One other thing

Yesterday, in dealing with apologetic answers to Euthyphro’s Dilemma – which I call Euthyphro’s Lament, as it is only representative of a class of problems with moral philosophy – I suggested that there was a certain amount of scriptural support for the apologetic view that God’s morality avoids the dilemma since the grounding for it is in God’s essential character, rather than a logically prior external standard.

It’s true there is a certain amount of scriptural support for that, but it occurs to me that, as with many issues, there is also scriptural support for the other view – a more pure Divine Command theory. What happens if God commands something that is against the moral standard essential to his character that is the ultimate grounding under that apologetic view? Does a scriptural religion demand that we follow the objective moral standard of God’s essence, or follow his command?

If you accept the story of Abraham and Isaac as told in Genesis, the answer is that Christian morality follows the ungrounded command, rather than the objective moral standard of God’s character. Certainly Abraham’s faith, demonstrated in his willingness to murder his son, was accounted to him as righteousness.

So, I should have been clear that among the many problems I mentioned with that apologetic response, its representation of scriptural faith also must rank somewhere.

And really that’s the Absolute Bloody Final word from me on the apologetic angle on moral philosophy.

15 comments to One other thing

  • In answer to Paragraph 2, I refer you back to my comments and particularly the comments of Dr John Frame about how the actions and commands of God always and only reflect his inherent immutable attributes as defined clearly in Scripture.

    This in no way impedes his freedom in his sovereignty any more than your own inherent traits prevent you from exercising your own free will. It does though, determine how you would and would not act in any given situation.

    Regarding paragraph 3 of your post, you commit the error (either unintentionally or maybe intentionally) of misreading the premise and underlying theme of the biblical narrative of Abraham and his infant son Isaac. This narrative is not aimed at showing the absolute whimsical power of God or the potentially arbitrary nature of his commands. The correct interpretation of this narrative is that God never intended for Abraham to kill his son, rather was testing how vigorous Abraham’s faith and trust in God was. Abraham demonstrated that his faith was so strong that he would trust God in all things, even when a situation was seeming inexplicable and completely counter-intuitive, as killing your own child would seem to be.

  • Hi Roger – I’m afraid that you are missing the point. I understand the interpretation you give for the Abraham/Isaac story, and it is upon that interpretation that my argument hinges. I assumed that normally, because of the reasoning that God’s commands “always and only reflect his inherent and immutable attributes”, that it would be difficult to find a test case for the question of whether scriptural faith truly supports an objective grounding in God’s attributes or instead in God’s command. It is precisely because of the nature of this passage, where God’s command conceals his true intent and therefore his true attributes, that we can discern whether the scriptural view is that morality is defined by God’s commands or by his attributes. Without such a test case, we could not see how the faithful actually approach a moral grounding. We find that it is Abraham faithfully following the command of God rather than doing what is right according to the (presumed) nature of God, that is condoned. Therefore, at least in this case, the scriptural presents a moral grounding in the command rather than the character. At least this passage undermines the theory that God’s character is the objective grounding for morality as you and other apologists sometimes suggest.

    Let me say again, I don’t disagree with you. I think that when you appeal to moral intuition, that you are on the right track, no matter what efforts you may make to ground that intuition in a non-cognitivist, objective reality, and no matter how futile those efforts may seem. I, too, appeal to moral intuition and have difficulty grounding it. I also have tried to ground it objectively – non-cognitively – and found that the task is difficult no matter whether or not one appeals to the supernatural for that purpose.

  • Hi Smijer,

    You say,”I, too, appeal to moral intuition and have difficulty grounding it” and “I also have tried to ground it objectively – non-cognitively – and found that the task is difficult”.

    Your difficulty in reconciling your honest admission of moral intuition with your physicalist presuppositions seems to be a recurring theme. I have indicated to you that for me as a theist, no such crisis exists. What is preventing you from considering theism as an option to cut the Gordian knot for you philosophically?

    Sorry to drag this conversation on further, but I am truly interested in what prevents you from accepting theistic options in attempt to resolve this impasse that you have obviously given much consideration?

  • I don’t reckon it a crisis – just a difficulty. I hope to write more about moral philosophy and my own (non-philosopher’s) approach to it soon. I’ve just been behind quite a bit. The reasons I don’t pursue a theistic resolution to moral difficulty are these:
    1) I find the same difficulty from a theistic viewpoint. I find no advantage for the theist ontologically (in terms of origins) or in terms of meta-ethics. I recognize that you don’t perceive the same difficulty for theistic meta-ethical grounding as I do, but you haven’t persuaded me that the problem does not exist.
    2) I don’t believe in God. Even if I believed that there as a meta-ethical advantage in theism, it would be wishful thinking to invoke God simply because it would make my meta-ethical task easier.

  • Jan

    In response to the question,”Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”

    According to Wikepedia, the dilemma has continued to present a problem for theists since Plato presented it and it is still an object of theological and philosophical debate.

    First let me ask, “If you do not pursue a theistic resolution to moral difficulty, how do you resolve a moral difficulty or rather how would you advise society to resolve a moral difficulty?”

    Are there any absolutes?

    The answer is that there are absolutes and even though the Bible presents what seems like “dilemmas” to many, God’s attributes are absolute and therefore His commandments are in line with His character.

    You used the story of Abraham and Isaac as an example of what appears to be a contradiction when God said to Abraham:

    Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you. Genesis 22:2

    I will not suggest that this is easy for any person to fully understand, however, when a person chooses to follow the Lord, he does so because he has come to understand in his heart and mind that:

    Matthew 19:17 …there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.

    God deals with all of us collectively, but He deals with each individually.

    Abraham knew that God is good. He also knew God had promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his son, Isaac. Genesis 18. Remember that Isaac’s birth was miraculous due to the age of Abraham and Sarah.

    Being human, Abraham must have had a heavy heart as he walked with Isaac up that mountain, however, he knew several things. He knew God and therefore he knew that God is a good God, He knew that God is able to perform miracles, and he knew that God would do one of two things. Abraham knew that God would “provide Himself a lamb” and raise Isaac up again as he later did raise up Christ or God would do just what He did in rescinding the order.

    Now for your original question,”Should morality be defined by God’s commands or by his attributes?”

    The answer is both. The Bible teaches that God is love and that He is righteous, holy, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Because of these attributes, we obey his commands. How we percieve God’s commandments has absolutely nothing to do with the reality that God’s commandments are best for mankind.

    For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.1John 5:3

    While the commandment seemed grievous, it turned out not to be grievous at all. The end result was a man who was ready to fully obey God in all things. God seeks such men to worship Him.

    God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. We cannot fully comprehend who He is and what He is doing.If mankind will accept (I should probably say that if mankind had accepted) that God is who He is and obey Him, most of our problems would be solved. As always, the sinful nature of mankind stands in the way of this happening – thus God sent his son to redeem mankind and reclaim his creation, the world.

    2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. 21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

    What I believe changes me, but it does not change who God is.

  • “I don’t believe in God.”

    That’s quite a big presupposition to bring into a philosophical discussion! The more intellectually honest starting position would be “I don’t know either way if there is a God”.

    Then you can move down either track of theism or atheism based on cumulative arguments, weight of evidence and best fit explanations.

    I wonder if your a priori assumption of the non-existence of God is more like Freud’s wish fulfillment, based on an underlying desire to preserve one’s moral and ontological autonomy?

  • I didn’t say it was a presupposition or a starting position. It’s simply a statement about what I do and don’t believe right now.

    My opinion of a good “starting position” (since you bring it up) is that it does not begin with any kind of statement of knowledge about God or any other notional entity. It begins with a recognition of observation, and attempts to understand those observations better in ways that can be confirmed by further observation. That’s a pretty simple epistemological statement, but it’s a suitable summary for a comment on a blog.

    I can’t answer a question about an a priori assumption of the non-existence of God, because I do not have such a thing.

  • Jan

    Genesis 15:2 But Abram said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” 5 Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.

    It wasn’t as you say “Abraham was willing to murder” his son that God accounted to him as righteousness. The Bible says that “Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him as righteousness.” The reference was not to this one incident, but rather a lifestyle of faith.

    Abraham knew that Isaac was to have descendants. The passage takes on a new perspective when you consider this.

    If one is looking for a reason to accuse God, I can see how this incident might be used; however, when looking at the overall picture and what actually happened, one will find that God is preparing mankind for redemption.

    Believing God being counting as righteousness, is, because of mankind’s bent to sin and depravity, very good news. If we had to make it to heaven on our own righteousness, no one would be there.

    Abraham’s reaction to the event was to worship God. Abraham not only believed God, by this time, he knew God.

  • Well, the point is that this passage indicates that morality is based on the command rather than the character or essential nature of God. I’m trying to show a difficulty with Roger’s position that it is the character or essential nature of God that is the basis for morality. It’s hard to read this passage and conclude otherwise than that it is the command of God that is the basis for it, according to this part of scripture.

  • Jan

    Could it be that you are looking at God’s dealings with Abraham instead of God’s “commandments” to mankind that are universal?

    When we look at the commandments, we know that God is righteous.

    When asked about this,Christ explains it this way in Matthew 22:

    36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    When one looks at the ten commandments nothing is found there that could or would harm another person in any way. Therefore it is easy to conclude that God’s laws are just and moral because he is a just and righteous God. He doesn’t stop there, however, because He knows that we are dust and that we not just and righteous, God also made a way for us to meet every standard that He has set.

    God looked at His creation and found it good before it was defiled by sin. Because of the defilement, a new creation was necessary.

    Finish, then, thy new creation;
    pure and spotless let us be.
    Let us see thy great salvation
    perfectly restored in thee;
    changed from glory into glory,
    till in heaven we take our place,
    till we cast our crowns before thee,
    lost in wonder, love, and praise.
    Charles Wesley, 1707-1788

  • Ok… I hope you will try to see this post and my comments in terms of the discussion over the theory of objective morality and where it can inheres. The question isn’t about the character of God or about the commands of God. It is about where a theory of objective morality can find grounding. Roger Morris suggests that it must ultimately be grounded in God’s character, rather than his command. One of the several problems with this view is that scripturally, when Abraham must choose between following one or the other, he is said to be right in following the command instead of a universal moral principle that inheres in God’s character. In other words, Roger’s viewpoint may support his apologetic contentions, but it is inconsistent with scripture – as scripture finds the ultimate grounding for morality in God’s commands rather than his character. There are other problems with that view than the scriptural one. Those I addressed in a previous post.

    When one looks at the ten commandments nothing is found there that could or would harm another person in any way. Therefore it is easy to conclude that God’s laws are just and moral because he is a just and righteous God.

    This view is a perfectly good and correct one, but it undermines the apologetic case that Roger Morris was initially making. He suggests that believers in the supernatural have a special advantage: that they can ground their morality objectively. The problem with his view is that, if we take your approach and find God’s law just and moral because we can evaluate that law and find that there is nothing in it that can harm another person in any way, then we are implicitly acknowledging the existence of a moral standard against which God’s commandments can be evluated. “That we must not harm people” must already be known to be “good” before we can say that by this standard, God’s law is moral and just! If we know, objectively and universally, that it is wrong to harm people – such that we can say of God’s command that it is moral and just because it does not require anyone to be harmed – then that must be true no matter whether God exists or not.

    All this said, I have to point out that I’m not sure either program works. As desirable as it is to find some universal, objective, moral law – it may be impossible to justify it philosophically no matter whether or not one is a theist. It may be necessary to ground moral philosophy in something less universal and objective, but more down to earth and real.

    But, the key issue is the claim that the theist is better positioned to contrive an objective and universal morality than the atheist. In order for the theist program to work, there must exist a standard independent of theism that works. If that standard exists, then the atheist can ground morality universally and objectively upon it just as well as the theist can. If it does not exist, then the theist’s hopes of grounding morality universally and objectively are also dashed.

  • Jan

    I confess that I did not read the background material. Please forgive.

    Could you state the conundrum another way by simply asking is there any basis for morality outside of God’s law or “What is ‘good’?”

  • I did that in this post. In brief, I am refuting an argument that says we can have moral objectivity with, and only with, a theistic grounding. Instead, I say it is equally difficult to establish a coherent moral system objectively either way – grounded in God’s law (or God’s character) or grounded in some other abstraction. Further, the difficulties of moral objectivity are no less troublesome than those of relativism. There are good reasons for seeking an objectivist meta-ethics, and reasons that it is difficult to. There are good reasons for seeking a relativist meta-ethics, and reasons that this is also difficult.

  • [...] morality is discussed in two unsigned posts: “Euthyphro’s Lament” and the briefer “One Other Thing” (in which the author promises that this is “the Absolute Bloody Final word from me” on [...]

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