Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wes Morriston's Dilemma against God as the Objective Source of Morality

It has been brought to my attention that Wes Morriston (and others) have objected to the moral argument (or, at least, God’s being the ground for objective moral values) by means of the following argument: if God’s nature is goodness, then the properties that make up his nature are good. If this collection of properties is good, we can then ask: is God good because he has these properties, or are the properties good because he has them? If God is good because he has these properties, then there is some standard of goodness outside of God. If the properties are good because God has them, then it seems objective morality loses its objective meaning. What is the answer here?

First, and most importantly, I think Morriston’s dilemma just assumes that God’s nature is not identical to the good. The dilemma implicitly asks about the explanation for God’s nature; the only explanation of God’s nature is that it is necessary.[1] To those who are unfamiliar with modalities, this may seem like a very unsatisfactory answer. However, that’s what being necessary sometimes entails (consider the man who insists there must be some other answer for why 2+2=4 other than that it’s a necessary truth: he would be misguided). But let us return to the issue at hand. If God is identical with the good, then to ask this question just assumes the falsehood of the theist’s claim. God is not some abstract collection of properties, but rather a concrete entity whose very being is good. It is its own standard, for it is necessary.

Second, I’m not even convinced this is a true dilemma. The way I would refute the dilemma in the first note above would be to insist that it is predicated on a false premise (kind of like asking “either you’ve told your parents you’re gay or you haven’t”; it appears as a solid dilemma, but it assumes things that may not be true). However, it is not yet clear to me that there is no third option. Why can we not say, for instance, that another option is, “God has these properties because he is good”? In order to know whether or not this is a good response, we ought to list all three options, and see if they differ from one another.

1.     God is good because he has these properties.
2.     These properties are good because God has them.
3.     God has these properties because he is good.

Since (1-2) are Morriston’s (as far as I know), in the interests of charity, we ought to infuse them with the same meanings he did. That means (1) means that we find God is good because his properties conform to some independent standard of objective morality. This also means (2) entails that the properties of God’s nature are good because he wills them to be so (or infuses these moral properties with objective meaning that they lacked, which destroys objective morality). But it’s not clear (3) means or entails either of those things. (3) just means that these properties (like being loving, being just, etc.) are entailments of what it means to be goodness itself.

Now one may try to complain that (3) entails an inability to understand what it means to be good. I’d like to point out that’s not a complaint that has anything to do with the dilemma, or even moral ontology. Moreover, this type of objection won’t work even against moral epistemology. This is because one cannot search for explanatory grounds beyond the foundation or ultimate explanation of some thing. It will lead to a circular definition in literally every case. This is true even of “completely secular”[2] truths and things. Try the laws of logic, the problem of induction, the nature of free will, literally anything. Once you have reached its ultimate explanation, by definition there are no further explanations. So, what happens when one queries as to the explanation of the ultimate explanation for a thing? One can only get the response that the explanation is ultimate, so that there is no explanation for the ultimate explanation’s explaining what it does explain! To complain that it is circular and therefore unjustified is silly.

I know what you’re thinking. So, your defense is that it is circular? Not quite. My defense is that God is the ultimate explanation of morality, and that the so-called dilemma assumes that he is not. Now we must keep track of the dialectic. The one who posits the dilemma is using an internal critique against Christianity (I cannot stress this enough). This means someone like Morriston is saying, “All right. Let’s assume God’s nature is identical to the good. Here is what follows . . . .” I then provide the answers I have provided above, including that there is nothing untoward about ultimate explanations “acting” this way. Notice the response that, “Well you need to give us some non-circular reason to believe that God is identical to the good,” is completely an external critique, and thus irrelevant to our present discussion. To be sure, we will want to show the skeptic why we think God is the foundation of objective moral values, but that is a separate discussion. It is one in which I will not engage until the skeptic involved in this type of a conversation acknowledges the point that these dilemmas have no force as an internal argument.

What if they say that this response of moral definition is an external critique? Then I would respond that it therefore has nothing to do with the dilemma above, and therefore, it can be safely ignored until such time as the skeptic grants that the dilemma is false. But once we reached that point, the burden is then on the skeptic to show that, as a matter of fact, God is not the objective standard of morality (and we’ve already seen the complaint of circularity against ultimate explanations isn’t very helpful or powerful).

But back to the main issue. Is there anything that can be done to salvage Morriston’s dilemma? It seems there may be. Maybe one could insist that (2) intends that God’s nature entails these specific properties, and so (3) is just another way of stating (2), and the dilemma is not false after all. But notice what happens then: it becomes quite unclear that the consequence that supposedly follows from (2) really follows at all! After all, if God’s nature is good and so entails these properties (like being loving), it is difficult to see how these objective moral values are no longer objective. So there it is. This dilemma can be safely retired.

[1] This is why I say this objection cannot be pressed without implicitly endorsing some modified version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: it assumes there is some explanation for God’s nature being the way it is. The explanation finds itself in the necessity of God’s own nature.

[2] If God exists, there are no such entities as “purely secular” things or concepts. So I’m just using common terminology.

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