Moral perfection and the possibility of evil

God is not a moral being and so also lacks “moral perfection” (half the cardinal virtues are ridiculous if applied to him, and “justice” merely means he will execute whatever claim creatures place him under.) Still, arguendo let’s say God must be a morally perfect being. Here I want to respond to the this objection:

It is impossible for something to be morally perfect unless it can do evil

God cannot do evil, therefore, etc.

(N.B. The can in both cases is logical possibility.)

Another variant might be:

We should never praise the moral goodness of a being that could not have done evil.

God could not have done evil.

Therefore creatures should not praise God.

But moral goodness is not, even for us, a neutrality to good and evil but simply the ability to choose goods by oneself. God is morally good in this sense because he does what he does by himself, and he is more free than us precisely because nothing outside of himself is necessary for the co-operant action of his goodness.

1.) While it is true that moral goodness requires that there exist in the mind an alternative to what one chooses, it does not demand that the alternative be a real possibility. For me to choose to go to the store does not require that the store be actually there since, for all I know, it burned to the ground yesterday. But the presence of alternatives in the mind is a good (since the co-presence of contraries is peculiar to intelligence) and moral goodness does not demand that any of the alternatives be actualizable in the real world. It suffices that the being choose the goodness by himself. This is a variant of a Frankfurt counterfactual that clarifies the difference between alternative possibilities in the mind (which are good) from alternative possibilities in reality (which are signs of imperfection.)

2.) Freedom is a skill and skills are relative to the goods they produce. The only reason to have skills at all is to actualize goods that are not already given, and so to the extent that some outcome is not good it is also not the outcome of a skill. This is clear from an appraisal of skills: A surgeon might make a good torturer but this does not mean that torture is a part of the description of what surgeons do; a mechanic would make a great saboteur but this does not mean that this is part of his job description. If, per impossibile, you could eliminate the peculiar perversions of a skill from ever being realized in reality, nothing would ever change in the action of the one exercising his skills.

3.) The desire for freedom is not formally a desire for more options but a desire to do something by oneself. Children seeking to increase their freedom aren’t looking for more alternatives but to assert their independence. So long as we get to do what we want for ourselves, it doesn’t even matter if some other alternative was a real possibility, and even where the alternative is a real possibility we find our freedom in independence, not in the sheer multiplication of alternatives.

Corollary: Human beings are not free because they can do good or evil. This is a transient feature of freedom that belongs to them (and to some angels) so far as they exist in an imperfect state. While Dekoninck was right that freedom always involves imperfection, he missed a chance for a more precise account by saying that freedom is just what it is in everyday usage: independence or the power to do the good by oneself, or simply to do what one wants by himself.




  1. November 17, 2016 at 9:49 am

    The definition for the moral being proposed in the objection only suits the contingent being, and in fact it suits the virtuous contingent being: the morality of a limited, contingent consciousness. God does not have to be virtuous. He can be moral, without being virtuous; he doesn’t have to perfect his being, or to cleanse it, or to make a progress, God is good because there is goodness in him (as we say that ‘the Cosmos is good’, in the sense of ‘God saw that it was good’ of Genesis: intrinsic good, that which gives delight and receives approval. In fact, the supposition of the objection is a moral of the merits and errors, where one strives to be virtuous, to correct or perfect his being: largely a deontology.
    But with God we could understand the morality starting with the good, the goodness, and not with the virtue, or the means to attain goodness.

  2. November 17, 2016 at 10:00 am

    ‘God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good’. This

    seems to me the deepest understanding of the goodness.
    A Psalm explains what is God’s goodness: first, because he answers and frees from fears, ‘he saves those who have lost all hope’, which hints at what you have written in your insightful posts about the Savior (and which place can be assigned to a discourse about God as the Savior), and ‘how good the Lord is’ is something that each ‘finds out for himself’.
    (‘unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living’)

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