More Thoughts on God and Morality

written by Adam Tucker

The following is an excerpt for our Why Trust the God of the Bible? ebook.

The astute reader may have noticed that the moral argument for God’s existence has not been utilized in this short booklet. This was deliberate. The reason it has been saved for an appendix is because morality and what good is have become so confused today. Thus, a sound moral argument requires more unpacking than is typically done. It is important to first understand exactly what we mean by good before we can understand what morality is and how that applies to God.

In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’…To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”¹ What is “natural law”? It does not refer to the laws of physics and other such laws of the natural sciences. Rather, natural law is rooted in the nature/essence of some thing. In other words, natural law is that which is good for a thing according to what that thing is (its nature/essence). As Aquinas says, “Hence this is the first precept of law, that ‘good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.’ All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.”²

Of course, the question then arises, what is good? It cannot be simply what someone happens to desire or think. If that were the case, then everyone’s desires and behaviors would be “good” and no one would have any grounds for meaningfully saying any other desires or behaviors are actually bad/evil. On the contrary, classically understood good is that which fulfills the end/purpose of some thing according to its nature/essence (i.e., according to what the thing in question is). Again, to quote Aquinas, “Good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary.”³ For example, an eye that does not hear well provides no useful information regarding whether the eye is good or not. An eye that does not see well, however, is a bad eye because it does not fulfill its purpose. 

As was said in chapter five, a thing is good insofar as it is in being (i.e., to whatever extent it exists as the kind of thing it is according to its essence or nature). This is something we discover rather than invent. Thus, this is a completely objective standard of goodness. No matter how much someone wants his eyes to hear, an eye is simply not that kind of thing. Such an example turns to moral goodness when we understand that man, as a rational animal, has an intellect directed towards knowing what is true and good for him, and he has a will directed towards pursuing what he thinks to be good.

That man has an intellect should not need elucidating. The very fact that debates about God and morality take place is illustrative of man’s intellectual powers. Similarly, upon a moment’s reflection, one can see that his intellect is directed towards attaining truth. To deny this fact is actually to confirm it. In other words, if one disagrees with the fact that his intellect is directed towards truth, he would essentially be saying, “Wait a minute. That’s not true!” But if his intellect is not directed towards truth, then who cares if it is not true? What he is communicating by such a statement is that he only wants to believe what is true (i.e., what corresponds to reality), which is precisely the point!

Likewise, upon a moments reflection we can see that no one pursues something because he knows it is bad for him. We only ever pursue things we take to be good for us in some way. Even the bank robber who knows he should not steal, sees the “good” of having money to attain his drugs, say, as something to be pursued. He is wrong of course, but he is still pursuing something he takes to be a good. Even the famed atheist Richard Dawkins cannot escape these truths. In his book River Out of Eden he says,

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication [just electrons and selfish genes], some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. …DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”⁴

Dawkins is correct that if there are no purposes towards which we are directed, there could be no actual good, and thus no evil either. However, in The God Delusion he talks about a Harvard-trained Christian geologist named Kurt Wise. Wise was a young-earth creationist convinced he could not hold his views and have a career in secular academia. So he left the secular academic world. Dawkins says,

“…I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because…It subverts science and saps the intellect. …the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic—pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. …I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise. And if it did that to a Harvard-educated geologist, just think what it can do to others less gifted and less well armed.”⁵

Dawkins thinks that science is the only means of knowing truth. Therefore, to “subvert science” is to “sap the intellect.” In other words, Dawkins is saying we should use our intellects to pursue what he thinks is true, and to not do so is “contemptible” and affects our “life’s happiness.” But this can only be the case if there is a purpose to which our intellect is directed, something Dawkins has in his previous quote already denied but something he cannot actually live out in practice. As philosophers George Klubertanz and Maurice Holloway say,

“…our own human intellect is itself a natural power that is ordered to its proper end. For man does not order his intellect to the truth; he finds that of its very nature it is already ordered to the truth. …While man can order himself in many of his actions for ends that he sets up for himself, he nevertheless finds his powers initially finalized [i.e. directed] toward ends that he has not established, but toward which these powers tend of their very nature.”⁶

Hence, we all pursue what we take to be good for us. Reason tells us what is actually good for us. Therefore, the rational, or moral, person will use his will to pursue what is actually good for him. Why should we be rational, and thus moral? Like our other faculties, our intellect and will are directed toward their own ends, namely the pursuit and attainment of the true and the good respectively. It is simply a fact of our nature, as was said, that good is to be pursued and evil is to be avoided.

How does this point to God? Man’s intellect, will, and other faculties, as well as their directedness toward certain ends or purposes, is part of the nature of man as a rational animal. Feser says, “. . . for a thing to have a certain final cause [i.e., goal directedness] entails that it also has a certain formal and material cause and thus a certain nature or essence; otherwise its final cause would not be inherent in it, nor would it be capable of realizing it.”⁷ He goes on to note, as we saw in chapter three, “But the essences that determine the ends of things—our ends, and for that matter the end of reason too as inherently directed toward the true and the good—do not exist independently of God.…they pre-exist in the divine intellect as the ideas or archetypes by reference to which God creates.”⁸

Why must this be the case? Man’s reasoning ability, among other things, is proof that he changes by forming arguments, making judgments, and learning. Thus, man is a limited, contingent, and changeable kind of being. As we have seen, any limited or changing being, as a combination of potency and act, cannot account for its own existence but has an essence that must be joined to an act of existence. Feser continues, “It follows that whatever orders things to their ends must also be the cause of those things and thus (given what was said earlier) Pure Act or Being Itself.”⁹ As Klubertanz and Holloway put it, “A natural being is ordered to its proper end both by its nature [essence] and by an intellect. Immediately and intrinsically, it is ordered by its nature, but ultimately and extrinsically, it is so ordered by the divine intellect who has established the end and created the nature.”¹⁰

In other words, we can ask and answer all kinds of intrinsic questions about a particular musical score to which we are listening without ever discussing the musician, but extrinsically there would be no musical score without a musician. Similarly, because we can know what a human being is and the purposes to which his various faculties are directed as a human, we can ask and answer many intrinsic questions about morality without appealing to God. We can know that morality is objective and that the standard of human goodness is human nature. Extrinsically, however, why do human beings exist with this certain nature? The only rational answer, given the metaphysical reasoning laid forth, is because God is sustaining them in existence at every moment they exist. Therefore, because He is the source of our natures/essences, God is extrinsically, or ultimately, the source of morality. 

It does not help to attempt to account for objective morality by saying God’s nature is the standard of goodness as a morally perfect being. God is good in a different way than humans are good. Humans can be good, but God is Goodness itself. No man can approach God’s goodness, but we can more closely approach what it means to be a good human. God cannot be a morally perfect being in the sense that we talk about a morally perfect man. As we have seen, morality involves fulfilling certain ends/purposes towards which we are directed. As Pure Act, God has no purposes to fulfill, nor could He. Klubertanz and Holloway put it this way, “The essence of God is one with His Being…God is ordered to no end, but all other things are ordered to Him as their final end. It is clear, therefore, that only God possesses all manner of perfection by His very essence. Thus He alone is good through His essence.”¹¹ Any attempt to make God a morally perfect being actually makes God a creature. Hence, God is not morally perfect. He is too Good for that!

  1. Accessed June 5, 2019. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf
  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Complete & Unabridged). Coyote Canyon Press. Kindle Edition, 556.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Basic Books), Kindle Edition, 134.
  5. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Kindle Edition, 321-323.
  6. Klubertanz and Holloway, 291-292.
  7. Feser, Aquinas, 1938-1939, Kindle.
  8. Edward Feser, “God, Obligation, and the Euthyphro Dilemma,” last modified October 26, 2010, accessed February 7, 2018, http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/10/god-obligation-and-euthyphro-dilemma.html
  9. Feser, Aquinas, 1941-1944, Kindle.
  10. Klubertanz and Holloway, 292.
  11. Ibid., 336.

Download Your FREE eBook!

Learn how studying at SES will be helpful in your Ministry. You will learn why:
  • Reading Books and Listening to Talks is Not Enough
  • Not All Apologetics Methods Are Created Equally
  • A Degree is More Than a Piece of Paper

Follow Why Do You Believe by E-mail

Subscribe to follow this blog and receive email notifications of new posts.