Friday, May 19, 2006

Objectively Good, But Bad In Every Other Way.

My latest discussion at Thinking Christian is about morality. It's a difficult subject to debate because it's initially easy for the objectivists to falsely paint moral relativism as the absence of moral imperative, or as acid against all moral authority. Fortunately, I think that the more deeply one analyzes the subject, the closer our views all appear.

My objectivist colleagues find that emotional and material needs to be good reasons for them to follow their vision of objective morality. However, the case where one's emotional and material needs are in synch with objective morality is the trivial scenario.

In the most recent discussion, I asked whether one ought to follow an objective morality even when one's emotional and material objectives say otherwise. This seems like a straightforward, yes or no question.

Suppose the objectivist answers no. In this case, emotional and material objectives determine the good, and our general moral principle is to maximize emotional and material metrics. I like this advice, but it means that the difference between my morality and that of the objectivist is only in the perceived playing field (the consequences of actions). Specifically, I believe in the natural playing field, and they believe in a playing field that features the coercions and rewards of God. For them, God would define the good, not because he is just plain good, but because he sets the emotional and material penalties and rewards. Moral discussion would be over at this point because we would just move on to questions about the playing field (e.g., does God exist, what does he want, how does he punish, etc.) and about which parts of the field we prefer.

When the objectivist answers my question affirmatively, we have the case where objective morality carries an imperative independent of emotional and material needs. In that case, for example, the objectivists should disobey a god who was objectively evil, even if he's going to smite them for their disobedience. The relevant question is then how one objectively determines what the good actually is, given that it might be different from both what God commands and what you feel it should be.


Franklin Mason said...

Expect the theist to say that it's impossible for God to command that which is not morally obligatory. For of course they wish to identify God and the good. This, for me, is one of the primary hurdles to my conversion, for I do not see how the good can be a person. The good is abstract and universal. Persons are concrete and particular.

Doctor Logic said...

Agreed. I don't see why a God cannot be evil.

Holopupenko said...

     Per your site's pictures, you have a beautiful family. Are not these persons concretely, particularly "good" in and of themselves? (I don't mean in the sense of "morally good" per human actions, but from the Aristotelian sense of "good" as related to the transcendentals of truth, beauty, unity, etc.) They certainly seem that way to me, and so must be much more so to you.

Franklin Mason said...

My children are characterized by the quality of goodness. But they are not identical to that quality.

It is characteristic of Western theism to say that God is not merely characterized by goodness but that He is identical to goodness. He is goodness.

God and my children are good in entirely distinct senses. My children are (characterized by) goodness. God is (identical to) goodness. Or so say most theists in the West.

Holopupenko said...

Hi Franklin:
     Regarding your first paragraph: it’s not that your children simply have the quality of goodness (of which there is no doubt in my mind), but the very fact that they exist is good. Given your background, you know this is a Thomistic approach: the degree of existence reflects the degree of goodness, and the topic of transcendentals is unavoidable. In other words, it’s one thing to say you children are “taller” than most, it’s another thing altogether to say your children are “good.” (Not directed at you, but a general comment is in order: what a narrow way of looking at children or apples or flowers, etc., etc. as “collections” of qualities. Ugh!)
     Regarding your second paragraph: while I generally agree with you, the term “Western theism” is too broad of a characterization. Many Western theists may make such a claim, but it’s usually an a priori intention or desire that sounds great… but is less than filling (intellectually). (To be fair, you do qualify your statement at the end.) What Thomists look for, on the other hand, is philosophical rigor.
     In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I baited you a bit in my last comment… and you took it right to the threshold of Thomas’s Fourth Way—which gets it right. The good you see in your children, the good that they are, the good you see around you point to something. Thomas put in into the form of an argument that leads to an ontologically inescapable conclusion. Thomas’s argument centers on the evident fact of formal causality in its full ontological meaning, that is the analogy of being, and this implicitly includes the essences and accidents of all things. (I address this broadly in my post today.) At the risk of seeming pedantic and deferring to your background, his argument is summarized as:
     (1) There is a gradation to be found in things: some are better or worse than others. (This is undeniable unless one jettisons all such qualifications as “meaningless”—which is an intellectual copout.) Things are more or less intelligible (true), beautiful, unified (one), good, and the like. These transcendentals are shared by all things to varying degrees in their modes of existence.
     (2) Predications of degree require reference to the “uttermost” case, e.g., a thing is said to be “more good” according as it more nearly resembles that which is Good. A being either has its goodness from itself or from another. But things that are lacking in some good, things that only share in goodness, things that are not perfect goodness itself do not contain their reason for goodness in themselves.
     (3) The maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus. For a thing to contain the reason for its goodness, it must be goodness itself, that is, essentially all good; its essence must be goodness. Any lack implies a reference to another, a comparison to something outside of itself, which is nothing but a reason (a cause) in another. Hence, it must have the reason (cause) for its goodness in another.
     (4) Therefore, there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection.
     A possible objection: cannot I also say that God must be supremely white, hard, tall, and heavy? No. The Fourth Way only works for the transcendentals, not for these latter types of qualities or any other generic beings, although for them a related line of argument reveals something about them as well. The transcendentals—the modes of being—are truly unique, whereas “tallness” is an accident of being. Tallness, whiteness, hardness, and any other such “qualities” belong to a given genus rather than being a mode of beingness, and can only exist in certain substances. In contrast, the transcendentals do not properly belong exclusively to the essence of any given thing or group of things, but to all things that we know: they encompass all “being”; they transcend all categories and genera. Can one say that it is of the nature of this thing to be intelligible and of that thing to not be? No. Can we can this thing is “tall” while this other thing is “short.” Yes.
     So, if the argument is followed logically to its ontological conclusion, one indeed arrives at Goodness as the Supreme Being… with the further implication that the rest of creation participates in this goodness to one degree or another. Your kids are good not simply as an accident of real being, but because they participate in Existence, Goodness, Truth, Unity, etc.
     Thomistic? Yes. Apologies? No.