Philosophy against Misosophy



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Is Something Good Because God Commands It? 

Or Does God Command It Because It Is Good?  

Q: K-Ci asked: Why is the moral disposition of (the Christian) God in the Old Testament of the Bible diffe-rent from that of Jesus' in the New Testament?  God in the Old Testament allowed killing (for instance, Mo-ses killing the Egyptians) while Jesus won't even lift a hand to any sinner.  God gave Moses "thou shall not kill" as one of the 10 commandments yet He himself allowed such acts.  For this reason, isn't "good" high-er than God? Is something good because God com-mands it, or does God command it because it is good?

A: K-Ci leads with a literary question that poses a problem for any theology that takes the literary lite-rally.  It is, however, no more a philosophical ques-tion than is, for example, “Why is Peter O’Toole’s por-trayal of Henry II in the 1964 film Becket different from his portrayal of that monarch four years later in A Lion in Winter?”

K-Ci’s next question is philosophical, but it requires parsing.  “Higher” implies comparison, which implies commensurability.  If God is an actual being (some-thing that can act) and “good” is a term of judgment (which cannot act), neither can be “higher” than the other, because an actual entity and a term of judg-ment are incommensurable.

In K-Ci's second paragraph, the classic conundrum finally surfaces.  One’s metaphysics will determine how one resolves it.  Partly following Brand Blanshard (Reason and Ethics), I apply the judgment “good” only to an actual being that both satisfies a desire and fulfills an impulse of a subject (also actual). 

Neither desire-satisfaction nor impulse-fulfillment alone meets the conditions of our judging something “good.”  The subject’s nature and the wider (ulti-mately cosmic) causal context within which it is situ-ated determine what is possibly good for it.

Embedded in the conundrum is another metaphy-sical question.  It asks whether God is unilaterally responsible for the metaphysical situation. In classi-cal theism, God apparently is so responsible. 

That is, classical theists are disinclined to suggest, for example, that God “finds” Godself in the meta-physical situation, which God has no choice but to exemplify.  Such a suggestion would grate against their religious sensibility with its notion of God’s majesty. 

They say that God never violates the laws of logic, but only because logic is not other than God’s na-ture.  Logic, they say, is not something “external” to God. 

They use such locutions as “God does not look out-side himself” to ascertain what is intelligible, rational, or goodas if “looking inside himself” would give God any more discretionary control over the intelligible, the rational, or the good.

I would appreciate learning of one text of classical theism that states or implies that God’s nature is as much under God’s sovereign control as is the cos-mos.  If it is notif God is “stuck,” so to speak,” with God’s nature as we are with oursthen God is not responsible for the metaphysical situation.

Indeed, according to classical theism as I under-stand it, before God exnihilates the cosmos God is the whole metaphysical situation.  Before God can do anything in accordance with God’s nature, that nature must be a datum (a “given”) for God.  God’s nature is therefore not under God’s sovereign control.  Not even God can alter God’s nature or anni-hilate its sole instance (“commit suicide”).

With that foot in the door, we can now consider whether God might be “forced,” as it were, to consult other data that God did not unilaterally decree.  This will lead us at once to our resolution of the conun-drum.

Classical theism holds that God is the unilateral “exnihilator” (bringer-out-of-nothing) of the cosmos (the widest possible context of all moral decision-making).  This entails that God has settled what is good for any possible subject.  God’s commands (lea-ving wholly aside how they might be known as God’s commands) merely explicate an aspect of that arrangement. 

For if God the exnihilator unilaterally foreordained and then caused-to-be the whole scheme of subjects with desires to be met and impulses to be fulfilled, it is hard to see how “something” could be good––or better, why an injunction must be performed––except that God sovereignly decrees or commands it. 

After all, God willed or commanded into existence the whole context of injunction-performance.  God’s moral relationship to the cosmos as commander to commanded mirrors perfectly his (alleged) metaphy-sical relationship of exnihilator to exnihilated.

Perhaps, however, God is not at all in the injunc-tion-commanding business just because, contrary to the advertisement of God’s public relations firm, he’s not in the cosmos-exnihilating business. 

Perhaps God is in the business of luring subjects into experiences of greater and greater interest (contrast and intensity), which God consequently enjoys with them. The motive here is love.  In a rela-tionship characterized by love, neither lover utterly controls (or would want to control) the other or the situation both find themselves in.

Of course, modern science’s imperative to expunge all aim from the universe rules out any cosmic evolu-tionary hypothesis wherein an end-envisaging and -coordinating agency plays an indispensable role. 

Whatever else that imperative may have going for it, however, it is not itself a discovery of science.  It expresses a philosophic choice that precedes empi-rical inquiry.  Modern science’s effort to explain aim in terms of exhaustive, and aimless, determination by the past has been a failure. 

For to explain aim in terms of the aimless is to explain it away.  That failure justifies subjecting the aforementioned choice to critical scrutiny.  On a view of evolution alternative to the modern, final causality and efficient causality are irreducible to each other and equally indispensable to our understanding of actual things and the cosmos they comprise. 

The atheist has no greater (if unwitting) philosophi-cal ally than the theist who poses the false alterna-tive, “Either classical theism or atheism.” God’s en-visagement of possible goodness (desire-satisfaction plus impulse-fulfillment) guides God’s present provision of initial aims for all other decision-makers.  Each of them responds with (at least some degree of) self-determination, and the result is the creative advance of the cosmos.

So if we are forced to choose between the alter-natives of K-Ci’s question, I would choose “God com-mands it because it is good,” but I would reformulate the question by substituting a metaphysics of love for that of unilateral imposition and command. 


Anthony Flood

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