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The Goodness of Good

It’s a busy week around here, so apologies for the lack of original posts.  In the meantime, I continue to come across interesting articles and posts discussing the justification for/origins of our moral intuitions (which has been the subject of conversation around here for the last little while).  Here are a few quotes on these matters from the eminently quotable David Bentley Hart who last week wrote this essay for First Things’ On the Square:

The real question of the moral life, at least as far as philosophical “warrant” is at issue, is not whether one personally needs God in order to be good, but whether one needs God in order for the good to be good. This is something that [philosopher Joel] Marks fails to address when he talks of God simply as a “commander,” rather than as the summum bonum that makes a moral metaphysics possible.

It is simply the case that belief in a real and eternal “goodness-as-such”—which has the power to draw all persons together in a communion of love and knowledge, and which is more than merely a fiction of the individual will—makes it easier for many to devote themselves indefatigably, even blissfully, to the labor of selfless love. In the absence of that conviction, even the hardiest altruistic unbeliever will still at some level tend to hold to a practical certitude regarding the reality of good and evil. This is the implicit theology within all moral longing—an assertion that annoys atheists, perhaps, but true nevertheless….

Choose whichever you like—standard utilitarianism, Rawls’s theory of justice, attempts to ground moral thinking in evolutionary biology or neurophysiology—you will always find, if you subject your preferred ethical naturalism to sufficiently unflinching scrutiny, that at some primal and irreducible point it must simply presume a movement of good will, an initial moral impulse that, with a kind of ghostly Gödelian elusiveness, can never be contained within the moral system it sustains. All the polyphony of nature falls mute when asked to produce one substantial imperative, unless one believes (explicitly or tacitly) that the voice of nature has its origin and consummation in the voice of God.

I think Hart is absolutely right here.  One frequently hears howls of protest when some variation of the claim that God is necessary to ground morality is made.  Usually, this claim is followed by one or both of, a) How pathetic that you require the threat of a punitive God watching your behaviour in order to behave morally; and b) Of course we don’t need God to be good because I don’t believe in God and I am a good person.  Yet neither one of these protestations really gets at the point.

In the first case, while the threat of punishment is no doubt a real motivator for some, the much bigger question is, as Hart says, what makes a “moral metaphysics” possible in the first place?  What is the source of that “initial moral impulse” that inclines us toward “the good?”

In the second case, the question is not about behaviour but about justification and logical consistency.  We all operate with an implicit (or, sometimes, explicit) metaphysics or theology—a “practical certitude,” to borrow Hart’s language—that guides our behaviour.

A well-behaved atheist is no more (or less) of an argument against God as the source of our conceptions of the good than a poorly-behaved believer.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. EDH #

    This is gold.

    “It is simply the case that belief in a real and eternal “goodness-as-such”—which has the power to draw all persons together in a communion of love and knowledge, and which is more than merely a fiction of the individual will—makes it easier for many to devote themselves indefatigably, even blissfully, to the labor of selfless love. In the absence of that conviction, even the hardiest altruistic unbeliever will still at some level tend to hold to a practical certitude regarding the reality of good and evil. This is the implicit theology within all moral longing—an assertion that annoys atheists, perhaps, but true nevertheless….”

    That really strikes it.

    Our existence as a species is a spec on the time frame of infinity, yet we all face the same destiny, death. If we do good or bad we die and will be forgotten, the people who do remember also will die and be forgotten – no one will care and we won’t be here, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. If we find the fountain of youth all the stars will eventually burn out, why be moral, in the end it is all meaningless.

    Sure, it is good for the sake of being good to your neighbors. But your neighbors are likely just going to squander your goodness and it goes to pot anyways. Even if it does benefit them, most morality and value we try to pass on will likely be held with scorn, because goodness is then relative to the individual – that makes morality as form of gift pretty hard give to another.

    Makes me think of Ecclesiastes. Such a good depressing book 🙂

    October 20, 2010
    • Ecclesiastes is a favourite of mine, too :).

      October 21, 2010
  2. Tyler Brown #

    This is all fine and good, and very good points. Ones that i’d agree with. We can call the impulse whatever we like, my preference is the unmovable mover, you can call it God, but the problem occurs when the Christian teachings seem to be at odds with this impulse. This is where people like the unholy trinity seem to start, although they go way off in some other direction. As you have posted before Ryan, there initial concerns are those of goodness.

    Now, I understand there is many fractions in Christianity, as there is with pretty much anything human. But some of the teachings are so very not good. So much hate is born out the anti gay movement etc.

    We all have out different perspectives, Nietzsche is very right about this, but many other philosophies ask us to use reason to try and overcome these. Is the Christian perspective not just another story built upon the impulse? One more perspective and flavour? Not to say it is a bad perspective, lots of it is good and reasonable, but some of it is hard to swallow and reason with.

    I hope this doesn’t come across in a manner I do not intend it to. I don’t wish to say faith is unreasonable or anything like that – in fact in may respects it seems more reasonable than the societies current secular tendencies.

    October 21, 2010
    • James #

      “Is the Christian perspective not just another story built upon the impulse? ” IMO that’s THE question, Tyler. There are a million [infinite?] possible explanations for any phenomena- including goodness. The fact that plausible explanations exist does not make them IT. Frankly even the most plausible explanation does not make it IT. I do however believe that there is an IT. Aristotle’s Prime Mover seems inadequate- but that’s just me.

      October 21, 2010
      • Tyler Brown #

        May I ask what you find inadequate?

        October 21, 2010
      • James #

        The key word is “seems”. Somewhere along the way the absence of “person” in Aristotle’s Prime Mover failed to resonate- though I did give it a good try. The logical simplicity and beauty of Aristotle’s concept is almost worth worshipping 🙂 but for me a God that creates man in His own image makes more intuitive sense. In the end when I had no recourse but to pray- it didn’t occur that prayer to a Prime Mover made any sense- so I prayed to the God Who Might Be There.
        There of course are significant logical problems with intuition as a justification. I wonder, however, if at the end of the day that’s where the argument finally ends- coming to terms with one’s intuition. O course that doesn’t preclude serious philosophical wrestling.

        October 21, 2010
      • Tyler Brown #

        Fair enough James, really enjoyed the response. At the end of the day we have to make a choice as reason runs out of options. I watched the Matrix yesterday, number two, and there is a scene where the architect of the Matrix describes choice as being the fundamental problem of the human condition, at least in the sense of designing a reality.

        October 22, 2010
      • At the end of the day we have to make a choice as reason runs out of options.

        Well said, Tyler.

        October 22, 2010
  3. Excellent quote. Hart seems to be making a very Wittgensteinian point – God is not a object or proposition in a long chain of moral arguments, but one of the ‘rules’ assumed by this particular language-game that makes it ‘work’.

    October 21, 2010
    • I hadn’t thought of it in Wittgensteinian terms, but I like how you’ve put it Michael! Very well said.

      October 21, 2010
  4. EDH #

    James is on to something there as well. I might add that if that “person” is Jesus Christ it isn’t only intuition but it is something that can be investigated. As much as we would like to think of things abstractly for the benefit of those on the outside looking in, I think its more efficient (for lack of better term at this hour) to see how that lines up, or moves us toward, the concrete person of Jesus.

    “I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.” St. Augustine

    October 22, 2010
    • Great quote. Thanks for sharing it.

      October 22, 2010

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