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Is Religious Morality Possible?

May 22nd, 2012 · 27 Comments

Ross Douthat thinks so. Responding to my previous post on this, he writes:

I have indeed read my Euthyphro, and my response is basically the conventional Christian (and Jewish) response, which is that the dilemma Plato raises is a false one. Virtue is not something that’s commanded by God, the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, but something that’s inherent to the Christian conception of the divine nature. God does not establish morality; he embodies it. He does not set standards; he is the standard. And even when he issues principles or precepts through revelation (as in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount) he isn’t legislating in the style of Hammurabi or Solon. Instead, he’s revealing something about his own nature and inviting us to conform ourselves to the standards that it sets. [….]
Certainly no serious Christian moralist has ever suggested that moral problems are “a black box” that “we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads about” because God will always tell us what to do. Rather, the possibility of God’s existence — and with it, the possibility that moral laws no less than physical laws correspond to an actual reality, or Reality — is what makes those problems genuinely meaningful and interesting (as opposed to just innings in an “ethics game”) and lends the project of moral reasoning its coherence. The idea of God doesn’t replace secular moral reasoning, in other words, but it grounds this reasoning in something more durable than just aesthetic preference.

This, I think, helps illustrate my original point quite nicely. Ross evidently thinks this counts as some sort of explanation of how there might be moral truths. I think it is a classic virtus dormativa—a series of grammatically well-formed strings masquerading as propositions. It’s not much of an explanation to say Zeus causes thunderstorms unless you have an account of how Zeus does it.

My claim had never been, for what it’s worth, that God is a “black box” because it removes the need for moral deliberation about which specific acts are right; it’s a black box because saying “God” or “divine nature” or whatever doesn’t actually solve—or even make a gesture in the direction of solving—the question of how there could be normative facts or properties. If God is the standard, why ought we accept the standard to emulate it? How could a natural fact about God—even if you call it a “supernatural” fact, whatever that distinction amounts to—constitute a reason? If the fact that some action will cause suffering isn’t adequate motivation to avoid it without something further, why is the fact that the divine nature abhors suffering (or sin, or whatever we think) supposed to do any better? Why do we imagine someone could (rationally?) greet the first fact with a shrug, but not the second? Why is it more meaningful and interesting for moral rules to “correspond to reality” than to exist in some sort of “ethics game”? Are “meaningful” and “interesting” also natural properties, or just part of a meaningfulness-and-interestingness game? Every canonical modern metaethical question can be repeated with undiminished force after we accept (arguendo) everything Ross says here.

Even if you were fully convinced of the existence of God, you’d still be better off consulting Moore or Mackie or Parfit or Nagel on these questions than any theologian. Many modern moral writers think they can show how (and that) objective moral truths exist, and reasonable people can disagree about how successful these accounts are. But every one of the more prominent ones is vastly more persuasive and sophisticated than this “God is the standard” stuff, again, even taking for granted the existence of a God. Some, like Parfit, assert that there are objective moral truths, while allowing they can’t (yet) give a fully adequate metaphysical account of what this entails. But neither does the theologian, beyond slapping a name on the question and confusedly calling it an answer. Parfit at least has some interesting things to say on the matter because he recognizes the need for a further argument—one that might, if nothing else, undermine our sense that nothing could possibly fit the bill.

One might suggest there is no further explanation to be had: That it’s a brute fact that normative properties are part of the furniture of reality (or Reality)—which is what the appeal to God amounts to, with a boatload of other baggage tacked on for good measure. But that answer works as well for the secular moralist, and parsimony mitigates against unnecessarily stapling that answer to a lot of not-particularly-plausible Middle Eastern folklore. If the answer has something to do with it being in our own (divinely created) nature to respond to these facts as reasons, then again, God’s role in the explanation is either redundant or question begging. If it’s enough for us to be configured with a disposition to accept certain facts as reasons, then Simon Blackburn’s quasi-realism, or an argument along the lines of Nagel’s in The Possibility of Altruism works well enough on its own. If it’s the divine origin of that disposition that’s supposed to make this account satisfying, we’re back to circularity.

There is, incidentally, a pretty intriguing analogy here with the contemporary mind/body problem. There, too, we have a domain of phenomena—specifically, well… phenomena—that fit uneasily with a materialistic picture of the world. If the eliminativist solution—asserting that the apparent domain is merely illusory—is unattractive in ethics, it is quite literally unbelievable with respect to experiential phenomena. An alternative in both spheres is to show that the tension is illusory: That natural facts just are phenomenal or normative facts, and to explain why this mistakenly seems conceptually impossible to us. A third option—in the modern era most prominently taken by Chalmers in the mental realm, Moore in the moral—is to allow that we need a metaphysically distinct domain of properties and facts whose relation to natural properties and facts remains somewhat obscure to us (perhaps in part because we’re fuzzy on exactly what we mean by “natural”). It is still more obscure, however, what we are supposed to believe is added to this third option by appending: “Oh, and God!” or “also… Souls!” All it really seems to do, if we find ourselves compelled to take option three, is to be satisfied with a maximally obscure understanding of the relationship—and obscure the obscurity with religious language.

In that sense, looking to something like a “divine nature” for answers to these questions is worse than superfluous; it’s a dangerous red herring. It’s like proposing an obscure form of matter as constituting the truth of logical propositions, or that the property of being morally right is identical with the property of being cerulean blue. It is not what the right answer to the question could possibly look like—even if we harbor no doubts about the existence of matter or cerulean—and tends to distract us from the effort to frame the question in a way that might be answered satisfactorily. It’s not that the theologians had a coherent picture that their secular successors have failed to replicate; it’s that only in light of the modest progress made in the past century does it become obvious how complete the failure of the preceding millennia really was. But as Socrates taught us at the outset, the recognition of ignorance should be welcomed as the beginning of wisdom.
Update: A commenter inadvertently illustrates my point more succinctly with the following—apparently sincere—argument for how theism “solves” the is-ought gap:

1. Everything God says is true
2. God says I ought to love my neighbor as myself
3. Therefore ‘I ought to love my neighbor as myself’ is true.
4. Therefore, I ought to love my neighbor as myself. (this follows from standard inference rules of deontological logic).

If we’re accepting that as valid, though, this is needlessly cumbersome. We can skip to:

1. “I ought to love my neighbor as myself” is true.

You can, of course, plug any proposition you like into the first version of the “proof,” including “square circles exist” and “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” If the question is how there could be normative truths, neither “proof” actually tells you that; both simply assert that there are such truths. God isn’t doing any work here; it’s just providing cover for smuggling in the premise.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moral philosophy in the media. | liberal reflections // May 22, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez, my bullshit siren goes on overdrive when I read language like that. Can anyone after a […]

  • 2 Dilan Esper // May 22, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    But that answer works as well for the secular moralist, and parsimony mitigates against unnecessarily stapling that answer to a lot of not-particularly-plausible Middle Eastern folklore.

    To me, this is the big problem.

    Let’s say I could prove that a lot of the building blocks of Western Civilization, principles we all live by and which we repeatedly find to be true and useful to our lives, were both initially discovered and recorded by believers in the Greek pantheon, and further were intimately connected with those beliefs.

    The problem with that is that even under those facts, that wouldn’t constitute any sort of a good reason to believe in the Greek pantheon. As there is still no evidence in support of the legends, no plausibility in the stories that were passed down, and naturalistic explanations of various phenomena once claimed to be the domain of the Greek gods have since been discovered.

    I read Douthat and I say “OK, Christianity had a role in developing what we now think of as Western secular morality. I get it. (Christianity also had a role in developing some really evil things like racial inequality, religious intolerance, sexism, and homophobia as well. But I’ll give it credit for the positive stuff.) But the historical and factual and moral claims made by Orthodox Christianity are still obviously false.”

    We have to develop secular morality because we NEED secular morality. The “good” interventionist God Douthat worships doesn’t exist. (If there is a God, She doesn’t give a crap about humans.) There was no resurrection. The Christian Bible is full of lies, half-truths, things the authors got wrong, BS, exaggerations, and implausible claims. God, if She even exists, doesn’t embody good in any sense that would assist us in making moral judgments.

    It’s secular morality or nothing.

  • 3 AS // May 22, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    The sort of mistake that Douthat makes is a distressingly common one, and very easy to fall into if one is not vigilant. Eliezer Yudkowsky has an excellent article on the issue (linked in my name). The money quote:

    “It is a failure of human psychology that, faced with a mysterious phenomenon, we more readily postulate mysterious inherent substances than complex underlying processes.

    But the deeper failure is supposing that an answer can be mysterious. If a phenomenon feels mysterious, that is a fact about our state of knowledge, not a fact about the phenomenon itself. The vitalists saw a mysterious gap in their knowledge [how mere matter can be alive], and postulated a mysterious stuff that plugged the gap [elan vital]. In doing so, they mixed up the map with the territory. All confusion and bewilderment exist in the mind, not in encapsulated substances.”

  • 4 Kyle // May 23, 2012 at 12:16 am

    “It’s secular morality or nothing.”

    Nothing will have to do.

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  • 7 Swimmy // May 23, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Here is a usually-not-great webcomic’s take that I think captures the futility of the Aquinas response quite nicely: Jesus and Mo – “Tough”

  • 8 Swimmy // May 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Hm. I guess html doesn’t work in the comments here. This is the link: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2007/08/17/tough/

  • 9 Geoff // May 24, 2012 at 2:42 am

    If Douthat is right and this is really the response of these monotheists to the Euthyphro, it just shows they have not understood the point of Plato’s refutation. part of the whole idea of Platonism is that there is no such thing as a standard in this sense.

    Take being a triangle instead of being good as an example of what is being said. Things are not triangular because there is some “perfect triangle” in the underworld or someplace that is a standard which the other triangles are similar to. A universal is a completely different kind of thing from a particular instance, and so a “perfect triangle” is just a piece of nonsense. The point is that “triangular” has a meaning independent of any particular triangle or the the language and sounds used to say “triangle”. This independence of this meaning is what the realist or Platonist means when he or she says “there really is something called being a triangle; let’s call that independent meaning a ‘form’ or ‘idea’ .”

    Now apply the same thoughts to being good. Whether or no there is some particular thing (like “God”) that is perfectly good is completely irrelevant to whether or not good has any meaning independent of our language and conventions. And that is just bleedingly obvious to anybody who has read the Euthyphro and understood it.

    Now you might be a realist about ethics and claim that there really is a notion of good that is independent of our language and customs, or you might be a nonrealist (nominalist) and deny that, but, either way, God can’t really enter the picture. So these Jews and Christians with their “conventional response” basically need to go back to Metaphysics 101 and get their heads around what is actually at issue here.

  • 10 Adrian Ratnapala // May 24, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Geoff, I don’t get it.

    If you can call “the meaning of triangleness” the “form of the Triangle” then why can’t you call “the meaning of goodness” your “God”?

    To atheists like me, it seems odd to take the definition of God and pin all other kinds of stuff (Creation, Resurrection, Revelation etc.) on it; but “it seems odd” is no logical slam-dunk.

    I think JS’ point is that even if God /can/ enter the picture, He doesn’t have to. Where Douhat claims that Christians have an advantage because their morality is compatible with their metaphysics JS says athiests can do the same trick and just choose to assume that moral facts (possibly unknown ones) exist absolutely.

    Nonetheless, I think Douhat has point. Even if secularists *can* do this trick, we usually don’t. My guess is that athiests really are more prone to moral nihilism than the religious. Just as the religious are more prone to murderous zealotry than the atheists.

  • 11 Justin // May 24, 2012 at 10:42 am

    “Many modern moral writers think they can show how (and that) objective moral truths exist, and reasonable people can disagree about how successful these accounts are.”

    Particularly given that these alleged proofs or inferences are mutually exclusive. Good philosophy forms a coherent core and bad philosophy fragments and crumbles. It is telling that secular morality is extraordinarily fragmented.

    As to the failure of the “God is the standard”, Sanchez’ response is weak. Not all ethical questions can be explained in natural terms. As Peter Singer concedes in the final chapter of Practical Ethics, not all ethically indefensible actions are irrational. A point other sophisticated secular ethicists also make. There is no complete 100% congruence between the moral realm and any attempt that philosophers make to naturalize ethics. Thus, you need something that makes a break with the natural world to come up with a satisfying theory that is congruent with reasonable ethical intuitions.

    Quasi-realism can try, but you can play quasi-realist games with Santa Claus and Johnny Appleseed and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but no one’s a quasi-realist on those items. It’s pulling the wool over your own eyes.

  • 12 Justin // May 24, 2012 at 11:00 am

    A quick followup riffing on this statement by Sanchez: “If God is the standard, why ought we accept the standard to emulate it? ”

    That brings to mind the fact that theism is the only answer to the is-ought problem.

    1. Everything God says is true
    2. God says I ought to love my neighbor as myself
    3. Therefore ‘I ought to love my neighbor as myself’ is true.
    4. Therefore, I ought to love my neighbor as myself. (this follows from standard inference rules of deontological logic).

    Adapted from in an example Harry Gensler’s Formal Ethics.

  • 13 Julian Sanchez // May 24, 2012 at 11:03 am

    There’s a lot to untangle there, but just to hit a couple of the larger knots… First, as I acknowledge, many of those modern realists are normative non-naturalists—Parfit and Moore, for instance. Moreover, this has nothing to do with making ethics congruent with our intuitions; if it is necessary at all, it’s an internal requirement of using normative concepts. As I already argue, though, if that’s the correct option, nothing much is added by throwing God into the picture. Some philosophers also argue that mental states cannot be identical to brain states (though they clearly supervene on brain states)—but if this requires a break with the natural, there’s no value added by equating the non-natural with the religiously supernatural.

    As for fragmentation… well, that’s just funny. For all their diversity—and there are strong arguments that the apparent differences are less than they appear at first blush—the major secular views are practically shades of the same hue compared with the crazy quilt of religious accounts of morality out there. Nor is the variety on the secular side conspicuously greater than in plenty of other fields where a range of theories are advanced and then gradually winnowed down. Had the field not been hobbled by the vestiges of myth for most of the last few millennia, I expect we’d be a good deal further along already. As it is, we’ve only just barely got the main questions properly framed.

  • 14 Julian Sanchez // May 24, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Uh. If you think that’s a remotely serious argument, I think we’re done here.

  • 15 Justin // May 24, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Why are we done? #1 and #2 are premises. I’m not arguing that they are sound (although I believe they are), only that the argument is logically valid, which it is.

    Moving onto your main, and first, argument, remember that we are at the metaethical level, not the practical ethical level. Realism and anti-realism are mutually exclusive. Proofs of morality via reason (e.g. the failed proofs of utilitarianism) are mutually exclusive with theories that hold morality is rooted in the passions. Basing ethics on some form of enlightened self-interest is mutually exclusive with secular theories that hold that secular ethics can be self-sacrificing. Relativism is mutually exclusive with objective ethical theories, and so on.

  • 16 Jarrett Cooper // May 24, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    Mr. Sanchez,

    Do you not think the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma?

    My understanding of the Euthyphro dilemma is not about normative facts or properties, rather is it that God makes something good by commanding it (thereby making morality arbitrary) or is it that God commands it because it is already good (thereby making God unnecessary for morality)? Classical theism with its underlying Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics can split the horns of the dilemma. Now you may disagree with A-T metaphysics but that’s another topic altogether. Point is the dilemma is a false one (there is another option).

    The reason (in a nut shell) it’s a false dilemma given classical theism is because it can be the case that God is Goodness itself–thereby not making morality arbitrary nor making God unnecessary for morality. You may call this empty verbiage, but given the A-T metaphysical ideas such as actuality/potentiality, essence/existence, doctrine of evil as privation, doctrine of the convertibility of the transcendentals, etc. will allow one to split the Euthyphro dilemma

    Such proponents of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics will give you natural law theory to be their normative ethical theory. Especially given the essentialist view of metaphysics that is endorsed by such proponents. This, I think, is what you’re after?

  • 17 Justin // May 24, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    Hi Jarrett,

    A blog post doesn’t allow one to fully explain their point, but my extraction of Sanchez’ argument is that he is raising a slightly different type of dilemma: “Is an act immoral because it causes suffering, or is an act immoral because it’s not a part of God’s essential nature?”

    Sanchez argues that it is the suffering that does the heavy lifting. Even if God exists, then the “part of God’s nature” part is just an interesting factoid. If someone is suffering, then you want to prevent their suffering, not try to act in a way congruent with God’s essential nature.

    I think there are many problems with this. (1) This does not help secular morality. It is still emotivism, “boo, suffering!” (2) Suffering is not always bad. Parents and coaches sometimes inflict suffering on their charges, but with good intentions to lead to growth. Thus suffering is an inadequate theory of morality that is not congruent with our moral intuitions.

    (3) On the Christian side of things, Sanchez is very uncharitable of “God is the standard”. John’s Gospel begins with “In the beginning was the logos”. It used a technical term from Greek philosophy, but it performs a reversal on Plato. The Logos is Jesus. Jesus is the Logos made flesh. Jesus came and suffered for us, and with us. Christianity is an essentially relational faith, and so saying “God is the standard” is incomplete. It would be better to say “God is the standard put into action in life.”

    By contrast, suppose that Parfit or some other secular philosopher gives an adequate account for realist (or quasi-realist) ethics. Now you’ve got something that really does warrant the dismissal that Sanchez gives to “God is the standard.” Someone is poor and starving to death and suffering mightily, and you are moved because of a philosopher’s proof? That’s the letter of moral behavior, but not the spirit. I’ll take Christ as the living breathing loving Logos over Parfit’s cold and brilliant Logos any day.

  • 18 Geoff // May 25, 2012 at 6:17 am

    Hello Adrian,

    In one sense, I think you are being misled by my use of the word form. According to this realist account, form in this sense is not a particular object of a certain kind, it is just a property that is shared by many particular objects — it is of a different metaphysical category. It is hard to keep this distinction in mind, which is what leads to many crude misunderstandings of realism and Platonism based on the idea that there is something “spooky” or “religious” about forms/properties.

    Now, if you just mean that an irreligious person might feel a certain deep reverence for goodness as such that is analogous to a theist’s “love of God”, then I certainly agree. But I take “God” in these context to be the (somewhat weird) thing theists claim him to be — an all-powerful mind existing outside of time and space. Such a thing, if it were possible for it to exist, could not be a property like goodness. And whether or not “goodness” is the name of a real property or just some noise we make when we like something cannot be dependent on that thing somehow “embodying” it, since the whole notion of “emodying” in that way is just complete nonsense given the other things that underlie what has been said by theists themselves in the discussion.

    I also think you are right that most atheists don’t try to make these kinds of arguments, or justify their moral views in a philosophical way. What they generally espouse is something like a simple version of Hume’s sentiment-based theory of morality. It seems to me that this is an understandable response to the continual misuse of notions like natural law by theists like Douthat who aren’t ultimately interested in making a free enquiry into what is really going on, but rather in defending a doctrine that they have already accepted from a supposed authority.

  • 19 Geoff // May 25, 2012 at 6:33 am

    I think the best response to both Jarret and Justin here would be to ask for a more clear explanation of what “God is the standard” means. I have in mind something using notions that are a little easier for an ordinary ignorant person like me to understand than “Jesus is the Logos made flesh” or “the convertibility of the transcendentals”. I hope these ideas do have some more simple meaning in your minds that you can communicate to the rest of us.

  • 20 Geoff // May 25, 2012 at 7:00 am

    Also, it seems very strange to talk about this “dilemma” stuff in the Euthyphro. Where in the text are you getting this? It looks to me like almost all the discussion is about what it means to be a property. For example all the talk about “being carried”, etc. Do really you all think Plato spent so much time talking about stuff like this when he was actually worried about whether something is good in itself or because God wills it? Both Euthyphro and Socrates automatically assume that something is good because it is good in itself, and don’t even bother with the other supposed “horn of the dilemma”. They just treat that (pace Thomas Aquinas) as something self-evidently ridiculous that nobody could take seriously.

  • 21 Jarrett Cooper // May 25, 2012 at 8:24 am


    If the theory of evil of as privation is true, and if the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics of actuality/potentiality is true, God is a being that is actus purus–Pure Act. Meaning God could not be evil, for he Himself would have to be Goodness itself, for within God there is no non-actualized potentiality in God (he’s pure act).

    Why do you think Plato posed this question, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods.” This is what I’m talking about. I disagree here with Plato because I don’t think those are the only two options on the table.

    As far as the “the convertibility of the transcendentals,” On Aquinas’ view transcendentals are “something above every genus, common to all being and is thus not restricted to any category or individual,” and being in its metaphysical sense is a transcendental. Other transcendentals for Aquinas is ‘thing,’ ‘one,’ ‘something,’ ‘true,’ and ‘good.’ Furthermore each is “convertible” with ‘being’ in that each designate the same thing. Using terms Gottlob Frege made familiar, transcendentals differ in sense but not in reference. For example, you can reference to the same thing under different names just as “Barack Obama” and “President of the United States” are the same thing, but under different names.

    So, how is good convertible with ‘being.’. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas–philosophers of the classical tradition–thought of goodness in terms of conformity to the ideal represented by a thing’s nature or essence. To quite Aquinas, “the essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable… but a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect.” Aquinas noted earlier in the Summa 1.5.1 that “everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists, for it is existence that makes all things actual.” It should be noted that when Aquinas uses desirable, he doesn’t mean desires we humans contingently have, but rather the actual final cause– the end or goal toward which the thins is directed.

    The material above about the convertibility of transcendentals is taken from Edward Feser’s Aquinas, pp 31-33.

  • 22 Geoff // May 25, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Plato posed the question “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” in order to give a concrete case for his explanation of why a particular example “standard” can’t possibly define or give meaning ot the thing it is supposed to be an example of. That is why almost the whole dialogue is about that and both Euthyphro and Socrates just off-handedly assume that nobody could possibly take the second horn of the dilemma seriously. And that is also why the response that Thomism took care of this by saying that God = Goodness or God is a standard is such a silly response — the whole point of the dialogue is to show that THAT VERY THING cannot be the answer, and in general can’t be the answer to any question of the form “What does X really mean?” So just stamping one’s foot and claiming to continue to believe that that is the answer is a really confused thing to do.

    Thanks for explaining what convertibility of the transcendentals means; I was not familiar with that idea.

    Now as to whether the notions of object, unity, existence, truth and good are in a special category above any other is a aninteresting claim, although I don’t intuitively see why these get picked. The claim that “being is also in this category, so all these things must be the same thing under different perspectives” is on the face of it just some kind of weird logical fallacy.

    As an aside, Plato certainly did not think of goodness as conformity to a thing’s nature or essence — in his world the idea that a thing could have an “essence” that it did not conform to would just be a flat-out contradiction. These are Aristotelian notions. (I seriously doubt you can find a Plato text that has anything like this idea of essence in it, although there may be some joke in the Parmenides that I’m not thinking of.)

    Did Aquinas really say that a thing was desirable only insofar as it is perfect? And then try to claim that this makes sense because “desirable” actually means “is a final cause”? Very bold and tricky move. Clever.

    So the actual argument, and explanation of the convertibility, I take it, is
    “Goodness is the same as being desirable. A thing is desirable only if it is perfect. So desirability is the same as perfection. A thing is perfect only if it is real. So perfection is the same as reality. So goodness is the same as reality.”

    Notice how the premises all have “only if” in them, not “if and only if”. So you don’t get to infer the equality of the concepts, only that one is subsumed under the other. Goodness is a kind of perfection, which in turn is a kind of being. So this is a kind of straw man or red herring: nobody ever denied that goodness was a way things could be, just that goodness is not equal to being. You may be suspicious that I have been unfair in my description of the argument, and I should put “if and only if” in place of “only if”, but I don’t think so. Just consider the plausibility of the premise:
    “A thing is perfect only if it exists”
    “A thing exists only if it is perfect”
    and you will see why.

    This kind of thing is a very common error in old authors who didn’t have access to good “logical technology”. You see it all over Spinoza, for example. Contemporary philosophers of the Continental European type — postmodernists and such — are also particularly prone to this mistake for some reason.

  • 23 Jarrett Cooper // May 25, 2012 at 7:46 pm


    Thank you for the reply.

    First I want to concede that you’re right about the Euthyphro dilemma. What I’ve been talking about is the ‘contemporary’ debate surrounding the Euthyphro dilemma and divine command theory (DCT).

    If the privation theory if evil is true, then we can say God is wholly without evil. (Given Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics such as of actuality/potentiality and God being Pure Act. God has no non-actualized potential) Now, I do not use this to argue for any normative ethical theory–i.e., giving an explanation of right and wrong and why such actions are right and wrong. (I, personally, like natural law theories).

    With regards to Plato, surely we can say Plato recognized that some things exemplify or instantiate a particular form/essence better than others. In short, Plato recognized degrees of perfection (that of exemplifying an ideal/form/essence more so than another). The less a particular object exemplifies the idea the less “good” it will be and vice versa. An illustration: A triangle drawn on a rough surface by a child with a large crayon will not exemplify triangularity as well as a person who’s drawing the triangle with a ruler and a fine point pen.

    For Aquinas and the convertibility of transcendentals. The only things that have perfection are things that exist (that’s my interpretation of Aquinas on this, at least). However, they do differ in idea. Even Aquinas notes that, “Although goodness and being are the same really, nevertheless since they differ in thought” (ST 1.5.1) He goes on to explain (see below).

    See here for Aquinas and the convertibility of being and goodness: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1005.htm

  • 24 Andrew Sepielli // May 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Julian — Everything you say is spot on. Just two additional points:

    1) Plato is asking whether things are holy because [] God[] loves them, or whether [] God[] loves them because they are holy. Douthat is saying the latter. It’s not *because* God loves certain acts or natures — his own or anyone else’s — that makes them virtuous. So why is his calling Plato’s dilemma “false”?

    2) He seems to be arguing that there can’t *be* a moral law unless that law is “embodied” — that, just as a law can’t be a law of nature unless nature consistently “follows” it, there can’t be a moral law unless there is a being that consistently follows it. But I just don’t see why this should be so. That’s just what’s special about normative laws — that they can be disobeyed without ceasing to be laws.

    Finally, I should say: as a philosophy professor who writes for a limited audience, it’s reassuring that there’s a more popular writer out there who’s actually really good at this stuff.

  • 25 I’m Free | Ragged Clown // May 26, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    […] from on high, morality is just an expression of our preferences (therefore god exists?). It’s obviously wrong, but the explanation will have to wait for another day. Tags: philosophy, science [permalink] […]

  • 26 A Role for a Nation – Tyler’s AM Reads – May 29, 2012 « Blog of Rivals // May 29, 2012 at 8:04 am

    […] Douthat and Julian Sanchez are having a religion in society […]

  • 27 médicaments // Jun 7, 2012 at 5:17 am

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