Dialogue on Goodness.

Daniel Fincke is following up on his dialogue on Hell one on Goodness, and I think I’ll comment on it as well:

Jaime: … If a modern day person tried to sell me on the idea that a god had told him to commit genocide, enslave people, and to force women to marry their rapists, and told me that I had to simply accept the goodness of all these apparent evils on faith that his god’s knowledge of goodness was simply beyond mine, then I would judge him to be both wicked and deluded to inordinately dangerous degrees.

Stoic: Well, let’s try a simple case. Let’s say — to use an example from Space: Above and Beyond — that someone told you to abandon 25,000 people to almost certain death and certainly great suffering because doing so will save even more lives, and you know that they are in a position to know the situation better than you do, is it better for you to follow their advice or to go on your own judgement? Ultimately, if there is a God and God knows what is good and right and moral better than we do, it is indeed hubris to suggest that your limited judgement should trump that. You are free to judge God as immoral if you wish, but it wouldn’t make you right, anymore than someone asserting that those things are right would make them right. If you accept the idea that we can determine what is or isn’t moral, then you need more than simple intuitive judgements to settle these things.

Jaime: No, that’s absurd. But before I get into why, let me quickly note that even were you right and only God could create good and evil, it is still possible that God could be evil as it is clearly possible for any lawmaker to violate his or her own laws.

Stoic: I don’t think the argument is that God is good simply because He creates the concepts of Good and Evil. Those seem, to me, to be independent principles. So while it might be possible starting from “God creates good and evil” for God to violate those rules, if those rules really are good and God is all-good as He has been defined to be, then He will never break those laws by definition. But we risk mixing two notions of God and morality here, so let’s not go further into that for now.

Jaime: I’m sure ordering these people to keep slaves and commit genocide in more “godly” ways than their neighbors did had a “comparatively civilizing” effect that made them relative models of humaneness. But how is this the evidence of a God who establishes an absolute Good and Evil? Can I be like your god and use this “absolute” Good and Evil to command genocides as long as they’re slightly less barbaric than Stalin’s or Mao’s?

Stoic: You are missing the point of the reply, to the point of almost being offensive. It’s not that what God did was better than what the others did, but that it was as good as it possibly could be in order to achieve the greater goal. You couldn’t survive in those barbaric cultures using the same sort of civilized model we use … and, in fact, it’s debatable given things like terrorism that we can survive in ours. You’re starting from a presumption of how the decisions are made that meets the model you want it to be to make your argument, not the presumption that people are actually using. You can claim that we don’t know that our presumption is valid, but you can’t simply avoid the issues by making claims about how it works that we’ve never argued or advocated.

In short, you presume a capricious God and answer as if you could be as capricious as you think God is. But the evidence given is not necessarily that of a capricious God, and so you misinterpret the reply and assume that’s all about simply being better than others. It isn’t.

Jaime: There is nothing “consistent” about the moralities of Mao or Stalin and nothing about atheism that either logically or practically necessitates their violence and authoritarianism. It is your conception of goodness—which has it as a matter of assertion of raw might—that would justify their oppressiveness, not my conception of goodness as intrinsic.

Stoic: Who said that the conception of goodness was simply assertion of raw might? No one has said anything like that. It’s not that God has more power than us that would make these things right. For people who think that morality is independent of God’s will — ie that God tells us what is right — it’s epistemically justified. For those who take the other tack and say that God defines what is or isn’t moral, then it’s definitional; God creates it and so God says what it is. None of this is based on it being right because God has the power to punish us if we don’t do it.

Jaime: Right, when humans commit genocides and enslave people it’s ghastly hubris—unless they did it several thousand years ago and claimed a perfect being made them do it. In which case it is totally copacetic. Godly even! And the alleged god behind their violence is a paragon of moral virtue.

Stoic: Well, it’s only not hubris if a perfect being told them to do it, or any other basis where they are saying that doing that is the morally right thing to do based on something other than their own personal opinion and limited understanding. Of course the person you’re arguing with is going to say that anything short of God is hubris, but there may be other levels where it isn’t hubris. You can ask how we are to know that a perfect being actually told us to do that, and that’s a good question … but not the one you’re asking here. Which isn’t as good a question, honestly.

Jaime: When you make claims about what does or does not allow for the creation of morality, you implicitly rely on beliefs about what makes a norm authoritative or not. You seem, for example, not to think that human feelings which differ from person to person are sufficient for creating a genuine moral norm. You seem also to think that there are some criteria which you think the god you believe in adequately satisfies to give him the rights to legislate legitimately where mere human dictators may not. Now, you might claim that your god specially revealed to you the ability to discern the conditions by which his true authority could be validated—in which case it is humorous that you keep trying to convince me with reasons that your views are sounder than mine and trying to get me to understand rationally why your god has legitimate moral authority. Or you think that investigating the intrinsic and rationally knowable nature of moral authority itself leads you to your belief in a god who is a legitimate source of moral norms.

But if you believe you can rationally assess, and rationally prove to me, the ontological necessity and moral legitimacy of your morality-giving god, then apparently you think you know the essence of morality and of moral legitimacy on rational grounds that could be communicated even to a non-believer like me. And if that is the case then apparently morality and moral legitimacy are not only graspable a priori but they are more fundamentally real and knowable than your god since your god is subject to, and could only theoretically gain legitimacy from, a moral order that is both more basic to reality and a more fundamentally understandable reality than he is. So, if we need to understand moral categories in order to infer your god’s existence and to legitimate claims that your god is morally good and authoritative, then apparently we must know these moral categories logically prior to any beliefs or lack of beliefs in gods.

In this case, I would necessarily be able to intuit these moral categories as an atheist, without any need for learning of the existence or dictates of your god. This means I do not need to believe in your god either to understand or accept the legitimacy of morality. In fact, since grasping and applying moral categories is the prerequisite for determining whether your god is moral or immoral—independently of his arbitrary, self-serving alleged claims about himself—I am perfectly in a position to judge that he is in fact disproven as a candidate for existence. Yahweh cannot both exist and behave as described in the Bible and be perfectly good, given the wickedness he is purported to have carried out and commanded throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

Stoic: The big problem here is that you confuse understanding moral authority with understanding the moral principles and rules, or even better assuming that if you can determine if someone has the authority to make rules you must have already determined what the rules are. This, is, of course, absolutely false. Let’s use this example: Imagine that you go to work for a company. Your job description is written by your manager. Because of the authority of that position — let’s put aside whether having it that way is good or not for now — you know that they legitimately define your job description by virtue of that authority. Does that mean, then, that you definitely know intuitively or a priori what your job description is? Of course not. If God has legitimate moral authority, it is for reasons that do not necessarily lead you to or are derived from some sort of intuitive notion of what is and isn’t moral, and so you don’t necessarily have the moral categories. If God’s moral authority comes from greater knowledge and a definition of goodness, then it’s an epistemic justification — ie He knows more than you and is moral — and you may well be wrong in your judgements. If it’s because God determines what is and isn’t moral, then the authority of being the one that defines the terms does it. All of this does not imply that you can indeed judge God based on your own moral intuitions. In fact, it’s only the former case where you can have any hope of judging God’s morality by any standards at all, because in the other case God sets the standard.

Now, you can ask how we know this, and it does come down to whether or not God exists, or if God has the right properties. That’s still a completely different question than the one you’re riding.

Jaime: Ah, and so those of us who think genocide is evil and that it has nothing to do with goodness just don’t really understand goodness. Only if we add an entirely superfluous concept to goodness—that it is a personal being—and then add an entirely contradictory concept to goodness—that this personal being of goodness itself commands evil actions like genocide—can we finally understand what goodness itself really is. The normal human a priori grasp of goodness is inadequate for this task.

Stoic: While I’m not sold on having to have a personal notion of God, I think it pretty obvious that the normal human intuitive grasp of morality is inadequate for morality, whether we have God in the picture or not. Our intuitive morality often does seem heinous, and is also often contradictory. We need to do better than our intuitions. Whether that’s a priori or not — I tend to think it is — does not impact that normal human moral intuitions don’t seem to be good enough for morality. God as proposed either has knowledge — whether it’s intuitive or not — or simply defines it. By the way, you might have noticed that I keep giving two answers. That’s because there are two ways to think about God and morality, as stated above, and your replies seem to straddle the two. Theists of the first sort might have an actual problem with God advocating genocide, but won’t have issues with it until you can settle all disagreements about what is moral. Theists of the second sort have no actual problem with genocide being moral only when God does it, but are the ones that are making the sort of arguments you’re talking about here. At least someone in this debate is confused [grin].

Jaime: So then there is no absolute Good and Evil, after all, on your view since your god can reverse the properties at any time. So, how is that a basis for belief in a true and absolute morality?

Stoic: Under this view, we have an absolute definition of what Good and Evil is, which is that it is what God says is Good and what is Evil. If these things are in any way to be considered things, they were created by God, and God defines what properties they have. Think of it this way, to borrow from Plato: the Forms of Good and Evil are defined by God, and everything that is Good and Evil only is such by participating in that Form. If God changed the Form of Good or Evil, then all of that would change … but since they would still be Forms they’d still be absolute in that sense, at least. You seem to want a true and absolute morality to be immune from change in principle, while all that’s required is for it to be immune from change in practice.

Jaime: How does it make any sense that the essence of dogs could become the essence of cats or vice versa? If a dog changed its features and the DNA which causes them, that’s not a dog taking on a cat essence, it’s a dog being replaced by a cat! The kinds of beings are still totally distinct. Properties cannot be made into their opposites in any rationally coherent way.

Stoic: True, but again that’s not the point. The point is about the Form of dog or cat, not about the properties that an individual dog or cat has. If the Form of cat changes so that things that bark and pant are now cats, then the Form has been inverted and their essence has been inverted. This would make what we used to call dogs cats, by changing the Form. If God can change the Form, then He can do this without any trouble and without contradiction or irrationality. And so if God changes the Form of Good, then what was once Good may now be Evil and what was Evil may now be Good.

Jaime: Except for when he told his “original” chosen people to commit genocide and keep slaves but started telling his modern ones that those things are evil?

Stoic: Again, you presume that making a command circumstanital means that it isn’t absolute, and so this would have to be a reversal of the concept. No absolute morality requires this. Take Kant and lying. He insists that lying is always wrong not because his moral rules have to be absolute, but because there aren’t any cases where lying wouldn’t violate his universal maxim. It’s actually consistent with Kant’s view that if you could find an exception where it wouldn’t, then you could universalize on that maxim and thus get different behaviour based on circumstances. This is one of the myths that really bugs me, that either you have to be a consequentialist or you can’t consider circumstances or even consequences ever. That’s not the case. It’s the principles that matter, not the individual cases.

Take Virtue theory, for example. All virtue theories insist that there are at least somewhat absolute properties or values for morality, the virtues. But how you apply those virtues to everyday situations depends not only on the virtues, but on the situations as well. Sometimes to be brave means running away, sometimes it means staying and dying. You take general principles and then apply them to specific cases, considering specific cases to the extent you need to to work out how the absolute principle applies in it. Thus, genocide might have been more acceptable in more brutal times where a reputation for mercilessness was required, but not as much now where you don’t need that reputation, without ever changing the rules of absolute morality.

Jaime: But he could and in principle is unconstrained by morality, since it is his invention and not something that he is subject to in any binding way. By your own logic, he created it and can dismiss it whenever he wishes. He can be systematically deceiving us all and having a good laugh at Christians like you who simultaneously believe in, first, his supremely malignant Old Testament deeds, second, his absolute independence of morality as its total creator, and thirdly and most hilariously naïvely, his “perfect moral goodness”. He might just be the most mischievously wicked tyrant of all time. Maximum evil with maximum praise for his “goodness”. I admit, this is a much more plausible prospect for a real god given the world we live in!

Stoic: This boils down to “Maybe God isn’t how you think He is”. Conceded, but it doesn’t address the comments and points being made. We could be wrong, but you aren’t going to get there by judging the world by your morality and then expecting everyone else to go along with it. All the first type of theists need to do is show how genocide could be moral and your argument is merely so much text. For the second, there is no way to judge Good or Evil apart from God’s standards. Again, you start with an argument from the second type of theist and argue that they are bound by the first type of theist’s problems. It doesn’t work.

Jaime: Then we can prove the god of the Bible is false, a fictional character and not the real god, by pointing out all his wicked deeds unbecoming the god whose goodness we can understand a priori.

Stoic: That we can understand good a priori does not mean that we do. We would be seeing the evidence of good all around us and might be coming to the wrong conclusions. As soon as you come up with an a priori understanding of morality that everyone agrees with and agrees is proven, then we can talk. We aren’t there yet.

Jaime: No, I just think Goodness is a basic, a priori discoverable feature of the world. If you want to rename it “God”, then be my guest—as long as you don’t ridiculously claim it is a personal being with a Son, a thing for the smell of blood sacrifices, and a creepily excessive interest in consensual adults’ sex lives.

Stoic: Why not? Who is to say that when we actually discover that feature of the world that those things would be seen as acceptably moral, or at least things we couldn’t determine the morality of without more knowledge? You continually judge God’s actions by standards that you hold that you can’t even convince other humans to accept. Why would we think that your limited knowledge would trump God’s, if He existed? There’s more work to do here, but your insistence on claiming immorality for things that you find personally offensive is not doing it and is, in fact, becoming quite strained.

Jaime: No, if there is your imagined highly willful personal god, then morality and goodness are just subject to arbitrary assignations of properties by that being. But if we do not confuse ourselves by invoking your metaphysically and scientifically baseless being, we can rather look for goodness right here in the natural world as one of its intrinsic discoverable features.

Stoic: This is a false dichotomy and, in fact, also makes a mistake on what it would mean for morality. For the latter, take this analogy: In the game The Old Republic there is, in fact, a very specific — and very much impacting — definition of Good and Evil, that was written by the game designers. If you step outside the world, you can argue that it is arbitrary, because the game designers simply invented it and could change it at any time. But from inside the world, this is just as intrinsic and discoverable as any of the fake laws of physics that it follows, and so inside the world is not, in fact, arbitrary at all. That’s the sense of non-arbitrary that we need; if the laws of morality are as non-arbitrary as the laws of physics, then that should be fine by most people.

And that’s why your argument creates a false dichotomy: you can have the laws of morality defined by God and still have it be something that you can look for in the world as being discoverable, by looking at how the moral world works, just as you can by for the physcial laws by looking at how the physical world works. If there is a problem here, it would be that you likely can’t get morality descriptively and so can’t get it by looking at the world.

Jaime: Goodness is a matter of effectiveness relationships in the natural world. When I say that vegetables are good for me, I do not mean that they have an arbitrarily assigned property granted to them by an invisible supernatural super-being that makes the statement true independent of empirically and a priori analyzable real world functions. Instead, I mean simply they are good at effectively keeping me alive. And this effectiveness is wholly independent of my feelings too. Personally I hate vegetables, but they are good for me. I don’t even feel any special love for this fact that they are good for me—I rather begrudge it, truth be told! But it’s just true. And unless a god changed their effectiveness potentials to harm me in objective ways, no simple ascription of “properties of badness” by any god would make them bad for me.

Stoic: You’re generalizing goodness beyond morality to try to show how we can determine moral goodness naturalistically. This doesn’t work. What we are interested in here is, in fact, moral goodness when we’re talking about God and morality and all those morally heinous things you claim He’s done. Now, if you decide not to eat your vegetables, are you going to consider that in and of itself some kind of moral failing? Almost certainly not; it’s pragmatically bad — or at least not good — but not morally bad or not good. Where, then, is your evidence that moral goodness is the same type of goodness as that? We’re risking major equivocation here, and all of your argument relies on, in fact, that definition of good. A definition of moral good that I, and the Stoics, strongly disagree with.

Jaime: If that is all you mean when you say that your god creates goodness, then we can dispense with worrying about whether or not he exists altogether and can certainly ignore your holy books. We certainly don’t need him or Christian churches for knowledge of goodness or morality.

… because the objective effectiveness relationships would exist and be subject to rational investigation independent of any reference to the being that set up such relationships. Such relationships need no such intelligent design to come about or to be maintained and there is no evidence of such a creator behind them. They just are. And even were they set up by some super-mind in the first place, as long as they are rationally investigatable (as they are) then that is our best route to truth about them. The arbitrary (and often wildly wrong) hunches and fantasies of ancient nomads and modern egomaniacs who are bad at statistics provide no extra help in figuring out the differences between good and bad or right and wrong. Frankly, they can only be expected to hinder any progress on this score.

Stoic: The problem, though, is the argument that without having some kind of outside the world intentional force defining this, you don’t have it. And so if you actually discover one, you’d effectively discover and have to discover God to do that at all. Otherwise, your investigations will only lead you to justifying your own personal prejudices and calling them moral. Note that this is an argument for the second type of theist. The first type of theist will agree with you and simply argue that the proof is independent of this moral question, but that this doesn’t in fact make the morality of religions or the Bible immoral or even irrelevant to figuring that out. Pick your poison; you aren’t going to get rid of God that easily no matter which way you go.


One Response to “Dialogue on Goodness.”

  1. Dialogue on Faith and Democracy | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] laws based on their religious beliefs. I’ve addressed some of his other dialogues in the past in dialogue form and so on reading this one figured it would be a good time to break out of my […]

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