When the natural law condemns the lawgiver

by Robert

Professor Matt McCormick provides an excellent exposition on the dilemma facing theists regarding the morality of God’s actions – and inactions.  He asks, “If a human did what God is allegedly doing right now, would we consider that a morally good action?”  He briefly touches on one implication of his argument for the “natural law” – an implication I would like to delve into further.

The “natural law”, in case you’re not aware, is the term used by some theists to describe an alleged objective moral standard instilled in our hearts by God.  We all appeal to this standard, they say, when judging the goodness of others’ actions or our own.  But a problem arises when God’s own behavior violates the natural law.  Genocide – whether committed or ignored by God – is perhaps the example that comes most readily to mind.

What are we to make of these divine violations that transgress our moral sense?  Believers rationalize them away by claiming there must be a higher moral good behind them, but what this higher moral good is, they cannot say, for God never provides or demonstrates one.  Prima facie, they are moral violations, and should be considered such until we’re given compelling reasons to believe otherwise.  When someone commits murder, we don’t let them go scot free when their lawyer proclaims, “There was a higher moral purpose behind my client’s actions, and you’ll just have to trust him on that.”  Even those who say God told them to murder are still locked up (one way or another).

Even if we grant the proposition that God is a morally perfect being who can never commit a moral transgression, it still leaves us with what to make of the sense of moral violation.  Why do we still have it?  The natural law is seemingly producing false positives.  Essentially, theists tell us to ignore our sense of moral outrage whenever divine action seems to violate the law, but what about divine inactions, which can just as strongly trigger moral outrage?  Are we to ignore those too?  But that would entail ignoring our moral sense altogether, since we never know – absent being provided a compelling rationale – whether any moral transgression served some higher moral good.

For instance, returning to the example of genocide, how do we know the Holocaust wasn’t a critical piece in God’s overall plan?  Wouldn’t moral condemnation of the Holocaust be at best premature and at worse mistaken?  Given the theistic supposition that God chooses to intervene or not intervene in human affairs – invisibly, unpredictably, inscrutably – there is literally no event in which God’s involvement positively can be ruled in or out, and thus no moral outrage we can be confident of.  The natural law thus becomes neutered as a moral guide.

Some theists might argue that “sin” affects our ability to discern the natural law.  Since we’re said to all be living under it, the question becomes, to what extent does “sin” impact discernment?  They never say.  And if “sin” is muddying the waters, so to speak, how can we really even trust our moral sense as an intuitive guide?  An objective law capable of divergent interpretations is little different than no law at all.

When it comes down to it, the choices are pretty stark for the theist: abandon divine moral goodness, or abandon the natural law.  Both cannot existence concurrently, unless the latter doesn’t derive from the former, in which case theism itself must be abandoned.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Silas May 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm

What they would say is that with god being god both can exist…theist would use that logic to get around it…I have heard that logic time and time again. They would also say that because our minds are finite and can’t comprehend the two existing together so therefore it can exist….lmao no logic there

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Proph January 25, 2012 at 7:57 pm

I think, Robert, that you have an incomplete understanding of “natural law.” A full treatment of the question is beyond the scope of a blog comment (I am presently penning an essay explaining and defending it for publication on my blog and it’s already well over 4000 words!), but suffice it to say that God Himself is not subject to natural law. Or rather not subject to the same natural law as humans are.

When we speak of “natural law,” we are referring to those goods which arise organically from human nature, and which we are enjoined to seek by virtue of the truth-seeking telos of the rational faculties of the human person. Thus, for instance, we claim that (to give just one example) contraception violates the natural law because it does not accord with the nature of the human sexual faculty, the end or telos of which is procreation.

Nor is this claim unique to humans: we all intuitively recognize that the goodness of a thing is simply the degree to which it exists according to its mode of being. For instance, when I say that a particular chair is good, I mean that’s comfortable. When I say that a pen is good, I mean that it writes well. When I say that a meal is good, I mean that it’s tasty, or nutritious, or perhaps both (a thing can be good in one respect without being good in another). And so on.

But if the goodness of a thing is simply the extent of its existence in accordance with its mode of being, then it follows that goodness *in principle* is simply being *in principle.* So it follows that goodness in its purest or highest form is simply being itself. (And theists believe that God is being itself — because the order of being by nature points toward the necessary existence of a being which *just is* being. As I said, the issue is complicated and beyond the scope of a combox, but a good place to get a very reductive treatment of the issue is here: http://bonald.wordpress.com/in-defense-of-religion/finite-and-unlimited-being/. At any rate, what I mean by all this is that if pure goodness is pure being and God is pure being, then it follows that God is pure goodness).

In other words, moral goods for a human being arise from human nature. We should not go so far as to presume that God, being nonhuman, is subject to the same moral strictures. To give you a very weak example (weak because analogies fail to capture the fullness of the issues at stake), we know that killing is in principle wrong. But there are circumstances in which killing can be made not wrong, for instance, if I am a soldier in war and my superior officer commands me to return fire. Insofar as I am obeying a legitimate order issued by a legitimate authority, I am not only not doing a bad thing, I am doing a *good* thing. You can argue that there is an asymmetry between my superior ordering me to return fire against an enemy and ordering me to kill children, and you’d be right. But there is likewise an asymmetry between the authority of a military officer and the authority of God. God’s authority is not simply the authority of an officer writ large: it’s a qualitatively different thing entirely.

Put very simply, God may either command or prohibit killing, but there is a discontinuity between the two. We can intuit the prohibition on killing through simple reflection on our natures. We cannot intuit the injunction to kill: it must be relayed to us specifically by God, who ordained our natures and thus determines for us what actions are praiseworthy or condemnable.

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Robert January 26, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Proph wrote,

I think, Robert, that you have an incomplete understanding of “natural law.”

My understanding is informed by Romans 2:14-15, Jeremiah 31:33-34, C.S. Lewis, and many other Christian thinkers, such as Pope Leo XIII, who stated, “The natural law is engraved in the soul of every man, because human reason tells him to do good and avoid evil. It has force because it is the voice of a higher reason to which our spirit must submit.”

…but suffice it to say that God Himself is not subject to natural law. Or rather not subject to the same natural law as humans are.

This was not the point of my post, nor did I make this assertion. Rather, the purpose of my post was to explore a contradiction between what the alleged natural law informs us is immoral, and the actions (or inactions) of the Lawgiver, which by definition are always moral. Genocide is a good example. The natural law informs us that it is immoral, so we’re left in a state of moral conflict when God commands, performs, or ignores it.

Nor is this claim unique to humans: we all intuitively recognize that the goodness of a thing is simply the degree to which it exists according to its mode of being. For instance, when I say that a particular chair is good, I mean that’s comfortable.

Your claim is not in evidence at all, and I think your example amply demonstrates why. First of all, to say that a particular chair is “good” is nearly meaningless. I personally would not have guessed you meant that it’s comfortable. I, as I’m sure most people, would have asked for a clarification upon hearing such a description. Did you mean it’s well-built? It’s fashionably upholstered? It has four legs? If you really meant comfortable, why not simply say “the chair is comfortable”?

Also, reasonable people may disagree over a thing’s “mode of being”. With respect to a chair, you apparently feel it’s meant to be comfortable. I would argue that its meant, in most contexts, to allow reprieve from continuous standing.

Finally, the quality “goodness” does not seem apt for a large category of objects, at least, in most contexts. Are ocean waves good? What about the SARS virus?

The bottom line is that the “goodness” is subjective, variable, and contextual. This invalidates your claim that “goodness *in principle* is simply being *in principle*”. There are a number of other problems with your claims, such as the one extrapolating the existence of a being (God) from a quality (goodness), but that can be left to a later discussion.

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Proph January 26, 2012 at 2:07 pm

“My understanding is informed by Romans 2:14-15, Jeremiah 31:33-34, C.S. Lewis, and many other Christian thinkers, such as Pope Leo XIII, who stated, “The natural law is engraved in the soul of every man, because human reason tells him to do good and avoid evil. It has force because it is the voice of a higher reason to which our spirit must submit.”

This is all well and good, but they are generally not regarded as the definitive treatments of natural law. (As evidence for this, consider that both the Reformation and the Great Schism were born in part of Protestants’ and Eastern Orthodox’s, respectively, rejection of Thomist scholasticism, even though they all have pretty much the same Bible). For that, you’d need to go to the source: Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Haven’t read it myself, what with it being several thousand very dense pages that reads like stereo instructions, but there are plenty of good lay treatments of it available, most especially in some of the recent works of Edward Feser but also in the works of older theologians, such as Servais Pinckaers. Secular thinkers like Richard Weaver had dealt with it, too.

“This was not the point of my post, nor did I make this assertion. Rather, the purpose of my post was to explore a contradiction between what the alleged natural law informs us is immoral, and the actions (or inactions) of the Lawgiver, which by definition are always moral. Genocide is a good example. The natural law informs us that it is immoral, so we’re left in a state of moral conflict when God commands, performs, or ignores it.”

I’m afraid you’ve lost me, then. You acknowledge that God is not subject to our moral law, but then complain that his actions which would violate that law evinces a contradiction.

I am not subject to the civil law of Greece; how, then, could I be a criminal if I, an American, did something in America which would run afoul of it?

The natural law informs us that genocide is contrary to our natures and thereby evil. But our natures are simply manifestations of the will of God (specifically, human nature is the means by which human beings participate in the order of being God created), and the moral force of their obligation is therefore always overruled by explicit commandment by God. (I hate to keep referring to Edward Feser, but he’s addressed this issue before: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/10/god-obligation-and-euthyphro-dilemma.html).

John Duns Scotus (mentor and teacher of William of Ockham) treated the issue long ago, and Bonald again has a good treatment of his response here: http://bonald.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/principles-of-catholic-morality-viii-scotus-on-the-natural-law/.

Re: goodness of things, we are of course using “goodness” in an analagous rather than univocal sense. It is not necessary to agree on what the nature of any particular thing is (and of course a thing may have a broad nature in that serves more than one telos, as food is both nutritious and tasty): it suffices to show that whatever it’s nature is, that is the determinant of its goodness. Again, this is goodness in an analagous sense: a deformed baby cannot be said to be “not good” because human nature is volitional and thus human goodness is chosen; but it is certainly meaningful to say that it is *not good* for a human to be born deformed. Perhaps a more meaningful example is in order. We can agree that the heart exists to circulate blood through the body, in that this is a universal feature of hearts everywhere. A heart which fails to do this for whatever reason is a *bad* heart, not in the sense that it is “evil” but that it fails to accord with its nature. Hence, we talk about “cardiopathology” or “heart disorders”: a deviation from a normative order arising from the nature of a thing.

It is a difficult philosophy to wrap one’s head around, I understand, but I assure you that this problem is not new and is not particularly challenging. People were thinking about it a thousand years ago. They came up with what are, at least for me, reasonably satisfying answers. I encourage you to read some of the sources I linked above and see if you can get your hands on Feser’s “Aquinas” if you’re interested in a fuller treatment of these issues than I can presently afford. I had to order “Aquinas” from Amazon, but it seems Feser’s “The Last Superstition” is available in many public libraries. I found the tone in that book to be unpleasantly polemical, though, and otherwise very uncharacteristic of him.

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Robert January 27, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Proph wrote,

This is all well and good, but they are generally not regarded as the definitive treatments of natural law…For that, you’d need to go to the source: Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.

The Bible is not “the source”? Is Acquinas’ work considered by all Christians as “the definitive treatment of natural law”? If your answers are yes, then I humbly request evidence for your claims. Otherwise, your objection that I don’t understand natural law is baseless. If anything, I don’t understand natural law only as some Christians understand it (you’ve yet to explain how). I assert that I understand natural law as some other Christians understand it, as well as how the Bible describes it. Until you can refute this assertion, there should be no further accusation that I don’t understand natural law.

I’m afraid you’ve lost me, then. You acknowledge that God is not subject to our moral law, but then complain that his actions which would violate that law evinces a contradiction.

First of all, if my understanding of the natural law is different from yours, then of course I’d lose you. But in case yours and mine overlap in some way, I’ll attempt further explanation by way of example. I think you would do well to re-read my original post. The words “moral sense” are especially relevant.

John reads in the history books about genocide in Europe. Because, according to theists, he has been divinely imbued with the natural law that informs him genocide is evil, he is morally appalled; he has a sense of moral violation.

John reads in the Bible about God unleashing a worldwide flood that destroys almost all life on earth. Again, because he has been divinely imbued with the natural law that informs him genocide is evil, he is morally appalled.

Christians, including yourself, respond that God transgressed no moral law. That is not disputed. The point is John’s reaction; his sense of moral violation is unwillingly provoked in both instances. This is what I’m getting at when I write,

Even if we grant the proposition that God is a morally perfect being who can never commit a moral transgression, it still leaves us with what to make of the sense of moral violation. Why do we still have it? The natural law is seemingly producing false positives.

Regardless whether Hitler or God commits genocide, we react with the same sense of moral violation. My point is that this sense should not be provoked in the latter case, but only in the former. That it’s provoked in both cases indicates something is wrong; we’re getting “false positives”. Christians tell us to ignore them. I go on to explain why that effectively neuters the efficacy of the natural law.

(Yes, I read the links you posted. They don’t address the problem I’m discussing here.)

I now turn to your discussion about goodness in the next reply…

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Robert January 27, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Proph wrote,

It is not necessary to agree on what the nature of any particular thing is…it suffices to show that whatever it’s nature is, that is the determinant of its goodness.

I wonder if you’re able to see the trouble, which, to my mind, is immediately obvious. It arose with clarity with respect to your chair example, against which I raised a number of pertinent objections.

If we cannot agree on what the nature of any particular thing is (because of, for example, the difficulties I outlined earlier, among others), then how does one coherently ascribe goodness to it? To you, for example, the nature of a chair is to provide comfort. A comfortable chair is a “good” chair. I don’t see it in such black-and-white terms. Nor do I agree that comfort is indicative of goodness, at least with respect to chairs. In my view, as I stated before, one primary purpose of a chair is to allow reprieve from continuous standing. But depending on a certain time and context, this purpose may change. Say I need to reach something high up off the floor. The purpose of a chair then becomes that of providing an elevated, stable platform. When I’ve used the chair in this manner, does it become “not good” or “bad” because it has deviated from its “nature”? Such is the absurdity your reasoning collapses to. No wonder this is “difficult philosophy”. It accords with experience not in the slightest.

I asked in my previous reply and I beg a response: Are ocean waves good? What about the SARS virus?

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Eric September 18, 2012 at 11:29 am

Wow, very nice article–and even the comments section is of a very high quality; there is no name calling, ad hominems, etc. This is my first visit to this site, so…

You pose a question that has not occurred to me before, about if the natural law is “written upon our hearts” by God, why the moral outrage at something God does (or is supposed to have done)? Do you have any kind of tentative explanation? Or is the question in itself sufficient in that it gets people thinking about the dilemma?

I first found this article while researching a question I saw in a Christopher Hitchens debate with Turek. Turek kept asking “without God, how can there be morality?” Hitchens never seemed to satisfactorily answer the question.

This leads to an older question, or argument, that I’ve read concerning the goodness of god: Is God good because, by definition, anything done by him is good (as in Morally Good/Right)? Or is God good according to some outside moral framework? If the former, then God can be capricious; if the latter, then what need have we of God?

I was frustrated Hitchens didn’t bring up the naturalistic explanation for the possible rise of morality (as a counter to “God carved the moral law into us”) as stated in sociobiology: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_morality
That naturalistic explanation would, it seems to me, be a wonderful way to solve the dilemma.

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Robert September 19, 2012 at 7:54 am

Hi Eric, glad you enjoyed the article! I don’t have any explanation for the moral outrage at something a god is alleged to have done – but that was the point :) I see the idea of a divine natural law as incoherent – and examples abound even now. How do theists explain widespread Muslim moral outrage at the recent unflattering depictions of their religion’s founder? Did Allah write upon our hearts the knowledge that such depictions are evil?

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