How Does Christian Metaphysics Ground the Good? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In a 5-part series of posts, we looked at several metaphysical principles which all inevitably lead to the existence of God. Given these principles, and the existence of God, how do we go about constructing a Christian ethical theory? Or, more to the point, how does metaphysics help us identify the good for human beings?

A thing is good insofar as it instantiates its essence, and, particularly with living things, essence (formal causality) is tied to the thing’s purpose (final causality). To know what is the good for a human being, we must first look to the essence of being human, or human nature, and we must look to the purposes toward which human nature is pointed.

Notice that metaphysical naturalism is already in trouble. Metaphysical naturalists cannot appeal to “human nature” or “essences” or “final causes” within their ontology, as those aspects of reality simply do not exist for them.

The Christian, using classical Christian metaphysics, can affirm the existence of objective, transcendent moral values because the good for human beings is based upon objective, transcendent metaphysical principles: the formal causes and final causes of humans.  How does the formal cause of humans, or human nature, determine the good for us?  Edward Feser remarks, in Aquinas,

Knowing what is truly good for us requires taking an external, objective, ‘third-person’ point of view on ourselves rather than a subjective ‘first-person’ view; it is a matter of determining what fulfills our nature, not our contingent desires. The good in question has moral significance for us because, unlike other animals, we are capable of intellectually grasping what is good and freely choosing whether or not to pursue it.

There are three different categories of goods inherent to human nature.  According to Feser, “First are those we share in common with all living things, such as the preservation of our existence.  Second are those common to animals specifically, such as sexual intercourse and the child-rearing activities that naturally follow upon it.  Third are those peculiar to us as rational animals . . . .”

The last category is the most important, as it is the highest aspect of human nature.  The purposes of human beings include such things as survival, sexual intercourse, and knowing truth.  These purposes are entailed by our human nature, which includes the fact that we are living, sexually reproducing, and rational beings; we are rational animals.  As rational animals, however, what is our ultimate purpose?  Put another way, what is the ultimate good for mankind?

We’ll look at the answer to that question in part 2.

  • sean

    I have a feeling that we share out end values, but not our way of getting there.

  • If you are sticking with your metaphysical naturalism, you will be left with moral relativism because your metaphysics contains no resources to identify the good with anything transcendent. You’re paying a very steep price for clinging to metaphysical naturalism. Why not abandon that stunted, anorexic worldview for something more robust, for a worldview that actually has the resources to explain reality?

  • sean

    I identify well being. Good and bad are wishy-washy terms that don’t really mean much. Yes I am a moral relativist. But I won’t be abandoning it because I dislike its implications. I’ll only abandon it based on truth value.

    Also, what does “rational being” mean, because non-human animals can be rational too depending on your definition.

  • A rational being is a being that thinks, plans, makes truth claims, or, in other words, is able to reason. There are no non-human animals that I am aware of that can reason. Other animals are purely instinctual; they do not reason in any way comparable to human beings. See my blog posts on how humans are different from other animals.

  • sean

    I absolutely agree with most of your other blog posts about how humans a different from other animals. Our capacity to reason and thing is certainly great when compared to other animals, but again, it’s a spectrum. Hibernation behavior in the fall from squirrels to bears shows planning, so to say animals don’t plan seems silly to me. Many primates and dolphins have shown great intellectual ability. To be sure, they have nothing on the average human, but they’re still pretty smart and more than capable of thought. To suggest that animals act only on instinct isn’t true. They are more than capable of learning behaviors.

  • Do you think animals can reason? Can they actually think about what they want to do in the future, and then do it? If so, where is the evidence? Where is their written language? Where are their musical compositions? Where are their novels?

    I think there are is an unbridgeable gulf between our ability to reason and other animals. It’s not just a matter of degree. Everything you mention above has nothing to do with reasoning.

    Of course animals can learn, but that’s not reasoning. Just because a dog can roll over doesn’t mean he’s actually thinking about rolling over, or weighing the consequences of not rolling over. No, he’s just been conditioned by his trainer to do a certain behavior given certain cues. That cannot be called reasoning.

  • sean

    Can they think about what they want to do in the future and do it?

    Yes. The evidence is this. If a wolf pack sees some food and is in need of food they will hunt down the food. They do not immediately get the food, but they see that hunting the food leads to food in the future. They plan for their future meal by creating it. (Killing an animal) Sure, this is a much shorter time-frame than people. But now we are back to a scale. Their written language isn’t there, but they have verbal language. Some animals have even been taught human languages. (I don’t know of any other than in English, but there may be some.) To claim that one must write a novel or write as all to be able to reason is overstating your case. If that is so, I’ll ask you why there are tribes deep within the Amazon of people that don’t have written language. Are they incapable of reasoning? Certainly there is a gulf between us and other animals. But just as our own cognative abilities as a species increased with time, so too could the abilities of another species.

    Primates have demonstrated the ability to look at analogous situations and reason what the similarities are between them. That’s not reasoning?

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  • What can I say? I find your examples of animals reasoning to be pretty lame. Wolves are planning for the future? I am almost 100% certain that if you ask every wolf expert in the world if wolves reason, they will say “no.” They are programmed genetically, and conditioned by their environment to behave in certain ways. They are not thinking about anything. They are just reacting to their environment. Same with every other animal.

    When you say that non-human animals are reasoning, you are making a pretty bizarre claim, my friend.

    By the way, as a metaphysical naturalist, you don’t believe that humans can really reason about anything. Remember that everything we do is just the fixed laws of physics and chemistry playing out in us. We are in no way capable of escaping our material prison. So, I find it a bit humorous that you are so bent on arguing that wolves can reason. As a theist, you could make this argument, but not as a naturalist.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Remember that everything we do is just the fixed laws of physics and chemistry playing out in us.”

    Saying the brain we use for reasoning isn’t supernatural doesn’t mean we cannot reason. It obeys the laws of physics and chemistry, sure, but so what?

    As for denying the ability of any animal to reason (I assume you’re not just nitpicking over wolves), I don’t think that scientists agree with you. I’m pretty sure that all experts on chimpanzees agree that they can reason. The following article argues that even parrots can reason:

  • You want to say that a parrot who pecks at a box that has sounds coming from it is reasoning?? If this is reasoning, then the word reasoning has basically been stretched so far that it has no meaning.

    With regard to reasoning under metaphysical naturalism, go read your buddy Alex Rosenberg and he will set you straight.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill, take your argument to the scientists who study higher primates who conclude that chimps can reason. Can you give your definition of reasoning that chimps are failing to fit?

    Go and read Daniel Dennett to be set straight on free will in a naturalistic perspective.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I don’t think you read the link very carefully. It wasn’t about a box with ‘sounds coming out of it’ and the bird then pecked at that box. It was about the birds being able to pick up different boxes and working out from the sounds that rattling them made – or lack of sound – which ones had food in them.

    It’s not my argument – the scientists quoted say that this is a level of reasoning beyond a human child before the age of three. You can call it BASIC reasoning, but reasoning it is. And my point was that this is in a bird with with a proportionately tiny brain compared to most mammals.

  • sean

    I like this Andrew fellow. He’s pretty on the ball. I was saying they can reason compared to us. Yes, I do believe that our reasoning comes from physical processes in the mind, but my point was that wolves and other animals also have this cognitive ability like us. Consider the frame of reference.

    Also, I’m pretty sure that if I asked this question to an expert and explained the stipulation that by reasoning, I mean can plan for the future, they’d say yes. I’m more than happy to get one, if you’d really like me to. I have actually talked to an expert on wolves. He seemed pretty convinced of and amazed at their intelligence.