Two objections to divine goodness

William Rowe points out some difficulties with the claim that God is essentially good.

1.) Doing an evil thing is logically impossible for something essentially good. But then it seems God is essentially incapable of doing things that finite creatures can do, and so essential goodness seems to be a kind of impotence. Rowe’s example is “to torture an innocent person for no good reason”.

2.) If God were essentially good, we would neither praise nor thank him for what he does. No action arising essentially is praiseworthy or belonging to something we should thank. You might as well thank heavy bodies for falling or impute some moral value to the sky for its being blue.

The first difficulty was dealt with extensively and decisively by the Augustine and Anselm (Confessions Bk VIII and Proslogion c. 7). One can speak of a power to do evil, says Anselm, only in the way one might speak of a baby language or artificial leather, i.e. the power to do evil is no more a power than artificial leather is a kind of leather or baby language is a sort of language; and so to lack such a power is no more to lack power than running out of artificial leather means running out of leather. The person who would torture the innocent for no good reason has almost no moral power, for he neither does something he enjoys nor even something he wants to do.

The second objection is more interesting, but one opening move might be to point out that we only praise things so far as they are necessary and unchangeable, since we only praise someone for what he has actually done, and what one has done belongs to the unalterable past. So necessity of the action can’t be opposed in every way to praise or thanks, since some necessity and fixity of the action is essential to the very praise or thanks itself. Viktor Frankl explores this aspect of time extensively, pointing out that the purpose of freedom is in some sense to construct the past – to make an unalterable testament to what one has done in response to the question of what they will do in the face of life, especially in the face of suffering.

A second move might be to point out that finite goodness is never so concretized as to make a single ideal that is preferable to all others. One cannot be determined to the good in the sense of being directed to one and only one option. Among finite goods, at least, there is essentially an arbitrary element, and therefore free will is necessary for any action made in the face of finite goods, even if we posit an absolute determination to the good. God’s will is thus completely free in the face of finite goods even though he has an essential and unalterable orientation to the good, and even to what is best. Even if the best possible world could exist (and it can’t) it is not numerically one thing, and so even if God we’re logically determined to choose it, he would require free will to make an actual world.

Thus, God’s essential goodness, from which actions can be viewed as coming with necessity, is also essentially free as well, and so can be praised in the same way we now praise the choices of our fellow persons.


1 Comment

  1. December 2, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    Regarding 2, it seems we do praise, or are thankful to or for things in the measure they fulfill their essence, and according to the perfection of their essence. Thus we regard the planetary motions with aesthetic appreciation for their expression of orbital mechanics in their natures as physical bodies – i.e., even though they are just “heavy bodies falling”. And need I mention they were once mistaken for divine?

    Moral praise, too. We do homage to Cher Ami for being an exemplary pigeon, and still more to Charles Whittlesey and his lost battalion, for being exemplary men.

    The idea we shouldn’t offer praise for expressing essential good is what’s odd.

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