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Thursday, 1 November 2007

Euthyphro Objection III:The Redundancy of God is Good

In my previous post I criticised Singer’s utilisation of the arbitrariness objection against voluntarism. Singer’s last objection comes as a rejoinder to the line of response sketched.

Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of
dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of
torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what
can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved
by God?[i]

The problems with this response have already been demonstrated. Singer suggests that the modern theists who propose this response hold that ‘good’ means approved by God. However, this is not what they propose. Some, like Quinn and Weirenga, suggest that what makes actions right or wrong are the commands of God. Adams holds that wrongness is the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Neither of these views entails that ‘God is good’ means ‘God is approved’ by God.

In order for Singer’s objection to be something other than a straw man, it needs to be reformulated to deal with theories like the ones actually proposed by defenders of Voluntarism. One such formulation is suggested, though not endorsed, by Edward Weirenga.

[I]f to be morally good is to do no wrong, and if what is wrong is what is
forbidden by God, then to say that God is good is just to say that he never does
what he forbids himself to do. But there is no moral value in never doing what
one forbids oneself to do.[ii]

This objection is problematic. Firstly, the last premise affirms that there is no moral value in never doing what one forbids oneself to do; i.e. there is no moral value in living by the standards you set yourself, so to speak. This is false. There very clearly is moral value in avoiding hypocrisy and hypocrisy involves, in part, not following the standards one lays down for one’s own behaviour. Moreover, the very notion at the heart of much contemporary, ethical theory is that of autonomy. Autonomy refers to the act of regulating one’s own behaviour in light of the laws or principles of which one approves.

Finally, note that Weirenga’s objection begins with “if to be morally good is to do no wrong ... then”. [Emphasis added]. The argument assumes that goodness is defined purely in terms of doing one’s duty. This was not claimed in the theory proposed and this assumption is at best controversial. Many ethical theories define ‘right’ in terms of a relationship to what is good and others see rightness as involving side constraints upon the quest for good. At best, what is needed is an argument as to why a theist must accept such a definition and none has been offered.

Paul Faber notes that within Presbyterian tradition there are strong precedents for not characterising goodness this way. He notes how God’s goodness is characterised in the Westminster Confession.[iii]

[M]ost loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and
truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that
diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments,
hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.[iv]

Here God’s goodness is not defined so much in terms of conformity to duties but in terms of various character traits or excellence. Virtues such as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc, hating actions that are wrong, praising and rewarding what is right. Nothing in Voluntarism entails that God cannot have such attributes. Voluntarism might have this implication if it also maintained that God has such traits because he is required to or if the virtues mentioned cannot be attributed to God without defining them in terms of various commands he has issued. However, none of this is necessary. God does not have to have a duty to have something in order to have it and such things as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc. can all be understood without specifying any divine command.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3-4.
[ii] Weirenga, The Nature of God, 222.
[iii] Paul Faber, “The Euthyphro Objection to Divine Normative Theories: A Response” Religious Studies 21 (1985): 564-567.
[iv] Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 2, Article 1, 145.


  1. You say that God is good because he posseses certain character traits that we regard as good. But why do we regard them as good? Is it because God possesses these traits or because they conform to some external standard of goodness?

  2. Mark

    Good question

    First, as phrased you asks why "we" "consider" these traits good. That’s question about a persons reasons for a conclusion and I think the answer depends on who “we” is. I imagine different people will have different reasons for why they endorse these traits some of these reasons will be good others bad.

    Second, I think what you mean to ask is a metaphysical question, what makes these traits good. You suggest either these traits are good traits because God posses them or they are good because of some standard of good traits independent of God. Here I think the question makes a false dichotomy. You assume that that the relationship between goodness and God is an asymmetrical, dependence relationship that leaves two mutually-exclusive possibilities; either being right is ontologically prior to God’s commanding or God’s commanding is ontologically prior to what is right.

    However, from reading the literature it seems that some important theists deny that the relationship is asymmetric in this way. Some, like Robert Adams, and to some extent Linda Zagzebski state that the relationship between a good character trait and God’s character is one of identity; the property of being a good trait and the property of being a divine trait is are identical properties. This does not expound an asymmetrical relationship but one of identity. Identity relations are symmetrical and the proposed dilemma simply does not apply to a relationship of identity. To ask which of two identical things was ontologically prior to the other is to ask whether something was prior to itself.


  3. Matt wrote:
    It remains doubtful whether a logically-possible situation in which God commands an action and that action is wrong could exist. This is because a perfectly-good being would not command wrongdoing.

    Hi Matt,

    I had a read through your 3 posts on the Euthyphro dilemma, and was just wanting a few clarifications, if you would. Is it your view that God's goodness is an analytic fact, that is, a matter of definition that God is good--as 'the perfectly good being'?

    You reject any reliance of God on some ontologically prior principle of goodness. But would you say that God's goodness is logically prior to any analysis of God's acts?

    Lastly, if God is a perfectly good being, is there any action carried out by any person that could not be ascribed to the will of God?

  4. Hmmmm... let me rephrase that last question. It's a bit ambigous, not least because it could be taken (wrongly) as a question about God's sovereignty, human free will and sin. Rather:

    'Lastly, assuming God is a perfectly good being, is there any action (or inaction) that God would not command of a human?'

  5. mandmwrote:

    Some, like Robert Adams, and to some extent Linda Zagzebski state that the relationship between a good character trait and God’s character is one of identity; the property of being a good trait and the property of being a divine trait is are identical properties.

    This seems like a very strange view. Since the claim is not plausibly analytic, the identity has to be a Kripke-type a posteriori identity (like "water = H2O"). But those necessary a posteriori identities all seem to break apart into a necessary a priori component (water = [rigidly] whatever actually plays the water role) and a contingent a posteriori component (H20 actually plays the water role)? Is there a similar analysis for identity between goodness and being a characteristic of God?

  6. I am sorry about your recent loss, Matt. When you get a chance to answer my 3 questions above, please let me know. Best wishes.


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