Saturday 9 May 2015

A Moral Argument Against Theism

It's commonly thought by theists that, in the absence of God, one is faced with difficult ethical or meta-ethical problems. Within the atheistic world view, morality itself, moral knowledge, moral motivation and so on are thought to be on shaky ground. Such beliefs are the basis of moral arguments for theism. Here then is a similar argument in the reverse: the existence of God, along with three indubitable and commonly held ethical beliefs, leads to a vexing contradiction.
  1. It is wrong to treat people as a means to an end, rather than as an end in of themselves.
  2. God (a perfect being who can do no wrong) allows innocent children to suffer and die for some greater end.
  3. Therefore, that greater end must be greater for the child: it must be in his own best interests to suffer and die.
  4. We should always aim to do what is in the best interests of others, and avoid doing what isn't in others best interests.
  5.  Therefore, we should not attempt to prevent the unbearable suffering or untimely death of innocent children.
But of all things, the unbearable suffering and untimely death of children seems to be something we should always aim to prevent. To deny this is absurd, so one of the premises must be rejected. Premise (1) is a statement of Kantian ethics, a very popular normative ethical theory. It seems too obviously true to reject. Premise (2) is true if God exists at all. To reject this would be to reject theism. Premise (4) seems to follow from our very a priori concept of a moral should. These are the only three premises.

What makes this argument interesting is that (1), (4) and ~(5) are almost impossible to reject. If anything could be taken as self-evident, surely these statements should be. God's existence, on the other hand, is not self-evident. Even if theism is very well evidenced, it's surely not as well supported by our intuition as these three other statements. Therefore, we must reject theism in favour of these three induibiable ethical statements.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Divine Nature Theory and the Parsimony Problem

Divine nature theorists believe that goodness is grounded in a likeness to God's essential nature. As they would say, it is good to be loving and kind and just because God is loving and kind and just. In other words, the property goodness reduces to being a member of the set of properties that God holds necessarily. But one might wonder, why do we need God at all? Wouldn't it be simpler to say that goodness reduces directly to that collection of properties, without referencing God's nature? Why shouldn't we rather say that what it is to be good is just to be loving or to be kind or to be just and so on? This revised theory would seem to have all the same explanatory power as divine nature theory, but would be a great deal more parsimonious for not requiring the existence of God.

I once suggested this to a friend, and he responded by saying that in such a case there would be nothing all good things had in common. But this seems odd: surely for there to be such a thing as goodness, there must be something all good things have in common. Intuitively, he thought, there must be something that brings all these properties together (and in the darkness binds them). At the time I was unaware of the classic counter examples: species being an obvious case of a bundle property, being made up of a collection of properties which do not necessarily all share something in common. There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for being, for example, a lion. By analogy, we might think there need not be necessary and sufficient conditions for being good.

On top of this I now think there are two even stronger objections to this line of reasoning:

First of all, divine nature theory itself suffers from the same problem my friend had with treating goodness as a bundle property. Why is this? Because being like God is a bundle property. There is nothing all of God's essential attributes have in common, other than being those attributes God necessarily instantiates. The only difference is that we've given this collection a name ("God's essential nature") and ground goodness in a likeness to it. Theists may suggest that on greatest being theology, the divine nature theorist could think that all God's essential attributes have in common their being great-making. But greatness is no less metaphysically queer and demanding of explanation than goodness, so this move would only push the need for grounding a step back without really explaining anything substantial.

Secondly, there is something all good things have in common without God after all: their normativity. If something is good, then there is reason to conduct oneself towards it certain ways. There is reason to desire good things, to perform good actions, and to praise the good behavior of others. Furthermore, most would say this follows from our very concept of goodness itself. We therefore need not talk about God's essential nature to explain what it is to be good.

Divine Nature Theory: Why goodness is not a likeness to God

Divine nature theory is what I call the common theistic meta-ethical opinion that goodness is grounded in a likeness to God's essential nature. God is essentially loving and kind and just, which is taken to explain why it is good to be loving and kind and just and so on.

But there is an obvious counter example to the theory as so far construed: God has many essential characteristics that are not morally significant. God is essentially immutable, necessarily existing and ontologically self-sufficient. But it would be absurd to say that something was good in virtue of its being immutable, necessary or having aseity.

The divine nature theorist might try to revise his view, saying instead that a thing is good just in case it bears some resemblance to God's essential behavioral qualities. Necessity, immutability and aseity have nothing to do with behavior, and so they pose no threat to this view. And yet, other counter examples can still be raised. God is essentially rational, prudential, decisive, and is essentially not impulsive or whimsical. But it seems silly to think that being irrational or imprudent would have any affect on the moral value of ones action.

The divine nature theorist might take a further step back, saying instead that a thing is good just in case it bears some resemblance to God's interpersonal behavioral qualities. Being rational doesn't have anything to do with how one treats others, but lovingness and kindness and justice does.

But now there's an even more pressing problem, in that these qualities don't seem like essential characteristics of God. God cannot be necessarily loving or just, since there are no other necessarily existing people to be loving or just towards. Some have suggested positing the trinity to solve this very problem, saying God's persons necessarily love each other. But love is just one of many morally significant properties the theist is trying to ground in divine essence. What about other morally significant behavioral qualities, like being someone who punishes the wicked, or who protects the defenseless? There are no necessarily existing wicked or defenseless people for God to stand in the appropriate interpersonal relationships with.

The divine nature theorist might try one last revision. He might suggest that goodness is grounded not in any qualities God actually has, but in counterfactuals about what God would do given the opportunity. And so protecting the defenseless is good because, given the opportunity, God would always protect the defenseless.

But now the divine nature theorist has made God entirely dispensable to his theory. Even atheists can believe that, if God were given the opportunity, then he would protect the defenseless. Divine nature theory, then, reduces to something very much like ideal observer theory, and is no longer an inherently theistic account of goodness.