Goodness, because it is not of God." That makes no sense as a reply, though it is deceptively attractive.

But maybe I'm confused. My full understanding is this:

* Theists assert that knowing good comes from understanding what God wills/likes/encourages/supports.

... ah! Now that I've written it, it seems certain. The statement clearly implies that "gods will" == "that which is good, the desire to do good". That they ARE synonyms. Well, in this case, we simply replace:

* Theists assert that knowing good comes from understanding what that which is good, the desire to do good.

Now it must be proven that that's not something that can be done if not in the context of "God's works", which makes things so much easier. All I have to do is prove that a fellow like Alonzo (an athiest) has an/some understanding of that which is good, and the desire to do good. I'll leave it for you to say "Alonzo has no understanding of Good, because he does not understand God's will" if you want to attempt to rebutt my rebuttal, but if you don't, well, then I'll have to conclude that knowing god's will has nothing to do with knowing good, unless you want it to.

Anonymous said...

Whether we're talking about "descriptive" or "causal" senses, God's commandments or his nature, or byproducts of his nature, of morality that is "of God," or whatever else, there is simply no escaping the simple truth that, no matter how you do it, determining what morality is -- what "right" and "wrong" are -- based upon God makes no sense. It leads to a completely empty, and ultimately arbitrary morality. Had Satan and God switched place sometime before the creation of the universe, then Satan's nature would determine what is moral.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Sorry about the infrequency of my posts. I've been pretty busy, and I confess, distracted by the Olympics.

So far, I have seen nothing at all that escapes the problem that if morality is in anyway based upon God (his nature or his commands, or anything else about him) then it is necessarily arbitrary.

Steve Lovell tries to deny this, but offers no solid reason to believe believe him. Indeed, he merely flatly asserts that God's nature couldn't have been different than it is. But why not?

Lovell says, by way of analogy, " seems a necessary truth that humans are rational animals. That is a statement about the 'nature' of humans. The statement 'God is...' where the dots are filled by a description of His nature, should be read the in a similar way. If we read 'nature' in this way then something that doesn't have the nature of God actually couldn't even possibly be God."

I find that to be completely pointless. Describing the nature of a thing tells one nothing about whether it's nature could have been different, or whether a different God altogether could have been in place.

Satan's nature could presumably be described. Lovell could argue that it couldn't be different than it is. Even if that's right (and I see no reason to believe it), it is the case that Satan could have defeated God in some battle that predates the universe, confined God to Hell, then gone on to create the universe much as we now it today. Had that happened, wouldn't we be compelled, under this strange theory of morality, to accept Satan's nature as the standard of morality? (For the sake of argument, I'm assuming that Satan's nature is very much opposed to God's).

Other claims of Lovell make no sense to me. For example, his discussion about God having implanted moral knowledge in us. Lovell says: "...we posit that God has made us able to recognise the moral features of certain acts and so made us able to make moral judgements." This is again essentially meaningless. We are not making judgements. We are simply noting that certain acts in some way align with God's nature. How that makes such acts moral is a mystery. And it completely evades the question about why God or his nature should have anything at all to do with determining morality.

For the sake of brevity, I'm not fleshing any of this out very thoroughly. If you want to, we'll have to do it point by point over several postings.

Anyway, I think the onus is on you to defend the notion that God-based morality is not arbitrary.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Thanks for following this into the archives. Unfortunately, now that this topic has been bumped off the main page, I suspect few will contribute to this discussion.

Just to recap a little bit, and to make sure were on the same page when we use terms like DCT and DNT, let me define those two terms and see if you agree with my definition:

Divine Nature Theory (DNT): God's nature is the source of, or the standard of morality.

Divine Command Theory (DCT):
God's commands are the source of morality. To be moral, one must follow these commands.

I'm not sure I follow the reasoning in making this distinction, assuming I got it right. Afterall, don't God's commands spring from and reflect his nature? And if his nature is in fact not moral, how can we be required to follow his commands?

I was going to end there, just to stay tightly focused. But since you are curious about how I'd respond to Lewis, I'll do that now.

Lewis: Do you say things are good because they are good, or are they good because you say they are? If the latter, then your moral standard seems to be subjective and arbitrary (and you can’t object if God’s turns out likewise). However, if you choose the former, then you have to explain where the moral standard comes from.

This is a problem for any moral theory. I don't mind eventually returning to our previous discussion about non-theistic morality, but I'd rather first see how theistic morality deals with it. I just don't see any connection between (1.) God's nature is X, and (2.) You must act in accordance to God's nature.

God's nature is X, and mine is Y. So what? Why is X good, and Y bad? Even without considering Y, why assume that X is good to start with? At least non-theistic moral theories are grounded in the real effects of actions -- effects we can sense and, at least to some degree, assess. I know you have problems with that, but at least for awhile, let's set that aside. I can't imagine anything more arbitrary and just plain out of the blue than saying: "here is God's nature, and it must be good."

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Good, we're getting some things clarified.

I think you would...object to DNT on different grounds, namely, that we have no basis for asserting that God is essentially good. Is this correct?

Yes, that is exactly correct.

DNT may make sense once you first accept that everything about God is good and indeed, all goodness comes from his nature. But, I don't for the life of me see how we can first conclude that God's nature is good. I mean, DNT would seem to deny any standard at all by which we can evaluate God's nature and conclude that it is indeed a good one. DNT simply define things from the start such that God's nature is good.

Is it that case that any deity who creates a universe is automatically good? Is that the assumption? I was assuming that this must be the case when I previously asked: if Satan had somehow managed to defeat God in some battle, then banished God to Hell, and then went on to create the universe, would we still have a DNT that declares that Satan's nature is automatically good?

Yes, I do think there is a standard of good to which I appeal. But we'll get to that in a bit.

For now, won't you agree with me that DNT starts from an assumption (regarding good and God's nature), then proceeds from there? Now, we've said before that assumptions are often necessary. But that isn't to say that they are all on equally solid ground. We can evaluate the assumptions we each make a little later as well, but am I not right that DNT simply begins with the assumption that God's nature must be good?

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Yes, I agree, we are looking at the moral implications if God exists, not yet whether he actually does.

I think I understand what Lovell and Moreland are saying here, though I don't yet see the significance.

I believe that Lovell is arguing that God has implanted in us knowledge of morality (of "goodnes") and that this goodness is God's nature. The knowledge we possess is akin to the "map," whereas God's nature is akin to the city that the map describes.

Even so, aren't they still just declaring that God's nature is good?

Suppose we do indeed have this implanted knowledge. If it is merely knowledge of God's nature, then that's what it is: we know something about what God's nature is. But that still does not answer the question: Is God's nature good?

If, instead, the implanted knowledge is goodness itself, so that we can then assess God's nature, then that seems strange. It implies that there is some standard of goodness we can use to assess God's nature, but that is contrary to DNT, which says, if I'm not mistaken, that God's nature and goodness are the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

I think it can be safely said that we agree on one thing: Somewhere, in any moral theory, an assumption must be made.

It is my contention, as I've mentioned but not discussed much previously, that not all assumptions are equal. They range from the absurd at one end of the continuum, to those at the other that are so reasonable that it would be hard to defend rejecting them.

A good assumption is one that has something supporting it that gives us reason to believe that it has a reasonable chance of being true. It doesn't just come from the blue.

It seems to me that the important assumption made in DNT is that goodness and God's nature are the same thing. As far as I can tell, really the only thing supporting that assumption is that it is a classic view of God that has been around for as long as people have discussed God.

There are a few implications of DNT that I find troubling.

First, I really see nothing very weighty supporting it's basic assumption about goodness and God's nature.

Second, if the assumption really is true, then there is nothing particularly reasonable about morality. You cannot consider a novel scenario and reason a moral course of action. All you can do is hope you can discern God's nature, and then apply it to the situation.

This, incidently, is where the arbitrary complaint comes into play. And the complaint is not that God can act in an arbitrary manner. No, he must act according to his nature, and in this way his actions are not completely arbitrary. What is arbitrary though, is God's nature itself. No matter what the content of God's nature is, we must accept it as good simply because DNT defines it as such.

DNT also stikes me as awfully detatched. Why is child torture immoral? Not because the child suffers. The pain and anguish of the child is irrelevant -- morally meaningless. Child torture only becomes meaningful if it happens that something about torturing children is contrary to God's nature. But, anything could be in God's nature. There is not way to make and argument that X must be part of God's nature while Y cannot be. He could have the nature of Satan, or of the God one traditionally here's about in church, or some complicated blend of the two, or anything else. There are no rules.

At this point, I was going to provide an alternative, non-theistic moral theory, and argue that it's basic assumptions are more reasonable than those of DNT. But, this post is getting too long. We'll get to that. But first, is there anything about what I've said regarding DNT that you either agree with or disagree with? Or, is there something you think I'm missing?

Anonymous said...

Pardon the abundance of typos in the above post, particularly in that second to the last paragraph. Here's about... is an especially silly mistake.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

I agree that we are discussing meta-ethical theories, but I don't see how that changes anything about the quality of assumptions. Assumptions of varying quality can be made in any sort of theory.

I thought I understood what DNT was saying about the relationship between God's nature and goodness, but now I'm confused. You said:

(...God's nature is perfectly good, or, put differently, God is good by nature; but that doesn't imply that goodness and God's nature are the same thing. Somewhat similar is the idea that I might be irritable by nature without that entailing that irritability and my nature are the same thing.) DNT holds that God's nature is the standard by which we derive our concept of goodness

So you are saying that God's nature and goodness are not the same thing, right?

I can see how God's nature could happen to be a good one, but, still, the implication now exists that this is something that could theoretically be evaluated by comparing his nature to whatever "goodness" truly is.

If this is so, then God's nature could be one source of knowledge of goodness (assuming God's nature is knowable), but clearly the possiblity is now open for one to know of goodness apart from knowing God's nature. So it is unclear why we must use God's nature as "the standard by which we derive our concept of goodness," unless you're going to argue that, even though goodness and God's nature are not the same, we can not, for some reason, know goodness by any route other than knowledge of God's nature. Also if this is so, we may be able to know what constitutes goodness, but not why goodness is indeed good. say that there looks to be nothing backing the claim that God's nature is good. Honestly, I'm not exactly sure what you mean here. The theistic God is perfectly good. If your objection is that God doesn't exist...DNT is saying if God exists, then DNT is a plausible ontological account of goodness. Whether God exists or not is a separate issue though.

This is an essential part of my criticism of DNT, and it's why I raised the point that the quality of assumptions varies from really bad to really good. I'm not saying anything about whether God exists. When you say "the theistic God is perfectly good," that's an assumption you're making. Surely you agree with that. The important question then becomes "how good an assumption is it?" I can't see that it is a good assumption.

Any notion of morality...which one has is, on DNT, derived from God's nature. It is thus futile to turn around and critique the very nature of goodness from which one's concept of goodness, on DNT, is derived.

Given that goodness and God's nature are not the same, I'll assume that DNT posits that, for whatever reason, we can only learn of goodness through knowing God's nature -- that knowing goodness directly is, for some reason, impossible. What you've said here is true, but only after you make the assumptions that (1) God's nature is good, and (2) that we can know of goodness only through his nature. It is perfectly valid to try to evaluate the quality of those assumptions.

If you would express what you believe the ultimate standard of goodness to be—that is, give what you think to be a plausible ontological account of goodness—then I would show you that the exact same issues you are raising can be asked of your own theory, as well as every other theory imaginable. As said before, that's probably an indication that they are not valid objections.

I would say that you can question my assumptions, and those of any theory, but I do not agree that the objections will carry the same weight against my theory because I believe my assumptions will prove to be better than those of DNT.

We'll get to my theory in due time, but first we need to clear up some issues with DNT (I'm assuming that's the theory that you accept). I guess the biggest thing I'm now confused about regarding DNT (or your presentation of it) is whether God's nature is goodness itself or whether they are seperate (I thought we had been saying they were the same, but your last post seems to say otherwise.) And of course, I'd like to see some defense of the assumptions I've been questioning here -- for example, that we can trust that God's nature is good.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Unfortunately, I don't really have time to respond right now. My schedule is back to being pretty busy. It may be a day or two. Sorry for the lull.


Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Man, sorry about how long it took me to get back to this. I'll try not to go that long again, but there really wasn't much I could do about it this time.


It still seems to me that there is still a lot of ambiguity surrounding God, his nature, and goodness.

DNT posits that some essentially good being is the ultimate standard of goodness and from the nature of this essentially good being our concept of goodness is derived.

Okay, I understand what you're saying here, but it still doesn't make sense to me. (And, I want to make clear that I'm not merely trying to be argumentative. Indeed, I'm starting with the assumption that both of us would like to find the truth, not merely score some debating points. So when I say that something about this doesn't make sense to me, I'm being sincere.)

If I understand what you are saying, there is no way to know anything of goodness apart from knowing God's (the essentially good being) nature. Now, we have some innate feeling of good, but that, whether we know it or not, still derives from God's nature.

Given that, I see no way to even so much as say "DNT posits that some essentially good being..."

If we can't define what good is except via the nature of this being, then how can we say this being is "essentially good?" It's completely circular.

Satan could be just as essentially good. By what grounds could you claim otherwise? DNT simply defines him as not good, but then what does that really mean?

You may say that the same circularity problem occurs under any moral system, and is therefore probably not significant. I disagree.

Though I'd love to probe the implications of DNT further, I guess this is as good a time as any to interject my non-theistic theory so that a direct comparison can be made between it and DNT, which I take to be your accepted theory. In my view, the comparison will eventually boil down to: Which makes the more defensible assumptions?

As you know from our discussion in a previous thread, I believe morality is ultimately about harms. In a nutshell, Good = minimizing harms, while Bad = increasing harms. Of course, intent is an element.

Now, you may say "well there it is, your assumption, which is really no different (in terms of it's circularity) than assuming that morality springs from the nature of an 'essentially good' being."

I would counter, however, that there is a big difference in the quality of our assumptions.

Surely you would agree with me that all sentient, feeling beings can be harmed (for simplicity's sake, let's stick to humans). Now, specifically what counts as "harm" for one may differ profoundly from what another considers to be "harm". I have heard there are people, for example, that enjoy pain. Such people may not consider certain forms or degrees of pain harmful, while most others would consider the same pain harmful. But, just the same, I think you would agree if I said that something could be done to any person that would be considered "harm" to that person.

All people can be harmed. Right?

I think it's also safe to say that all people avoid what they consider to be harmful to them. True, some may not mind enduring minor harms to fulfill some desire, or to avoid still greater harms, but on balance, considering everything, if a particular course of action will ultimately result in greater harms than benefits, a person will avoid that activity.

Harms are avoided. And, they are avoided because they make a persons life worse than if they did not experience the harm.

Again, I think these are safe statements.

So a moral system that seeks to reduce harms also has the very practical benefit of improving the lives of people.

What counts as harm? Well, that's certainly something that can be debated. I think Alonzo's emphasis on desires is a pretty good way of considering what harm truly is.

Note that the assumptions I'm making are backed up by observation. One can see that, say, dousing a child in gasoline and setting a match to them causes harm, and lowers the quality of their life.

You asked once in that earlier thread why a child torturer should care about harms. Well, I think that is a far easier question to answer than this one asked of DNT: why should anyone care about the nature of some "essentially good" being? What is the connection between that being's nature and the lives we humans live? Why should that being's nature take precedence over the nuts 'n bolts, life-altering effects our actions have on one another?

I fear this posting may throw things so wide open that it may be hard to proceed. It is hard to carry on a dialogue that has multiple themes running through it, but I suppose some degree of that is inevitable. Please feel free to pick out any particular part of our exchanges to date to respond to, and to be as focused and narrow as you'd like.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

This still confuses me about DNT: How is the "essentially good being" (EGB) defined as good? It seems to me that DNT declares "there is an essentially good being" then goes on to define "good" according to the EGB's nature. That seems completely circular.

Satan by definition is evil.

It would seem that you can say this only after some other being is first defined to be the EGB. Then Satan's nature is compared to that of the EGB and found to conflict with it. But, I see no reason whatsoever why one could not first start by declaring Satan to be the EGB. If you say, "that's impossible. Satan is not good." then it sure seems like you have some seperate standard for good. How is the EGB determined?

It seems that if you're going to say "God (or the EGB) is good by definition and Satan is evil by definition" then these definitions are the real moral standards.

I can't escape the conclusion that DNT is either completely circular or actually has some standard of good apart from the nature of the EGD that it then tries to deny.

Firstly, when you say "harm" are you speaking of physical harm? If not, if you're speaking of harm in an abstract sense, then your definition seems to be completely tautological.

No, not all harms are physical. Harm is thwarting desires. This, I think, is pretty much the view that Alonzo espouses. I don't see the tautalogy.

But what if the just thing to do in a certain case is to lock someone up, which might, in their opinion, "harm" them? Is it then wrong to be just?

Locking someone up does inflict harm. But good does not always mean zero harm. It means minimizing harm, but often the minimum harm possible in a situation is well above no harm at all.

Our concern here is meta-ethical. You, though, unless I have misunderstood you, have not given a meta-ethical account of goodness...You have not argued that there exists the concept of goodness (that is, goodness in itself) because it is ontologically rooted in the existence of such and such.

I think I have rooted good in something -- minimizing harm (minimizing the thwarting of desires).

Yes, I've talked of both meta-ethics and normative ethics. But they must be linked.

If there weren't behaviors, there would be no morality. I don't know how to define "good" without ultimately discussing behavior (or potential behavior)-- specifically behavior that can affect another being. Alonzo analyzes the moral quality of desires specifically, but I believe that's only because desires give rise to behavior that affects others. If there existed only one being in the whole universe, I think it would make no sense to speak of that being being either good or evil.

So, I'd say my idea of "good" and "evil" derives from the simple fact that one's behavior has effects on others. Their lives can be made worse or better by our actions (behaviors).

Of course, that is not fully fleshed out. That's a quick explanation. I'm sure we'll get into the details as we discuss things, as we are doing with DNT. Though, there is a lot more I'd like to discuss about DNT, such as why should we care about the EGB's nature?

Anonymous said...

I too like the way our discussion is going. I've long been fascinated by the fact that well meaning, intelligent people can come to such different opinions about the great questions in life.

I think it was very wise of you to re-narrow our discussion to DNT for the time being. It is indeed still unresolved.

I'll try to stay narrow too.

I think the first thing that troubles me about DNT is the issue of circularity, and I want to focus narrowly on that.

Thayne, you ask, "How is the 'essentially good being' (EGB) defined as good?" But that seems to be an odd question. It's defined as good in the same way that a bachelor is defined as being unmarried. I don't see the problem here.

But according to DNT, isn't it necessary to refer to the nature of an EGB to even define what "good" is? If so, then starting from the premise of an EGB is inherently circular. There's no circularity in defining "bachelor." A bachelor is a man who is not married.

As far as I can tell, DNT does not really address what goodness is because it starts with a being already assumed to be good. There's no explaination of what good really is, except: "good is the nature of a good being."

Good, when applied to the EGB, isn't evaluative; it's descriptive—hence the description "essentially good being."

Yes, but to be useful, descriptive terms must have some agreed upon meaning. What does "good" mean when we say "there is an essentially good being"? This assertion means nothing until "good" is defined, yet "good" effectively means "the nature of the essentially good being." It's circular, unless "good" has meaning apart from some reference to the EGB.

Again I'm in the position of apologizing for my delay in writing. We took an unexpected trip out of town, then just various small things kept interrupting my writing a response.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Okay, I will now focus on the Sheekago analogy.

The island you describe is a very odd one ideed. Not only for the obvious reason that everyone there has this inborn impression of a city they don't recall visiting, but for this:

Additionally, they have good reasons (whatever they might be) for believing that their fabled "Sheekago" is an actual place and, consequently, that their sketches can be more or less accurate in comparison to one another.

The proposition that Sheekago actually exists and that everyone on the island agrees with with it is quite peculiar, and I must say, quite a convienient thing to toss into the scenario when it comes time to make the camparison of this island and Sheekago with real people and goodness (morality).

The existence for reasons to believe Sheekago is a real place is not something to be skipped over lightly. We cannot assume that these reasons, "whatever they might be," are things we can simply accept without discussion then proceed from there.

Islanders can agree that they all have similar impressions of Sheekago, but there is no reason for them to agree that Sheekago exists. I'm sure if the island you describe really existed, all sorts of views about why its residents have this impression would crop up: God wants us to build a city like this; some mad scientist is beaming this to us via ESP, etc. If I were an islander, I might find some other explanation more plausible than the idea that we are all remembering a real place.

But, no matter how you slice it, all the explanations are rather odd. None of them make a whole lot of sense. And Sheekago, even if a real place, is more or less irrelevant to their day to day lives. However, this is not at all analogous to the real world situation regarding a moral sense. The fact that most humans share many common feelings and ideas regarding morality is not at all weird, nor is morality some abstract curiosity like common impressions of a city no one has been to. Morality matters to daily life, and it directly affects the lives of everyone.

Not only is the presence of common moral "instincts" not weird, it is to be expected -- so much so that the opposite situation, where there were no common moral instincts, would be quite weird and unexpected. Murder, afterall, is just not conducive to a well functioning society. That we have evolved an inborn repulsion to it is completely understandable. This is entirely unlike the inborn impression of Sheekago that afflicts the islanders in your analogy. There is nothing clearly reasonable about that, and they are left with little option but to make up guesses about why it exists.

And the irrelevance of Sheekago to real life would cause me, as an islander, to ask:
So what? Why should we care if Sheekago is a real place, or how its' streets are layed out, or what they are named, or where various parks are, etc? Our island is not Sheekago. We should design and name our streets, parks, etc. according to our needs here.

I ask a similar question about the EGB now: so what? Who cares what his nature is? We should live our lives according to what makes sense for we humans here. The rules of behavior we make should be based upon the effects those rules would have on people and society.

Now you may say, "well that doesn't matter. The fact that the EGB exists and has implanted our sense of morality in us gives morality an ontological basis." Well, even if that were true, I don't see the value in it.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

One other thing that I've been meaning to say. Even if our common sense of morality implies some being that, in some way, gives us this sense, that merely provides an ontological basis for the feelings -- not morality itself.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Yes, I have been bringing in other elements to the discussion.

But I will first deal directly with DNT.

So, let's start with the basics. Let's grant that there is an EGB who has given all of us a sense of good.

As I said in the second short post yesterday, that does not, as you've claimed, provide morality with an ontological basis. It only provides our feelings with such a basis - they come from the EGB.

So, regarding Chicago/Sheekago, the islanders have memories of Chicago because Chicago actually exists, and the islanders have experienced Chicago (they just don't remember having lived there). But, in DNT, our feelings of morality do not arise from morality itself. They are there because a being put them there. That's all. They exist because the EGB exists, not because morality exists (I'm not saying here that morality does not exist, only that DNT doesn't make the case that it does).

Now, I'm saying this because, if I remember correctly, you said before that the EGB put these feelings in us. Perhaps, though, the EGB exists, and we can actually sense him, which produces these feelings we have. The sun exists, and we sense it because we have light and heat sensitive receptors and a brain to process the input from those receptors. Perhaps our feelings of morlity are our response to our sensing of the EGB, similar to the idea that the image we see of the sun is the result of our brain's processing of input from photo receptors. Is that what you believe?

Parenthetically, I've thought a little about some of the confusion in our discussion. I think some of it may arise from our different points of view. I'm sometimes thinking from a point of view that DNT is a theory whose very existence must be justified. In other words, what observations about reality combined with what reasonable assumptions would lead one to formulate DNT? Are those observations good, are those assumptions good, and are there better theories to explain them? You, I believe, are operating from "okay, here's DNT. If it is true, then X, Y, Z."

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

First, yes, DNT is a possible explanation about why we have moral instincts.

But is it a good one? I contend that it is not. A sense of morality is utterly expected for social animals such as ourselves.

Wolves, lions, birds, etc. all seem to have what we could call moral codes -- rules of behavior-- that are shared amongst members of the group.

Shared rules of behavior lead to societal stability and cohesiveness. And assuming a functioning society is important to the survival of social species, it's easy to see why such rules (innate or not) exist. I don't see any reason to be suprised or puzzles by such rules. That some of them are innate is also not suprising. As a species evolve toward increaing reliance on the group for survival, those behaviors that are mostly compatable with the success of the group tend to be selected for and those that are incompatible are not.

A moral sense makes sense for practical reasons, and so, does not require us to (or for that matter, even suggest that we should) posit the existence of some invisible being that rules over all of nature and that gave us a moral sense.

Further, how do you distinguish between a moral sense obtained through socialization and a moral sense that is innate (and presumably put there by God)? Surely not because they are universal, because, as I said, many moral rules are practical for all societies, and are therefore universal.

[DNT] posits that he [God] instilled within us a sense of goodness—of right versus wrong—which derives from his perfect nature.

This is a problem I have with DNT. It uses the term "good" to describe God's nature, but refuses to define what "good" really is.

Can we agree that moral goodness has somthing to do with the way that two or more beings interact?

If I were utterly and completely alone in all of existence, it makes no sense to speak of me being moral.

The same is true of God. If God were the one and only thing that existed, saying that his nature is good is not really saying anything at all. That God is not actually alone doesn't seem to matter because DNT seems to insist that "good" only refers to God's nature itself, not anything to do with the way that God relates to others. So, DNT's begining assertion, that God is good, seems meaningless to me.

Further, the innate morals that are the most universal have to do with how people treat one another. Murder is bad. Theft is bad. Torture is bad. Assisting the afflicted is good, etc. If good is found in God's nature, how does that relate to the way people interact with one another?

For example, you seem to reject that notion that a deed is bad because of the way it affects others. So when we say "torture is bad" it is not bad because someone is harmed. It is bad because "torture is bad" is somehow a description of some part of God's nature. Right? God does not reject torture because of the harm it inflicts. It just is his nature to reject it. But what can that possibly mean?

If the effects of our behavior do not matter, then how can our behavior matter at all?

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

No problem at all with ending this discussion now. I know it is time and energy consuming. I think it went really well.

I'm sure we'll encounter each other again.

I hope school goes well.