There’s No Balancing This Moral Equation: Human Well-Being Doesn’t Explain Human Morality

BillB left some thoughtful comments about morality and well-being on my recent post, “Naturalistic Atheism Is An Extraordinarily Strange and Unlikely Worldview.” I started to answer him there, but it turned into a long blog post’s worth of material. Since I started out addressing it in the second person to BillB, I’m posting it here in that form, but this is for all to read and respond to.

Greetings, BillB, and thanks for commenting.

Your idea of right is that it is “that which increases the well being of humans (or other sentient beings);” and wrong is the opposite of that: that which produces gratuitous suffering.

That’s a commonly held position. I just want to introduce you to some of its complications.

Some Things We Agree On

First, though,  we agree on certain moral facts. I do not think a person needs to be a believer in God to know these moral facts to be true, or to act morally in accord with those facts. My view is that a belief in God is required to be able to explain how or why they are true. A person can be moral with or without that belief, but without it no one can explain why morality is good or necessary. They just know that it is.

That’s background. I need to restate it often because this argument is frequently misunderstood as saying “Atheists can’t be moral.”

What Makes Human Well-Being Not Just Human Well-Being?

Your biggest problem is in equating “right” with “promotes human well-being.” As I understand it, that view smuggles in an unexplained layer: “Right is what promotes human well-being, and human well-being is right.

I think your argument makes that hidden move, and when it does, it becomes tautological; you can just drop the word “right” completely out of it: “Promoting human well-being promotes human well-being.” Unless you can explain what makes human well-being right, you aren’t explaining much about ethics. You’re just talking about well-being.

Good for What?

You can say, “We all know that human well-being is good.” I would agree. We know it. Good for what? I think you might say, for human pleasure, fulfillment, absence of pain, etc. Those are practically synonymous with well-being, though, so they don’t do much more but define the problem better than before. We know what makes human pleasure or absence of pain desirable to humans, but that doesn’t explain yet what makes it right.

Now at this point I’ve heard people say (with a straight face!) “Well, if you don’t know that it’s right, then there’s something very deeply wrong with you!” They don’t realize that my position is that we all know that it’s right, and that I can explain what makes it right, but I don’t think you can. You can explain that it’s desirable, but not that desirability makes it right.

Making All the Other Moral Views Wrong

Maybe desirability actually equals rightness, and vice versa. I’ve heard some people try that approach. But that does a strange thing: it turns a moral term into a pleasure term; a moral concept into a pleasure concept. If that’s what “right” is, then pretty much every civilization everywhere at all times has been wrong about “right;” for the normal conception of “right” includes the idea that it’s right to do right regardless of the pain or pleasure consequences that may be predicted from that action. (See Joyce, cited here.)

The Utilitarian Calculus

There’s also a raft of problems associated with what’s called the utilitarian calculus. Is it always right to increase the pleasure of sentient beings? Well, what if Smith’s enslaving Jones and Wilson results in his pleasure increasing by a factor of ten? It seems that could only be wrong if he enslaved at least ten men, not two. You might object to the way I do the arithmetic here, but if you do, you’ll demonstrate my point anyway: no one knows the right equation, and there’s something obviously objectionable about even asking the question anyway. But your theory of increasing pleasure seems to require asking it in some form or another.

Easy Cases Aren’t Much Help

Sam Harris tries to move past that problem (and also a previously mentioned one, “But you know what’s right!”) by pointing out that we all know it’s better to be healthy than to be sick. Sure. Easy cases are easy. Is it better for a thousand people to be more healthy based on cruel and involuntary medical experimentation done upon a hundred? I don’t think so, and neither do you.

But how about a half a million people being much healthier based on long, torturously cruel research done on ten screaming six-year old children? The arithmetic is clear: if greater well-being is right, then torture the girl! But we all know that’s wrong. The whole ethical foundation is wrong.

You might say that there’s something about the kids’ suffering that multiplies their weight on the moral calculus just because it’s gratuitous suffering. But one could argue in return, “How is it gratuitous if it helps so many hundreds of thousands of people?”

“My Pleasure Counts More Than Your Pleasure”

Later you add,

I consider well being to mean simply “pleasure” and gratuitous suffering to mean “pain”; both in the straightforward physical sense.

This is hardly as straightforward as you suppose. What’s more pleasurable: a Bach Brandenburg Concerto or a heavy metal song? For some people it’s the latter. I would say they don’t know what real musical pleasure and enjoyment are. The world would contain more real pleasure if we would all listen to the greats, and it would contain less false pleasure if people would quit listening to hip-hop. My pleasure is more real than yours.

Okay, I don’t actually believe that! I wrote it in the first person because I wanted you to catch it with the full snobbish force of a first-person statement. The point is, even defining pleasure is difficult, which makes it a very hard standard to use for “right.” The example could be extended to other areas of life even more consequential than music.

How Do You Balance Well-Being Points In Actual Tough Cases?

And even though you think problems like these can be solved:

But in my experience many of these contrived scenarios ignore factors that make the proposed trade not so “justified” after all (e.g. debilitating guilt for the “many”; reduced future trust in others; a slippery-slope tendency to allow greater evil in future; a failure to truly consider all available options; etc).

What about the trade-off between a woman’s desire to control her own body, and the baby’s place in the world of human beings? How will you calculate that on your principle? Do you know the right number to assign to each?

What about gay couples’ desire to marry, and the damaging effect on future generations that could come from diluting the meaning of marriage and family today? Do you know what numbers to assign to each of those? If your point is that no one knows, that’s my point, too! Yet everyone seems to be saying there’s a moral dimension to allowing gay marriage. How do you make that computation?

I expect you’ll say you have an opinion. I also expect that upon examination we’ll find that some of it is based on arbitrary assignments of value.

What if Donald Trump decides to put all Muslim immigrants through extreme vetting. Many people think that would be wrong. How do you calculate the costs and benefits there? It’s one thing to say it would be imprudent, or poor foreign policy, or ineffective, or disrespectful of Muslims, or lots of other things.

But how do you count up the points to call it a net reduction in human well-being — especially since part of the calculus must include an important unknown: the extremely low-probability but extremely high-impact risk that any of those immigrants might be planning to bomb a few thousand Americans?

These things aren’t the least bit obvious on a well-being-based moral calculus. And they’re not trivial, either.

Objectivity Without Explanation

So now I think I’m in a position to answer your statement, “You might accuse me of making up these definitions arbitrarily, but IMO everyone accepts them implicitly.” I think we all accept them implicitly as a heuristic for thinking through some of our more obvious moral decisions — since reducing pain and increasing well-being are two concepts that map onto “the good” pretty successfully for obvious moral situations, if not for all cases. As you say,

But if it were possible to objectively and reliably decide between actions that cause pleasure and those that cause pain, why would anyone choose the latter? I think there is enough common ground among people to formulate a useful moral model.

Indeed. When it’s easy it’s easy, and most of the time there’s a good match between those kinds of decisions and those that we call “moral.” But they don’t define morality either exhaustively or completely accurately.

What Does It Actually Mean That It’s Human Nature?

You try to root the goodness of human well-being in objective human nature. This is harder than you might suppose. When you say,

I can’t help but try to avoid suffering because it is a core part of what makes me human. And all of us are in the same boat.

If we can’t help it, what makes it a moral thing rather than a determined/driven thing?

“Objective” and “Intrinsic”

Besides, this is just a way of saying, “we know objectively that humans have a preference for well-being;” which is true, but it doesn’t add anything to the argument except for the word “objective. I could have inserted “objective” in all the right places above and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.

I don’t take “intrinsic” to mean that some action could be good in a vacuum, in and of itself. In a universe devoid of sentient beings there can be no such thing as a “good” (or “evil”) action. An action can only be good to someone, and what makes it good is precisely that it increases well-being or avoids gratuitous suffering.

Christianity posits God as something not quite like a sentient being, for he is a being of mind and thought and emotion and triune relationship but not of sensation — but this could get very complicated so I won’t go any further with it. Suffice to say that Christianity understands goodness to be an aspect of the essence of God, before and beyond all time and space. This is not goodness in a vacuum, but no other sentient creature is necessary for it to be real.

But the question had to do with this word “intrinsic.” Normally if you perform a free act of self-sacrificial love, our view of it would be that there is goodness not only in the effect but in the very action itself. The act is good not just because of its effects but because it is in itself good. That’s a normal way human way to view such things. That’s what I’m referring to as acts being intrinsically good. If you think the goodness is entirely in the effect, and none of it in the act, then you are thinking counter to the way humans have thought about such things for a very, very long time.

Force-Fitting Human Morality Into An Equation

Human well-being matches a lot of what we intuitively know about what’s right and wrong — in the easy cases.  It almost makes sense as a moral explanatory principle. The more you try to get it to fit all of human experience,  though, the more you have to pound it into shape with a sledge hammer. You have to force-fit it. (Or else you have to pound human experience into another shape to fit the principle, which is even worse.)

There’s a more natural-fitting option for those who want to know about it.

Comments

  1. Ilion

    Christianity posits God as something not quite like a sentient being, for he is a being of mind and thought and emotion and triune relationship but not of sensation — but this could get very complicated so I won’t go any further with it. Suffice to say that Christianity understands goodness to be an aspect of the essence of God, before and beyond all time and space. This is not goodness in a vacuum, but no other sentient creature is necessary for it to be real.

    Is this quote of your own words enough for you to see that (as most people do), in almost every use of the word, you’re misusing the word ‘sentient’ to mean ‘sapient’?

    Think of it this way: a slug is sentient, but it is not sapient.

  2. scbrownlhrm

    Ilion,

    Sam Harris uses sentient in his debate with W.L. Craig and does not reject its use and that is because the machine of reproduction just forces “life period”, as it were. And “that” is, inexplicably, cosmically and irreducibly “good”. Watch out for that word irreducible. The cosmically illusory awaits. Suffering layers in atop that, and, houses all the same illusory content.

  3. scbrownlhrm

    Context: As for the irreducible contours of timeless reciprocity within the immutable love of the Necessary Being’s uncanny Trinitarian processions, well, the cosmic-ultimate which such affords the moral landscape is quite another matter. The Self-Giving is, we find, indestructible – eternal – or as some say, such is the “Always” and “Already” with respect to reality’s indestructible rock-bottom.

  4. Post
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    Tom Gilson

    Ilion, sure, that’s a better word for it in the first usage at least, but the word I was responding to from BillB was “sentient.” God is not a sentient being in the normal sense of the term.

  5. Post
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  6. John B. Moore

    We must distinguish between the short-term narrow view and the long-term ultimate view. Getting a tooth pulled is undesirable in the short term but overwhelmingly more desirable in the long term. So it’s clear that some short-term good is undesirable.

    On the other hand, ultimate good must be desirable, right? If spending eternity with God in heaven is not desirable, then Christian morality falls to pieces.

    You must admit that the ultimate good is ultimately desirable. And in that sense, the good equals the desirable.

  7. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Not exactly. The good maps on to the desirable; the good has the property of being desirable and the truly desirable has the property of being good; but they are not synonymous.

  8. John B. Moore

    The good is not exactly the same as the desirable because there’s something standing behind it all and causing it to be so, right? I think we agree on that point.

    I think our disagreement is about what stands behind it all. You think the good is because of God, whereas I think it’s because of evolution.

  9. Post
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    Tom Gilson

    I think that’s a pretty fair statement. I can’t imagine how evolution could produce the good, though, so maybe you could help me with that.

  10. G. Rodrigues

    @Tom Gilson:

    You can see here the following comment by John Moore:

    Yes, it looks like Genghis Khan was one of the most moral guys ever. He was a lucky individual whose special genius matched the times he lived in. On the other hand, I don’t think we can draw any lessons from Genghis Khan’s life. Trying to imitate him probably wouldn’t work, especially in these modern times.

    Yes, you read it right, according to John Moore, “Genghis Khan was one of the most moral guys ever”. Why? This bit came in answer to this question:

    OK, I understand your definition of happiness. I guess Genghis Khan was the happiest guy ever since 1 in 200 people alive today are his descendants.

    But would you rate him the most moral guy ever?

    Because Genghis Khan had a bunch of kids. Trick question: does John Moore think abortion is immoral? At any rate, my point here in digging this stuff is to say I do not think your disagreements with John Moore reduce to a disagreement about who or what is the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.

  11. Post
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  12. BillT

    I do not think a person needs to be a believer in God to know these moral facts to be true, or to act morally. My view is that a belief in God is required to be able to explain how or why they are true.

    Well, what if Smith’s enslaving Jones and Wilson results in his pleasure increasing by a factor of ten? It seems that could only be wrong if he enslaved at least ten men, not two.

    Tom,

    Thanks for a really thorough treatment of this aspect of the moral debate, as it were. The above seem the crux of the issue. How many questions like this have we posited and had our interlocutors not even understand why this kind of question was posed and what weakness in their arguments it attempts to expose.

  13. BillB

    @Tom

    Thanks for the extended interaction with my comments.

    TL;DR: I think you raise some interesting objections, ones I can’t fully answer. But I also doubt that introducing a god avoids the same issues.

    I think your argument makes that hidden move, and when it does, it becomes tautological; you can just drop the word “right” completely out of it: “Promoting human well-being promotes human well-being.” Unless you can explain what makes human well-being right, you aren’t explaining much about ethics. You’re just talking about well-being.

    Any moral system rests ultimately on basic facts that are circular or otherwise unexplained. Yours is no exception. As you say later, “Christianity understands goodness to be an aspect of the essence of God”. Good is God, and God is good. Whatever God says and does is good by definition. But this empties the word “good” of any meaning and reduces to a tautology in exactly the same way (“God is what God is, and God does what God does”).

    When it’s easy it’s easy, and most of the time there’s a good match between those kinds of decisions [that increase well-being] and those that we call “moral.” But they don’t define morality either exhaustively or completely accurately.

    I highly doubt there is any moral system that gives an unambiguous correct answer to every ethical question. But I’m admittedly curious about your point that my system may map to genuinely right actions “pretty successfully … if not for all cases”. Maybe you’re right; I’ll have to think about it some more.

    Again, I don’t see how postulating a god clarifies things. At best a god could teach us what is best for us (i.e., what maximises our well-being and minimises gratuitous suffering) in a way that we cannot discover on our own.

    If that’s what “right” is, then pretty much every civilization everywhere at all times has been wrong about “right;” for the normal conception of “right” includes the idea that it’s right to do right regardless of the pain or pleasure consequences that may be predicted from that action.

    True, but only because it turns out that, after millennia of experience, human societies function better, with improved well-being for all, when people behave rightly even when it doesn’t immediately benefit them.

    But how do you count up the points to call it a net reduction in human well-being — especially since part of the calculus must include an important unknown: the extremely low-probability but extremely high-impact risk that any of those immigrants might be planning to bomb a few thousand Americans?

    These things aren’t the least bit obvious on a well-being-based moral calculus. And they’re not trivial, either.

    But your system doesn’t have clear answers to the above questions either. We don’t have God here to tell us the correct answers for the difficult questions. We have only a 2000-year old holy book and the interpretations that men make of it. Ask ten Christians of different denominations what the correct answer is to the above ethical conundrums and you’re likely to get ten different answers.

    Far better, IMO, to reason the answers for ourselves and use science to tell us when we are reasoning incorrectly. With “maximal well-being and minimised suffering” as our goal, it seems our best chance of getting to where we want to be.

    If we can’t help [pursuing well-being and avoiding suffering], what makes it a moral thing rather than a determined/driven thing?

    Assigning a label “good” to God’s essence without first defining the term leaves you in the same boat. Why should we care what is “good” for God? Is it because what God wants ultimately increases our well-being also? Or because ignoring God’s will results in gratuitous suffering? It seems to me that your model at best boils down to mine.

    Normally if you perform a free act of self-sacrificial love, our view of it would be that there is goodness not only in the effect but in the very action itself. The act is good not just because of its effects but because it is in itself good. That’s a normal way human way to view such things.

    I’m not sure I agree with this. If I were the only sentient being in the universe, would it be possible to perform an act of self-sacrificial love? It seems the concept would be meaningless without someone to benefit from my act. Maybe I’m just getting into the semantic weeds here, but it seems to me that even if acts of self-sacrificial love are intrinsically good, they are good precisely because (and only because) of their benefit for others.

  14. scbrownlhrm

    BillB,

    Is it your claim that when we invent moral axioms we have invented moral facts? Is that what a moral fact is, on your view here?

    Given non-theistic evolution (whatever the word “evolution” is supposed to point to in a nontheistic paradigm) you don’t seem aware of the fact that morality is eternally opened ended.

    Reason, appetites, will, and reality converge in the following:

    Quote:

    Assuming that the meaning of “good” in morality, at least in its most general aspect, is identical to its meaning outside morality, we must appeal to the fulfilment of appetite in defining the fundamental test or primary criterion of moral behavior. But that cannot be the whole story, since as argued earlier, reason and will must be essentially involved in the test. So I propose that what we end up with is the following formula:

    The fundamental test of morality is whether an act is directed by reason to man’s ultimate end.

    Now the ultimate end is just another way of talking about the ultimate appetite or essential tendency (perhaps tendencies/appetites in the plural) the fulfilment of which perfects human nature.

    To appeal to the ultimate end is, from the ontic point of view, to dismiss the idea that there can be an endless series of appetites, each one such that its fulfilment is at the same time the means to the fulfilment of the next one in the series, where the next one will be broader, more general or all-encompassing. To countenance the thought is effectively to deny that human beings can ever fulfil their natures, that they can ever be just good. Apart from the intolerable hopelessness this would inject into morality, it would involve attributing a kind of infinite nature to a manifestly finite being, which verges on metaphysical absurdity. From the practical point of view, the appeal to an ultimate end is just to endorse Aristotle’s famous doctrine that all practical reasoning must find a terminus.

    End quote. (David Oderberg, “All for the Good”)

    Aristotle’s discovery (not invention) properly orients (aims) reason as truth-finder. Or whoever discovered such. Chronological epistemological movements never can define ontological (metaphysical) ownership of ultimate truths. Hence morality before Sinai – because *God*.

    G.R. made the point of no actual nature to fulfil given non-theism, and, it seems such is the case. Reason, will, appetites, and reality find no irreducible moral nature to chase after, to fulfill, to reason towards.

    (Non-Theistic) evolution is eternally open-ended.

    Reason as truth-finder is obligated to chase after *reality* and she is therefore, if no-god, free of obligation to chase after that which does not exist there in reality’s fundamental — irreducible — nature.

    Hume was right after all. And Carroll, Ruse, and Rosenberg with him.

    But you seem to disagree with Hume, Sean Carroll, Michael Ruse, and Rosenberg when it comes to [1] reason (as truth finder) and [2] reality and [3] moral facts.

    Why? I suppose they would grant you your invention of axioms, and yet they still diverge (radically) from your claims here.

    Where did they go wrong?

    Please explain.

    Reality’s fundamental nature just is, given no-god, constituted entirely of nature’s four fundamental — irreducible — forces/waves (strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, gravitational). Where within said nature do you find an irreducible moral nature? Or is it what this question opened with: do you claim that inventing axioms of the moral sort in fact creates moral facts which reason is obligated to chase after contra Hume, Carroll, Ruse, Rosenberg, and a growing tide of newer, younger, and more bold Non-Theists eager to get to the point — eager to follow physics into her eliminative path?

    Please explain.

    PS: We’ll get to reason as truth finder chasing after reality’s irreducible contours of love’s timeless reciprocity later downstream. (Trinity, etc.)

    First though things are not clear on your end. You seem to think you have such an irreducible body of contours (love’s self-giving, love’s reciprocity) which reason (as truth finder) is obligated to chase after in reality’s fundamental nature.

    You also seem to think the Christian does not have such irreducible contours there in reality’s fundamental nature.

    But all of that can be unpacked later. First, it’s just not clear what it is you’re appealing to and why it is you implicitly claim that Hume, Carroll, Ruse, and Rosenberg got it wrong.

  15. Post
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    Tom Gilson

    BillB, thanks for the response.

    You say,

    Good is God, and God is good. Whatever God says and does is good by definition. But this empties the word “good” of any meaning and reduces to a tautology in exactly the same way (“God is what God is, and God does what God does”).

    You say this is the same kind of tautology as, “Promoting human well-being promotes human well-being.” But it isn’t, for two reasons.

    First, when we speak of God we’re speaking of one who is a necessary being. Human well-being is contingent, dependent on what evolution made us (on naturalism), so the good is just what evolution developed us into preferring. To say that God is good, on the other hand, is to say that goodness is eternal and immutable.

    It’s not lacking in content; we have plenty of information from God on what goodness means. It’s also not a tautology, because there’s neither a logical equivalence between “God” and “good,” nor an equivalence of definition; we can speak sensibly of either term without invoking the other in the conversation.

    So my conclusion is that you’re wrong to say that we have the same problems in theism as we do in naturalism. It’s all different. Completely. Now I do agree that there’s much that’s unexplained in God and in God’s essential goodness. That’s because explanation is always in terms of something logically and/or chronologically prior, and there is no expectation or possibility of God being explained in terms of something prior. So this explanatory dead-end is actually something essential to our understanding of reality. There shouldn’t be an explanation for goodness beyond God.

    But when you say that goodness is equal to human well-being, that leads to real, legitimate questions of “how,” “why,” and “in terms of what?” Again, theism is not the same as naturalism, and it doesn’t lead to the same problems.

    At best a god could teach us what is best for us (i.e., what maximises our well-being and minimises gratuitous suffering) in a way that we cannot discover on our own.

    God defines, he doesn’t merely teach. He created us to fit in the design that fits his definition, too.

    You dismiss the moral calculus problem by saying theism has the same problem. You’d better not jump off the topic so quickly. The moral calculus problem pretty much kills utilitarianism (which is what a morality of human well-being is). Meanwhile this begs the question:

    But your system doesn’t have clear answers to the above questions either. We don’t have God here to tell us the correct answers for the difficult questions. We have only a 2000-year old holy book and the interpretations that men make of it.

    God’s word tells us to love sacrificially, to give, to encourage, and so much more. This is not hard to interpret. Of course if there is no God then there is no God’s word, and in that case we’re all left without a moral rudder. What I’m telling you, though, is that if there is a God as revealed in the Bible, then we do have a solution to the moral questions raised here. You can’t sweep that away by saying, “There’s no God.” Part of the point of this discussion is to provide evidence for the reality of God, so to deny the possibility is to beg the question.

    You say Christians will disagree on the answers. Sometimes yes. But on your system there are no moral answers to disagree on. Just human well-being answers, which aren’t the same thing.

    Far better, IMO, to reason the answers for ourselves and use science to tell us when we are reasoning incorrectly. With “maximal well-being and minimised suffering” as our goal, it seems our best chance of getting to where we want to be.

    You have no idea how much you smuggle in from outside science to be able to make that kind of statement. You can’t define well-being without first defining the good, so you can’t use the well-being to define the good. Try it and you’ll find you’re making all kinds of non-scientific assumptions. It just won’t work.

    Assigning a label “good” to God’s essence without first defining the term leaves you in the same boat.

    No, because goodness doesn’t precede God. God defines goodness, in himself and in his creation. This might not be a good answer in that it’s incomplete. If it seems that way to you I’ll understand; you can feel free to ask more but I think I’ve gone long enough, other than this last:

    I’m not sure I agree with this. If I were the only sentient being in the universe, would it be possible to perform an act of self-sacrificial love? It seems the concept would be meaningless without someone to benefit from my act. Maybe I’m just getting into the semantic weeds here, but it seems to me that even if acts of self-sacrificial love are intrinsically good, they are good precisely because (and only because) of their benefit for others.

    This is true only in the impossible what-if sense that you’ve set up, where there is no one in the universe to give yourself to in complete love. God being a Trinity has never been in the position of never being able to express and experience love: there is love between the 3 Persons, and this is eternally the case. God did not actually practice self-sacrificial love to its ultimate until the Cross, but he always possessed love to the degree that he expressed at that time.

  16. scbrownlhrm

    Tom,

    “God did not actually practice self-sacrificial love to its ultimate until the Cross, but he always possessed love to the degree that he expressed at that time.”

    It’s not obvious that God is actualized less so without the freely chosen creative act and more so with the freely chosen creative act. Privation in God just is the Great I AM. Of course, such cannot be true of privation in any contingent (or unitarian) being. Being’s infinite outpouring in total and Being’s infinite infilling in total becomes — but for Trinity — a metaphysical absurdity. It’s uncanny what Trinity in fact explains, what conundrums Trinity in fact dissolves.

    Love’s timeless reciprocity presses in amid indestructible self-giving.

  17. scbrownlhrm

    In fact, Being in Trinity is the metaphysical wellspring of all ontological possibility.

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  19. BillB

    @Tom,

    Thanks for the reply. Sorry for the delay — I’ve been out of town with work.

    To say that God is good, on the other hand, is to say that goodness is eternal and immutable … But when you say that goodness is equal to human well-being, that leads to real, legitimate questions of “how,” “why,” and “in terms of what?” Again, theism is not the same as naturalism, and it doesn’t lead to the same problems.

    Goodness can’t exist in a vacuum. Something can only be good to or for someone. If God exists, then I agree that whatever is good for Him is “eternal and immutable”, because He is eternal and immutable. But all this only repeats, in other words, is that some things are good for God.

    But so what? As sentient beings we are concerned with what is good for us. If God “created us to fit in the design that fits his definition [of good]” then great — all you’re saying (as I understand it) is that following God’s will also maximises our ultimate well-being. But it’s our well-being that is inescapably of ultimate importance to us.

    If reality were different and God’s “good” actually resulted in gratuitous suffering for us, what comfort would it be (to us) that God had labelled certain things eternally and immutably good? Would it make you feel any better, standing before the Great White Throne, if God told you to depart into the everlasting fire — but not to worry, because your eternal suffering will bring Him great glory? Of course you don’t believe this; I’m only trying to point out that there is no definition (for humans) of “good” that means anything (to humans) unless it’s talking about well-being (of humans).

    You dismiss the moral calculus problem by saying theism has the same problem. You’d better not jump off the topic so quickly. The moral calculus problem pretty much kills utilitarianism (which is what a morality of human well-being is).

    I’m not trying to dismiss the moral calculus problem. I agree it’s a problem for utilitarianism, and every other “ism” for that matter. But that’s just the boat we’re in as fallible humans. The most that a god can “add” is better information about what maximises our well-being and minimises our suffering. His personal standards of good make no difference to us except insofar as they affect our own states of well-being.

    Of course if there is no God then there is no God’s word, and in that case we’re all left without a moral rudder. What I’m telling you, though, is that if there is a God as revealed in the Bible, then we do have a solution to the moral questions raised here.

    Both of these statement seem obviously false. Most modern modern first world societies rely little if at all on the Bible. The Bible may have influenced the development of modern laws in the West, but we’ve certainly discarded quite a lot of it (e.g. at least half the Ten Commandments) from our legal systems. I don’t see how you could say all these societies simply lack a moral rudder.

    And what good is it to say God provides a solution to each of the moral conundrums you raised, if we can never know uncontroversially what those solutions are? Again, God is not here to confirm the answers to us. One Christian tells me God wants Muslim refugees allowed in because of what Jesus said about how I should treat my neighbour. Another tells me God excluded foreigners from the land of Israel in the OT, and that my first consideration should be to protect my family. Both explanations make sense to me. How can I know who (if either) is correct?

    You can’t define well-being without first defining the good, so you can’t use the well-being to define the good. Try it and you’ll find you’re making all kinds of non-scientific assumptions. It just won’t work.

    I agree that I can’t define well-being. It’s like “art” or “porn” — I just know it when I see (feel) it. Humans are simply wired to prefer their own well-being and avoid suffering. This is true whether or not there is a god with its own preferences. Yes, of course we are also wired to prefer some things we all agree are immoral, like selfishness and jealousy. But that is because we know from experience those things ultimately reduce well-being or cause unnecessary suffering. To me we may as well take “well-being = good” to be axiomatic because the identification is absolutely fundamental to our human nature. Whether or not God exists, I’m not convinced He adds anything useful to the conversation.

  20. BillB

    @scbrownlhrm

    I’m sorry, but I have to be blunt. I find your writing impenetrable.

    This may be my shortcoming, but I just don’t have time to try and figure out what you mean. Again, sorry. 🙂

  21. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    If reality were different and God’s “good” actually resulted in gratuitous suffering for us, what comfort would it be (to us) …. ?

    If reality were different then it would be different. I have no defense for a different reality.

    But I think your question is getting at something serious anyway. You had asked, “So what?” I think what you must be getting at is one of these:

    1. God’s goodness might be arbitrary for all we know, since there’s nothing behind God declaring it good.

    or

    2. God’s goodness is his goodness, but what about our goodness? What do we care if God is good if we don’t experience the good?

    I’ve tried and I can’t think of anything else your question might have been aiming toward. If I missed it please let me know.

    As for 1, God’s goodness simply isn’t arbitrary. It’s essential. It’s in his nature, which is as ultimate as reality could possibly be. He can’t redefine goodness, he won’t redefine it, and in fact he has never “defined” goodness; he has simply been good.

    Does that matter to us (2)? How could it not? He created us with good purposes and with all the skill of a loving omnipotent omniscient creator. Goodness as he knows goodness is completely aligned with goodness as humans are designed to know it.

    Now, his goodness includes not just comfort but also right moral standards and justice; thus it is good for justice to be part of the way things are, and thus also it is good that not all persons experience life the way they want to experience it. That’s obviously true on the human level (criminal justice systems are the chief example). It’s also true on the level of the ultimate.

    I’m only trying to point out that there is no definition (for humans) of “good” that means anything (to humans) unless it’s talking about well-being (of humans).

    I agree if you define well-being in terms of experiencing the good in all of its ultimate truth, including love, joy, peace, and (this, too) justice.

    The moral calculus problem is only a problem for moral systems that depend on a calculus: versions of utilitarianism, in other words.

    Let me skip over something for a moment…

    Both of these statement seem obviously false. Most modern modern first world societies rely little if at all on the Bible.

    I agree I wrote carelessly: it’s possible to know moral truth without knowing anything about God’s word. That’s because he built it into our very frames. We have a strong tendency to get things wrong, so the Bible serves as a corrective anchor when we do, but we can get a lot right without it, too.

    Still if there is no moral truth in God, and if there is no moral truth communicated from God, then there is no moral truth period. That’s the real point I wanted to make there.

    And what good is it to say God provides a solution to each of the moral conundrums you raised, if we can never know uncontroversially what those solutions are?

    Hard cases are hard. Easy cases are easy. That’s life. But without a moral standard there is no hard case and no easy case, because there’s no solution to seek. There is no answer to either conundrum: not for the Christian, and not for the non-Christian.

    The most that a god can “add” is better information about what maximises our well-being and minimises our suffering. … Whether or not God exists, I’m not convinced He adds anything useful to the conversation.

    That’s a strange thing to think about God who not only adds information but created us and created the definition and conditions of well-being. He’s not adding something by doing that, he’s creating the very conditions under which the whole question can be discussed.

    I chose to end there because I want to invite you to think long and hard about that. The question, “Does x add anything to the conversation?” could apply to a lot of things, but not to the God who created the ability to have the conversation.

    As long as you approach the question that way, you’re not thinking about God. If there was some being (God or god or whatever) who actually did add something to the conversation about human ethics or well-being, I wouldn’t be very interested in that being. The God I worship doesn’t add to that conversation at all — as I’ve already said above.

    You’re thinking about something else. Try to wrap your head around the idea that your question doesn’t — cannot — coherently be asked concerning the God we’re talking about.

    (scbrownlhrm has been told before what you’ve said to him this time. We work with him on it, and he handles it good-naturedly enough.)

  22. scbrownlhrm

    BillB.,

    A few mixed excerpts from Tom and David Oderberg to simplify or clarify my theme:

    First, from Tom:

    “Suffice to say that Christianity understands goodness to be an aspect of the essence of God, before and beyond all time and space….. The moral calculus problem is only a problem for moral systems that depend on a calculus……Hard cases are hard. Easy cases are easy. That’s life. But without a moral standard there is no hard case and no easy case, because there’s no solution to seek. There is no answer to either conundrum: not for the Christian, and not for the non-Christian….. He’s not adding something by doing that, he’s creating the very conditions under which the whole question can be discussed…….. The question, “Does x add anything to the conversation?” could apply to a lot of things, but not to the God who created the ability to have the conversation. …..As long as you approach the question that way, you’re not thinking about God. If there was some being (God or god or whatever) who actually did add something to the conversation about human ethics or well-being, I wouldn’t be very interested in that being. The God I worship doesn’t add to that conversation at all — as I’ve already said above. You’re thinking about something else. Try to wrap your head around the idea that your question doesn’t — cannot — coherently be asked concerning the God we’re talking about.”

    Obligation comes in and by reason’s obligation as truth-finder.

    You’re seeking an X which can “add to” our contingent contexts (as Tom notes) which (as David Oderberg notes in the following) fails to provide a coherent metaphysical terminus for reason in her (reason’s) role as truth-finder:

    Assuming that the meaning of “good” in morality, at least in its most general aspect, is identical to its meaning outside morality, we must appeal to the fulfilment of appetite in defining the fundamental test or primary criterion of moral behavior. But that cannot be the whole story, since as argued earlier, reason and will must be essentially involved in the test. So I propose that what we end up with is the following formula:

    The fundamental test of morality is whether an act is directed by reason to man’s ultimate end.

    Now the ultimate end is just another way of talking about the ultimate appetite or essential tendency (perhaps tendencies/appetites in the plural) the fulfilment of which perfects human nature.

    To appeal to the ultimate end is, from the ontic point of view, to dismiss the idea that there can be an endless series of appetites, each one such that its fulfilment is at the same time the means to the fulfilment of the next one in the series, where the next one will be broader, more general or all-encompassing. To countenance the thought is effectively to deny that human beings can ever fulfil their natures, that they can ever be just good. Apart from the intolerable hopelessness this would inject into morality, it would involve attributing a kind of infinite nature to a manifestly finite being, which verges on metaphysical absurdity. From the practical point of view, the appeal to an ultimate end is just to endorse Aristotle’s famous doctrine that all practical reasoning must find a terminus.

    (David Oderberg, “All for the Good”)

    Now, at this point we have Tom and Oderberg. Now we add Hume:

    Hume’s reasoning here realized that with respect to reason’s obligation (as truth-finder) she (reason) had every right to chase after (per Hume’s description in the following quote) the destruction of the whole world rather than the scratching of his own finger. Why? Because reality provides no ontological (true, factual, irreducible) moral “terminus” – which means reality provides reason with no obligatory terminus to chase after in her (reason’s) role as truth-finder.

    We affirm the fact that reason (in her role as truth finder) has the (justified) prerogative to chase after reality such that we as rational beings (given that right) justifiably (given no God) affirm Hume’s reasoning:

    “-Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. -Tis not contrary to reason for me to choose my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. -Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than for the latter.” (Hume Treatise of Human Nature 2.3.3.6)

    This is why I reminded you of reason’s right, even obligation, to seek after reality.

    Reason chases after what *is*. After *facts* and justifiably so. The facts measured in Non-Theism’s dopamine and serotonin surges (feelings, opinions, cultural norms, felt-goals) are metrics which are real, and yet they do not (cannot) change the fundamental fact which Hume affirmed with respect to [1] objective truth and [2] the rational and [3] moral facts and [4] what is and is not contrary to reason in her role as truth-finder.

    In short: It is not morally *un*reasonable for reason to desire and chase after the destruction of the whole world given reality void of the irreducibly good (God).

    Whereas, as Tom alludes to, if the end of reality is God, then reality itself is the very ocean which provides us with what Tom is describing in the excerpts above, with that which does not “add to” our contingent contexts but that which allows the conversation in the first place.

    If indestructible self-giving is “the end of reality” (God), then in fact reason (in her role as truth finder) can be factually *un*reasonable should she desire and seek after Hume’s infamous destruction of the whole world (etc.) and we find then that our entire conversation is not (as Tom notes) being “added to” but rather is found swimming in the very ocean which allows the conversation in the first place.

    Trinity alone (and yes, this excludes all pure monotheisms and pantheisms) provides that very ocean.

    All one needs to understand this is,

    [1] Trinity (vis-à-vis indestructible self-giving).

    [2] The role of reason with respect to reality.

    [3] A working knowledge of Hume’s point about reasoning.

    [4] The (proper Christian) understanding of *GOD* (and therefore Trinity) as the Absolute, as the beginning and end of reality.

    If these are impenetrable to you, or if you cannot comprehend how these are intimately tied together within a conversation about moral landscapes, well then let me know and we can break it down to shorter, smaller “steps”.

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