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Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Grounding of Ethics

The following excerpts were taken from an interesting conversation on IRC between myself and an atheist who is very inquisitive about whether Christian theism is able to address perceived philosophical dilemmas. We pick up the conversation as it is shifting into higher gear:
"If God's eternal rightness always said that rape was 'good' then rape would have always been 'good.' Right? I think you have to put these examples in there, and I don't see how you can get around that with your argument."
Your argument is correct. However, you are using an example that has always been wrong, which only frustrates the issue and creates unnecessary problems in understanding. When the theist concedes this point of yours, you can smile to yourself and note, "Look, something that has always been bad, and has never been good, could be good." This is why it's a delicious example, makes the theist uncomfortable, and is generally a very poor example to use. To avoid a potential strawman, your examples would have to be something like charity or mercy. That is, if 'good' is grounded in God's eternal nature, then any example would have to be something that has always been good; to use an example of something that has always been bad in a hypothesis to argue what "could have been otherwise" would be to suggest that God's nature could have been otherwise, yet his nature is eternal.
"I think we're looking for the reason rape is wrong, Ryft. Is it wrong because God said so, or is it wrong by some other set of standards?"
The reason why "rape" is wrong is because it is contrary to the righteous holiness of God's eternal character and nature and, by extension, is want of conformity to his law and will. As Vincent Cheung put it, "To the degree that a person thinks and acts in accordance with God's nature and commands, he is moral ... since God has defined goodness for us by revealing his nature and commands, evil is thus defined as anything that is contrary to his nature and commands." (11). No thing is evil in itself, save for the consequence of its relationship with God's nature and commands. It's not wrong because God "decided" it would be wrong, as though he could have decided otherwise. The rightness and wrongness of a thing is as eternal as God is; ergo, it is impossible that a wrong thing "could have been otherwise." To put it as succinctly as I can, "God neither determined rightness nor follows rightness -- God is rightness."
"I can, however, still say that if God's eternal rightness said that rape was good, then rape would be good."
If "God's eternal rightness said that rape was good," rape would have always been good and will always be good. This is why it would be no different, yet certainly more proper, to use a more concordant example -- "If God's eternal rightness said that charity was good, then charity would be good" and would have always been good and will always be good. In fact, that is why I keep insisting that you use agreeably good things, like charity, because the rightness of the thing would be as eternal as God is and therefore could never have been otherwise. To hypothesize as possible that a 'wrong' thing could have been 'good' (like your 'rape' example) is to ignore the distinction being made and the nature of the word "eternal."
"Well, if it's just the 'eternal nature of God' that is the determining factor, how is that not arbitrary? If God were any other way, then 'good' would be different. Ryft, it has to be arbitrary."
In a somewhat similar (but potentially weak) analogy, it's the same as someone suggesting that your inability to sexually molest a small child is "arbitrary." It is completely against your very nature, isn't it? It's not an "arbitrary" inability that could be otherwise. It is simply against your nature, and has always been. This is why the very suggestion of God being "any other way" ignores the very nature of the word "eternal."
"Ryft, I do have to say that, if I don't molest children, it is indeed because I don't want to, that it's not in my nature. But I think that still has to be arbitrary because, were my nature different, it could be such that I thought it was a good thing. I'm not making the decision 'to molest' or 'not molest' on logical grounds, but arbitrarily, according to my nature. Does that make any sense?"
That's why it was an 'analogy', and not 'the same thing'. And as with all analogies, it was potentially weak -- all analogies will break down if you push them far enough.
"But doesn't the point still stand, then? The nature of God's morality would be different if God were different -- hence, this isn't a decision based on logic, but on the nature of God."
That is why the analogy was weak -- precisely because your nature could have been different. But God's cannot have.
"Why couldn't God's nature have been different?"
I think my answer to another one of your questions might also answer this one. You had said, "I don't see how it's 'more proper' to use the positive example than the negative one, though." Let me try restating my position in the hopes that it will present itself as an answer to this.

If 'good' is grounded in God's eternal nature, then any example would have to be something that has always been good. You see, to use an example of something that has always been bad within an hypothesis which contemplates it "could have been otherwise" would be to suggest that God's nature itself could have been otherwise, yet his nature is transcendent and eternal. The rightness of a thing is as eternal as God is; no wrong thing "could have been otherwise" any more than God could. To hypothesize as possible that a 'wrong' thing could have been 'good' (like your 'rape' example) is to ignore the distinction being made and the nature of the word "eternal." Also, as I said previously, "God neither determined rightness nor follows rightness -- God is rightness"; moreover, if 'good' is grounded in God's eternal nature, then it would be inaccurate to say that "God does what is right"; rather, God does what he is.
"I think I see. Because God has ALWAYS existed, there is no possibility his nature 'could have been different'."
Almost. It's not so much that God has always existed. More to the point, it's that his nature is transcendent and eternal.
"Doesn't 'eternal' mean 'has existed forever'?"
We are contingent existents that experience temporal succession, whereas God transcends space and time. Concepts and terms which regard spatiality or temporality (evolution, change, contingency) are inapplicable to a being which exists independent of the spatio-temporal created order. It is possible to conceive of a being that "has existed forever" experiencing temporal succession, hence the need to make this distinction here. God's nature is not X at t1 and could be Y at t2. God's nature is X at tn.
"Okay, I think I understand. There is no T2, right? No possible T2; a T2 is impossible."
I don't even think t1 is accurate. That's why I chose tn.

Cheung, Vincent. The Problem of Evil. Boston: Reformation Ministries International, 2004.