Saturday 18 December 2010

Goodness: where from?

Paul introduced me to the Euthyphro dilemma: if you're a theist, a Christian say, then you believe that certain things are good. But are they good intrinsically - and therefore approved of by God, the Church, and all Right Thinking Persons - or are they approved of by God and therefore good, and so approved by the Church?

You see the problem, of course: we seem to have two choices:

(i) if things are good intrinsically, then (a) we've limited God's power and (b) it then becomes rather hard to see why they are good. Perhaps their good is only a social construct. There is also (c): we no longer need a God to determine morality (you might not see that as a problem, of course).

Or conversely

(ii) if things are good because God so wills them, then it would appear that God merely has to will some Bad thing as Good for it to become good. That would be rather confusing. Also, the statement "God is good" becomes meaningless, equivalent to "God is God".

Ralph Cudworth, who apparently didn't much like Hobbes's philosophy, apparently

In a concerted attack on Hobbesian moral relativism, Cudworth, argues that the criteria of right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice are not a matter of convention, but are founded in the goodness and justice of God. Like Plato in the Euthyphro, Cudworth argues that it is not God's will that determines goodness, but that God wills things because they are good.

So, lets unpack that:

  • good not relative, but absolute [OK, fairly common idea]
  • absolute, founded on goodness of God [OK, so good is founded on god. We're in part (ii)]
  • God wills things because they are good [Oops: suddenly we've switched over to part (i)]

So it looks like Cudworth can't cope with the consequences of (i) or (ii) and is obliged to switch back and forth in an effort to confuse us, and quite likely himself too. To be fair, Wiki on the ED quotes Cudworth as saying nothing can be imagined so grossly wicked, or so foully unjust or dishonest, but if it were supposed to be commanded by this omnipotent Deity, must needs upon that hypothesis forthwith become holy, just, and righteous and presumably that should be taken as an argument against option (ii).

The obvious answer to the problem, of course, is There Is No God, whereupon you are free to look for an origin to Morality free from these problems. But it may lead to others.

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