An interesting conversation was taking place here in the comment section regarding the origin and objectivity of morality. Given the length of that conversation, I decided to move it over to here and bring it out of the response/comment section as far as my own thoughts. One would need to go through and read the original blog post and then read through the comment section to obtain the context for this current post. Something my conversation partner (Steve) keeps bringing up is an idea called the “Divine Command Theory.”
With that in mind, I will keep Steve’s quotes in italics as I address them below:
I think there is a misunderstanding about my use of the idea of “power” earlier. I did not mean that God would appear powerful, but rather that He is the ultimate authority on what is good.
Before I address this point further, I just want to point out what, I think, should be an obvious problem. Steve is assuming something called “good.” He is assuming that this God knows something about some quality, action, motive, or essence that Steve knows somehow is “good.” Steve is presuming something that he is able to judge, from some position, regarding whether or not God has this knowledge. How is that possible? Where did he get this knowledge? If the universe is a purposeless, purely material, random gathering of matter in motion, then there is no true “good” or “evil” we simply name certain actions or events as such, but why? Why would we care? How would we know? In other words, Steve must assume that which he is trying to show can be substantiated by other means other than God’s existence, but his worldview (if he is a philosophical naturalist/atheist) provides for nothing other than the notion that the most powerful can “name” certain actions or motivations. Those same powers could name the torture of children “good” and so the entire idea of ethics/morality becomes meaningless. As noted below, he can see this when it comes to a powerful “god” of some sort, but I wonder if he cares if majorities or states do the same thing; and, if he does, on what basis is he able to say why they are “wrong” as opposed to “right”?
And if this is true, then anything God says would be good. Whether it’s commanding acts of genocide, torture or lovingkindness – it is good. God could also tell us one thing one moment and the exact opposite the next – he could change what is good on the spot. This is a “ground” of a sort I suppose. But would you actually do it if God commanded you to commit an atrocity? And once again, the word “good” has little meaning here, as it can change at any time on God’s whim.
The problem here is that I believe Steve is projecting out his own erroneous view of the Christian God. He imagines that an all-powerful being would simply act like a human would act who was suddenly given all-cosmic power like in a comic book or something. The Divine Command Theory might make sense if we were simply talking in abstractions about some all-powerful god or force out “there” somewhere, who acted suspiciously like modern dictators, and we had absolutely nothing else to inform us. But the Christian God cannot be an abstraction but is entirely tied into the historical reality of Jesus Christ, the people and history of Israel, and the historical reality of the people called the Church and their sacred writings, the Bible.
We know from those sources that God is not arbitrary, does not change in essence or in any fundamental way, and that his goodness and love are not based in an arbitrary will but are inseparable from God’s being and action in history. We know God through the actions of Jesus Christ, so saying that “God is good” is not meaningless. The Bible doesn’t say that God loves, but that “God is love.” But such only becomes knowable in the person of Christ and the events of the New Testament like the crucifixion. While that God is love and that God is good are eternal and internal features of God’s being, they are made manifest in creation by God’s action in history and are therefore external and knowable.
Steve responds below to my statement: “These categories called “good” and “evil” can’t exist in such a world and are simply arbitrary terms used by the powerful to name whatever they want.”
This is a very good description of what I am talking about. Simply replace “powerful” in your statement with “God”. Therefore the theist has no advantage in the debate. Your view of God matches perfectly with the view of the “majority” that you are arguing against.
But we cannot replace the term “powerful” with “God” because the Christian God doesn’t imitate the power of the majority to simply project their will or of any other “powerful” force, nation, or person we are aware of historically or otherwise. The God made manifest in Jesus Christ was killed by the majority, and by the most powerful forces of that day. That is why the Christian narrative subverts and up-ends all other narratives of power. Jesus humbled himself and gave himself over to the projection of the power you are talking about so they are not the same thing at all.
Strangely, Steve does seem to agree that morality is simply about power—he states that such is a good “description” of what he is talking about. I think his statement proves my point and one might ask at this point: Why the fuss then? Further, on the one hand Steve thinks that morality is about power and arbitrary, but, on the other, that he is somehow able to judge if this God is “good” or if this God could say such and such is “evil” one day, but “good” the next. From what position or place (philosophically) is Steve able to look down from and judge such matters? In other words, from where is one able to even bring such a critique when one’s very belief is that there are really no such categories to begin with?
(I do think your view of the “majority” is a straw man of the actual position Burk and I are attempting to describe, that’s beside the point for now – I just want to show that the traditional theist has zero advantage over alternate world-views when it comes to morality)
How is it a straw-man? And I think the advantage clear. In the Christian God, revealed in Jesus Christ and the actions 0f history, we have an objective basis for morality and ethics. The philosophical naturalist/atheist does not, and admits as much. In such a world, morality and ethics are entirely arbitrary and based purely in power. How is that an advantage? If such is an advantage, it is exactly the advantage that bullies and dictators (including such in the form of majorities) have been using throughout history.
Anyway, I enjoyed this conversation with Steve, who is clearly very bright and has spent a lot of time thinking about these things. Further, I have read and researched little regarding the “Divine Command Theory” and claim no expertise on that topic whatsoever–perhaps I’ve missed it completely. Finally, it is entirely possible I have not understood Steve correctly and have missed a more subtle point he is making. If I have, I ask his forgiveness in advance and certainly hope he corrects me.
- Many of the same points are made here.