Because God said so

In a recent discussion with some friends, the question of why murder was wrong came up (actually, it was why Aquinas would say murder was wrong, but the discussion equally applies to the more general discussion to be had here). The answer “because God said so” quickly came up and, being a natural law theorist in the tradition of Aquinas, it left me unsatisfied. During later reflection on this, it occurred to me that there are at least three different questions at play here. Each of these questions might be answered in part with “because God said so,” but how each is fully cashed out is very different from the others. The three questions are as follows:

  1. Why is it bad to murder?
  2. How do I know whether it’s bad to murder?
  3. Why should I not murder?

The first question is a meta-ethical question about what makes things good, bad, virtuous, vicious, and so on. The second is a question of ethical epistemology about how we come to know the truth of the notions grounded by our meta-ethical answers. And the third is a question of normative ethics about what I should and shouldn’t do given the answers to the first two.

The three questions are related but very different from one another. Let’s take each of these questions in turn, discuss them in more depth, and outline what “because God said so” might look like as an answer. Now, of course, the details of the answers will depend on the meta-ethical framework we’re working from. For the majority of this post I’ll be working from a Thomistic natural law perspective, which I’ve discussed a number of times on this blog (eg. herehere, and here). Towards the end of this post, I’ll consider how another theistic meta-ethic (divine command theory) would differ from what was said.

Why is murder bad?

The fundamental thing that determines whether something is good or bad is whether it contributes to the fulfillment of your nature, the realization of your natural ends. Initially, it’s obvious why this would account for certain things being good or bad for me, such as not hurting or unnecessarily damaging myself. On the other hand, it is less clear how this would extend to the good of others, as when we say it is bad for me to murder another person. There are a number of ways to “extend” the notion of my good to include the good of others. I’ve sketched one before, and we can very briefly sketch another — in my opinion better — one by combining some previous discussions.

The fulfillment of our natural ends — and therefore the realization of our good — is achieved by us through the measured and unified expression of our natural powers. The active frustration of these powers would, therefore, be to that extent bad for us. Our natural ability, as rational animals, for co-operating toward a common end enables us to acquire what we might call “common powers” which are expressed through the participation in common endeavors. Consider the following example: by myself, I have the power to sing within a certain vocal range, but only with someone else am I able to harmonize within my vocal range. Here harmonization is a common power. Now, just as my frustrating a power is bad for me, so my frustrating a common power is a common bad for us. (Recall the kind of commonness we have in mind here.) Now, living amongst others gives us certain common powers, albeit ones less easily describable than “harmonization”. Murder would involve the frustration of some (or even all) of these powers and therefore be something bad.

Of course, much more needs to be said before this is a full account. The point to take away is that, however we flesh out the details, the way good and bad are grounded is ultimately based on the kind of beings we are (our natures). At this point is there any place for an answer like “because God says so”? Yes and no. Insofar as God creates and sustains us with the natures we have, he is the author of what is good or bad for us. But, he cannot do the impossible, and so he cannot arbitrarily decide what is good or bad for us any more than he can make a married bachelor or a square circle. So long as he creates a living being, he cannot make it good for that being to die. So long as he creates a rational being, he cannot make it good for that being to murder. So when it comes to natural law the “because God says so” answer needs to be understood in an indirect and qualified way.

But wait, there’s more. In section 2.5 here I mentioned that Aquinas distinguishes between four different fundamental kinds of law, one of which is the natural law we’ve been discussing so far. There’s also eternal law, which we’ll leave to one side. Then there’s positive law, which is law given by a legislator, and which is divided into human law (positive law given by a human legislator) and divine law (positive law given by a divine legislator). Now, natural law is often very vague and general and its application in particular cases requires careful consideration by wise people. So, as John Goyette says, “human law is essential for living the good life because it makes the general precepts of the natural law more specific.”[1] The same goes for divine law, with the obvious difference being that God is the legislator as opposed to humans.

In a sense both forms of positive law are authoritative because they’re based on natural law,[2] but they do establish new legal duties on us: so long as I am under a legislator who has imposed just duties on me, it is good for me to fulfill those duties and bad for me to fail in those duties. Because this goodness arises from positive law, we’ll refer to it as positive goodness. This positive goodness differs from the natural goodness mentioned above in an important way: natural goodness applies to us as humans whereas positive goodness applies to us as citizens under the legislator. So whereas natural goodness is applicable insofar as we have our particular nature, positive goodness only applies once the legislator has imposed the duties on us. So, then, with respect to positive goodness “because God says so” has direct relevance.

In the remainder of this post, if we do not specify the kind of goodness (or badness) in view then what we say applies equally to both outlined here.

How do I know whether it’s bad to murder?

This question differs from the first in that while the first concerned itself with ontology (what makes something bad) this question concerns itself with epistemology (how I know something is bad). Because of this, the number of potential answers (and so the potential for “because God says so” answers) increases.

The answers to the first question also apply to this question in the sense that one of the ways I can come to know whether murder is bad is by grasping what in reality makes it bad, or in other words, I can come to understand the ontological grounds for its badness. Indeed, this way of knowing the badness is in a sense primary in that it does not derive its correctness from other, deeper, reasons.

But I can come to know things in other ways, beyond the primary sense of grasping their underlying ontology, because I can come to know from others who know. I can come to learn the badness of murder from my parents, my school teachers, mentors, church leaders, the broader culture I find myself in, or some combination of authorities like these. If God has revealed himself (as some religions think he has), then he also stands as an authority that we can learn from. If God is concerned for our well-being and infallible in his judgments (again, as some religions think he is), then he is the uniquely perfect authority. And so, in this sense, “because God says so” takes on a special significance.

At this point, we must be careful not to forget the distinction between ontology and epistemology. Unlike in the previous section, here God’s revelation does not constitute the badness of murder but only perfectly informs us of it. All things being equal, we are justified in believing what we’re taught by the relevant authorities, and so a fortiori we are justified in believing what we’re taught by the perfect authority.

So we come to know what is bad by grasping the underlying ontological truths or by being taught by others. In the first case, all the “because God said so” answers in some sense carry over to the epistemological answers. In the second case, we have new “because God said so” answers insofar as he is a perfect authority on our nature (for natural goodness), and his will (for positive goodness).

Why should I not murder?

The first question was ontological, and the second was epistemological. This question is normative: it asks why I should act in a certain way. And just as the epistemological question was in a sense broader than the ontological one, so the normative question is broader still. Indeed, here the answers become manifold.

In general, a hypothetical imperative is a statement of the following form:

  1. If I want to achieve X, then I should do Y.

In cases where these apply, there’s something in the notion of X that entails that the way to achieve it is by means of Y. And this is largely mind-independent in that I should do Y even if I don’t understand enough about X to see that I should do Y. Consider a toy example:

  1. If I want to draw a straight line, then I should use a ruler.

This is true just by virtue of what drawing a straight line involves and the possible tools for achieving it. And it remains true even if I don’t know about rulers, or have temporarily forgotten about them, or hadn’t thought to use one, or any number of other reasons.

Now just as there are many motivations (X’s) for action, so too there are many of these imperatives and therefore many answers to the normative question. We’ve explained before that the imperative involving natural goodness is particularly interesting, because of the structure of the human will (section 2.4 here, cf. this and this). Taking the answer about natural goodness from the first question, an argument might be framed as follows:

  1. If I want what is good for me, then I should act so as to fulfill my natural ends.
  2. I do want what is good for me.
  3. Therefore, I should act so as to fulfill my natural ends.
  4. If I should act so as to fulfill my natural ends, then I should not murder.
  5. Therefore, I should not murder.

What’s interesting about this is that (2) is always true, since whenever we desire something it’s precisely because we see some good in it, and as noted above this remains true even in cases where our relevant judgments about what is good are incorrect. As Edward Feser says, “The mugger who admits that robbery is evil nevertheless takes his victim’s wallet because he thinks it would be good to have money to pay for his drugs.”[3]

Can something similar be said for the positive goodness discussed in the first section? It seems so: God is the legislator over all creation in charge of its common good, and since I should seek my good I should also, therefore, listen to his commands. (Again we note the dependence of positive goodness on the notion of natural goodness.)

So the previous “because God said so” answers carry over to answer the current question indirectly. However, these do not exhaust the possible motivations we might have. In addition to these, we might be motivated by a desire to follow God’s will, which itself perhaps follows from a love for him. We could also be motivated by the avoidance of punishment or the acquisition of reward. Each of these has analogs in human affairs too, of course, but we’re primarily interested in “because God said so” answers.

A different meta-ethical framework

How would things have been different if we’d approached these questions from a divine command theory perspective? On divine command theory, anything we’d get from natural law gets ignored, leaving positive divine law as the only form of goodness. Given the importance that natural goodness played in the discussion, it’s not surprising that this move also accompanies shifts in the logical ordering of things. So the normative force of God’s commands are taken as primitive and “morality” gets lifted to this somewhat mysterious and unique notion (cf. sections 1 and 2.1 here). The consequence of all of this is that “because God said so” takes on a more direct relevance more often, and plays a unique role in the ontological answer. The picture becomes flattened and therefore simpler, but wrong.[4]

Conclusion

If we take anything away from this it’s that the answer “because God said so” can be valid for very different reasons depending on what we mean by it. Let’s try and list the options that arose from the above discussion. Why should I not murder? “Because God said so.” In what sense? Well…

  1. Because it frustrates your natural ends established by God’s creative act, which is bad for you, as I know through philosophical investigation.
  2. Because it is bad for you, as revealed by God.
  3. Because it goes contrary to God’s law, which is bad for you, as revealed by God.
  4. Because it is contrary to God’s will.
  5. Because God will punish you if you do.

I’ve tried to capture this diagrammatically in the following:

Solid arrows represent ontological priority. Broken arrows represent epistemological priority.
Solid arrows represent ontological priority. Broken arrows represent epistemological priority.

Notes

  1. John Goyette, On the Transcendence of the Common Good.
  2. Thomas Aquinas, ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 4.
  3. Edward Feser, Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.
  4. I take the fact that on divine command theory the term “good” is equivocal (as opposed to analogical), that authority and normative force need to be primitive or reduced to something consequentialist, and that “moral” picks out some special and mysterious class of facts. I consider all of these reasons to reject divine command theory as a viable alternative to Thomistic natural law theory.

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