Taking God’s “moral perfection” seriously – UPDATED

Assume that, as some versions of the argument from evil put it, God is a “morally perfect being”. Assume also that suffering exists in the world. To make the second fact tell against the first, we need to articulate a code of divine ethics, and locate prohibitions against suffering somewhere on it.

To approach this, start with the following moral claim: it is wrong to take the life of X merely because it vexes us. Clearly, the truth of the claim depends on what X is. We could make a list of descending values (M)  like this:  the act would be a terrible thing to do to a child, a perverse thing to do to some highly valued animal or possession, a pretty insensitive thing to do to a dog, an unobjectionable thing to do to a mole, a perfectly understandable act to do to a moth, and to do it to a weed would almost seem to have no moral significance at all. So when we try to articulate God’s ethics with respect to, say, allowing the suffering of the innocent, what is its analogue on M?

The question is made more problematic if we consider the principle that governs what is better or worse on M. There’re a lot of accounts of what the principle is, but St. Thomas’s account of why man can kill plants and non-human animals is a good place to start:

There is no sin in using a thing for the purpose for which it is. Now the order of things is such that the imperfect are for the perfect, even as in the process of generation nature proceeds from imperfection to perfection… Wherefore it is not unlawful if man use plants for the good of animals, and animals for the good of man

So what happens when we add that God and angels are more perfect than human beings? If this is the principle governing things, it suggests we are a little further down on M than we might wish. Whatever our feelings might be, the logic doesn’t leave much wiggle room: if the strata of perfection determine moral action, then if we introduce a sort of existence that is as many levels above us as we are above plants, such a being’s moral treatment of us be analogous to our treatment of plants. So what do we conclude if we posit a being that is infinitely many strata higher above us than we are to plants?

Of course this could be taken as a charter for a divine monster. I insist that it isn’t – it really is an attempt to take the idea of a “divine moral perfection” seriously, as opposed to simply assuming we know what it means – which seems to make divine ethics a mere  instance of human ethics. The idea of the “divine monster” might in fact have some heuristic value: if the principle above is right, we have reason to conclude that a divine moral perfection is most manifest in an action that would be the greatest possible monstrosity for a lower being – like sentencing someone to hellfire for a single offense after a life of virtue or demanding a genocide. Again, if God were as high over us as we were to plants, we might suspect that his moral obligations to us were best reflected in our obligations to plants. But God is infinitely above this, which makes us suspect that his moral perfection would consist in a removal of all limits and obligations that we observe between ourselves and other persons and entities – and so God is made perfect by actions that are monstrous for us.

But there’s more than one kind of monster. Just as it would be wrong for us to degrade and torture and animal, so too it would be degrading for us to incorporate it into a fully human life – to attempt, as Caligula did, to make a horse rule the senate. It’s monstrous both to torture a dog and to marry it. But if God is made perfect by what is monstrous for us then the incarnation or theosis is a real perfection of God. Both hellfire and its remedy become divine perfections by the same principle.

To sum up: the argument from evil depends on at least a rudimentary account of divine ethics. My contribution to the effort is the following truth: the divine moral perfection is most manifest in actions that are monstrous for lower creatures. As a consequence, evil – even an evil putatively committed by God, if such a thing were possible – would most manifest divine perfection. By the same principle, the Incarnation and theosis of lower creatures is in keeping with the divine nature.




  1. GeoffSmith said,

    August 28, 2014 at 6:52 am

    That’s very insightful and it seems to follow the functional logic of Genesis 1:1-2:3, so it dovetails nicely with Biblical Theology. My question (not for you, but in general) is this, if you’re evangelizing, how on earth do you get somebody to accept this logical move then they’re on the rhetorical emotional level?

  2. BM said,

    October 16, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Isidore, Epist. lib. iv. 166: But not to mention all arguments, let us bring forward that one to which all arguments point, that, for one who was God to assume a lowly guise both has an obvious use, and is an adaptation and in nothing contradicts the course of nature. But for one who is man to speak things divine and supernatural is the highest presumption; for though a king may humble himself a common soldier may not take on him the state of an emperor. So, if He were God made man, all lowly things have place; but if mere man, high things have none. (From the Catena Aurea, Matthew, c. 1)

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