How Does Christian Metaphysics Ground the Good? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In part 1 we left off with the question, “What is man’s ultimate purpose?” We cannot identify the good for man without knowing what his ultimate purpose is.

Many answers have been offered throughout the millennia to this question. The most common answers are the following: wealth, honor, fame, power, pleasure, health, wisdom, and virtue. All of these are, no doubt, goods, but are they the ultimate good?

It would seem not because a man, once acquiring any of these goods, is still not satisfied. These goods only satisfy for a short time and then leave a man desiring something more. The ultimate good should satisfy forever and completely, otherwise it wouldn’t be ultimate.

Thomas Aquinas, having considered the finite goods of man, concludes,

It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness.  For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired.  Now the object of the will, i.e., of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true.  Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good.  This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone . . . . God alone constitutes man’s happiness.

Any moral theory which cannot locate the good in God is, therefore, fundamentally and profoundly deficient.  If God is the ultimate purpose, the final cause of all final causes, for human beings, then God must be front and center for any moral theory.

Finite goods certainly exist for man, and Christians can even agree with non-theists that human well-being is a good.  Health, pleasure, wisdom, and virtue are all goods, or ends, for which human nature was designed, but it is a grave error to think these are the ultimate purposes for man.

We can now see how metaphysics is foundational for the Christian identification of the good.  The very existence of finite beings composed of act and potency leads inexorably to a being of pure actuality, God.  The principles of form and matter inform us that humans, along with all other form/matter composite beings, possess a real nature that is eternally fixed in the mind of God.

Humans are mind (form)/body (matter) unities.  The four causes enable us to explain the existence of human beings.  Humans are characterized by formal causality, material causality, efficient causality, and final causality.  It is only through the knowledge of formal and final causes that we can know the good for human beings.  Without these principles in place, the metaphysical locus of moral values is adrift on a sea of instability and change.

In part 3, we will compare atheist Sam Harris’s identification of the good with the Christian identification of the good to contrast the abilities of metaphysical naturalism and Christian theism to undergird moral realism (the view that there are real, objective moral values).

  • Hello Bill, I’ve got an age-old question:

    if God would say that rape is right, would it be right?

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • sean

    I think he’d not answer that question directly. The standard answer nowadays is that it goes against God’s nature to decree such a thing. So God is indeed, not capable of doing such a thing. But, to switch whom I’m talking to, Bill, that’s not a sufficient answer. Maybe it isn’t the one you’d give, but maybe it is. The problem here is that you lack imagination. No-one thinks the Christian god will do this. That’s not the point. What the question is trying to tease out is whether or not your morality really does come from God, or whether the morality you claim god has just matches your own morality. I think perhaps a better way to phrase it is in terms of the Bible itself. In the old testament, God told Abraham to kill his own child. Abraham wasn’t thinking, oh, I just have to go through the motions, God won’t really do it. Abraham was going to take his son’s life because God said so. If god came down to you, and told you to kill your child, or rape a woman, or whatever, would you do it? Not go through the motions, but do it. IF you followed Abraham but at the last second God didn’t come down to tell you to not rape the woman, or not kill your kid, would you kill your child or rape that woman? If the answer is yes, then I feel pretty good about my secular morality right now. If the answer is no, then your source of moral authority doesn’t come from god. Please don’t tell me you lack the imaginative capacity to consider such a question either. That’s a cop out answer, and the reason we ask you in a hypothetical manner.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Lothar, the answer I get from apologists to that question is that it is illogical even to pose it – it’s like asking what if God said that 1+1 = 3. In other words, God simply couldn’t say that as it would be against His nature.

    However, this answer kind of begs the question. What if it turned out that it WAS in His nature to say that. What if we’d simply got it wrong about His nature previously, just like how roughly half of American Christians a couple of hundred years ago got it wrong about God’s attitude to slavery.

    I’ve put THAT to apologists too, and they simply refuse to consider that a perfectly moral God could condone rape. This tells me that in fact they see morality as something apart from the nature of God. If the two were the same then it would actually be illogical to say “The nature of a perfectly moral being (PMB) could not condone action X, as X is immoral”, as the morality of action X could only be considered in relation to the PMB’s nature in the first place.

    This is in fact the very argument that apologists use to people who assert that the God of the OT commands immoral acts. The apologists reply that it’s illogical to describe ANY act of God as immoral, as we only have His nature to judge the morality of any act in the first place.

    That same argument means that the apologists cannot dismiss the ‘What if God commanded rape’ question. It is as illogical of them to say God could not do such a thing as it is for counter-apologists to say the OT God cannot be moral.

  • Before I answer, I would ask which God you are speaking of.

  • If it turned out that it was in God’s nature to say that rape is right, then we would know he is not God; he would be a demon or something worse, but definitely not the ultimate being.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Why not? By your argument, you can only tell what’s immoral in relation to God’s nature. If you say “That can’t be God, he’s commanding something immoral”, then it shows you are using a separate standard to judge that commandment.

    If someone said “The God of the OT is commanding immoral things, therefore that cannot be the ultimate being”, wouldn’t you cry foul on their argument?

  • Hey Andrew, as you know I’m going to explore the possibility on my blog that a kind of self-looping might be going on concerning the relation between God and morality.
    You will be most welcome to comment then :=)

    You’re entirely right that if Bill is saying that God can never approve of rape, this entails that morality cannot be grounded in God just because He is the supreme being.

    Lovely greetings.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • I have written extensively on this topic in a great many blog posts. I see no reason to go over this ground yet again. Your comments just prove to me again that you have never actually understood anything I’ve written.

  • sean

    That’s a rather presumptive view. Being a more recent frequenter of your site not familiar with these previous posts (yet, I’ll read them today) it could also be that what you’ve said before simply doesn’t answer to questions to his level of satisfaction. Andrew may understand it and consider it either incomplete or wrong. If the matter wasn’t resolved before (and I don’t know if it was) then it’s fair game to still discuss it. Just because you’ve made an argument doesn’t automatically mean when he repeats questions he doesn’t understand your point. It may be that you are the one who needs to take a step back and think about the questions a bit. I don’t know for sure though. It could just as well be Andrew.

  • sean

    After having read your first link here, I must say I don’t suppose anyone has too many problems here. I get what you are saying. I at least, would never claim that you are suggesting knowing God is what give us morals. I understand that you are saying God does, and how that’s very different. In response you your challenge at the end of that post for atheists to work on saying where morality comes from, I think I have an answer. I would say that we get our morality from evolution. You said in a comment on that post that the Christian answer to why sleeping with another man’s wife is wrong is because God says so. My answer is that we don’t. Most are familiar with the Stanford prison experiment. These people demonstrated that part of what keeps us in check is indeed societal blow-back, and that without it, people don’t think about these kinds of right and wrong for treating people well. So my answer is that you are correct. We don’t have a solid authority to point to to explain our morals. So what? We just don’t have them like you think. Problem solved. No need for a God to explain what doesn’t exist.

    After reading your second post I see both sides of the issue. This is why I’ll put the terms a little differently, and use a hypothetical alternate reality. Let’s postulate some reality where this reality’s God said that rape is good stuff, and men should just rape all the women they can. Okay, now, if you were to live in this reality, would you say that rape is good? Because, with respect to God and God’s nature, which defines good according to you, it is good. God said so. All the other people here think rape is just grand Their innate sense of right and wrong tells them so. Do you say so as well? Do you think that if you were part of this reality you’d be justified in telling others there that rape is wrong?

  • Andrew Ryan

    I know you’ve written extensively on the issue, and I do think I understand it. I’ve pointed out what I believe to be the flaw in your argument, which is basically an attempt to solve Euthryphro’s Dilemma.

    The flaw I’m pointing out doesn’t hinge on me misunderstanding the difference between ‘how we know what’s moral’ and ‘where do morals come from’ (which your first link explores). And the flaw isn’t solved by your second link either, which argues that goodness is intrinsic to God’s nature and not arbitrary.

    We can accept both those ideas to be true and still ask Lothar’s question – “if God would say that rape is right, would it be right?”

    The only problem I can see that the first link poses for the above question is that we simply KNOW that rape is wrong and therefore God couldn’t command it.

    But that presumes that our moral intuition cannot possibly be wrong, when we see well-intentioned people doing things that you strongly disagree with all the time – they are convinced that an action is moral when you are certain it isn’t.

    Imagine if you asked a C19th slaver: “If God said slavery was wrong, would it be wrong?”, and he replied that his moral intuition told him clearly that slavery was NOT wrong, therefore he couldn’t even consider the question.

    If you’re saying that rape is OBVIOUSLY wrong, and that no perfect being could command it, then you really are setting up a morality that is separate from a God, such that the nature of this God is following that morality, and not the other way round.

    Since I know you do NOT hold such a view, there seems to me to be a contradiction in your argument.

  • Andrew Ryan

    That post argues that one know a moral fact through a ‘middle man’ between you and God; it doesn’t avoid the problem Lothar posed. It doesn’t mean one cannot be mistaken about something one believes to be a ‘moral fact’.

    It’s like saying that it’s possible to correctly diagnose an illness without going to the doctor – it doesn’t rule out incorrect self-diagnoses, it doesn’t rule out a situation where you think you’ve got the illness and a doctor ultimately tells you that you haven’t.

  • You raise a very good question, but a misstated one. First, you are conflating Lothar’s general question (is rape or murder right if God says so) with a specific exception (Abraham and Isaac) to a non-changing moral norm (murder is wrong).

    Lothar’s general question is answered here:

    As for Abraham and Isaac, the answer is more nuanced. First, Abraham might have known Isaac’s sacrifice was just a test of his faith on the part of God sinceGod had previously told Abraham (Gen. 21:12) he would be the father of many nations though Isaac.

    Even assuming Abraham forgot about the above promise and truly believed he’d have to kill his son, we cannot conclude from one instance that God capriciously changes his mind about His moral norms.

    Which brings us back to the general question above and the answer in the link.