God and the Nature of Goodness

This is the fourth in a series of five articles addressing Irish writer Michael Nugent’s twenty reasons why God seems implausible, as he explained them in a debate with Dr. William Lane Craig in March of this year.

During Mr. Nugent’s opening remarks he listed twenty or so reasons in rapid-fire succession, each leading into the next, and I felt that, cumulatively, they built a pretty strong case for his position. This article addresses the points from that list that dealt with the problem of God and the nature of Goodness.

Mr. Nugent’s 12th Reason: The Euthyphro dilemma still remains: does the god command things to be good for arbitrary reasons or does it identify things as being good because they correspond to independent standards of goodness?

The Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma because the two alternatives it posits—that a standard of goodness must either be arbitrary or it must be independent of God—are not the only logically coherent possibilities available. There is at least one more valid alternative, which is that God is, Himself, the standard of goodness. This is the view to which I subscribe.

“As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call Me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good but One—God.”
—Mark 10:17-18

Mr. Nugent’s 13th Reason: If you respond that God’s nature is to be good and that gets you off, it doesn’t. The dilemma still remains: is the god’s nature good for arbitrary reasons, or is it good because it corresponds to independent standards of goodness?

This is a re-statement of the dilemma mentioned in Reason #12, moved one step further down the road. And here, again, it’s an equally false dilemma. God’s nature is good because God, Himself, is the standard of goodness.

Mr. Nugent’s 14th Reason: All of the arguments for an all-good god can just as easily be used to support the idea of an all-evil god who gives us free will because it wants us to do evil voluntarily rather than force us to do evil.

Here I believe Mr. Nugent may be operating under a misunderstanding of the natures of good and evil, as well as the relationship between the two.

Scientifically speaking, cold does not exist. It’s just a relative term to indicate that one object has lower thermal energy than another.  e.g. Snow is hotter than liquid nitrogen though both still have thermal energy relative to absolute zero. Similarly there is no such thing as darkness; there is only light or absence of light.  The same relationship exists between good and evil. Christians believe that God is the ultimate standard of good, and that evil, rather than being a force equal and opposite to that of good, is merely an absence of good. When one does an act of evil, they are committing an act that is absent of good.

So what exactly is this thing we call “good?”  Dictionary.com defines it as, “morally excellent; virtuous; righteous; pious.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “possessing or displaying moral virtue.” Christianity teaches that the highest moral value is love because God is love.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and His love is perfected in us.” —1 John 4:7-12 (Accent mine)

As discussed in the previous article in this series, The Problem of Perfection, love, by necessity, must be a voluntary expression made by a free moral agent. I think this is why we all recognize the “creepy” factor in life-like robots like Erica:

In the video above inventor Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro says, “Our intention is to install intention and desire into this robot.” So let’s let our imaginations run wild and assume Professor Ishiguro is able to program Erica with such a level of realism and emotion that you almost believe she’s a human being.  And then suppose Erica professes her undying love for you. Would that be real love? Of course not!

Real love cannot be programmed. Real evil, on the other hand, can. Whereas love requires volition expressed by free agents as a necessary component, evil does not. Evil can be voluntarily expressed by free agents, but it is not required. Evil done under duress is just as potent as evil done voluntarily.

In fact, I would submit that an all-evil god who wanted us to do evil voluntarily rather than forcing us to do evil would not be all-evil. Why? Because it would be even more evil to force humans to do evil to each other against their will than it would be to allow them the freedom to do it on their own.

Therefore, because God is the standard of goodness, and because the concept of an all-evil god is logically untenable, I submit that Mr. Nugent’s arguments regarding the nature of goodness fail to support his general premise that the existence of God is implausible.

Next in the Series—Part 5: The Problem of Omniscience

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