Sunday, November 7, 2010

The lack of evil, the abundance of absence... (3.0)

Seeing as his rebuttal to Professor Law's "evil-god argument" had led to a discussion of God's moral goodness and the goodness of natural finality, Dr Feser wrote a post on the topic: "God, obligation, and the Euthyphro dilemma".

The reader who had spearheaded the question of God's obligations to us--I shall call him the Obligator--commended Feser on such a well argued essay and decided their disagreements on the issue were merely semantic. "As I define 'obligation,'" he writes,

A has an obligation to B if and only if:
(a) there is some good that A should give to B (as something due to B), or there is some evil that A should not inflict on B; and
(b) there is some law regarding this obligation, such that failure to fulfil the obligation would make A morally culpable.

Nothing in the foregoing definition stipulates that the law has to be external to A, the bearer of the obligation, OR that A's failure to fulfil the obligation has to be a real possibility. Hence when I say that God has an obligation not to lie to us, I simply mean that having freely decided to create us, God should not lie to us, because that would be bad for us, since our minds are designed for truth. If, per impossibile, God were to lie to us, He would be going against the eternal law, which is identical with Himself. In other words, God would no longer be God, which is a contradiction.

But as Professor Feser uses the word "obligation," the law in condition (b) needs to be "imposed on others by way of a rule and measure” (S.T. I-II, 90.4) from outside. In that case, as he correctly points out, "there is accordingly no rule or measure outside Him [God] against which His actions might be evaluated.... He is not under the moral law precisely because He is the moral law." Well, if that's what Professor Feser means by an obligation, then I would likewise affirm that God has none.

Since it is not my intent to reproduce Feser's post, nor the whole discussion, I will confine myself, as before, to my own comments on the matter.

In Feser's initial response to Law, the Obligator focused on God's moral obligations first posed the question thus: "What if God's being Himself necessarily includes behaving in the appropriate way to whatever beings happen to exist? This would mean that if God chooses to create, He thereby binds Himself to behave in certain ways towards what He creates."

Thereupon followed a quick, cogent response from another commenter: "God owes us nothing. Everything He gives He freely gives from His eternally willed beneficence. He can't annihilate us simply because He willed from all eternity to give us immortal souls. If we can be annihilated then He in fact didn't give us immortal souls and we would not truly have that nature He willed us to have."

I then chimed in to the Obligator:

I basically side with ... [the above] reply to you. A further reason I think it's incorrect to speak of God's duties to His creatures, is because He is the authority by which all defections from duty are judged, the power by which duties are ordered, and the truth by which all duties are measured. Cf. Aquinas' De Veritate.

I suppose in some minds this raises Euthyphro's dilemma, but the immediate point is that there is no truth other than God Himself which God is obliged to tell us. What's true in and of itself--God's existence--can't be a lie and can't tell a lie. What a thing does is a function of what it is. Hence, He Who Is the Truth can only generate the Truth. He who is Light can only emit Light. Therefore God, in Himself, can't be 'obliged' not to tell a lie anymore than He can be 'required' suddenly to drop out of existence.

The reason I am not terribly worried about Euthyphro's dilemma, is that I think it fails to consider a purely existent and wholly self-conceiving Deity, as Plato and Aristotle presented. Indeed, the original context of Euthyphro's dilemma was in a polytheistic milieu. "Is something good because the gods will it, or do the gods will it because it is good?" In De Veritate, Thomas makes the point that there would be no truth if there were neither human nor the divine intellect. Since, however, there is at least always the divine intellect, then there is always truth: hence, truth is eternal. The one truth that would abide even without created intellects (such as ours) would be that truth grasped by the divine intellect in knowing its own essence. As such, there is no logical space, on classical theism, for asking whether something is "true because God sees its truth" or whether "God sees its truth because it simply is true." This I take to be an analogue for how goodness is neither imposed upon God nor merely "invented" by Him. For the only subsistent goodness that abides is one with the only subsistent being that abides: God's total actuality in and of Himself.

The Obligator replied: "Both Codgitator and James Chastek appear to believe that God's having obligations to other agents would entail that God's actions are "measured against some measure distinct from himself." Heaven forbid! I completely agree that God, the Ultimate Standard, is the only yardstick against which His actions can be judged, and I would also agree with your solution to the Euthyphro dilemma, Codgitator. However, I can't see why an agent A's having a duty towards agent B logically entails the existence of a yardstick outside A, against which A's actions can be judged."

As we have seen, however, Dr Feser's response to Euthyphro's dilemma satisfied the Obligator's worry. I'm just pleased he agreed with my solution to Euthyphro's dilemma. Since my first encounter with that dilemma, it has struck me as a cheapish mental trick, and something which really ought to bother only polytheists--which is to say, relativist secularists. For more on this latter point, see my previous posts on seductive adjectives and polytheism and the pitiable rationality of pagans.


jt said...


I left 2 comments in your Evil 2.0 box.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Yes, I saw those, thank you. I'm a bit swamped this week, got a conference PPT to prep, classes, etc. Keep dropping in! Best,