Answers for NickJanuary 6, 2011 — Deacon Duncan
As I mentioned before, I’m not shutting down this blog completely, and we have a new guest in the comments, with some interesting questions. Since Nick asks such good questions, I’m promoting them to a post of their own, so that I can answer them more completely.
DD: What I have is not so much a definition of goodness as an objective approach to discerning goodness. One of the major flaws I see in Lewis’ reasoning is a tendency to assume that “goodness” is defined by a list somewhere, and that’s not really realistic or workable, as I’ve discussed extensively in my discussion of the “Book 1″ portion of Mere Christianity.
Reply: So let me get this straight. You don’t have a definition of goodness, but yet you’re basing your argument on what goodness is. C.S. Lewis was a Thomist. Do you know how Thomism describes goodness? Do you know how Aristotle did? Do you know how that relates to the central doctrine of Thomistic thought, the doctrine of being?
If you do not believe goodness can be described (A more accurate word than defined) then there’s no point in you going on about it and the privation of it, evil.
Hello, Nick, and welcome once again. I’m afraid that you do not quite have things straight yet, but perhaps I can explain myself a bit better. What I’m saying is that Good (as in Good vs. Evil or Right vs Wrong) is not a singular standard with a singular definition. Moral standards are a cultural convention arrived at through a combination of factors including (a) accumulated experience of the consequences of certain things, (b) natural human empathy and (c) sentient self-interest, as they relate to the group in question. There may be other factors as well, but these are the big three.
The reason I did not give you the definition of goodness that you asked for is because your question was too vague. You did not specify any particular social/historical/cultural context, and that’s an important prerequisite for any such definition. Trying to define “Good” without reference to any particular social group is like trying to define marriage without any reference to either of the spouses: it’s not strictly impossible, but it leaves undefined a number of significant variables without which your definition is going to have problems. (More on that below.)
As for Thomistic thought and Aristotle and such, my critique of Lewis is based specifically on the job he does explaining his concept of Moral Law to the average layman, which is why I’m speaking in layman’s terms instead of invoking technical philosophical jargon. If you are suggesting that Lewis’ explanation is misleading, or that it fails to properly explain the topics he is discussing, such that the layman must first master Aquinas and Aristotle before he can properly understand Lewis (!), then perhaps we ought to warn people not to read Mere Christianity, as it will only confuse them.
And lastly, if all you want is a description of goodness, that’s a bit easier. I apologize for the brevity of my first reply, but I’ve got a bit more free time today, so perhaps I can go into more detail. In particular, I’d like to discuss how my understanding of the source of morality is different from (and better than) Lewis’.
The flaw I see in Lewis’ explanation, and in the concepts of natural law and eternal law which underlie it, is that it attempts to reduce the difficult question of Right vs. Wrong down to a relatively simple rule of fiat: somewhere “out there” is a list of things that are always Right/Good, and a list of things that are always Wrong/Evil, and thus morality is merely a matter of finding which list contains the thing you are trying to judge. (For purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter as much whether this list springs from God’s mind or His will or His nature; the main problem is that it is there at all, by whatever means.)
There is a strong, naive appeal to such a notion. People are always hoping to find an easy, sure-fire way to lose weight, to get rich, to enhance their (*ahem*) “personal characteristics,” and they feel pretty much the same way about any system that offers an easy, sure-fire way to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Screw up morality, and you screw up your life, and people know it, so they’re eager to “buy.” The problem with the “rule of fiat” approach to morality, as it is with other such nostrums, is that it doesn’t actually work in real life.
For example, if there were, somewhere, an eternal law that enumerated all the things that are Good and all the things that are Sin, then that would be an absolute, eternal, and universal constraint. A thing is either right for all people, at all times, in all circumstances, or it is wrong for all people, at all times, in all circumstances. Its moral quality is defined, not by the circumstances attendant on it, but by an independent and extrinsic standard or ideal to which it must relate, and that standard must be arbitrary (i.e. not dependent on circumstances or consequences) or else it is reduced to merely relaying some other, more fundamental source of morality based on circumstances and consequences.
Thus, if genocide is a sin, then it’s a sin even when the Israelites do it; conversely, if it was ok then, it must also be ok now. If suicide is a sin, then it’s a sin for everyone, including those who commit suicide by provoking the Pharisees until they arrange a crucifixion. The rule of fiat is a fixed and absolute morality, not a kind of moral relativism, so it cannot and indeed must not modify its demands to suit some contemporary circumstance or other. But that causes theological problems, because sooner or later God Himself ends up doing something immoral like, say, getting another man’s fiancee pregnant.
The only way to “fix” this hypothetical law is by modifying it so that it becomes contingent upon circumstance: genocide is wrong IF you’re wiping out this group of people rather than that one; suicide is wrong UNLESS you are doing it to benefit someone else, it’s ok to impregnate an unmarried woman IF you are Almighty, etc. In other words, the “eternal law” approach fails unless it is reduced to merely relaying some higher moral standard based on real-world considerations—what we might call the “rule of consequences” as opposed to the rule of fiat. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but like I said, layman’s terms.
In other words, “absolute” goodness sounds good and is easy to sell, but it’s not the ultimate answer. There’s an even deeper and more fundamental source of morality, by which we can judge whether or not the Moral Law needs to be fixed to make it come out right. It’s the difference between theory and practice. In theory, Moral Law is natural law (in the Thomistic sense), but in practice, it is relativism, and we judge the rightness or wrongness of God’s actions by a more flexible standard so that things that would be sin for anyone else are fine for Him. Circumstances and contingencies, and not the inherent rightness or wrongness of the act itself, are the final measure believers use to get God’s conduct to come out “right.”
Lewis’ Moral Law argument suffers from many other, similar flaws, as I’ve discussed over the course of the past several weeks. And it’s not just that Lewis’ argument (and the philosophy behind it) fails to fit the facts, it’s that there exists an alternative that does describe human morality as we observe it in the real world, even among Thomists and other believers, without the caveats and twists and rationalizations that Lewis’ approach requires.
That description, of course, is the one I’ve already alluded to above. Right and Wrong, Good and Evil are social conventions that arise within a certain group based on their perception/consensus regarding which set of consequences they want to encourage and which they want to avoid. It’s complex, changeable, and often results in conflicts between different groups with different moral standards (with one or both sides trying to promote their standard as Eternal and Immutable Law), as we see in action in real life every day.
That’s not a popular description (people like their diet pills and their Ten Commandments) but it’s the objectively accurate one. Like it or not, that’s the way the real world is. Moral standards evolve within particular groups at particular times, and are tied to those groups but not necessarily to others. That’s why, for example, slavery is evil today, and eating pork is not, whereas in Old Testament Israel it was the other way around. Circumstances change, social conventions change, and morality changes right along with them. So you see, I can describe how morality works, but I cannot give you a specific definition of what “good” is, because that definition can be different for different groups at different times. All I (or anyone else) can do is to describe how it works—and my description, unlike Lewis’, accurately matches the way we see real morality function in real life.
DD: As to your second question, I have a feeling you’re leading up to something by the reference to “goodness in relation to being,” but I’m not sure what exactly you have in mind.
Reply: Correct. If you are not sure what I have in mind, then it’s time to learn. If you do not know this concept, then it’s really difficult to take the account seriously. Of course, if you want to learn an accurate description, I’m ready to give it.
I’m sure I and my readers would be glad to hear it. Share, by all means, what you know.
DD: I do have a few decades of experience as an evangelical, Bible-believing conservative Christian, so I am fairly comfortable with my understanding of how Christians see “goodness.”
Reply: No you’re not. I’m not talking about how Christians see goodness. It’s irrelevant to me. Goodness is what it is regardless of if Christians see it and goodness had an ontology before Christianity came along. I’m talking about what it is and I don’t need the Bible for that or the revelation of God at all.
Good for you! I don’t need the Bible either, with the caveat that we are entitled to examine any book that claims to be inspired by the Author of that ontology, to see if its claims are consistent with itself and with the real world evidence. As I’m sure you would agree.
By the way, I apologize for misunderstanding which group you were thinking of when you said “Lewis and others,” but you’ll have to admit you were a bit vague there. I’m glad to see that you’ve been more specific in your response.
DD: No doubt you could find a point or two to quibble over, but I daresay you could do the same with any number of believers as well, so I’m not worried about falling outside the mainstream.
Reply: You bet I could because sadly, most Christians don’t even know this due to the dumbing down of the church that leads to the apostasy you’ve just described yourself as fulfilling. You didn’t know about goodness then and you still don’t now.
I’m afraid you have jumped to a false conclusion there; I hope that was unintentional. If you can address the points I’ve raised, then I would encourage you to do so. Anyone who merely wishes to indulge in innuendo and premature boasting, without demonstrating an awareness and understanding of opposing arguments, would risk coming across as ignorant and obstinate. That applies to me as much as to you, naturally.
I think the most productive approach would be for each of us to attempt to address the points under discussion as they are raised, and if there is any relevant argument or information that has not yet been raised, we should raise it, and actually see if the other party is familiar with it before drawing any conclusions about their level of knowledge. Fair enough? I have addressed the points raised by Lewis in his book, just as you are free and welcome to address the points I raise in my posts. And if you feel like there’s anything Lewis said in the first several chapters that I’ve overlooked, and/or that I’ve incorrectly omitted in order to make spurious claims of ignorance on Lewis’ part, feel free to point those out as well, and I will gladly correct any errors that warrant correction.
DD: If you think I’ve missed anything important, feel free to share.
Reply: Just the big picture and an education on what you’re talking about. You don’t have a working idea of what goodness is and you aren’t interacting with the metaphysics that C.S. Lewis held to, which would be a good Thomistic metaphysics.
You seem to have rather strong feelings on the subject. Are you by any chance letting these feelings bias your conclusions? That would explain why you seem to think you’ve plumbed the full extent of my knowledge even before we’ve started, as it were. And that would indeed be a shame. Still, I’m glad you showed up and gave me the opportunity to explore the topic a little further. The Lewis book was very disappointing, and you’ve made the discussion a lot more lively. Thanks much.