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Sometimes the comics are more about profound truth than humor.

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(Originally posted at LJ.)
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A few days ago, I posted about the topic of God and goodness. Dan Fincke replied with lots of good points that need to be addressed (and I hope to get around to a few of them as time permits – unfortunately it's tight these days), but one in particular jumped out. Dan said he didn't see much about what I thought re: God's moral goodness. So I want to address that first.

I don't believe in a God that is morally good. In my previous post I drew a distinction between what I called moral goodness and ontological goodness, and I do think God is ontologically good but not morally good. So perhaps some definitions are in order. I defined moral goodness as the kind of thing we should praise. Having thought about it some more, I think I prefer a formulation more along the lines of Jaime in Dan's dialogue: effectiveness relationships in the natural world, with the proviso that they are effective toward achieving the kind of things humans ought to do (that lead us to become good humans, that complement and enable our human nature, etc.) Ontological goodness, on the other hand has to do with perfection and completeness. A car with a dent in the bumper is less ontologically good than a car without a dented bumper, for example.

I'm sure this will be controversial. So maybe I should explain more carefully what I mean. In my original post I said that I hadn't thought a lot about the story of the massacre of the Canaanites, which Dan had described as "intellectually responsible." I'd put it more in terms of being psychologically realistic. I have thought a great deal about the problem of pain (or theodicy) but not about the problem of how God could have done bad things in the past. There are issues there, technical philosophical issues that I don't think I can really address, and so I was trying to acknowledge that.

But the reason I haven't thought them through is simply because I don't think we have to turn to the past to find situations that everyone should agree were morally repugnant if they were done by a human. Once you see a dying child who has a cancer not because of something he's done to contract it but just because, you don't need to go much further for evidence that God can't be morally good. And then there's the larger scale. Droughts that take out entire regions. A human psyche that allows for things like "corrective rape" and extreme "disciplining" that leads to children's deaths. These things shock me, so much that I cannot think of anyone who would allow them as morally good.

But I have philosophical reasons as well. Probably the biggest one comes from the definition of "good" Dan proposed in his dialogue. Dan had Jaime define goodness as effectiveness relationships in the natural world. It is good to give to charity because this is a good way of eliminating suffering, something that is essential not just for our comfort but also if we're to become the best humans we can. (As the Jewish proverb goes, where there is no bread, there is no Torah.) I understand those effectiveness-relationships to be important because we need them. If we were entirely self-sufficient and perfectly good there would be no need to be in any kind of relationship with anything else that was an effective way to reach any goal.

It's also worth pointing out that even if there was some goal that God needed an effective way to reach, it wouldn't be the kind of good that a human needs to reach. I take this to mean that the ends that are good for humans would not be good for God, and so God would not be any less good for not acting in a way that would be good for humans to do. (I don't think this boils down to a kind of relativism or subjectivism, by the way. It is still an objective feature of the world that human flourishing is best-served through community and the social obligations that carries along with it (including the obligation to give to charity). Our brains are hard-wired to do well under those circumstances. But it is an objective fact about the world that is not actually effective to helping God be the best God He can be. First of all, because that implies some kind of change is necessary (or even possible); and second, because if such a need did exist, it would be a very different kind of need than our own needs as humans.

There's also the fact that I'm all too aware of the problem of language when describing God. Think of what we mean when we say, for example, "blue." The two most common accounts are that language is innate (in which case it's something we grasp in our minds even before we see the first blue thing), or else it's something we learn through the process of abstraction. Basically, you see several blue things, hear people make that sound of blue, and you look for a similarity between the objects to connect that sound to. Then in the future when you see an object with that same trait you can label it as blue. The problem is that most people who believe in God would say He isn't made of components the things we used to get our concepts from are made from, so any quality our words pick out aren't the kind of thing you'd expect to find in God. Now, God's not blue because He doesn't have a material body. But He's also not powerful, in the same way an A-Bomb or an earthquake is. Because the concept we derive from those experiences simply isn't the kind of thing that applies to God. It's a category mistake to ask whether God is good or evil.

That does leave some pretty big questions, I know. For one, it doesn't really match up with the claims the Gospel presents of a loving God, no need to fear for tomorrow, etc. And even if God has no obligation to be good, we certainly are entitled to say "this action You did is wrong," meaning it gets in the way rather than promoting those effectiveness relationships Jaime was talking about. The only way this is a problem, though, is if you suggest God has a special duty to promote human well-being as opposed to astral well-being or oak tree well-being or whatever. Expecting that seems to put some serious limitations on what God can and cannot do, which conflicts the standard picture of God. All of which makes me think that a world where God directly obeyed human standards of morality wouldn't be a God at all.

It's a grim picture, I'll admit, but it's honestly the only way I can see for the kind of God Christians claim they believe in to exist. I actually do think there's room for a healthy kind of love on this picture, the kind that doesn't ask me to destrioy who I am for your sake or for the sake of the relationship. If it is truly impossible for God to follow human morality without ceasing to be God, then I don't see a problem in saying a loving God would not change reality for our point but would support us as we have to live through it.

This is a topic that can't be answered fully in a blog post, I don't think. (It's a topic we've been struggling with since Epicurus.) I'll keep pegging at it as time allows since it is important, and I may well change my position as I continue to think about things. But, as for right now, those are my thoughts on God and moral goodness.

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As an aside, the title comes from Epicurus's famous statement of the problem of evil (as laid out by Hume): Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?



(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Over at his blog, my friend Dan Fincke posted a link to an editorial by the inimitable Ta-Nehisi Coates. I agree with Dan: the whole editorial is a must-read for people wo like thinking about these things.

Short version of the Coates piece: many people discussing the Civil War consider the war itself a tragedy because of the loss of life; Mr. Coates wonders whether we shouldn't be celebrating it along the same lines of the Revolutionary War or World War II: a lot of suffering that was necessary for some greater good. As Dan frames it in the title of his post, "Should We Celebrate The Civil War With Hot Dogs and Fireworks?"

I feel quite strongly that we shouldn't. Of course, I've always felt pretty strongly that we shouldn't be celebrating any war (and, as Dan's commenter James Sweet rightly points out, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence rather than the Revolutionary War). But I think there's a deeper point to be made here, too. Even if the Civil War was necessary for a greater good, we should still not be celebratory. The thought of thousands dying beneath Antietam's sun should invoke a kind of horror.

Over the holidays I saw a Law and Order: SVU episode, "Harm," for the first time. The reviews online are pretty low, and I'll grant that it has almost nothing to do with sex and at times came off as being propagandish. But the plot did make me think. In it, there's this medical doctor who was engaged as a scientist to devise "torture light" - pressure poses, psychological tactics, and other things that would make people easier to break during interrogation. An ex-detainee had been murdered by a military contractor gone rogue, but said contractor had fled the jurisdiction. The doctor he worked with was left behind, and they wanted to try the doctor for setting in motion the torture that led to a detainee's death.

The doctor was more than a bit mystified by how what she had done could be considered murder, or even immoral. She was saving lives, she wasn't torturing them or even aiding anything as extreme as what the Taliban was probably doing to Americans. And she wasn't the detainees' doctor, she was a consulting scientist. But she was using her knowledge of the human body - gained so she could alleviate suffering - to cause pain and bodily harm. She knew just how much stress a person could go through in a certain position so they wouldn't be able to choose what to say any more, and she taught men with guns how to do it.

By the end of the episode, I was a bit horrified at the good doctor. Not because of what she had done but because she had no remorse. I'm thinking about something David Hume wrote - that reasons guide our emotions but that our emotions are what actually drives us to act or not to act in a certain way. We should be horrified when we have to kill someone or harm them in other ways. Even if that harm ends up being for the greater good. Because without the revulsion we won't think things through and we'll do evil too easily. War should be hard.

I have no problem with people celebrating the Declaration of Independence, or for that matter the emancipation of slavery. But there's something repugnant about thinking someone would want to celebrate Antietam. When that kind of thing happens, I think we've really started lose perspective.

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Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.

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