The following is a repost of an article I wrote in which I explore several possible interpretations of how God could “make things good” and explain why each makes God’s contribution to value nonsensical or irrelevant. Below the fold, I explain the problems with trusting the existing faith traditions to be special guides into God’s wisdom about goodness. The original post was written and posted a year ago today.
The claim that all value, whether moral or otherwise, requires a God is a familiar one. But what this claim either means or how it is supposed to be apparent to us is far from self-evident.
The claim could mean something along the lines of a divine command theory interpretation of value according to which God declares some things good and other things bad by arbitrary whim. On this line of thought, there is nothing inherently good apart from God’s decision to designate it as good and nothing inherently bad apart from God’s decision to designate it as bad.
Saying something is good in that case only means saying that God prefers it and commands us to prioritize it and promote it ourselves. Saying something is bad in that case only means saying that God detests it and commands us to avoid it and minimize its existence as much as is in our power. The words good and bad would not in that case refer to any objective features of things that make them objectively deserving of the designations good and bad apart from the fact of God’s preference for them or detestation of them.
On this extreme divine command theory, God’s choices of preferences and detestations would be entirely ungrounded in any considerations whatsoever of things’ objective merits or their objective flaws since theoretically things could not be said to have any “merits” or “flaws” in themselves, apart from God’s declarations that they have merits or flaws. God’s choice to see some things as merits and others as flaws would have to be entirely a matter of God’s wholly unconstrained decision to “just call” some things “merits” and others “flaws”. These decisions would not be in any way responsive to, or otherwise reflective of, any objective “merit-making” or “flaw-making” features of the things themselves.
If God’s decision to declare anything “good” or “bad”, “merit” or “flaw” can at all be said to track, follow, respond to, or otherwise reflect and indicate some independently worthy or unworthy features of things, then God’s decrees of goodness and badness would not themselves in effect make anything good or make anything bad. In that case, such decrees of goodness and badness from God would simply be God’sendorsements of that which He reasons is already good or already bad. Extreme divine command theory cannot accept such a position because if God is merely reporting on what is already objectively good or objectively bad when he gives his commands or his praise, then he does not in fact create goodness or badness by calling things good and bad but simply reports on inherent goodness or badness.
But if extreme divine command theory were true and God’s decrees to make things good and make things bad were unguided by any facts about things which would make them good or make them bad, then our normal usage and understanding of the word good would be quite puzzling. We normally use the word good in a number of ways that are rather clearly objective and determined without hesitation using uncontroversial reasons which we offer and accept from one another as indisputable or, at least, likely or clearly plausible.
For example, we use the word good as a synonym for useful. We say that x is good for accomplishing y and think we can have objective arguments about whether or not we are correct that x is good for y and about how good x might be for y (both in the sense of how useful x is in general for bringing about y and about how useful x is for creating y in comparison to other available means for attaining y). It would be rather peculiar if God could declare things good in any way that did not correlate with our theoretically best use-based judgments about goodness and badness.
If God were to just arbitrarily declare, say, that traveling south is a bad way to get to New Jersey from New York in less than an hour or that sex is a bad way to make babies or that it is good to remove our hangnails by using chainsaws or that it is good a way to make clothes smell good to humans by dipping them in sewage, would these wholly irrational and counter-productive suggestions about what is good and bad be correct simply because God made them as pronouncements? Maybe if God were to threaten eternal punishment for any one who dared to travel from New York to New Jersey by heading south and insist that everyone only go North and circle the globe until one came back up to New Jersey from underneath, it would become more useful in the grand scheme of things to travel north from New York to New Jersey so that one could both get to New Jersey and avoid eternal punishment. But it still would not be a good plan for getting to New Jersey in under an hour to go north instead of south if you are in New York. And the usefulness of traveling north to get to New Jersey from New York would only now be in the usefulness of getting to New Jersey to New York and not be arbitrarily punished because God has a peculiar, irrational hatred of traveling south to get to New Jersey. It would not be because, independent of this needlessly complicating God, traveling south would not be simply the best way to get to Jersey from New York (assuming all other possible weird variables are equal too).
So, the only things that God could make useful or make not useful are those that he arbitrarily decides to make more useful or less useful by the intervention of his commands that we prioritize them or minimize them as much as we can. God could make dipping one’s clothes in sewage useful if he rewards those who do it with heaven but unless he further intervenes to change the smell of sewage to be pleasant and the chemical composition of sewage not to be toxic for us, it’s still going to be a bad idea to do that. How to get one’s clothes the freshest and most pleasantly smelling without God changing the universe is something we can figure out rationally independently of God.
God’s only advantage on us might be that He would be able to reason out usefulness more precisely using his omniscience or create extra obstacles by his arbitrary decisions which might objectively change something’s usefulness or counter-productiveness simply because he’s meting out extrinsic punishments or rewards in response to our choices. But unless God is going to restructure the universe and what is objectively useful or counter-productive in it, God’s simply calling something good or bad does not make it useful or counter-productive, except insofar as it makes that thing useful for pleasing him or disappointing him.
And in the cases in which God might decide to arbitrarily muck with natural usefulness and natural counter-productiveness, by demanding us to do what would not normally be good or at least efficient or not normally be bad or inefficient without also changing the structure of the universe to make those things actually good/efficient or actuallybad/inefficient, it would seem that God would be involving Himself in only the most cumbersome and attention-stealing ways. If God wants to insist we pay attention to Him and demonstrate this attention by doing something that is outright counter-productive for His sake, then He is requiring of us sacrifices purely as demonstrations of loyalty with no ultimate benefit to ourselves according to the natural course of useful actions. In other words, God would be just a pain in the ass.
We would not even be able in this case to say that God at least has some reason to complicate “good” and “bad” for us in this way. If extreme divine command theory is true, God’s choices to create the hurdles of having to do things he arbitrarily demands in order to please him or avoid angering him cannot be motivated by anything in particular. If he is motivated to create these obedience tests because they are actually in some objective sense good apart from his simple preference for them (say because he knows about the existence of some cosmic principle that it is good for all deities and the beings they create to bond through obedience tests which the deities give to their creations), then again, He is merely responding to and endorsing objective goodness and not creating it.
If all of God’s declarations of “good” and “bad” are just endorsements of what is already useful or counter-productive for us then they are merely redundant and not really creative of that goodness or badness. At most they are helpful indications of what is independently discoverable.
If we reject the extreme divine command theory that good and bad just mean that God likes or dislikes things for no good reason, then we might say that we rely on God to tell us what is good or bad simply because we cannot figure it out for ourselves. On this theory, we are capable of figuring out good and bad to some extent but God’s guidance is just more perfect. On this theory, God does not create good and bad by calling things such but instead just gives people a clearer guide so they don’t have to do the hard work of figuring it out themselves.
If that were the case, we would be able to figure out if someone truly speaks for God by testing whether their recommendations are really good? Are conservative Christians’ ideas about how to deal with a homosexual sexual orientation really showing any secret wisdom about what will make people with that orientation happy and fulfilled? Are wahhabist Islam’s ideas about how to deal with women really good for women?
Has God really figured out that it’s better for whole segments of populations to destroy their potential for all sorts of natural fulfillments? It’s really not good for gays to have loving pair bonds, sexual satisfaction, and full respect and inclusion in society while being true to their natural inclinations? Such a life plan for the average gay person is actually not better on every rationally defensible metric than being confined to closets and the choice of either celibacy or sexless marriages? And similarly, women we’re supposed to believe that women fulfilling their potentials for math, science, industry, or any and all other talents they might have is not way better for them than deliberately stifling or atrophying all such abilities is? Religious opposition to the full development of gays and women according to their abilities and inclinations is, bluntly, baseless prejudice that stands up to no rational consideration of objective benefits and harms.
Any claims that a God is giving us special advice we humans wouldn’t otherwise be able to figure out about the objective goods and objective harms within the universe can be checked by application in the universe. Such claims are testable hypotheses and scores of them have failed philosophical, experiential, and rigorously experimental tests. And even where a claim of “God’s” appraisal something as good or as bad is vindicated, its goodness or badness is independent of God’s feelings about it and so as soon as we test the claims and discover they are correct, they can be argued for on rational grounds with no need for any special allegiances to faith traditions to understand their rationality.
The province of faith traditions as a result winds up being only those allegedly divine claims that don’t bear out in reality but which they stubbornly cling to nonetheless to keep up the baseless claim that they were, are, and ever will be speaking for the divine and so could not have made an egregious error. This is how faiths become obstacles to moral and spiritual development out of a commitment to keeping an appearance of divine guidance where they don’t really have any and where their claims to have one has been amply falsified.
The last major way in which I can conceive that God might “create” the goodness or badness of the universe might be in the sense of creating the world in the first place. By creating certain kinds of beings and not others and structuring things such that for each kind of being there are specific kinds of harmful and beneficial things, God arranges reality such that certain things are naturally good and certain things naturally are bad. This sort of view has God “making” things good and bad (as the Roman Catholics put it, this is the “natural law”) but it does not have God making them good and bad in any way that, again, is not discoverable entirely independently of any special revelation. Aquinas tries to argue that non-Christians can know most of the virtues but there are supernatural virtues (faith, hope, and charity) only possible through the grace of God. That’s ridiculous, of course, as there are demonstrable instances of faithful, hopeful, and charitable people who are non-believers. (And anyway, faith is in the majority of its senses a vice confused for the virtues of trust, loyalty, and rational belief).
The rest of the virtues on this conception of God as the “maker of good and bad” are all discoverable using natural reasoning and require no special subordination of the individual’s mind or life to religious traditions, texts, or authorities in order to either learn about them or exercise them. And even were those traditions to prove themselves especially good conveyers of information and example of these virtues (which they are ostensibly not in the present day, if they ever were, seeing as how religious institutions are persistently behind the advances in political freedom, women’s rights, racial equality, gay rights, etc.), nonetheless as soon as a good idea about morality (or exemplary moral individual) arises from a religious tradition it can become a matter of common knowledge and rational defense and implementation with none of the superfluous allegiances to religious leaders who claim special insights and authorities beyond the sheer strength of their testable ideas.
In other words, even if a God principle of some sort were to intelligibly contribute to the reason that some things were good and others bad (that was the way this God principle, whether personal or impersonal) happened to structure the universe), there would be no need or use for special revelation beyond any other source of moral hypotheses and no more authority to them beyond the success of their hypotheses for proving themselves philosophically, scientifically, politically, experientially, etc.
In sum, the only sensible way we have to say that God creates what is good and bad makes faith and dogma completely unnecessary for determining what the good and the bad really are.