weover.me: 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.



6 Responses to “weover.me: Post #1: Does good need God to be good?”

  1. jonnyob January 19, 2013 at 6:53 am #

    Man does not need a God to be good. In fact I propose that in order for man’s morality to continue to evolve he must reject the God as described in the Bible. If modern man exhibited the morality prescribed in the Bible, even the New Testament, he would find himself locked away from civilized society.

    As an open atheist I marvel at people’s response to my assertion that I don’t believ in God. “How can you be good without God?” they ask.

    My response is always the same. He who obeys God’s wishes as described in the Bible is participating in a contract. Be good and God will reward you. Be bad and you will burn. He is responding to the primal reward/punishment neurology wired into the stem of even the most simple animal brain. There is no morality in following rules.

    Advanced morality is more evident in the behavior of the non-believer who at his core has no fear of punishment and no hope of eternal reward, yet does not steal, kill, rape or commit other antisocial acts even when he is 100% certain he will get away with it. (This is where detractors will point to genocidal dictators such as Stalin and Hitler. Stalin was an atheist but that had no more to do with his pathological behavior than did the color of his hair, and counter to popular belief, Hitler was a Christian). What drives a non-believer to behave in a moral way? Evolution. I know that may be a blasphemous word for many, but let’s face it – we live in the 21st Century. Evolution is as much of a scientific fact as electricity.

    For the modern man to prosper in a highly populated and complex society, he must accept the mores and generally accepted rules of his fellow man so as not to get purged from the group (exiled or imprisoned).

    The capacity for empathy (the ability to project into another’s experience) is the driving force for good social behavior especially amongst the non-believing segment of the population. Like all other human characteristics, empathy is continually evolving. In the 2000 years since the Bible was written empathy, and along with it our collective sense of social responsibility, have come a long long way. (It is no longer acceptable to kill your servant for talking back, much less own an individual. Kill a man “for laying with another man” and you will find yourself imprisoned or executed. Kill a woman for not being a virgin on her wedding day and you will have similar problems.)

    Going to Church on Sunday does not absolve people from their bad behavior during the week. An morally evolved person would forgo the pageantry and self congratulations that God loves them more than others, and would instead work to fix the cause of their bad behavior.

    The late Christipher Hitches said it (or quoted it) best:

    “It takes a good person to do good things. It takes an evil person to do evil things. But for a good person to do evil things … it takes religion!”

    • jonnyob January 19, 2013 at 7:00 am #

      Pardon the typos … That rant was fat fingered on my phone.

  2. DonovanChan January 22, 2013 at 9:34 am #

    The philosophical track laid out in this post is challenging, in part because philosophy requires great discipline and is largely foreign to today’s methods of discourse. This post is dense. But I am finding it rewarding to engage in a discussion that has been passed down through great minds for centuries.

    It is important to outline our questions clearly if we are to pursue this discussion philosophically. This post discusses questions like “what is good?” and “where does good come from?” I am inclined to support the proposition that “maximized being” points towards a healthy functional definition of good – one that can successfully be applied to discourses on ethics.

    The point about Being as a necessary First Cause is the interesting one. This need not exclude the possibility of evolution. But it feels unnatural to me to discuss morality in terms of causation.

    The natural question that follows is how one can or should relate to this Being. It’s an important question, but it’s easily conflated the other questions. For example, it is false to denounce God in a general sense based on one form of Christian practice. The legalism described by jonnyob is one very specific form of relating to God. One could take even Jesus’ teachings and emerge with a much different model. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, specifically refutes judgmentalism and blind adherence to rules.

    • jonnyob January 23, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

      My assertion of the non-existence of a prime mover applies to all faiths equally. I’m an equal opportunity blasphemer. My bias toward Christain references stems from my abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and Christian Brothers as a young boy in Ireland. I was one of the lucky ones that narrowly escaped sexual abuse though I had less luck when it came to physical abuse. The clerics’ desire to instill fear and evoke guilt in order to get me to believe in, and fear their God conviced me early on that god was a man made construct designed to control the uncontrollable.

      The human mind is too simple in its current form to grasp the complexity of the universe and its origin.

      Morality is necessary for a species to remain intact and prosper, especially one that grows as quickly as ours. Extensive studies have demonstrated morality in chimpanzees.

      There will always be those who display subpar morality, however as time progresses they will be pruned from society and will have less of an opportunity to procreate and raise their offspring, if any, with the skills and knowledge to survive in an increasingly complex and harsh enviornment.
      Natural selection at its finest.

  3. Demian Entreking January 27, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    In reframing the discussion of The Good to the question of Being, it seems that the issue at hand has been sidestepped, albeit in an engaging, ontological way. But the following statement avoids the critical distinction between “what you are” and “what you do:”

    “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’.”

    I’m much less concerned about the “way my neighbor is” than about “what my neighbor does.” If you have desires that are not Good, such as coveting thy neighbor’s wife, but you recognize those desires and do not act, then I am inclined to respect you as good because of your behavior, not your “being.”

  4. Darwin February 21, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    Im dubious about the notion that good requires ‘being’ and that in turn presupposes a penultimate BEING (or God). The arguement is based on the way we as human beings perceive the world as a chain of causal events moving foward through time. But why must there be a beginning, muchless an intelligence at its beginning?

    Stephen Hawkings described going past the beginning of the big bang (the initial Causal Event) as going past North. so if you’re headed towards the beginning or north and you go past it you are no longer headed north. Better turn around and get your barings again. its a kind of ‘Flatland’ explaination of the deficulty our minds have in accepting or perceiving a universe with multiple dimensions.

    because we perceive the universe in cause and effect, and in an anticedence and consequence kind of way we presume the universe behaves this way everywhere and in all cases for the entire history of its existence. Why must it?

    (Think eleven dimensional space within the firstmicro-moments of the universe, and within less than a fraction of a second some of those dimensions curl in upon themselves and are no longer there for the duration of the rest of the universe! )

    Time is a dimension that our consciousness is encumbered with. We can only free ourselves momentarily through some creative or spiritual process, such as higher math.

    There is no shred of evidence in favor of a being setting the universe in motion (once you remove the bias created by our own consciousness.) Stare long enough into the abyss and the abyss stares back. But Im pretty sure its just our own reflection. Why presume parsimony where none Must exists?

    so we are left with our own “being|consciousness” required for
    Good or evil to exist. But if we look at just the behaviors of what we might define as good or evil and we are left with some pretty interesting contradictions!

    I have assumed until recently (as the writer above does) that we are special as a species in our moral behavior and if not by God then by dent of our superior intelligence and evolutionary advancement.

    But insects sans our intelligence, our cerebellums and even without a reptilian brain show incredibly complex behaviors that we commomly ascribe to intelligence and morality. (Read ‘Sex on six legs: lessons of life, love and language from the insect world’ by Marlene Zuk!) They defend their young, or their mates and care for their infants. Not all of course, some transcend any conceptions that we may have of brutality (dare I say ‘evil”). But some do demonstrate cooperation and sacrifice with nothing but a tiny strip of neurons running down the inside of their exoskeletons!

    so perhaps good and evil are far more relative than merely culturally! Perhaps we have evolved as moralizing animals for sociobiological reasons? Both good and evil (and religion|science) are merely memes in our particular anthill that serve our gene pool in ways we are only beginning to understand.

    (written on a tablet: please excuse the typos and punctuation )

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