God & morality, in the Washington Post

OK, not the most nuanced exchange, but Michael Gerson wrote an article claiming that, without God, we really don’t have what it takes (direction? motivation?) to be moral. This has been followed by Christopher Hitchens’ typically acerbic reply.

I would have thought Plato’s Euthyphro should have put this debate to rest a long time ago!


27 thoughts on “God & morality, in the Washington Post

  1. Kleiner

    What I don’t like about Gerson’s article is his insistence on the necessity of God for the motivation to act in accordance with the good. While that certainly is one possible motivation, the scores of morally upright atheists are evidence enough that religion is not the only moral motivator.
    Huenemann’s question – and Plato’s question in the Euthyphro – is more interesting. Rather than speaking in terms of motivation, that asks ‘What is the relationship between the gods and the good?’
    Does the Euthyphro settle the question? I don’t think so, at least not for those who think that the universe had a beginning. Since Plato thinks it does not, he must put the Good above the gods. By the way, Mormons also do this, even if they don’t say so straightaway. Every Mormon I have spoken to (other than Dr Sherlock) has finally admitted that they think there is something “above” the god they worship – something like “law”. Very Platonic.
    For those of us who think that the universe had a beginning, the matter is more complicated. So what can an ex nihilo theist say to Plato?
    Ex nihilo theists must insist that everything that is comes from God (ultimately). While monotheism avoids some of Plato’s traps in the Euthyphro, there is still the worry that this makes the good merely the arbitrary whim of the gods. But here the brilliance of Aquinas’ synthesis between Aristotle and Christian Platonism helps – God IS goodness itself. Aquinas does not deny “eternal types” (see Question 84 of the Summa), he just gives Plato’s metaphysical orphans a home in the mind of God. And since God is goodness itself, it is not a mere divine whim. God is, in this sense, “constrained” by his nature (the good could not be otherwise than it is since God could not be otherwise than he is). But we need not directly know the eternal types (the mind of God) in order to know what is good. The Aristotelian point is that we can discern the good through the teleological comportments of different hylomorphic entities (matter-form composites) through a kind of “modified empiricism” (this is why atheists can make moral discernment just as well as theists).

    So we need not know God in order to know the good or to be motivated to do it. One can know the effect without knowing its ultimate cause.


  2. Kleiner

    By the way, has Hitchens ever elevated a debate into which he has entered? Ever? Why is it that we have to settle for blowhards like him as our “public intellectuals”? I’d prefer our public intellectuals (whether I agree with them or not) to be thoughtful instead of simply angry.


  3. Doug

    I feel like Hitchens elevates every debate he is in with Al Sharpton anyway:) If you ever get the chance to see these two (maybe on youtube) go at it, it is extaordinarily entertaining!!


  4. Huenemann Post author

    Doesn’t an ex nihilo theorist have to posit some sort of metaphysical structure which determines that a perfect being would have the features God is supposed to have? I don’t think anyone wants to say “God exists” and “God is good” are logical truths like “a=a” or “if a=b and b=c, then a=c.” Instead, theists usually claim that God’s existence and beneficence are metaphysically necessary. True, the metaphysical facts might be grounded somehow within God’s nature, but doesn’t that raise the question, “Why do those facts, and that nature, end up being necessary?”


  5. Kleiner

    I think there are two questions raised by Huenemann:
    1) Can we argue for the necessity of a God who has a nature that is good?
    2) Are goodness and being convertible, differing only in thought?

    I do not expect Huenemann and I to come to any agreement here, but let’s at least get clear on the root of our disagreement. Our disagreement is rooted in something that (in a sense) comes “before” our differing opinion about the existence/importance of God.

    Huenemann, in another blog stream, suggested that “nature or the universe really does not care what we do with ourselves.”
    Here is question upon which I am convinced the rubber hits the road: Is the universe/nature teleologically organized or not? Do different entities (frogs, rocks, trees, helium, humans) have a determinate nature and telos or not?
    I don’t want to put words into Huenemann’s mouth, but he is at least really flirting with the idea that we do not. (An aside – when he is most brazen, I think Huenemann is almost more Sartrean than Nietzschian).
    To my mind, the empirical evidence for teleology is absolutely overwhelming. Tadpoles never turn into hippos, always frogs. Acorns never grow up to be eagles, always oak trees. This is not an accident (I mean that word in the richest Aristotelian/metaphysical sense).

    Why am I bringing this up? Unless we can come to some consensus on the question of whether nature (including human nature) is teleological, we’ll never make any headway on question 1 above. Frankly, I am not sure if we’d make any headway on question 2 above either (most of Aquinas and Aristotle’s arguments for the convertibility of being and goodness work by using the teleological concepts of potency/actuality).


  6. Mike

    What’s really funny to me about this thread is that I remember saying something really similar to what Kleiner said (esp. God is goodness and good is God-ness) once to Huenemann when we were discussing the Euthyphro. I can’t remember what year that was (more than 5 years ago I’m sure) but this all sounds too familiar. I wonder how many times Huenemann has had similar religio-philosophical conversations. He may not let on but Charlie knows a lot more about theology than you might think initially. fair warning… :)

    I hate to think that Sartre has to come into any of these conversations. I’m sure he has some value but compared with giants like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche why even spend time on him? I do think Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity is a good read.


  7. Kleiner

    I suppose that the “more Sartrean than Nietzschian” remark was a rather low blow. I certainly did not mean it as a compliment, but after the “individuals each have their own truths” remark I figured Huenemann needed to be roughed up a bit. :)

    Aside on Sartre/Beauvoir: There are those that think that de Beauvoir was really the brains of the operation. I read a persuasive book by Kate and Edward Fullbrook some years ago (I forget the name of the book) that argued as much. They made a pretty convincing case that it was Beauvoir’s ideas (in particular seen in the novel “She Came to Stay”) that anticipated and motivated most of Sartre’s work. Also worth noting that de Beauvoir was much more proficient in German than Sartre (or so I have heard), and so likely knew Heidegger better than he did.


  8. Huenemann Post author

    Even if we were to agree that nature is teleological (which of course it isn’t, except insofar as what gets generated by randomness and selection ends up looking teleological), the question would remain whether there is some kind of metaphysical or logical structure which precedes God in the sense that had that structure been otherwise, God would not have existed, or at least would have had a different nature. I am willing (at least for the moment) to cede some ground to the rationalist who stomps his foot and declares that the laws of logic simply couldn’t have been otherwise, so God’s dependence upon them does not mean any inferiority on God’s part. But I won’t extend the same kindness to someone who thinks God’s existence is metaphysically but not logically necessary, since that implies some set of laws or principles which could have been otherwise, so far as logic is concerned. That person owes an explanation for why those metaphysical principles are as they are. And if that person says that God made them true, then we’re left without any explanation for God’s existence.

    I wish I had as high opinion of my own theological knowledge as Mike does!


  9. Kleiner

    I am not sure why I am the only one that wants to link “meaning” with “truth” or “order” or “nature”. Vince – can you define “meaning” for me, so I can better understand your position?

    Vince is quite right that the atom and comets don’t care if the sun blew away the earth. The material universe is, in that sense, indifferent. But this hardly means that our teleological nature and meaning are radically seperated. I care about my ends (one can be an “existential Thomist”, can’t they?). We find meaning in different actions and experiences – and those actions and experiences (our whole lives) are teleologically ordered! In other words, our nature delineates the kinds of actions we can and do find meaningful.


  10. Kleiner

    Aristotle directly addresses one of Huenemann’s worries (that we get duped by apparent teleology, or what Aristotle calls “spontaneity”) in Physics II.8. Perhaps this will move along the discussion:

    “It is impossible that this should be the true view. For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or for the most part come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true. ..If then, it is agreed that things are either the result of co- incidence or for the sake of something, and these cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity , it follows that they must be for the sake of something. ..There- fore action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.” (198b34-199a8)

    Of course, Aristotle is not committed to an intelligent designer view (in fact, at one point he openly rejects such a view). So he and Huenemann might agree there, though for different reasons (for Aristotle it is because he is committed to the irreducibility of form). Still, his movement toward nous (mind/intelligence) opens the door for Thomas and others. Indeed, it may well be that it is the final cause arguments (argument from perfection) that has the most traction, over and against the more popular first cause (efficient cause) argument for God’s existence. (By the way, I think Dr. Sherlock takes just such a view in his forthcoming book on ethics).

    I think part of our difficulty here is a the difficulty of finding a starting point. Huenemann is right, to really “complete” our metaphysical story, we would need to articulate why the metaphysical principles are the way that they are. But that cannot be our starting point. Instead our starting point has to be our lived experience with ourselves and the world. I guess I would call myself something like a “modifed empiricist” in that I think we can move from the particular to the universal.

    One more thought – Huenemann’s worries are very serious. In some sense what he is really critiquing is “onto-theology”. Insofar as we treat God as just another being out there in the world, we are going to have trouble coming up with a good metaphysical account because God will always be secondary to something else, and in that sense accidental rather than necessary. But must we make that mistake? I’ll say it – God is NOT a being. God is not Being either (in the Heideggerian sense of that word). God is “beyond being” (Marion) or “otherwise than essence” (Levinas).

    Please forgive the quick series of thoughts that don’t cohere as well as they could.


  11. Kleiner

    Vince –
    We both seem to think that nature is teleological. But you say that, “Meaning … in my lowbrow definition is not too specific… life purpose, the good, rightness, the golden mean, duty, morality, the basis from which to judge good/evil.” Of course, there is teleological jargon in your definition of meaning. This is not a criticism, how could there not be?

    I don’t want to reduce teleology to “physics” understood in the modern materialist sense (this is not at all what Aristotle means by physics). I don’t see why we should straightaway engage in a reductionism that reduces teleology to the physical/mechanical universe. In resisting that reduction, I am aware that I am likely committing myself to immaterial “form”, with a few reservations and modifications in light of the pomo critique of metaphysics. [Reconciling those two seemingly irreconcilable views – the pomo and the medieval, specifically Heidegger and Thomas – is in large part what I see as my question].

    But this is not a bad thing, nor is it incompatible with modern science. Those that toss out Aristotle’s arguments in his Physics as “outdated” – something a prof at BYU did last year – are really missing something.

    Great book: In Defense of the Soul by Ric Macuga. He defends hylomorphism and teleology and shows why Aristotelians don’t need to be afraid of evolution, artificial “intelligence”, etc. This would be a great book to read as a group – it would pull in modern questions and skeptical worries but would give the ancients a place at the table.


  12. Huenemann Post author

    Just a quick reply to the passage Kleiner quotes from Aristotle (about teeth and so on): I love that passage, and teach it whenever I teach Darwin, to show a difference between ancient and modern science. Aristotle thinks that if something happens by chance, then it is exceedingly unlikely to be repeated. So, if there is a mutation in a species, there is very low probability that that mutation will be passed along to offspring. Instead, offspring will naturally gravitate toward the standard, “default” features of the species. But in the modern worldview, there aren’t genuine “species” with such magical (i.e., teleological) gravitational power (indeed, according to Darwin, species are not natural kinds at all). And mutations do get passed along to offspring, of course, due to genetics.

    So in that marvelous passage, Aristotle brilliantly describes Darwinian theory, only to discount it because of false metaphysical preconceptions.


  13. Kleiner

    I’ll try to overlook the sarcastic “magical” remark about the ancient view. I don’t think Huenemann intended much by it (maybe he did), but I always react to such things. In my humble opinion, such words – which only barely hide contempt – exemplify a terrible modern bias (perhaps even chronological snobbery). I, for one, would hold up Sophocles over any geneticist alive today when it comes to insights on human nature. (Note: I am NOT anti-science nor do I think that the moon is made of cheese).

    Obviously Aristotle’s understanding of genetics was lacking, and he does reject a natural selection view here. But the argument is not as bad as it may first appear. The argument has to be placed within the backdrop of his larger commitments:
    1) Order is an expression of form all the way down
    2) The order which exists at any level of matter is insufficient to explain or generate order at the next level.

    So this is not an argument about genetics per se. It is an argument between materialism and those that think that immaterial form is an irreducible force. My guess is that Huenemann is too careful (and/or skeptical) to make any commitments here, but materialism seems to be his default metaphysics. But I’d call that a false metaphysical preconception.

    I really think we need to read the Macuga book this fall, Charlie. It would give us a lot to talk about (including the question of natural selection and the general compatibility between ancient metaphysiscs and modern science). I am sure some students and bloggers would join us.


  14. Huenemann Post author

    Sorry, Kleiner, but you completely failed to overlook my sarcastic remark! But your reply, and Vince’s request for “idiot ideas,” raises some interesting questions about the right approach to take toward the Great Dead. I try to follow Jonathan Bennett’s “collegial” approach: treat them as colleagues, pointing out where they got things wrong, pressing for more details when it’s not clear, and celebrating when they get things right.

    I’ll agree that many of the ancients get many things right about human nature — at least when we are concerned with humanistic, psychological, or meaning-of-life-type questions. That’s why they are still read, and should be. But when we are interested in why acorns don’t grow into hippos, what they have to say should only be of interest to a historian of ideas. That sort of stuff they just didn’t get right; or if they did, it was luck (as with the atomists). I am assuming we have better accounts now, though — point well made, Vince! — there’s always the chance that the modern theories will be proven false or incomplete. They are nothing more than the best available theories at the moment. But I’d be happy to give Macuga the chance to change my stubborn mind!

    By the way, my favorite “idiot idea” from the past is the Pythagoreans’ belief (as someone — Diogenes Laertius? — reported) that beans, left in mud, begin to develop into human fetuses. For that reason they forbade themselves to eat beans.


  15. Mike

    I don’t have much time to comment these days but I’m loving the discussion.

    In regard to religion and morality (the original topic of this post) I would hope that the mere fact of having a supposedly christian president in the current state of affairs would be enough to keep Michael Gerson silent. If only people were teleologically oriented towards truth and love I might have my wish!


  16. Kleiner

    Yeah, my “overlooking” quickly turned into “ranting” there, didn’t it? Sorry about that, I’ve been in a particularly salty mood this week.

    I got myself into trouble over the last year while my wife was pregnant making all sorts of jokes that played off of another idiot idea – Aristotle’s claim that women are “impotent males” and that the male semen imbues the form and logos to the matter which the woman provides.

    My approach toward the Great Dead is more deferential that Huenemann’s. I prefer Chesterton’s approach – the “democracy of the dead” – where everyone gets one vote, including the dead. (This makes things move much slower). I am reminded of this brilliant passage from Strauss’ Intro to Political Philosophy:

    “The facile delusions which conceal from us our true situation all amount to this: that we are, or can be, wiser than the wisest men of the past. We are thus induced to play the part, not of attentive and docile listeners, but of impresarios or lion tamers. Yet we must face our awesome situation, created by the necessity that we try to be more than attentive and docile listeners, namely, judges, and yet we are not competent to be judges. As it seems to me, the cause of this situation is that we have lost all simply authoritative traditions in which we could trust, the nomos which gave us authoritative guidance, because our immediate teachers and teacher’s teachers believed in the possibility of a simply rational society. Each of us here is compelled to find his bearings by his own powers, however defective they may be.”


  17. Kleiner

    I don’t want to get into the business of defending ancient science over and against modern. Obviously the sciences have progressed. My point is this – just because we are fans of modern science does not mean that we cannot be fans of ancient metaphysics. In fact, I think modern science only has legitimacy insofar as we base it on ancient metaphysics (a good case can be made that modern materialism undermines the legitimacy of scientific inquiry).

    Surely Huenemann does not think that Aristotle’s metaphysics (forget his History of Animals) should be left to the philosophical dustbin.


  18. Mike

    I think ancient metaphysics is so long dead that it can’t lend legitimacy to anything. It can’t even keep itself afloat as Kleiner has clearly pointed out in his comments on how students view philosophy. Even if one were to concede that ancient metaphysics provides some sort of logical consistency that nothing else does (which i don’t believe) it still leaves open the question whether that sort of thing really is how humanity works (how many people do you know who even know logic apart from philosophers?). With philosophy so close to irrelevancy it seems prudent to steer clear. Words aren’t meaningful because they have some sort of metaphysical/logical grounding, they’re meaningful because they correspond to something in the real world.


  19. Kleiner

    So philosophers should just offer what seems relevant and is acceptable to the contemporary world? What would Socrates have said to that?!?!? Cephalus is not the teacher – Socrates is! We must remember Socrates’ lessons about philosophy – it is first and foremost dangerous, unpopular, and counter-cultural.

    Isn’t the perennial unpopularity of philosophy one of the reasons why almost every philosopher has exerted a fair amount of energy into arguing why philosophy is worthwhile in the first place?

    If the ancients have gotten something right, they should be taught. I don’t want to sound like I don’t care about enrollment or that I want to turn students off from philosophy, but if only 3 students sign up for the course … well that is just everyone else’s loss.
    By the way, unscientific polls that I have taken for 7+ years in my Intro classes suggest that a great number of students find both Plato and Aristotle (along with various medieval thinkers) very relevant to their lives and the “real world”. Sure, they can be taught in a way that does not draw students in and that does not demonstrate the ongoing relevance of the Great Dead – but if that happens it is the fault of the prof, not the texts.


  20. Mike

    What I’m saying is that philosophy can be a discipline that is very practical and indeed even Plato and Aristotle have many very important lessons to teach. A philosophical approach to life for instance has tons of personal value, in my opinion way more than any ‘living’ religion has to offer. Looking to metaphysics to somehow ‘ground’ the world on the other hand…


  21. Kleiner

    I am not suggesting that metaphysics “grounds” the world. It is not as if the theories of men make the world go round. Philosophers are in the business of DISCOVERY, not invention. This is why Nietzsche hates philosophy – it is not original enough (it does not create).

    Of course I agree that philosophy can have all sorts of practical value and tons of personal value. And those of us in the philosophy department try to sell it that way to encourage students to try it. But should we “sell” philosophy exclusively in this way? Will we sacrifice the idea that philosophy is worthwhile “for its own sake” at the altar of popularity and “relevance”? Won’t that mean selling off a bit of philosophy’s soul (again, I am using Socrates as my model for philosophy)?


  22. Mike

    I think being responsible means paying attention to the state of the world and asking questions that aren’t solely philosophical. It makes sense to me to pursue science to answer certain kinds of questions and even study cultures/linguistics for others. If I want to give disciplines their fair due that hardly means I want to discredit what philosophy has to offer. I’m just a realist about it. I love philosophy and I’m drawn towards it existentially more than most but yes, I think an obsession with Aristotelian metaphysics, though intrinsically interesting, isn’t intrinsically valuable in an ultimate sense. I don’t think philosophy is the great arbiter. I wish it was because I do love it but alas I can’t give it quite that much value. It would make me look down on the average joe too much and I already am too arrogant the way it is (obviously). Levinas’ ethics as first philosophy isn’t something i’ve studied but a few friends of mine have related my philosophical perspective to his.

    I value morality and art (the creative aspect of human existence) and I’m not depending on metaphysics to ground these values (though I guess these are themselves arguably metaphysical claims). I depend on art to provide meaning to life and respect other people enough (intrinsically) to attempt to treat them well. I’m fairly suspicious of people who need ‘grounding’ for ethics. They scare me.

    I’m in agreement to an extent about the ancients, that we are in no better a place than they are to judge the ultimate truth of things. I don’t think introspection by itself provides much data to work with though while philosophical method and a thorough understanding of history adds a lot but along with that there’s experience, science, languages and a whole active living world to pay attention to. With this broad sense of what it would take to get to ultimate truth I think humility is the only approach to take towards knowledge. Maybe a person can think hard enough to get to ultimate truth but I’m pretty sure I can’t think that hard.

    So if the philosophical project is discovery and not creation (and I hope it is) you might allow for a broader range of variables to impact your view of the world. Socrates’ world was limited enough that he had a decent knowledge of most disciplines. If he was living in our age I would hope his approach would be similar but maybe his (probably Platonic) claims would be more modest.

    Sorry for the rant. The whole “modern science only has legitimacy insofar as we base it on ancient metaphysics” really gets to me. I’ve heard this in some form or another for years and years and it just seems like crap to me. The statement by itself is almost enough to make someone quit studying philosophy especially if they understand what truly gives legitimacy to science (the track record of the scientific method and more importantly the USE of what science has provided… don’t make me write a list).

    oh… one more thing. Lucky for me my job isn’t to sell philosophy. I can take what I want from it. My job (in this context), if I can do it, is to get philosophers to engage the world.


  23. Kleiner

    I hope I have not sounded narrow in my range of things that I want to consider. Perhaps I have railed too hard on Aristotle, so much so that Mike has the feeling that I am obsessed with it! Charlie – promise me you’ll slap me upside the head and tell me to get a life if it ever comes to that! Anyway, I rail so hard on Aristotle since I think far too many philosophers (and the general public) are woefully ignorant of ancient wisdom. My error (if there is one here) is that lean toward an overcorrection.

    I certainly don’t think that philosophy is the only worthwhile pursuit. As Vince suggested in a past post, I rather suspect that the best life will exemplify the golden mean across activities (one should do the right amount of philosophy, the right amount of science, the right amount of leisure, the right amount of political inquiry, . … …). The best life will certainly be one that is engaged with the world (I am no Platonist in that regard).

    And I don’t think the ancients are the only ones we should read (after all, my dissertation was on Heidegger and Derrida). I have always worked very hard to be a “generalist” – to not pigeon hole myself into one field of philosophy so much that I lose sight of the bigger picture, the bigger questions, and the relevance of the task of philosophy to living a good life.

    So why do I protest so much about the ancients? I think they should be read and that their views (metaphysical, ethical, aesthetical, etc.) are still quite relevant to ongoing inquiry into (a) the status and possibility of knowledge, including scientific knowledge and (b) basic “meaning”-type questions, like ‘how ought I live?’ and ‘what kind of life will be fulfilling?’


  24. Mike

    Well if you’re going to be obsessed or oriented around an ancient, Aristotle seems like a good choice. The world should be a primary phenomena though and not something you try to interpret away. It shapes us I think, we don’t shape it by getting our conceptions in order. If our metaphysical conceptions change from day to day that seems like an appropriate response. At least to me. If you want to ground them then maybe it’s a sort of refusal to keep paying attention. If that’s an understood limit of your own psyche that’s fine, if it’s something held up as an ideal I’m not so sure it’s good. I’m with Dostoevsky on that I guess… the great moral teacher *sarcasm*.

    Side note from earlier– I tried to read Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” as well as Nausea and I just couldn’t stomach them. It wasn’t really the difficulty (like Kant), it was more just the style. If it were for a class I probably would have pushed myself through it. Simone de Beauvoir on the other hand was almost exactly communicating to me. So if you say she’s the genius, that’s good news. On the other hand if there is something specific in Sartre that I should pay attention to (i.e. hasn’t been covered by Nietzsche or Kierkegaard (or even someone like Jaspers) in a better way though maybe less verbose) I would love to hear what it is.

    My use of “you” should be considered rhetorical rather than personal. I don’t know Kliener well enough to speak to the ‘real’ Kleiner and i’m not sure I would use “you” in that way even if I knew him a lot better.


  25. Mike

    Yeah, I need to shift my mode of discourse. Kleiner just got me on one. Speaking of the great dead, quite a while ago Mike v1.0 wrote that series of articles in the statesman called Dead Man’s Polemic. They’re probably not online any more.

    I don’t see the conservative/liberal divide so much in morality as much as just people who pay attention and people who don’t. Then the even larger divide, those who devote themselves to it like Norman Borlaug and the rest of us.



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