The Good and the Great, random thoughts

The moral argument for God is familiar: the basic motivation is that moral goodness needs a foundation and only God could serve that role. Wielenberg (2009) points out a problem with the the idea that goodness is grounded in God:

… since the Good just is God, the existence of God can hardly explain or ground the existence of the Good. In the context of Adams’s view, the claim that God serves as the foundation of the Good is no more sensible than the claim that H2O serves as the foundation of water.

In other words, if A is identical to B, then A can’t serve as a foundation to B. A and B are two different terms that are used to refer to one and the same thing. How can anything serve as the foundation for itself? I’ll leave Wielenberg’s point aside as my target is elsewhere.

On a Divine Command theory, goodness is not a mere property of God; rather, God himself just is the Good (Baggett and Walls, 2011) or God’s nature just is the Good (Craig). Whether the Good is equated with God or God’s nature will not be relevant for this post. What is relevant is that the Good is a value. It has always puzzled me why there isn’t also a ‘greatness’ argument for God, since greatness is a value just like the good. In other words, without God, things like power, knowledge, and goodness would not be objectively great. Anselmians often say that omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection are great-making properties. This almost seems like a concession that you don’t need God to ground the great, even if he is by definition the greatest conceivable being. After all, what makes something great are these great-making properties: those properties serve as the foundation for greatness.

If Divine Command theorists said there were intrinsically good-making properties (e.g. virtues like lovingness, generosity etc.) this would likewise entail that these good-making properties are the foundation and not God. A Divine Command theorist should say that these properties are good-making only because God makes them good-making. This is what Craig, following Alston, says:

What he will ask now is: are these properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, generosity good because God possesses them or does God possess them because they are good? … These properties are good because God possesses them. They are descriptions of the way God is and therefore these are goods. It would just be a subterfuge of the theory to say that God has these properties because they are good.

Let’s suppose that the Anselmian sees the point made by Craig and Alston. He will deny that omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection can be great-making on their own; rather, God qua the Great is needed to make them great. Indeed, just as in the moral case, God just is the Great. On my understanding, this is actually what Adams (2002) does:

We have no word that in common usage signifies precisely and uniquely this kind of goodness; l shall refer to it often (though not always happily) as “excellence” and sometimes (where l see on the horizon no confusion with other sorts of goodness) simply as “goodness” or the “good.” Moral virtues are excellences in this sense, but Platonic excellence is not exclusively moral; beauty is a prime example of it …. (14)

So Adams is using the term good or excellence as more than just moral good; it also includes beauty etc. Since I think excellence is a synonym for greatness, I think Adams identifies God with the Great and not the moral good.

(Edit: upon rereading, I’m now not inclined to think Adams thinks excellence is greatness. Adams writes as if excellence includes the moral good, the aesthetic good, and intellectual virtues, but he doesn’t mention omnipotence.)

This leads to a problem for Divine Command theorists. If God is the Great and God is the Good, then by transitivity of identity the Great is the Good, which is obviously false since the Great has wider scope than the Good. The same problem occurs if you say God is love or truth. (I’ll take divine simplicity to be a non-starter.)

One way out for the Divine Command theorist is to deny that God is the Great. A question naturally follows: If greatness qua a value does not need a foundation, then why does goodness? Another way out is to say that God is the Great and that the Good is a part of God. The logical problem now evaporates. They could still insist that the Good as a part of God serves as the exemplar for goodness in the way the meter stick is an exemplar for the meter. After all, there’s nothing about exemplars that suggest that it can’t be part of a greater whole.

An exemplar can be contrasted with a platonic form. We have no exemplar for ’roundness,’ since nothing in the physical world is perfectly round, so roundness must be platonic (in some broad sense). Exemplars supposedly play another function for Divine Command theorists: it makes ‘God is the Great’ coherent, since if ‘great’ is understood to be an abstract platonic property or a universal, it is incoherent to say that God is the Great.

A question remains: Why are exemplars needed to be a foundation for goodness when they’re not needed to be a foundation for roundness? Why would goodness float free unanchored when roundness doesn’t float free unanchored?

Adams, Robert Merrihew. Finite and infinite goods: A framework for ethics. Framework for Ethics, 2002.
Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. Good God: The theistic foundations of morality. OUP USA, 2011.
Wielenberg, Erik J. “In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism.” Faith and Philosophy 26.1 (2009): 23-41.

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