Archive | January, 2013 Post #4: The Great Other

26 Jan

Posted by Ezra Roizen

By way of background, you can read my thoughts on faith here.

It’s important to note that this question is not asking if in order to be GOOD a person must believe in GOD. Instead, it’s asking if God is a PREREQUISITE for Good.

I say He isn’t.

That said, I do think it’s fascinating that, as we stated in our introductory post: “despite our constitutional separation of Church and State, the official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.”  In Zorach v. Clauson (1952), the Supreme Court also held that the nation’s “institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

Our nation’s institutions presuppose a Supreme Being!   To me that’s mind blowing.  We’ve constructed our nation-on, and put our trust-in, an entity which no one can actually prove exists.


I attribute this to the fundamental need for what I’ll call a “Great Other” – that good behavior requires a focal point – a shared belief in something.   The reason Town Halls are often the tallest building around is because they are a symbol of society – a reminder to be good, because of the Great Other.  Why else would we have flag poles?

It could be said that communism made society the Great Other, but that was a circular reference and eventually the system imploded.  The Great Other must be other than we – it must be something different on which we can all focus.

It’s funny how many movies have the basic Independence Day theme of a divided world one day being attacked by aliens, then all of a sudden all of humanity unites because we realize that even with all of our differences, we’re better off uniting joining forces against the common foe.   We unite because of a Great Other.

In parallel, I think Good is a progression.  It can be optimized and perfected.

So the important question to me is “what factors increase the amount of good?”  How do we create an environment which promotes good behavior and demotes bad?  In an excellent TED talk on the morality of animals Frans de Waal defines the “Pilars of Morality” to be what he calls Reciprocity (with a subtext of Fairness) and Empathy (with a subtext of Compassion).

Fairness and Compassion seem like good pillars to me.  How do we promote fairness and compassion?

Well, the biggest challenge is that human brains are pretty limited.  We forget stuff all the time, and need constant reminders to do the right things – and consider all priorities at once.  This is why Great Other is so valuable.  Most of us want to be good, but our brains can only fit so much in, so we sort of forget to be good when other factors take up our processing capacity.

So a Great Other is a constant index.  It’s why people ask the question “What would Jesus do?”  The Great Other keeps us honest.  Its simplicity is its beauty.

But is God the optimal Great Other?  Is God the best mechanism for increasing good behavior?

I think not.

God without religion is vacant, and pretty much every religion I know is both comprehensive and exclusive.  Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  That’s pretty inflexible.  It means the only way to God is through Jesus.  What’s troubling is that on the cross Jesus also said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This leads me to believe that the Father and the Son may not always be on the same page.  Yet my only way to the Father is through the Son.

Given its exclusivity religion actually increases relativism in the name of absolutism, that is unless everyone all of a sudden joins the same religion – and given the idiosyncrasies of each I don’t see that happening, without, well, some (new) divine intervention.

Positing religion as the primary Great Other poses many challenges.  In the same way positing a nation has challenges as it’s also exclusive.  It’d be great if the Oakland A’s could be the global Great Other, but not everyone could get to the games, not even me if they move to San Jose.

What (or whom) is the Great Other to which we could all subscribe?

I propose the Earth as our global Great Other.  It’s something on which we can all focus, for which we can all be grateful, and over which we can all argue.  Good will be in the context of our Planet, and Planet-willing, when we occupy new planets, we’ll add them to our pantheon.

Would there be more or less Good if Earth was our Great Other?  Globally thanked, perfected, and celebrated.

I say yes!

I say God is not a prerequisite for good.  He may exist, but He’s not required.

But I do like the idea of a common Great Other –mOther Earth.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #4: You Cannot spell G-O-O-D without G-O-D


Advertisement Post #3: Sacrificium reflectit Bonum

26 Jan

It has been stipulated that we know what is good because we know God.  In other words, God is the author of that which is good and he has allowed or revealed to us a capacity to recognize, that which is good.

But what is good?

Are puppies?

Are mosquitos?

There are many things; some are good, some maybe bad.  And some neither good nor bad, they just are.  And their goodness or badness might reflect a fleeting circumstance rather than some fundamental attribute.

So, what are we talking about?


But we know that morality varies across geography and time.  Also, we comprehend and can grapple with the complexity of a moral dilemma.  Like the one that faced Dietrich Bonheoffer when offered the opportunity to participate in an assassination plot against Hitler.

To kill is wrong.  On the other hand, not to attempt to eliminate the evil that was Hitler would be wrong.

What’s the moral thing to do?

It seems Good is hard to define when considering it apart from a specific object or circumstance.

I’m reminded of a story, The Peace Child.   According to Amazon’s description, In 1962, Don and Carol Richardson risked their lives to share the gospel with the Sawi people of New Guinea. Peace Child told their unforgettable story of living among these headhunting cannibals who valued treachery through fattening victims with friendship before the slaughter. God gave Don and Carol the key to the Sawi hearts via a redemptive analogy from their own mythology. ”

The interesting thing about this story was that the Sawi people, upon hearing the story of Jesus, and thinking Treachery was the highest virtue, considered Judas to be the hero!

Without giving away the punch line for those who have not yet read the story, the Richardson’s were able to find a common point of perception regarding Good in the form of a sacrifice.

That got me thinking.

Perhaps, we know Good in part because we know sacrifice.

And we know sacrifice because we know God.

Now, “knowing God” in this instance, doesn’t mean necessarily a personal relationship with Jesus Christ dedicated to a life following his teachings.  Knowing God in this instance is analogous to a tree knowing it needs to grow toward the sun.  The tree knows this by its nature.

We seem to have a similar natural appreciation for Good when perceived in the context of Sacrifice.

How do I know we know sacrifice?


Movies like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, War Horse, actually come to think of it…a number of Spielberg movies….

We walk out of the theater having seen a movie like that, and we’re moved.  Moved by the notion that there’s something right, something good about the sacrifice.  And its not always a sacrifice of one for many.  Saving Private Ryan was a story about the many sacrificing for just one.

Another example of sacrifice: Jesus dying on the cross.

And let’s not forget, for us.

That sacrifice, in time, did not begin our acquaintance or understanding of sacrifice.  It served as the greatest example and in doing so revealed the author of the Good.

Now, we, created in his image, naturally move toward that truth like a tree grows toward the sun.

Unlike a tree, however, we know the identity of that good.  It’s God.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #4: The Great Other

weoverme Post #2: An Empirical Approach to the Question

19 Jan

Posted by Demian Entrekin

The question: whether or not there is good without God

I am going to take an empirical approach to the question. For this question, I am not interested in hypotheticals or scriptural interpretations. I am interested in familiar evidence, experiences that I have had myself.

What experiences have I had with good and what do those experiences tell me?

Since I have had no direct, personal experiences with any God, I will focus only on my experiences with good and see what those experiences tell me. And for the sake of the discussion, the idea of good is synonymous with moral.

After thinking about different personal experiences, I decided to draw on two connected events in my life to better examine the question of the good, the moral behavior.

1. Moving to Berkeley CA from Birmingham AL when I was a child
2. School desegregation in those two cities

I remember being bused across Berkeley in the 1970s to go to a school that was heavily African American. The bus crossed two major north-south streets that were both dividing lines of class and race. I also remember that it was a very controversial topic at the time. Nevertheless, the local government of Berkeley had decided to integrate schools in different neighborhoods because it was the right thing to do. It was the moral thing to do. School integration was a way to level the playing field for all. Leveling the playing field was the correct moral act.

The civic attitude toward school integration in Birmingham was altogether different. The governor of the state stood on the steps of public schools to block integration. The privileged white community was largely against school integration. It took federal action to change the behavior toward school integration. Armed men had to protect the few black kids who were sent to white schools.

This tells me that good, moral behavior is inherently regional. In one location, the collective idea of what is good can vary drastically from another geography.

When I went back to visit family in Birmingham as an adult, the idea of school integration had ceased to be a major issue. There remained a sizeable anti-integration constituency, but the public policy had in fact changed. Between 1963 and 2012, the idea of what was good, right, and moral had changed. It had been slow change but it had been change.

In Berkeley of 2012, the idea of school integration had also changed. People who had supported it were no longer sure it was practically effective, or at least perhaps not sufficient to improve education for all. But the question of its essential morality had become endemic, ingrained in the culture.

This led me to determine that the good, the moral, is also temporal. Over time the idea of good collective behavior can change in a particular region.

So, if the good, the moral, is both regional and temporal, then what does that say about the idea that God is a requirement for good? These two axes of morality suggest some consequences:

1. If good is regional, and God is required, then the relationship between God and good is also regional, and God is then inherently regional. “We have our God and they have theirs.” To me this fundamentally challenges the idea that one unifying God is required for good, and implies a polytheistic model for God and good.
2. If the good is temporal, and God is required, then the relationship between God and good is also temporal, and then God is inherently temporal. “Our God’s view of the good changes over time.” This idea fundamentally challenges the eternal nature of God, and makes God inherently inconstant in the evolving idea of what is good.

Certainly one could argue that God gives us the capacity to understand good, moral behavior and the rest is up to us. Or that God has given us the idea of good in some form of revelation or scripture, but that we simply fail to grasp it. This could explain why the good is both regional and temporal.

In both cases, however, God is no longer necessary for the application of moral behavior and is thus no longer a necessary participant in its application. The human world, in the scenario, would become something like God’s reality show, and both the world and God are made capricious, if not absurd.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #3: Sacrificium reflectit Bonum

weoverme Post #1: Does good need God to be good?

19 Jan

Does good need God to be good? Another and more basic way to ask this question is this: does being need Being to be? This is more basic, because all will agree that something, whether a thing or a state of affairs made up of things, has to exist before it can be regarded as good. “Good” is a judgment made regarding a thing or an action, and this involves their being, and that being, I will argue, necessarily entails independent, self-existent Being- and this, as Thomas Aquinas says, “is what all men call God”. And I’m saying “Being” here, because this argument is a purely philosophical one; it does not involve any special disclosure by Being of itself in humanlike form, in other words, it does not involve revelation. This Being is the measure of Good.

Let’s step back a moment though from that telescoped conclusion and see how this works. We would all agree that something is regarded as good because of what it is. Even if one wishes to argue a purely relativistic and utilitarian viewpoint, it remains that something “good for me” is good for me because of the way it is, and this, of course, presupposes the fact that it is at all. Classical philosophers call this “the convertibility of being and the good”.

For something to be is “more” than for it not to be. And this “more”, infinitely more than nothing, is good in the most basic sense, it is a positive plus. It is what we presuppose when we make further judgments about good in the realm of choice, because we can’t make choices about nothing. Choice is sometimes a tricky business, but the famous ethical quandaries- do we lie to prevent an evil? do we save grandma or baby from the burning house? – aren’t to the point for our present purposes. What I think all would agree on is that what we call good choices all have an increase of being as their goal. Now this shouldn’t be taken in some merely materially augmentative sense, but it’s good to start with that by way of illustration; a tree grows if it gets enough goods, namely the beings sunlight and water, and although the tree doesn’t choose, since it isn’t rational, we can say that sunlight and water are good for the tree, and that the tree’s good is growing to full height and activity. Likewise, when we choose, we are choosing among an order of things, in themselves all good at least as far as they exist, in order to increase our being, which increase is often invisible- greater information- but leads to manifestly visible effects.

So we begin with the fact of our existence, which is a touchstone, if not the only one, of “good”, and with the fact of other things’ existence which are also good insofar as they are, and which figure as relative goods with regard to our choice.

So far so good. Now let’s sketch out the basics of ethics which I think all participants in this discussion would agree on. The “good” is something both sides agree exist. The “godless” in this discussion certainly aren’t goodless; they aren’t for arbitrarily clubbing baby seals or tripping old ladies in the street. And the measure we all use for “good” is what conserves and increases being (the life of baby seals, the integrity of old ladies’ bones and feelings), in other words, we use being as the measure.
Of course, we live in a world where all beings are transitory, and at best reach a height of actuality of what they can be, and then fall off and pass away. In a way, time itself will club those baby seals if they live to adulthood, and likewise it will fatally trip all the old ladies. Although this is an immense question for both philosophy and religion, it actually needn’t detain us, because the basic facts of being and good remain what they are for choice, and time and transitoriness are media of our choices, but not subject to them.

Too, there is the huge question of the order of goods and the fact that all these beings, whose existence is good, are busy acting on each other in ways which don’t always look very good. The wolf eats the lamb to increase his own being at the expense of the lamb’s. What’s more, so do we (well, vegetarians don’t, but they would ruefully admit that the habit is still typical of us on the whole), and moreover we knock the wolf out too as an unwelcome competitor in this regard. Again, I think we can blithely skip this for the purposes of our discussion, though it, like temporality, is an immensely important matter. What we can say is that we are able to discern a sort of order and equilibrium in “nature red in tooth and claw”, and too, that people are not ruled by instincts or necessity in the same way animals are, but exercise choice. And it is human choice, the ethical good, which we are debating in this forum. And the principle we have in common is that good choices somehow involve maximization of being, and I think I can go further and guess that it’s safe to say that all of us would hold that this measure of maximization of being is something which transcends, while entirely including, personal or individual good. In other words, there is something in the nature of things, a common measure, which makes it wrong to trip the old lady or to toss a baby into the fire of Moloch.

At this point, we’ve looked very briefly at how the convertibility of being and the good works at the very root of choice. So where’s God? Or rather, as I said at the start, Being with a capital B. God has been there all along, in the being part. I’m not saying that all beings are God. What I will say is that nothing comes from nothing. As much as many would like to prohibit the question, the question of how the whole ensemble or suite of beings, that is, the world, got here, when in the world we see that everything that is is caused by something prior, remains. It really can’t be bracketed except by arbitrary policing. Our minds observe that in the whole array of being, all things arise by being caused by something prior, and that the world itself would be an exception is a very unreasonable postulate indeed. Constraints of space make it impossible to closely rehearse the much maligned because much misunderstood classical arguments from causation and causality to the existence of the First Cause. But I’ve already made the most basic point. We have every reason to think that the world is no exception to the order of cause which obtain within it. And given what we know of beings and the structure of being, certain things follow about that first cause, Being with a capital B.

For one thing, it couldn’t be inferior to us, since we’re in the realm of its effects- it would therefore have to be intelligent, though what that means for it would be a very different thing from what it means for us. And it would have to be the source of all being’s being, but without the limitations of those beings, since then it couldn’t cause them absolutely. I can cause the coffee cup to move, mating squirrels can cause new squirrels, but these kinds of cause are more modifications of being than causation of being as such. That plus over nothing is the question, and the cause of that has to be non-limited Being, another word for which is “infinite Being”, and judged to unitary, self-existent (on pain of infinite regress), and somehow aware, awarer than we are by a long shot. And this, to quote Aquinas again, is “what all men call God”. We’re not talking yet about anything or anyone which recruits Mesopotamian tribesmen, parts seas, or loves us in a way meaningfully analogous to the best human love we know. We’re just talking about the inevitable framework which our ethical judgments and actions presuppose, whether we are articulately conscious of that or not. But Aquinas is right- given what that reality is, we can, with the appropriate qualifications, call it God.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #2: An Empirical Approach to the Question.

weoverme #3: There is no GOOD without GOD

19 Jan

The thesis for our third debate is that “There is no GOOD without GOD.”

This debate will be between two teams of four.

One team, led by moderator Bart Garrett will argue in support of this thesis – that a higher power is a prerequisite for good in the universe. moderator Ezra Roizen will lead a team which will argue that good is a natural phenomenon, and that higher powers are not, necessarily, required.

Why debate this thesis?

Many argue that a higher power is a prerequisite for a moral universe. By way of example, despite our constitutional separation of Church and State, the official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.”  In Zorach v. Clauson (1952), the Supreme Court also held that the nation’s “institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” and that this recognition of God does not constitute the establishment of a state church.

Others feel that there is no need for a higher power to compel us to do and be good.  That, to use the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, our objective is “to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition.”  Paying-it-forward does not require an almighty supreme being, but instead, it is just an amplification of the kind of love and hope a parent feels for their child. feels this is a fundamental issue and its discussion will provide a great deal of insight into the underlying approach we all take to our lives, our community, and our planet.

The format for the next event is going to be a modified Oxford style debate.  In preparation for the event each of the eight debate team members are going to post their initial thoughts on the topic.  We are going to post these blogs in pairs over the next few weeks in buildup to the event at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club on Feb 21st.

We invite you to join the conversation on the blog, and to register for the event!

And if you do plan to attend the event – please make sure to register as space will be very limited.

Sign up for the mailing list and stay in the loop!

Summary of the eight pre-debate posts:

Post 1: Does good need God to be good?

Post 2: An Empirical Approach to the Question

Post 3: Sacrificium reflectit Bonum

Post 4: The Great Other

Post 5: You cannot spell G-O-O-D without G-O-D

Post 6: Airports, bars, Reno

Post 7:  Good For Me vs. Good For We

Post 8:  Minimalist in my belief system