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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Objective Good

What is "objective good"? The term is meant to describe that which is, in and of itself, good. It is intended to stand in opposition to subjective good. This would be that which is good to me (or you, if you prefer). You can see this, right? I remember the story of two villages along the Amazon (which originally was a river in South America, not a book-selling website). A heavy rain came through, and the question was, "Is that good?" The village upriver was delighted. They needed the rain for their crops. The village downstream was devastated. The rain caused a flood that wiped out their fields. That's subjective good. So what would be classified as objectively good?

At first look, it might seem easy to do. Love is objectively good. Easy, see? Well, it's easy as long as you define it carefully. "I loved my wife so much that when I caught her cheating on me, I killed her and her lover." See? Love ... objectively good. Oh, wait. Although such a use of the term might be popular, I'd have a hard time calling it "love". Still, when properly used, I think most people would consider love objectively good. Or how about telling the truth? Objectively good, right? I suppose so, although I think some might wonder if that's the case if a citizen of Nazi Germany told the truth about the family down the street hiding Jews. It would seem, in fact, that the more you go down this line, the easier it is to make the whole thing murky, and those things that we would consider good in and of themselves die the death of a hundred qualifications.

I would like to suggest a different approach. I would like to suggest that our definition of "objective good" is flawed from the outset. If we could clean that up, I think "good" can get a little clearer. It doesn't take long to figure out that one of the better known characteristics of God is that God is good. The theme is repeated over and over in the Psalms (Psa 34:8; 100:5; 135:3; 145:9) and elsewhere (e.g., Jer 33:11; Nah 1:7). What does this mean? I remember a church awhile back that claimed that since 1 John 4:8 said "God is love", therefore "Love is god." This, of course, is manifest nonsense. I could rightly claim "My wife is human", but would be an idiot to conclude, therefore, that all humans were my wife. No, John was saying that love is defined by and contained in God. This is the same concept with good. Jesus said, "There is none good but God." That is, absolute good is defined by and contained in God. It's not that there is "good" out there and God conforms to it. Instead, it is the reverse. Good is only good because God says it is.

Here, let's try this from another direction. "Good" has several related definitions. It may mean "morally excellent; virtuous; righteous; pious," or it may mean "satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree," or it may mean "of high quality; excellent". "Good", then, whether in terms of moral excellence or quality of any type simply means that whatever it is meets or exceeds the standard. What standard? That's the question. A "good dog" is not the same a "good man". Different standards. And the only right standard we have for "good" in terms of morality or virtue is God's standard. Since He sets the standard, He defines "good".

Okay, one more direction to view this. Assume that there is "objective good", that which is, in and of itself, intrinsically good. This would require that God, in order to be "good", would need to conform to that external, objective standard. But if God needs to conform to something external to Himself, then God is not God because that "something external" is higher than He is.

I would contend, then, that nothing is "objectively good". Instead, "good" is always determined by a standard, and God sets that standard and, therefore, defines "good". We all know folks who read, for instance, the account of God commanding Israel to destroy the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 as not a literally factual account. The first reason offered for this is that it would make God "bad". That is, we all know that killing people is bad (I'm simplifying here) ("objective good", then, is in not killing people) and if God did it or ordered it He would be bad, so it could not have happened. Just an example. Not the primary point. The primary point is that if God defines good, then whatever God does is good and our own perceptions of what is good should conform to that rather than vice versa. If God declares something for Himself and we choose to defy that declaration because it doesn't conform to our concept of "objective good", it is neither God nor the declaration that is in error. I'll leave you to figure out where the error lies.

Isaiah has a warning for us. "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!" (Isa 5:20). Perhaps we ought to let God determine first what is good and evil and then conform our own views on the subject to His outlook.

14 comments:

Craig said...

On the thread from my most recent post there is a pretty good example of what you are talking about. I won't copy it here, but feel free to check it out.

This is an another excellent post. Good is one of those owrds that gets used to justify pretty much anything, without any definition of what defines good.

Stan said...

Actually, it was the comment thread on your blog that made me think about this in the first place.

Craig said...

Gotcha, I thought it might appear arrogant to assume that, but I kind of wondered at the coincidence.

Craig said...

C'mon, we all know that good is good.

Anonymous said...

I disagree good is very objective. Simply put good is whatever the majority agrees is good with all things being the same. Otherwise nothing is good...

Stan said...

Well, Anonymous, that would be the standard definition of "subjective good".

But I'm wondering how anyone could possibly stand on that position? "If the majority agrees, sacrificing babies to Molech would be good and feeding little girls to lions would be good and making all women slaves to the whims of men would be good." Really? Can you actually stand on that position? To me, if that is the definition of "good", nothing can be good. Conversely, by that definition "whatever is" would be automatically defined as "good". Makes no sense. And there is no basis for either that definition or for arguing it, since it would require the vote of the majority to declare it good.

Anonymous said...

I normally would recoil at what I am about to write, but if "God" creates "good", what is to stop man from putting himself in the place of this "good" "God"?

Stan said...

Well, sinful Man does it routinely, but I don't think that's what you're asking.

David Roman said...

If what God commands is good (and only that), then it seems that goodness is arbitrary to the whims of God.

In other words, if God decided to command throwing little girls to lions, we would need to deem that good, right?

If you say that God wouldn't do that because He's "good", then you're arguing in a circle.

If you say that what God commands is good because it fits an objective definition of good, then we have opened a huge can of worms.

Namely, where did that objective good come from? Why isn't the objective good "god" instead? And so on...

Stan said...

If God defines good (as I claimed) because His nature defines good, then "God wouldn't do that" is not a circular argument because His nature defines good and no one defies their own nature.

Conversely, if "objective good" exists outside of God, then, as you claim, "objective good" is God instead.

If objective good is a fantasy, then God is evil for defining anything as "good" since it is an infinite variable based on constant vagaries of society.

That is, we either agree that God defines good by His nature or there is an "objective good" that defines God or there is no God.

Of course, if you have another alternative, I'm willing to listen. However, I see no logical contradiction in the statement "God's nature defines what is good" (as opposed to your "arbitrary whims" version). Further, it would seem mandatory that the Creator of the existing world system (the universe and all that is in it) would have the right and the authority to declare the value system to be used in that universe. Thus, I don't see any reason why it would not be so.

David Roman said...

You say, "His nature defines good". So the next question becomes, what define's God's nature?

And if God defines goodness according to His nature, then isn't God subject to His nature?

Which then raises the question, doesn't that undermine God if He is subject to something (as He would no longer be preeminent above all things)? There is also the question of where did God get His nature?

The alternative to all of this ambiguity (and the answer to these and most questions regarding God and His nature) is the doctrine of Divine Simplicity.

Stan said...

Just as your nature defines you, God's nature defines Him. Of course, you are created and He is not. However, having said that, the doctrine of Simplicity would simply say what I've said. God's nature defines Him, and His nature, being good, defines good.

I'm curious if you have an alternative. You appear to be disagreeing, but I don't know toward what.

David Roman said...

I don't entirely disagree with you, only your wording.

Note what you wrote: "God's nature defines Him".

I don't think you're asserting that God is composed of parts, but your statement could be viewed in that manner.

In other words, one could say that you're asserting that God is a composite of being and nature. Moreover, it appears you're saying the God's being is subject to God's nature.

But as I have already stated, this opens up a huge can of worms. What caused God to become composed of being and nature? Where did His nature come from? What defined His nature?

The "alternative" is Divine Simplicity which asserts that God is NOT a composite of parts (this being metaphysical parts, not material parts). Rather, that God IS His nature.

That is to say, that God IS being, God IS goodness, God IS existence, etc etc.

So I don't think we wholly disagree with other, but I would change your wording a bit.

Stan said...

Since I ascribe to the doctrine of Simplicity, we must be in agreement. Of course, getting across this idea, especially to a world opposed to God, isn't easy, so I'm not surprised if the wording becomes difficult.