Eternity’s relation to time

A few months ago, reader Ante asked this question on my What I Believe page:

I am very much struggling how to combine a presentist account of time (like the A-theory for example) and the view that God is outside of time, in a Thomistic sense.

I would be very thankful for your help, since it seems to me that I am hitting a wall regarding this issue, since I cannot accept a B-theory of time, but at the same time the view of St. Thomas regarding God’s eternity is much more plausible than the other philosophical alternatives (especially open theism!).

For those unfamiliar with the relevant terms, we begin by briefly explaining what the A-theory and B-theory are, how they relate to presentism, and what this has to do with God’s eternity.

The distinction between A- and B-theory of time was introduced to analytic philosophy by McTaggart in his paper The Unreality of Time. Briefly, the A-theory of time holds that there is some objectively privileged moment of time we call the present, relative to which other moments of time can be categorized into past and future (called the A-series). By saying it is objectively privileged we mean that the fact of which moment is present is not a matter of perspective, but is rather a feature of reality prior to any considerations from us. The B-theory, by contrast, denies that there is such an objectively privileged moment of time, and holds that the only relations between moments are those of earlier than and later than (called the B-series). We can still speak of the present, but it must always be understood from the perspective of a particular moment under consideration. The most we can say, for instance, is that from the perspective of the 3rd of March 2018, the 2nd of March is in the past and the 4th is in the future.

Each of these theories has a number of models, which are concrete proposals for the nature of time that satisfy the requirements of the theory. Confusingly, these models are also sometimes called “theories.” A-theoretic models include presentism, which holds that only the present moment of time is real, while the past moments were once real and the future moments have not yet become real; the spotlight theory, which holds that all moments of time are equally real but only one ever has the property of “presentness”, which leads to us visualizing time as a spotlight gradually moving over a fixed timeline; and the growing block theory, which holds that once a moment is real is stays real, resulting in all past moments being equally real and forming a “block” of time, with the present being on the edge of this ever-growing block. B-theoretic models include four-dimensionalism, which treats time like a sort of spatial dimension, holding that objects have temporal parts spread across the fourth dimension of time just like they have spatial parts spread across the first three dimensions of space; and eternalism, which we will here take to be the model that all moments of time are equally real without any having the status of being objectively present, but not necessarily construed as temporal parts of objects either.

As for God’s eternity, the Thomistic view is that eternity and time represent fundamentally different modes of being. Eternity is not merely about existing without beginning or end, since this would be consistent with existing in time as long as we stipulate that (1) either time itself has no beginning or end or (2) God entered time upon creation.1 The Thomistic view can be seen as a consequence of Boethius’ definition of eternity, which says that it is “the complete possession, all at once, of illimitable life.” Such an existence is incompatible with being in time, since temporal existence requires that we have our life bit by bit rather than having all of it at once. Accordingly, God’s eternity means that he must be outside of time, and the problem of eternity has to do with the relationship between an eternal God and his temporal creation.

Thomistic and analytic approaches to time

Now, for us Thomists who are familiar with the analytic distinction between A- and B-theory, it is natural to wonder how it applies to God’s eternity and his relation to time. What is not always realized, however, is that there is an important difference between the Thomistic and analytic approaches to questions of time. The Thomistic approach is Aristotelian, and therefore starts with an analysis of change. Aristotle starts by asking questions like whether change is possible and what it consists in, and considers examples like that of a person becoming educated and an object moving location. By contrast, the analytic approach — by which I mean the approach of those in the analytic tradition broadly following McTaggart — starts with the ontology of the passage of time. The main point at issue in the debate over A- and B-theory is whether the passage of time “flows” from past to future. On the A-theory it flows as the present moves from moment to moment, while on the B-theory it is in some sense static.

We saw the analytic approach in action during our discussion on McTaggart’s paper, wherein he switches between questions about changes to reality (which is change in the everyday sense of the word) and questions about changes to the time series, as if these were interchangeable. On the Thomistic approach, time is just the measure of change,2 and it makes little sense to speak of the time series itself changing, as if this could be decoupled from the change to reality which it measures. Indeed, from a Thomistic perspective the analytic approach can seem to treat time as a sort of quasi-substance, which is certainly the impression one gets from McTaggart’s talk of moments of time merging into one another or changing properties.

We can illustrate the difference between the two approaches by considering how they would attempt to answer the question of whether temporal becoming is an objective feature of reality.

For the Thomist, temporal becoming is the feature of things when they change, as when an uneducated person becomes educated or a physical object moves from one place to another. Every change involves a coming-to-be of what was not before, and in this case the becoming is of things and in time. Given this sense of temporal becoming, we can determine whether it is an objective by determining whether change is real. And since change is evident to our experience, all we need is an account of it that shows its possibility, and therefore that our experience of it need not be an illusion.

On the analytic approach, things are less clear, because temporal becoming sometimes takes on a different sense and because the two senses are not always clearly distinguished. It’s difficult to avoid talking about changes to everyday things like people and physical objects, but with a primary concern for the ontology of time this talk gets mixed up with talk about changes to the passage of time itself.3 We are no longer simply interested in whether someone who is uneducated can become educated in the future, but also whether that future moment itself is something that can become present. This is not simply a becoming in time, but a becoming of time itself. The result is the conflation of temporal becoming with the A-theory, since only the A-theory involves the passage of time being in flux. Given this sense of temporal becoming, in order to determine whether it is objective we need to determine whether the A-theory is true, and that our experience of the passage of time itself (which is much less evident than our experience of change) is not an illusion.

So these two approaches give us two senses of the notion of temporal becoming, namely becoming in time and becoming of time. The former arises from considerations of change in the Aristotelian sense, as when an uneducated person becomes educated, and a physical object changes place. The latter arises from considerations of how the moments of time itself might change, as when a future moment takes on “presentness.”

The compatibility of (Aristotelian) change with B-theory, and its irrelevance

The upshot of all of this is that the analytic debate over theories of time is irrelevant to Aristotelian and Thomistic concerns. Both A-theorists and B-theorists recognize the reality of time with its peculiar feature of being ordered according to before and after, which is all the Aristotelian needs. As Aquinas said, “time is nothing else than the reckoning of before and after in movement” (ST I Q53 A3 corp).

Failure to recognize the different senses of temporal becoming has led some to conflate views they shouldn’t.4 The B-theory, for instance, is sometimes labeled “Parmenidean,” as if these two views are even remotely similar. Parmenides denied the existence of any distinctions in reality whatsoever, which leads to the denial of change and therefore the denial of any meaningful distinction between before and after. But the B-theory presupposes a distinction between before and after, since this is built into the relations earlier-than and later-than.

Another claim is that the B-theory excludes the possibility of change, and is therefore at odds with the Aristotelian commitment to its reality. Why does the B-theory preclude change? Well, the argument goes, if all moments of time are equally real, then the earlier moments when someone is uneducated are equally as real as the later moments when they are educated, and so they never become educated. But this clearly equivocates the two sense of becoming we’ve been discussing. The Aristotelian concern is whether someone who is uneducated at some time t1 can become educated by some later time t2, not whether t1 and t2 can somehow change their properties of “presentness.” All the Aristotelian needs is that a person can persist through time while varying in their educatedness, which the B-theory happily provides. What the B-theory does not provide — but which is irrelevant to the Aristotelian — is that this happens together with a change to the moments of time themselves. Again, the Aristotelian is concerned with becoming in time, not becoming of time.

Once we recognize the difference between Aristotelian temporal becoming and analytic temporal becoming, we can see that Thomists can happily hold to either the A- or B-theory. The analytic debate just isn’t something we have a stake in. But here’s the kicker: this doesn’t help us in any way with the problem of eternity! It is tempting to think that the B-theory would give us an automatic explanation of the relationship between the eternal God and his temporal creation, but it doesn’t. Why? Because at the end of the day, the B-theory is still a theory about time.

Let me explain.

We’ve said that time is the reckoning of before and after in the process of change, but what we haven’t mentioned is that before and after can be reckoned to something on account of a change to something else. This is an instance of what’s been called “Cambridge change,” which Feser describes as follows:

Here, building on a distinction famously made by Peter Geach, we need to differentiate between real properties and mere “Cambridge properties.” For example, for Socrates to grow hair is a real change in him, the acquisition by him of a real property. But for Socrates to become shorter than Plato, not because Socrates’ height has changed but only because Plato has grown taller, is not a real change in Socrates but what Geach called a mere “Cambridge change,” and therefore involves the acquisition of a mere “Cambridge property.”

There’s a certain ambiguity in this that we’ll discuss later, but for now consider the example he gives. Socrates remains the same height while Plato grows, and on account of this we can reckon before and after for Socrates: before he was taller than Plato and afterwards he was shorter than Plato. Thus, there’s a sense in which the change of other things can bring us along with them through time. Since this results from our being able to reckon before and after through changes to things in time, and since both the A- and the B-theory give us this, this will apply on both theories.

The real problem of God’s eternity, then, isn’t about whether the nature of time is such that all moments are equally real, but about how our movement through time doesn’t bring God along with us. And since this happens for both A- and B-theories of time, neither of them is capable of solving the problem.

Starting over with relations

Rather than a theory of time, what we need is a theory of relations. The reason Plato brings Socrates along with him through time is that Socrates is really related to Plato in some respect. In the above example it is that they are really related in regards to their height, but it could equally have been their relative location, color, age, or whatever. Conversely, if Socrates were not really related to Plato with respect to some feature of Plato that changes, then there would be no way of reckoning before and after for Socrates in terms of a change in Plato.

Aquinas worked out a detailed theory of relations, and we will summarize the relevant parts here. First, relations are divided into real relations, which obtain in reality prior to any consideration by an intellect, and logical relations, which result from such consideration. Socrates being taller than Plato is a real relation, but Socrates being to the left of Plato is logical since it is dependent upon how one considers their relative positions. When something has a real relation to another thing we say that it is “really related” to it. In English, the word “really” is often used to mean “truly” — as when we say something “really happened” — but in our present case “really” just indicates the nature of the relation. Socrates being to the left of Plato is not a real relation, but it is nevertheless true that Socrates is to the left of Plato.

Now, a relation between two things is not some separate reality floating outside of those things, but is instead grounded in them. When we have some relation R between A and B, it is therefore technically more precise to speak of R as a pair of relations, R1 from A to B and R2 from B to A. Socrates is taller than Plato (R1) and Plato is shorter than Socrates (R2). Each relation has a foundation in the thing it relates from, and this foundation grounds how that thing relates to others. For instance, Socrates has a certain height H, by virtue of which he will be shorter than things with heights taller than H and taller than things with heights shorter than H. This generic relational fact comes to be “resolved” to one of the alternatives when considered with respect to a particular individual: Plato has a height shorter than H, and so Socrates is taller than Plato. Notice that since the relation from Socrates to Plato will depend on both their heights it can change without Socrates ever changing, as when Plato changes his height while Socrates remains the same. It is this change in the relation from Socrates to Plato that brings Socrates through time when Plato changes.

We can also talk about the type of relation, which is derived from the type of its foundation: the taller-than relation is based on height while the brighter-than relation is based on color. In addition to the foundation in A, a real relation from A to B requires something in B of the relevant type, which we might call the relation’s co-foundation. It makes little sense, for instance, to say that Socrates is taller or shorter than an immaterial angel, since a relation of height from Socrates to another thing requires that that thing have a height as well. There is no co-foundation of the relevant type in the angel.

We say that the co-foundation must be of a “relevant” type rather than the “same” type because sameness is not always required. The height relation is an example that requires the co-foundation to be the same type, but consider what happens when I come to know a material object. In this case I take on its form in my mind, which serves as the foundation for a real relation from me to it and which has the object’s own form in itself as the co-foundation. But these two forms have different types: the form in my mind is intentional while the form in the object is entitative; the form in my mind does not turn my mind into that object whereas the form in the object’s matter does.

Knowledge is also an example of what is called a non-mutual relation. We have said that my real relation to the object has its foundation in the intentional form in my mind and its co-foundation in the entitative form in the object. This works because of the intentional form by its very nature refers to the object of the intention. But the entitative form is about constitution rather than reference, and so does not refer back to the intentional form in my mind. It can serve as the foundation of relations to other things by comparison to their entitative forms, but that’s about it. This means that there is no corresponding real relation from the object to me that has its entitative form as foundation and the intentional form in my mind as co-foundation. This asymmetry in foundation and co-foundation is what makes the relation non-mutual. When a real relation from A to B is can be turned into a real relation from B to A simply by flipping the foundation and co-foundation, then that relation is mutual.

If this were not complicated enough, consider what happens with active and passive powers. Here we have an agent with an active power (ability to influence others) and a patient with a passive power (capacity to be influenced by others), and when the agent actually does influence the patient then we have action and passion. The active power of an agent is grounded in some actuality (actual feature) of the agent, like motion, size, intentions, and so on. Any relation that arises from the active power, then, will have this ground as its foundation, which will determine which co-foundations are relevant. The passive power of a patient is slightly different in that it is grounded in the potential of the patient to be influenced in a particular way. This potential will be the foundation of the relations that arise from the passive power, and the co-foundations will be any actuality that can actualize it.

There is an important asymmetry here, in that the conditions for an agent to really relate to the patient are different from the conditions of the patient to really relate to the agent. For a patient, all that is needed is something capable of actualizing it, but for the agent, the conditions will depend on the ground of the active power. It could happen, then, that a patient is really related to an agent by a non-mutual relation. Consider, for instance, a saw cutting through wood. We might say that the active power of the saw is grounded in the sharpness of its serrated blade, while the passive power of the wood has to do with its potentiality for being split. Certainly there is a real relation from the wood to the saw because of this passive power, but as for the active power the wood is not really comparable in terms of sharpness or serratedness. The wood is really related to the saw, then, with a non-mutual relation. Of course there are other real relations between the two that have to do with active and passive powers and which are mutual. The saw might be used to push the piece of wood, for instance, in which case the ground of the active power (the motion of the saw) has a relevant co-foundation in the wood (the motion of the wood).

The problem of eternity

With this we can state the Thomistic answer to the problem of eternity: God is not really related to creation, and is therefore not brought through time by our changes.

This arises from applying what we’ve said about relations to the nature of God. For Thomists, God is a being of pure actuality, with no potentiality in him whatsoever. This makes him radically unlike anything else in reality, all other things being made up of a combination of potentiality and actuality. Furthermore, since potentiality is what allows for the diversity of actuality within a thing, it follows that God’s purely actual substance is the only possible foundation for real relations from him to others. But since pure actuality is so different to anything else in existence, it follows that there can be no relevant co-foundation to this purely actual foundation, and that therefore God cannot be really related to anything else.

Creation is still really related to God, mind you, but this relation is non-mutual. We are really related to God by virtue of our dependence on him for our being, and by virtue of being ordered toward him as the ultimate final end (cf. ST I Q44). Both of these arise from us being patients of God’s activity, and it is because of the potentialities in us that we can be really related to him — although pure actuality might be very different from us, it is nevertheless capable of actualizing all the potentials in us. Conversely, since God has no potentiality in himself there can be no chance of him really relating to us by virtue of us acting on him in some way.

Not only does God’s pure actuality exclude real relations from him to us or our acting on him, but it also excludes the possibility of change within him. All change involves the actualization of a potential, after all, and so without a potential there is no possibility of change. This notwithstanding, he is the source of all actualizations of potentials, including all instances of change. Thus God is called the Unmoved Mover, or Unchanged Changer, or more generally the Unactualized Actualizer. It might sound a bit strange to say that something could cause change without itself changing, since in our experience these tend to coincide. But it is a consequence of the fact that action and passion arise by an actuality of an agent actualizing a potential of a patient.5 This does not require that the agent’s actuality itself be the actualization of a potential, even if that happens with all the material agents we experience in the world.

Now, we might wonder why God would not be really related to us by virtue of knowing us. God is omniscient, after all, and earlier we mentioned that a knower is really related to the object of their knowledge. Here we must again appreciate the difference between God and ourselves. We come to know things outside ourselves through inquiry and exploration, by means of which we acquire the intentional version of its form in our mind. The entitative form in the object stands as a measure to our conception of it, and it is to the extent that our conception fulfills this measure that it is said to be true or accurate. With God, things look very different. His act of knowing reality is the same act whereby he creates and sustains everything in reality, and so he has no need of inquiry or exploration. He does not discover anything and has no need to acquire new knowledge by means of taking on the intentional forms of things. Since it is by his activity that all things continue to have their being, and since his act of knowing is the same as this activity, it also follows that God’s knowledge is measure of things rather than the other way around. All of this means that God’s knowledge does not make him really related to us like our knowledge makes us really related to the objects of our knowledge.

So, God does not change and is not really related to things that change. This means that there is no way of reckoning before and after for him and that therefore he is not in time. This notwithstanding, he is still the creator and sustainer of everything, and by virtue of this we are really related to him. Just as God is an unchanged changer, so too is he the non-temporal cause of things in time. We must remember, of course, that being really related to something is not the same as being truly related to it. Despite not being really related to us, God is still truly related to us as Lord, Creator, Knower, and so on; it’s just that these true relations are based on logical relations from him to us rather than mutual real relations between him and us.

Now before we conclude, we said earlier that there is an ambiguity in the notion of Cambridge change, and we are finally in a position to see why. Sometimes Cambridge change is proposed as a solution to the problem of God’s eternity, but of itself this is insufficient. To say that God only undergoes Cambridge change is to say that he does not undergo any change within himself. This is fine so far as it goes, but it doesn’t explain why he isn’t brought through time by changes to other things — as we saw in the example of Plato and Socrates we used to introduce Cambridge change. This further step requires the approach we’ve outlined in this post. The upshot of this is that either we should say (1) that God doesn’t even undergo Cambridge change, or (2) that Cambridge change must be divided into instances that bring us along through time and instances that don’t. In this second option, the two species of Cambridge change are distinguished by whether there are the relevant real relations in place or not.

Conclusion and further reading

So, Ante, thanks for the question and sorry for taking so long to reply. As I see it, the Thomistic approach to time is largely indifferent to the analytic debate over A-theory and B-theory, and the problem of eternity is not caused or solved by embracing either of these. What we need for a solution is an account of when and why things are brought through time, and an explanation for why this does not apply to God. To this end, the Thomistic account of relations provides us with a promising start. I hope what I’ve managed to outline here helps.

On the topic of relations, Mark Henninger’s Aquinas on the Ontological Status of Relations and David Svoboda’s Aquinas on Real Relation are both excellent discussions on the account of relations laid out by Aquinas. From Aquinas himself, perhaps the most important place to start is his discussion in question 7 of the De Potentia, especially articles 9–11. His discussions on God’s knowledge through his substance and the divine relations in the Summa Theologica are also noteworthy, since they push the account of relations to its limits when applying it to God.

More broadly, Edward Feser’s Classical Theism Roundup is a great resource for thinking through issues like eternity. Moreover, while I think Thomists don’t have a stake in the analytic debate between A-theory and B-theory, that is not to say that we don’t have interesting contributions to make. A case in point is Elliot Polsky’s Thomistic Special Relativity, which provides a three-dimensionalist account of length contraction and time dilation using a Thomistic framework that is different from other A-theoretic approaches I’ve seen.

  1. This is the view of William Lane Craig. See, for instance, his God, Time and Eternity. I also discussed it in my pre-Thomist days in an earlier post.
  2. Or, more accurately, it is the numbering of change according to “before” and “after”. (ST I Q10 A1 corp.) We’ve discussed before the connection a measure must have with what it measures.
  3. I’m not the only one who sees this. According to the SEP article on Being and Becoming in Modern Physics, “What emerges from the McTaggart literature is, first of all, a tendency to identify the existence of passage or temporal becoming with the existence of the A-series (that is, to think of becoming as events changing their properties of pastness, presentness or nowness, and futurity) and hence the tendency for debates about the existence of passage to focus on the merits or incoherence of the A-series rather than examining alternative accounts of becoming.” Note that the “events” mentioned in the parenthesis should be taken to mean “event-slices,” since an event in the everyday sense is something that spans multiple moments of time, and not all slices of it will be present (or past, or future) simultaneously. Again, this is a usage that we see in McTaggart’s paper.
  4. I stumbled upon a recent example of this while writing this very post.
  5. See my earlier post Lonergan on Aquinas on Causation for a discussion of this in Aquinas, as well as the essential agreement between him and Aristotle despite a terminological difference.

Paul’s eschatological ethics

There was a distinct moment when it dawned on me that I had missed something important in Paul’s thinking on the Christian motivations for doing good works. During a Bible study we were busy discussing the following passage:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet”, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rom 13:8–14)

Paul gives two reasons for why our lives should be characterized by love. The first is that love fulfills the law, and in the course of the preceding discussion of Romans we’ve seen that the law is something good and from God, and therefore something desirable. When turning to the second reason he shifts into metaphorical language, saying that we should awake from sleep and walk in the light. From the way he proceeds to talk it is clear that this is another way of speaking about obedience to God, but what’s interesting is the motivation he gives for it. He says that, “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” (13:11)

Now, if it is not clear to you why this is significant, let me back up and explain. For the longest time I had thought of the motivations for obedience in terms of what we might call “past-orientated” and “present-orientated” ways. Paul himself sometimes refers to these kinds of motivations in his letters, and so it wasn’t without warrant that I thought in these terms. For example, he urges the Corinthians to use their bodies with integrity because they are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and reminds them that they are no longer their own but were bought at a price (1 Cor 6:19–20, 7:22–24). He encourages the Ephesians to forgive one another because God hadforgiven them in Christ (Eph 4:32), and to walk in love as Christ had loved them (5:1–2). He calls the Philippians to follow the example that was set by Christ in putting others before oneself (Phil 2:4–6), and he explains to Timothy that Christ had set an example in his perfect patience for those who were to believe in him (1 Tim 1:16). The problem was this: I had so habituated myself into thinking in terms of past- and present-orientated motivations that I had unconsciously excluded the possibility of future-orientated motivations altogether.

And I would learn in that Bible study two things. First, it was not just me, but everyone in the discussion had done the same thing. And second, there was more to the problem than I originally thought. I pointed out the future-orientated motivation Paul gives in the passage, and with great interest asked the natural next question: how is our hope of future salvation supposed to motivate our present actions? I wasn’t equipped to answer the question, since it had never occurred to me to ask it before. But I discovered that night that no-one else was equipped to answer it either. The others did their best to give answers, but every attempt was inescapably couched in past- or present-orientated language, and once the fatigue of failed attempts became too much to bear the conversation moved on. But the question remained unanswered, and I remained unsatisfied.

This was roughly two years ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about this since then. In the course of puzzling over it, I’ve come to refer to this feature of Paul’s thought as his “eschatological ethics.” Ethics because it has to do with living well in obedience to our creator and Lord, and eschatological because the motivation for this obedience arises from our hope in salvation on the final day, called the “eschaton” in theology, and often referred to as the “day of the Lord” in scripture. It’s worth giving this feature of Paul’s thought a name because, as it turns out, future-orientated motivations come up more often than past- or presented-orientated ones. We cannot understate the significance of this point. It means that without the adequate conceptual tools and practice in using them, we will miss how one of the New Testament’s most prolific writers connects his theology with its ethical implications.

Now, for a long while I had tried in vain to determine the way this connection was supposed to work. That is, I had sought the single motivational link connecting our future hope and present actions that could explain how Paul can so easily draw out the various ethical implications he does. More recently, however, I have come to realize that Paul actually recognizes more than one such link, and that he happily emphasizes different ones depending on the occasion of the particular letter we’re reading. In light of this realization, the task shifts from trying to find an abstract enough link that explains everything, to categorizing multiple links and reflecting on how they relate to one another.

In what follows, we will look at examples of Paul’s eschatological ethics, and then discuss three ways that our future hope is linked to our present actions.

Examples of Paul’s eschatological ethics

Paul does not seem to have developed a technical vocabulary for speaking about the connection between future hope and present action, but he does have general ways of speaking about hope and action separately. Although some of his letters are quite systematic they are still letters written for different purposes, and so we find him using a wide vocabulary and different imagery when talking about particular topics.

When he speaks about hope he has in mind a forward-looking anticipation for salvation on the day of the Lord. Connected to this is, naturally enough, a future-orientated understanding of salvation itself — an example of which we saw above in the Romans passage — as well as the idea of a calling to this hope — examples of which we will see in due course. And although used more fluidly, he also refers to the future glory that will be revealed on the final day.

Regarding good action, or obedience, Paul uses various metaphors and terms. We saw above that the expression of this action is love, and that it is spoken of metaphorically as walking in the light. Other times he will speak of being sober-minded or self-controlled. Or he will use the metaphor of athletics and refer to competing according to the rules, while other times he will use language more inspired by Old Testament law and refer to cleansing ourselves from defilement.

The variety of his language goes beyond this small sample, as we will see in the list below. We will consider a number of passages in the order that they appear in the New Testament, skipping over the Romans passage we considered above. This list is quite long, partly to make a point about how ubiquitous this kind of thinking is in Paul. The length notwithstanding, this list only contains those references where the future-orientated motivations are easily discerned and separated out from the broader context of his argument — which is to say, there is even more out there.

Romans 15:1–4

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

He explains that as fellow members of Christ’s body (cf. 12:3–21) we are to help each other in our weakness (present action), that we might endure until the end and thereby not lose hope (future hope).

1 Corinthians 9:24–27

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So, run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So, I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

This comes as an explanation for Paul’s serving of others as an apostle of the gospel of Jesus, that he may share in the blessings that it brings with those who hear and accept it (cf. 9:23). The analogy of runners in a race clearly recognizes a prize at the end (future hope) as the motivation for running with self-control so that he may not be disqualified (present action).

1 Corinthians 15:32b–34

If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

The “dead being raised” refers to the resurrection of the dead on the day of the Lord, when everyone will be judged. In the surrounding discussion, Paul is defending the resurrection of Jesus as a pre-figuring of this final resurrection, and using this as a motivation for the Corinthians to get their act together. Without the hope of such a resurrection (and implied judgment) there is little reason to act in obedience to God, but with such a hope there is very good reason to do so. Thus, in light of the resurrection (future hope), he calls them to wake up from their drunken stupor and live appropriately (present action).

2 Corinthians 5:9–10

So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Here it is clear that the future judgment motivates our present actions.

2 Corinthians 7:1

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.

The promises he is referring to were just stated in the preceding context (2 Cor 6:16–18), and speak of God’s promise that he will welcome his people (future hope) if they separate themselves from uncleanness (present action). From this it is clear that complete (or perfect) holiness refers to being with God most fully, which is the result of salvation on the day of the Lord, and which Paul sees here as motivating us to cleanse ourselves.

Galatians 5:5, 22–23

For through the Spirit, by faith we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness… But the fruit of the Spirit is love: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Here the fruit of the Spirit are the present actions produced by the work of the Spirit, which involves pointing us to our future hope.

Galatians 6:7–9

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will form the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

Here he uses the analogy of the farmer reaping (future hope) the consequences of what they sow (present action), which is explicitly stated to be “doing good.” No doubt, this is a meditation on the previous chapter’s discussion of the work and fruit of the Spirit.

Philippians 2:12–13

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

It is clear from this that Paul understood part of their motivation to be the working out of their salvation. That it is still to be worked out indicates that it is a future reality to which we strain to make our own.

Colossians 1:4–5

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.

Paul notes that it is the hope of the Colossians that motivates their love for all the saints.

Colossians 1:21–23

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.

The presentation of them as holy and blameless is clearly a future reality, describing what will happen on the day of the Lord (cf. 2 Cor 1:14). This is clear since it is contingent on their continuing in the faith which, given the contrast with hostility of mind and doing evil deeds, no doubt carries with it the idea of obedience.

Colossians 3:1–5

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…

At first Paul appears to be giving a past-orientated motivation for action, saying that we have died with Christ. But then, just before we get to the command to put our earthly passions to death, he switches to a future-orientated motivation, pointing us to the day when our life will appear with Christ in glory. This illustrates nicely a way of thinking about the connection between the present and future that can be seen elsewhere in Paul (eg. Eph 2:1–6, Phil 3:8–16), where our future hope is spoken about in terms of a present status. The best way to think about this is that in the present we are set on the trajectory toward a future hope that previously was out of reach. And just like a trajectory is identified by its being ordered toward a target, so too is our present status, when discussed in these ways, identified by its ordering us toward our future hope. Thus, Paul finds little difficulty switching between the two as he does in this above passage.

1 Thessalonians 5:8–11

But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are [alive] or [dead] we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

Paul uses the language of being awake and sober again, and the motivation given for this is the destiny of salvation that God has laid out for us.

2 Thessalonians 2:14–15

To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

Future glory is the motivation to stand firm to the traditions, which we see later are connected with proper action (3:6).

1 Timothy 4:6–10

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

The value of godliness and the end toward which we strive is the hope of eternal life with the living God.

1 Timothy 6:11–14

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you… to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul starts by listing all these components of Christian life, which eventually leads to a statement about its motivation: to take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and to keep going until the appearing of Jesus on the day of the Lord.

1 Timothy 6:18–19

[The rich] are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

The motivation for action is to take hold of true life, which is eternal life in the future.

2 Timothy 2:3–6

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.

Particularly the athlete and farmer analogies make sense only if we understand the life of a Christian as one governed by looking forward.

2 Timothy 4:6–8

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

In reflecting on his life, Paul understood it as something done motivated by what will happen on the last day.

Titus 2:11–14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Paul characterizes the life of people who have been saved and who are zealous for good works as that of waiting for their blessed hope.

Having gone through references from across Paul’s writings in the New Testament, we now come to the question of how future hope is meant to motivate present action. As can be seen from the passages above, Paul does not always state how he understands the link between the future and the present to work. Often he is satisfied to point his readers to the future and call them to act appropriately in light of it. Nevertheless, I think at least three links can be discerned from his discussions.

In a previous post we explained that works still play an important role in our future salvation, even though we are justified by faith alone. This realization is key to understanding the first link between our future hope in this salvation and the way we conduct our lives. As we explained in that post:

… at the last judgement, only those who have lived perfectly obedient lives will be saved from God’s wrath. However, because everyone sins, we can at best live an imperfectly obedient life. Even though we desire God and seek him with an obedient heart, we cannot escape punishment ourselves because we cannot undo our previous failures. This is akin to a murderer who has since repented of his crimes, but still awaits punishment: it doesn’t matter how many people he saves, he is still guilty of murder and deserving of punishment.

Without the justification brought by Christ there is no middle ground between (1) a perfectly obedient life leading to life with God and (2) a sinful life leading to punishment. The implicit problem with this is that the former is out of reach, as should be clear to anyone who’s ever tried to live such a life. But if the latter option is inevitable, then it’s difficult to see what could motivate someone who has sinned to continue to try and be obedient. As Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”

Jesus changes things by opening up a third way, namely an imperfectly obedient life perfected through justification by faith alone.1 Turning to him as King and doing your best to live under him is now sufficient to obtain the life with God that was previously out of reach, provided we continue to the end. And this is why the hope of future salvation for sinners motivates present action. We need to continue in our obedience perfected by faith until the end to take hold of the prize. Furthermore, this obedience will correspond to the complete ethical life, since our Lord is not just anyone, but the supreme creator who seeks our flourishing as the kinds of creatures he made us to be.

Nevertheless there are plenty of things that might get in the way of our continuing to the end, whether they be internal weaknesses or external pressures. Thus Paul calls Christians to endure, to stand firm until the end, to not give up, to value self-control, and to remember the immeasurable value of what we strive for.

While the first link conceives of present action as a precondition for our future salvation, the second conceives of it in terms of living up to the status we have been given — the status of being Christ’s treasured possession that will be presented to him on the final day.

We saw this in the Titus passage above, where Paul explains that we are to live godly lives while we wait for the appearing of Jesus, who gave himself “to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit 2:14) As he continues to reflect on this in the verses that follow he describes good works as “excellent and profitable” (3:8) while denouncing the opposite as “unprofitable and worthless.” (3:9) Given how he’s just described the final day, we must surely read these assessments in light of how our present actions contribute to or frustrate our being presented as a treasured possession of our creator and Lord.

This idea of living a life worthy of this future comes up elsewhere in Paul’s letters (Eph 4:1–5, Col 1:9–10), although not always in as straightforward a way as we see in Titus. Sometimes he will use the metaphor of a wedding ceremony and describe the church as a bride to be presented to her husband (Eph 5:25–27, 2 Cor 11:2). Other times he will speak of living so that we might be able to boast of one another on the final day (2 Cor 1:13–14, 1 Thess 2:19–20, Phil 2:14–16). Still other times he will speak of it in terms of us achieving glory in some sense (Rom 8:18–21, 2 Cor 3:18).

Now, the idea of glory is a bit obscure to modern ears, but it can help us understand what it means to “live up to” our status. It is sufficient for our purposes to note that a thing’s glory is the basis for it being appreciated, respected, or approved. The kind of glory Paul has in mind here is that of an inferior in the eyes of their superior, like a child before their parent, a student before their teacher, or (in Paul’s case) a creature before their creator.2 In each case the inferior takes pleasure in the approval of their superior, as when a father is proud of his son or a teacher is impressed by the hard work of her pupil. And it often happens that an inferior’s desire for such approval will express itself in the present with an eye to a future appraisal of their work by their superior. This is the sort of situation we find ourselves with Christ. Knowing that one day we will be presented to him, we do our best to live in such a way that is pleasing to him, so that when he looks at the manner of our life we might be found worthy of the divine accolade “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matt 25:21, 23, Luke 19:17)

Some might object to this on the grounds that what we are suggesting looks a lot like conceit or vanity, neither of which seem like appropriate motivations for the ethical life. But appearances can be deceiving, and we must not confuse a healthy appreciation of our work for corrupted versions of it. We should avoid overestimating the value of our work (conceit), but we should also avoid underestimating it, since both extremes fail to properly appreciate the good in one’s life. And we should avoid treating outward expressions as if they were everything (vanity), but neither should we settle for good intentions alone. Furthermore, arrogance has no place in a desire that is peculiarly that of an inferior looking to the approval of their superior.

But perhaps the problem is not with the appreciation of our work, but with the fact that we do good things for the appreciation of someone else. I think this objection gets at something important, for surely Christ wishes us to help others out of genuine love for them and not simply as a means to earning his approval. The alternative seems to make everything about us, which is at odds with his exhortation to put others before ourselves. So then, can we reconcile the desire for our own approval before Christ with the other-centeredness such approval requires? We can, by using a distinction we’ve mentioned before between first-order and higher-order desires. First-order desires are the everyday desires we have that by themselves don’t involve self-reflection, like our desire to help others out of love for them. Higher-order desires are self-reflective desires we have about the kind of person we want to be and the kinds of desires we want to have. Even though higher-order desires are always about ourselves — since they are self-reflective — they can nevertheless reinforce selfless first-order desires and behaviors, and in this way show us how to reconcile the two ideas above. For example, we might have the (higher-order) desire to be the kind of person who always has the (first-order) desire for the well-being of their friends, in which case we have a desire about ourselves that contributes to the formation of other-centered habits. More generally, the higher-order desire to be someone pleasing to Christ involves the many other-centered first-order desires that he finds pleasing.

A specifically Christian objection is that all this talk about seeking Christ’s approval seems to ignore the importance of grace and the need for the redemption from sin. But really this is a misunderstanding — just as it would be a misunderstanding to say that the desire for obedience undermines the importance of grace. Our glory is marred by our sin, and we would therefore have no hope of being pleasing to Christ were it not for his purifying us from sin by grace. We do not work to earn the status as Christ’s treasured possession, for this would be impossible. Rather, we acquire this status by grace. And knowing what this means for our future, we work to make every moment until then worthy of his approval, instead of wasting them on worthless acts that will be overlooked.

Just like the first link, living in this way will correspond to the complete ethical life, because we aim to live a life worthy of our creator’s pleasure in us as the kinds of creatures we were made to be. But in order for our future reality to properly motivate our present actions we must rid ourselves of faulty thinking that gets in the way. The three objections we’ve considered are representative examples of what to avoid: we must not fall into the opposite extremes of conceitedness or self-deprecation, vanity or disregard for action; we must not treat others as a means to our approval; and we must not forget that all of this is made possible by grace.

Whereas the first two links arise from the nature of our future hope — our final judgment and our presentation to Christ — the third link arises from the recognition of our present weakness as we make our way to that hope. Accordingly, it is more limited in scope than the first two, and is not able to motivate the complete ethical life.

In our journey together toward our future hope we will face trials and difficulties, and it is our susceptibility to such things that we call weakness. Of course, this is very general and we can expect it to take many forms. The point is that since we are in this journey together, it is incumbent upon each of us to look out for one another, so that we might all make it to the end. We see this sort of reasoning in the Romans 15 passage listed above:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Rom 15:1–4)

In this passage we see past-, present-, and future-orientated thinking all working together: by following the past example of Christ and listening to the past instructions of Scripture we are to bear with one another in our present weakness so that together we might be able to endure to the end and thereby have hope that we will get to our future hope.

The easiest forms of weakness to bear are the ones that we share in equally with each other, since such equality fosters solidarity. The passage above, however, discusses a form that leads some of us to bear the consequences of the weakness of others. This is much harder, since by its very nature it divides us from one another — those whose weakness must be borne and those who must bear it. In these cases we must hold on to the deeper solidarity we have with one another, based on the fact that we are all on the same journey to the same future hope. In fact, this deeper solidarity is implicit in the first two links we discussed. We all have the same King who deserves our obedience, and in this way we are fellow citizens within his kingdom (cf. Eph 2:19, Phil 3:20). And it is not each of us individually that is presented to Christ, but all of us as one people that are his treasured possession (Tit 2:14, cf. Eph 5:27). Thus, it makes all the sense in the world that he can sometimes talk of the final day in terms of us boasting in one another (2 Cor 1:14).

Weakness is the key thing that gets in the way of us holding on to our future hope, and making it to the end. It is in light of our weakness in general that we are called to be steadfast, to endure, to not grow weary, and to rejoice in hope. And it is in light of specific weaknesses that we are called to be patient with one another (which I’ve discussed in more detail elsewhere), to be gentle, to bear with one another, and to forgive.


There is much more that could be said on this topic. We could discuss how Paul sometimes speaks of our future hope using present-tense language. We could further unpack how the links we outlined here interrelate with one another. We could explain how particular behaviors (the virtues, or the fruit of the Spirit) follow from our future-orientated motivations. We could see how eschatological ethics works in other authors of the New Testament. And so on.

This notwithstanding, what we’ve managed to say is a good start. We have called attention to an important feature of Paul’s thought, given it a name, shown its ubiquity and variety, and provided the beginnings of a framework for thinking about it.

If like me you’ve been missing Paul’s eschatological ethics, hopefully this post will help you to start recognizing and reflecting on this important idea in the New Testament.

  1. Or, if you prefer Piper’s model (described in the linked post), then you would instead characterize this third way as that of a faith that produces an obedience acceptable to God.
  2. CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory. For a very good explanation of “glory” in the biblical sense, though not directly connecting it to our present discussion, I highly recommend this talk by Tim Mackie.

Aristotle and the egoist worry (part 2)

In the first part we introduced the egoist worry about Aristotle’s ethics: does his claim that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life imply that everything we do is done for selfish reasons? We also traced Aristotle’s discussion from the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics up to just before he puts forward his own proposal for what happiness is. This included a delineation of certain key notions used throughout the Ethics, a clarification of what we mean by happiness in this investigation, a rejection of common proposals for what happiness is, and a statement of the features that any satisfactory proposal of happiness must have. If you have not read it, please do so before continuing here.

The complete and virtuous activity of life

Aristotle’s own proposal is presented as the conclusion of his famous “function argument.” What interests us here is less the details of the argument and more the proposal that Aristotle draws from it: happiness is (1) the activity of living a life involving reason (2) in accordance with the most complete virtues (3) so that they pervade that life completely. Let’s unpack this one bit at a time.

First, happiness is not a passive state but an activity. And it is not just some activity that we might happen to perform — like playing a musical instrument or participating in a team sport — but is the activity that we must necessarily perform as humans, namely the activity of life itself. Furthermore, since we’re interested specifically in human life we can be a bit more specific about the nature of this activity:

What then can this be? Life seems to belong even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be shared even by the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has reason; of this, one part of it in the sense of being obedient to reason, the other in the sense of possessing reason and exercising thought. (NE I.7, 1097b32–1098a4)

He is not saying that human life is exclusively about reasoning, as if the other aspects of our lives were irrelevant, but rather that it distinctively involves reasoning. All living things have in common that they take in nutrients and grow in the course of their life, but within this commonality they are distinguished from one another — at a very high level — by the capacities which affect the fundamental way in which they carry out their lives, capacities which build upon earlier ones rather than replace them. Plants have just the capacities we mentioned, nutrition and growth, so that their lives are very simple and in almost no way up to them. Animals add to these the capacities for consciousness and self-movement, which enable them to better perform the activities of life shared with plants (food can now be sought out and death avoided, for example), as well as to perform activities that plants cannot, like childrearing and housebuilding. Humans add to these the capacity for reason, which again enable us to better perform those activities of life we share with plants and non-human animals (incorporating creativity and automation, for example), as well as to perform activities beyond these, “like tell jokes and paint pictures and engage in scientific research and philosophy.”1 With each layer of capacities comes a richer and more fulfilled way of living, making how one lives more “up to” the individual. Aristotle’s point in the above quote, then, is that we should pay attention to the distinctive layer of human life when considering its chief good. Notice that he also distinguishes two parts the life of reason, namely exercising reason and following reason. Both of these involve reason in different ways, and this distinction will eventually lead to the distinction between intellectual virtues (which have to do with exercising of reason) and moral virtues (which have to do with following reason). The details of this distinction do not interest us here, though, and we raise simply to reinforce the point that when Aristotle speaks of happiness as an activity of life involving reason he does not have in mind a purely intellectual life.

So much for the first part of his proposal; the second part adds that in order for the activity of life involving reason to be considered happiness it must be done in accordance with the most complete virtues. We saw Aristotle reject the earlier virtue proposal as incomplete, since virtue is had just as much in action and in inaction, as well as during times of significant suffering. Here we see how he incorporates virtue into his own proposal without falling prey to the same objection: happiness consists in the use of virtue in an activity rather than merely the possession of virtue. That is, happiness is not in the first place about virtue but about the activity of living a life involving reason, and virtue is added to this as a qualification. So, the original virtue proposal was correct in that it saw virtue playing a role in happiness, but it was incorrect in that it placed virtue at the center by itself. As Aristotle says later:

With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life. (NE I.8 1098b30–1099a6)

Taking this further, notice that in our second part we did not only say that the activity of life must be done in accordance with virtue, but in accordance with complete virtue. There is some debate among commentators about what is meant by the “completeness” of a virtue, but given how Aristotle proceeds to talk about the complete life immediately afterwards (which we will discuss shortly), it seems that a virtue is complete to the extent that it is not limited by circumstance. To see what we mean by this consider the person who is always honest to their friends but not others. Such a person does not act in accordance with the virtue of honesty, but only in accordance with an incomplete version of it, namely honesty-to-friends. This incomplete virtue approximates the better and more complete virtue but ultimately falls short of it, for the person who has the incomplete virtue only acts in accordance with the more complete virtue when the appropriate circumstance is added to it. If they properly appreciated honesty itself, then there would be no need to add extra things in order to justify acting in accordance with it. Aristotle’s point, then, is that since happiness is the activity of life in accordance with virtue it can only be truly had when we live in accordance with the virtues themselves, rather than qualified and incomplete versions of them.2

But even living in accordance with complete virtue might not be sufficient to make a person happy, which brings us to the third and final part of Aristotle’s proposal. As he says,

… we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. (NE I.7, 1099a17–19)

If we are not continuously virtuous, then it is not our life that is virtuous but just this or that action every now and then. Life, after all, is a continuous activity, and so if we wish to live life in accordance with virtue then we need to live continuously in accordance with virtue. And this point is not just limited to time, but can be applied to any dimension of life where we might inconsistently live in accordance with virtue. For instance, if we always lived in accordance with honesty but failed to live in accordance with courage, then we would not be living in accordance with complete virtue in a complete life, since life involves both situations when honesty is needed and situations in which courage is needed. Thus, the third part of the proposal specifies that the complete virtues must pervade life completely, which is to say across all dimensions of life.

This, then, is Aristotle’s proposal, which we repeat again now that we’ve gone through each of its parts in detail: happiness is the activity of living a life involving reason in accordance with the most complete virtues so that they pervade that life completely. “Let this serve as an outline,” Aristotle says, “for we must presumably first sketch it roughly, and then later fill in the details.” Which is what he proceeds to do over the rest of the Ethics. This outline, however, is sufficient for to see how his proposal does better than the alternatives at avoiding the egoist worry.

Immanence and nobility

Now, we have said that the chiefest end of human life is happiness and that happiness consists in the activity of life itself, done in accordance with virtue. Since the end and the activity are the same thing, then, the activity must be immanent, and therefore something done for its own sake. In other words, the person aiming at Aristotelian happiness as their chief good does virtuous things for their own sake, since it is the virtuous activity itself that is their happiness and ultimate end. In contrast to this, the person who does virtuous things in order to produce happiness must think of this happiness as something separate from the virtuous actions that produce it, and is therefore not thinking about Aristotelian happiness at all.

To use an example, when you ask a person aiming at Aristotelian happiness why they choose to be honest to their friend, they will not say, “because it will achieve happiness for me,” as the egoist worry maintains. This answer does not see honesty as worthy of pursuit for its own sake, but only worthy as a means to achieving something else. And more broadly, it does not see the activity of life in accordance with virtue as the chiefest end, but rather as a means to some other end. Rather than being representative of Aristotle’s view of happiness, this answer presupposes that he is wrong about happiness, because it does not identify the chief end of life with the activity of virtuous life itself. So how would the person aiming at Aristotelian happiness answer? These days they would most likely say along the lines of, “because it was the right thing to do.” And if they were trying to sound more like Aristotle, they’d say, “because it was the noble thing to do.”

As with the word “virtue,” Aristotle uses the word “noble” differently to how we use it these days. For Aristotle, if something is noble then it is worth pursuing for its own sake, and throughout the Ethics he uses these two descriptions interchangeably when talking about the good and happy person.3 In fact, he starts using this language right from the outset: amidst drawing out the conclusions of the function argument he says that the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of activities or actions involving reason (NE I.7, 1098a14), and I don’t know what else the “noble performance of an action” could be other than the performance of that action on account of its nobility. A little after this, he explains that the happy person will have a pleasant life because noble things are by nature pleasant, and the happy person pursues and loves virtuous actions which are themselves noble (NE I.8, 1099a7–17). Then in book two he says that actions are only truly virtuous when they are chosen for the own sakes (NE II.4, 1105a27–32). And he continues to speak in this way, happily describing things as either noble or worth pursuing for their own sakes,4 so that by the end we are not surprised when he summarizes his earlier conclusions as follows:

… happiness must be placed among those [activities] desirable in themselves, not among those desirable for the sake of something else; for happiness does not lack anything, but is self-sufficient. Now those activities are desirable in themselves from which nothing is sought beyond the activity. And of this nature virtuous actions are thought to be; for to do noble and good deeds is a thing desirable for its own sake. (NE X.6, 1176b3–9)

So then, reflecting on the implications of Aristotle’s proposal, as well as the way in which he speaks about it, it is clear that the egoist worry is misplaced. For Aristotle, the fact that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life does not mean that we should do everything for the sake of ourselves, but rather that we should live in accordance with virtue for its own sake.

The paradox of happiness

Still, we might wonder whether there is a qualified form of the egoist worry still lurking in the vicinity. What about the person who is not yet happy, but has happiness as their goal? Surely they will work in order to acquire this happiness for themselves, and so even if for a short while they will have to act for the sake of gaining happiness for themselves?

In order to see why even this qualified form of the worry is misplaced, we must reflect briefly on how virtues are actually acquired. In the second book of the Ethics, Aristotle says the following:

… the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, eg. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. (NE II.1, 1103a31–1103b2)

Note that justice, temperance, and bravery are here being used as representative virtues to make a point about virtues in general, namely that we acquire them by repeatedly acting in accordance with them. That is, we acquire virtues by habituating ourselves into them through repeated practice. And like any skill, it is not merely practice that is important but proper practice, since if I practice incorrectly then I will form bad habits rather than good ones:

… it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and by being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. (NE II.1, 1103b7–21)

Applying this to what we’ve previously concluded, then, happiness can only be acquired by practicing it properly, which requires doing virtuous actions for their own sake. Paradoxically, then, if we do virtuous actions in order to achieve happiness for ourselves then we will never achieve that happiness, since by repeatedly doing virtuous things for the sake of ourselves we would not get any better at doing them for their own sake, as is required for happiness. In fact, it is worse than this, for not only would we not be training ourselves in happiness, but we would actively be training ourselves in things that are contrary to it!

So, then, even the person who is not yet happy but who has happiness as their chief end would not be served by doing virtuous actions as a means to acquiring happiness for themselves, for this will only frustrate their ability to acquire it. Rather, they should aim as far as possible to do virtuous actions for their own sake, and over time they will train themselves to this consistently across all dimensions of their lives, and as a result become happy.

In what sense happiness is a goal

But this “paradox of happiness” might seem to go too far. Surely, we might protest, there is some sense in which our happiness is something we strive for, an end toward which we can make progress? Indeed there is, and in working this out we will make sense of a thread of Aristotle’s thought that we have been ignoring up until now.

The relevant sense is made possible because we have the ability for self-reflection, whereby we can think about the kind of person we are as well as the kind of person we want to be. Given this, we can introduce a distinction between first-order desires, which are the everyday desires we have that don’t require self-reflection, and higher-order desires, which are the self-reflective desires we have about the kind of person we want to be and the kinds of desires we want to have.5 For example, we might choose to hang out with friends because of a first-order desire for companionship, or to eat particular foods because of a first-order desire for certain tastes, or to go to a doctor because of a first-order desire for health. On the other hand, a recovering alcoholic might have a (higher-order) desire to be rid of their very strong (first-order) desire for alcohol. Or, when asked why they are honest to their friends someone might say, “because that’s the kind of friend I want to be.”

In fact, this last example is a special case of the more general way in which we can aim at our own happiness. The person who is honest because that’s the kind of friend they want to be is not desiring honesty for selfish reasons, quite the opposite — it’s because they value honesty and their friends so highly that they want the former to be characteristic of how they interact with the latter. More generally, someone’s higher-order desire of a virtue for themselves is perfectly consistent with their first-order desire of that virtue for its own sake. More than this, the higher-order desire is often a natural outworking of the first-order desire. For instance, upon learning to appreciate a virtue for its own sake, we might develop a higher-order desire to never lose sight of this, to never fall back into the state when we fail to see the virtue for all its worth. In this case the higher-order desire maintains and perhaps even strengthens the first-order desire of the virtue for its own sake.

This situation clearly avoids the paradox of happiness we outlined above. Once we come to see that the person who is happy in Aristotle’s sense is indeed living and fairing the best, then we will come to desire to be the kind of person who acts in accordance with virtue for its own sake. And this higher-order desire will drive us to continually practice such action, to the point that we become proficient in it, and thereby achieve happiness. And having achieved it, we will also have the higher-order desires that help us to maintain it, desires to have first-order desires for acting virtuously for its own sake.

Now, Aristotle doesn’t speak in exactly these terms, but he does speak in a way that amounts to roughly the same thing. In order to see this, notice that when we have a higher-order desire for our own well-being and happiness, we put ourselves in effectively the same position as someone distinct from us who has a first-order desire for our well-being and happiness. And for Aristotle, the desire for the well-being and happiness of other people is the focus of politics.6 So, while he may not discuss the distinction between first- and higher-order desires, he gets at the same thing when he discusses politics. In order for us to appreciate the relevance of this to his discussion on ethics, it is crucially important that we understand the relationship between the two topics. In modern thought, politics is often disconnected from ethics, but for Aristotle the two are intimately connected. Indeed, right at the beginning of the Ethics, when discussing the importance of studying the chief good of human life, Aristotle says this:

Will not the knowledge of [the chief human good], then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and what each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, eg. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences; and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the human good.

His point is that since politics governs all human activities to some degree or another, it must be aimed at something that includes all of these activities, namely the activity of human life itself. So while in modern times we tend to separate the study of ethics and politics, Aristotle’s Ethics explores what politics aims at, while his Politics explores how to best achieve this. Indeed, as he continues, it is clear that he is interested in the study of ethics precisely because of its close connection to politics:

For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term. (NE I.2, 1094a23–1094b11)

This lends credence to our interpretation of Aristotle. Our switching between first- and higher-order desires parallels his switching between the desires of the general human and the desires of the student of politics. In fact, once we recognize this parallel we see him say the precise equivalent of what we’ve said above:

… political science spends most of its pains on making the citizens to be of a certain character, namely, good and capable of noble acts. (NE I.9, 1099b30–31)

Given what we’ve seen up until now, this statement amounts to saying that the proper way to think of our happiness (or chief good) is to strive, by means of higher-order desires, to be the kind of person who does, as a result of first-order desires, virtuous (or good) actions for their own sake (noble). Which is just what we’ve been saying.


With this we are finished with our investigation into Aristotle’s claim that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life. According to his account of happiness, life is about doing virtuous things for their own sake, and even when happiness is something we strive for, it is as a result of a higher-order desire to be the kind of person that does virtuous things for their own sake. Thus, when properly understood, Aristotle’s ethics does not make life a self-centered endeavor, but a pursuit of things intrinsically worthy of pursuit.

  1. For a detailed discussion, see Christine Korsgaard, Aristotle’s Function Argument, section 4.
  2. Our account of what it means for a virtue to be complete raises the question of how complete virtues relate to cardinal virtues. Aristotle doesn’t use the cardinal virtues as an organizing principle, and it seems that we should rather take to be complete those virtues that explicitly names and discusses, which include the cardinal virtues but are not co-extensive with them. This notwithstanding, he is clearly cognizant of the cardinal virtues and recognizes their importance: he dedicates an entire book to justice (NE V), his go-to moral virtues are justice, temperance, and fortitude, and his discussion of intellectual virtues (NE VI) has practical wisdom (or prudence) as the primary virtue of the intellect regarding action.
  3. There is some debate over how best to translate the underlying Greek word, with the two most common options being “noble” or “beautiful.” And there is also some discussion over what exactly nobility (or beauty) is. Whether it consists in something being worthy of pursuit for its own sake (as I think it does) or whether being worthy of pursuit is a consequence of nobility, it does not affect our discussion here. My own view is that nobility, honor, and love are all related to one another. Love is the orientation of the will toward something desired for its own sake, honor is the recognition of the intellect that something is worth pursuing for its own sake, and nobility is that feature of the object that makes it the proper object of love and honor.
  4. For example, with noble, “brave men act for the sake of the noble” (NE III.8 1116b30), “the appetitive element in a temperate man should harmonize with reason; for the noble is the mark at which both aim” (NE III.12, 1119b15), “virtuous actions are noble and done for the sake of the noble” (NE IV.1 1120a23). And with pursuit for its own sake, “while making has an end other than itself, action cannot; for good action itself is its end” (NE VI.5, 1140b6–7), “some people who do just acts are not necessarily just, ie. those who do the acts ordained by the laws either unwillingly or owing to ignorance or for some other reason and not for the sake of the acts themselves” (NE VI.12, 1144a16). And the close connection between the two is evident in book seven, when upon saying that some “appetites and pleasures… belong to the class of things generically noble and good” he starts his explanation saying, “for some pleasant things are by nature worthy of choice” (NE VII.4, 114a22).
  5. For an interesting discussion and account of first- and higher-order desires, see Eleonore Stump, Sanctification, Hardening of the Heart, and Frankfurt’s Concept of Free Will.
  6. As he explicitly states: “The true student of politics, too, is thought to have studied virtue above all things; for he wishes to make his fellow students good and obedient to the laws.” (NE I.13, 1102a8–9)

Aristotle and the egoist worry (part 1)

Aristotle famously held that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life, or — to use language more in keeping with Aristotle — that happiness is the chief good and last end of human life:

Let us resume our inquiry and state… what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness. (NE I.4, 1095a14–19)

Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action. (NE I.7, 1097b20)

Happiness… is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world… for all these properties belong to the best activities; and these, or one — the best — of these, we identify with happiness. (NE I.9, 1099a24–30)

But if our happiness is the aim of everything that we do, does that not make Aristotle an ethical egoist? That is, does Aristotle think that everything we do ultimately is done for the sake of ourselves? We will call this the “egoist worry,” and in this post and the next we will see how Aristotle’s account of happiness manages to avoid it. This first post will lay the necessary ground work and context for his account, so that the next post can unpack the account and explore some consequences of it.

Activities, goods, and ends

As we discussed in detail a few years ago, on the first page of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle delineates the core notions that he will be exploring in what follows, and notes the varieties of ways these notions relate to one another.

He starts by saying that every activity, action, pursuit, choice, or inquiry is done for the sake of some good, and that therefore the good is that for the sake of which things are done. Now, when Aristotle uses the term “good” here he is not simply talking about moral goodness, but about goodness in general, as when we say that ice-cream is good, or that a chair is well-made (“well” being the adverb for “good”), or that a particular orchestra performance or movie is good. Nor is his conclusion that there is some one thing that is the goal of every activity, but rather that the good is the concept that picks out at the broadest level why we aim at the things that we do. In other words, the goodness of something is what makes it worthy of pursuit, what causes you to desire it. There are many different kinds of goods, depending on what activity we’re interested in, and Aristotle lists some examples in what follows: medicine is aimed at health, strategy at victory, and shipbuilding at a vessel. The point is that the good in each case is the reason for which the pursuit is done, it is the end of each activity.

Aristotle proceeds to talk about something we’ve recently discussed at length, namely the two fundamental ways that an activity can be related to the end for which it is done. He says that “a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them.” That is, sometimes an activity is identical to its end and is therefore desired for its own sake, or it is distinct from its end and therefore desired for the sake of something else. We call the former immanent activities and the latter transient activities.

Now, when an activity is done for some good, we can ask whether that good itself is desired for its own sake or for the sake of some further good. For instance, I study (activity) in order to pass the test (good), so that I can pass the year (further good), so that I can get a job (further good), so that I can make money (further good), and so on. A good might also be desired for its own sake, as when I am honest with a friend simply because it’s the right thing to do, or when an orchestra performs a musical piece with no aim to making any money. Aristotle calls a good which is desired for its own sake a chief good, and notes that every chain of desires will eventually lead to a chief good.1 Furthermore, since the good of an activity is the end for which it is done, the chief good of an activity is the last or final end for which it is done. And just as the good is not meant to be understood as a single good for all activities, neither is the chief good understood as a single chief good for all activities. The honesty and orchestra performance we just mentioned are two different chief goods, and, of the goods Aristotle mentioned earlier, victory could easily be the chief good of strategy and health the chief good of medicine.

The chief good of human life

Having introduced the notions of good and chief good, and having discussed how they relate to one another and the activities that are done for their sake, Aristotle notes how important it would be for us to investigate the chief good of human life:

Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? (NE I.2, 1094a23–24)

And in fact, this is the focus of the Ethics from here on out. After a brief digression on the nature and limits of the study of ethics, he notes that there is general agreement about what the chief end of human life is called but not necessarily what it consists in:

Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and faring well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honor; they differ, however, from one another — and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great thing that is above their comprehension… (NE I.4, 1095a16–26, emphasis added)

Notice that this is the polar opposite of how we approach happiness in our everyday lives, since we usually start with an idea of what happiness is and then do our best to achieve that. But when we want to investigate happiness, such an approach won’t do. Accordingly, at this point in the Ethics happiness is not the name of something we already know, but a placeholder for our chief good that we have yet to figure out.

What happiness is not

After another brief digression on methodology, Aristotle considers various common proposals for what happiness is, and rejects each one. Happiness can’t only be about pleasure, he says, since this would reduce us to slaves of our tastes and make us no different from the beasts. It can’t be about money-making either, since wealth is merely useful and properly desired only for the sake of something else, which would go contrary to happiness being the chief good of human life. And it can’t just be about honor, “since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something of one’s own and not easily taken from one.”

But we could modify this honor proposal slightly to avoid this criticism: instead of saying that happiness is about being honored by others, what if it were about the underlying reason that people honor others, namely the virtue that they possess? The word “virtue” has different connotations today than it did in ancient Greek thought. For philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, a virtue is a quality of something that enables it to perform an action well.2 Sturdiness is a virtue of a chair, for instance, because it enables it to hold us up without collapsing under our weight. This modified proposal, then, says that happiness is about having the appropriate virtues with which we can do various things well. But, Aristotle says,

… even this appears somewhat incomplete; for possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs. (NE I.5, 1095b31–1096a3)

Evidently he thinks this virtue proposal has some merit, but that there is still some important nuance missing.

The only view he does not reject is the contemplative life, which he promises to consider in more detail later. Ultimately, he will accept this account, but we will only see the details of this at the end of the Ethics. Why, we may ask, does it take him ten books to come back to it if he already mentions it right at the beginning? Because there are different ways the contemplative life can look, and he doesn’t want his proposal to be confused with forms of this answer that he finds unacceptable. His immediate goal is to give a rough outline of happiness which we will gradually fill in with details throughout the Ethics, so as to arrive at a comprehensive account of the happy life and the role contemplative activity plays within it.

Notice that by now Aristotle has already rejected the understandings of happiness that are most prevalent these days, and which to some extent motivate the egoist worry. If happiness were about pleasure, honor, or wealth, then it would be very easy to see why we should take Aristotle to be an egoist for saying that it is the ultimate goal of human life. But if it is not about these things, then the intuitions behind the egoist worry are somewhat undermined. Not so as to be totally removed, mind you, for Aristotle might yet propose something that is just as self-centered as these; but his rejection of these proposals should give us enough pause to listen more carefully to what he has to say.

The “chiefest” and self-sufficient good

After another digression — this time a more lengthy one on the Platonic Form of the Good — Aristotle returns again to his investigation into happiness. After giving a brief recap of the key notions he outlined at the beginning of the book he notes that happiness must have two features if it is to be the chief good of human life. (In a way, you could see this as a more systematic discussion of the reasons he rejected the earlier proposals.)

First, happiness must be the most chief — or the “chiefest” — good. Every chief good is desirable for its own sake, but some chief goods can also be desired for the sake of something else beyond themselves. For instance, being honest is desirable for its own sake, but it can often also be desirable for other reasons, such as avoiding embarrassment or as a way to prove your trustworthiness. The chiefest good, on the other hand, is something always desirable for its own sake and never for the sake of something else:

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself. (NE I.7, 1097b1–7)

We’ve said that the good of an activity is the end for which it is done, and the chief good of an activity is the final (or last) end for which it is done. The chiefest good, then, would be the most final end, or as Aristotle says, the end which is final without qualification.

The second feature that happiness must have is self-sufficiency. By this we do not mean that the happy person lives a solitary life, as if happiness would have no place for friends or family. After all, humans are social animals and thrive most fully within community; or as Aristotle says, “man is born for citizenship.” Rather, when we say that happiness is self-sufficient, we mean that it by itself “makes life desirable and lacking in nothing,” and as such could not be made better by adding other goods. As Aristotle notes, the self-sufficiency of happiness is a consequence of its being the chiefest good, since if some good X could be made better by adding some other good Y, then either X or Y could be desired for the sake of having both X and Y together. But the chiefest good is never desired for the sake of something else, and therefore cannot be made better by the addition of some other good.

Thus, as we saw in the second quote of this post, happiness “is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.” But, says Aristotle, “to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired.” (NE I.7, 1097b20–22). Aristotle recognizes that merely giving these two features of happiness does not amount to a proposal of his own. At best he’s given the two requirements that any satisfactory proposal of happiness must fulfill. Accordingly, he proceeds to his own proposal, which we will discuss in detail in the next post.

  1. The argument that Aristotle gives parenthetically in the Nicomachean Ethics is based on the premise that essentially ordered (or per se) series always have an ultimate member, in this case an ultimate reason for action. At the end of the post mentioned earlier I listed a number of resources which further unpack and defend this premise, but since then I have also written up my own defense of it.
  2. As Aristotle explicitly states later as a premise in an argument, “… any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate virtue…” (NE I.7, 1098a14–15)

Natural law vs the moral argument

Up until recently, I had thought that natural law theory was compatible with moral arguments formulated as follows:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Moral arguments of this kind have been made popular by defenders such as CS Lewis and William Lane Craig, and this specific formulation comes from the latter. In a post from a few years ago I explained my position on the compatibility of this with natural law theory as follows:

I think technically we can still use [the argument] as [formulated above], but we must recognise that it is partly dependent upon something like the fifth way for its soundness. At the end of the day I think much moral debate can be had without reference to God, since it is based on what is knowable about our nature. But ultimately I think any viable ethics depends on God, including natural law. (section 4.1)

This is admittedly not giving much credit to the argument, but I have since realized that even this weak support for the moral argument is misplaced. It seems to me that once we clarify the above formulation, the first premise will be seen to be incompatible with natural law theory, or at least some increasingly popular versions of it.

To start on the more technical side of things, the first premise should be understood as a non-trivially true counterfactual with an impossible antecedent (see here for details):

1′. If God did not exist, then objective moral values and duties would not exist.

So far there is still no obvious incompatibility with natural law theory, but we can go further. Presumably, if we are running this argument, then we think that there is something special about moral values and duties that calls out for a theistic explanation. That is, we are not interested in the general fact that anything whatsoever exists, but particularly the fact that moral values and duties exist. If this were not the case, then wouldn’t really be running a moral argument at all, but would instead be running a cosmological argument.

The point of the first premise, then, is that we finite agents are not sufficient to account for objective moral standards, and so the presence of such standards would imply the existence of God. This suggests that another way of stating the first premise is as follows:

1*. If we were to exist without God, then objective moral values and duties would not exist.

(Those of us who are convinced that God is required to account for any existence should also read this as a non-trivially true counterfactual with an impossible antecedent.)

Apart from the reasoning that got us here, further confirmation that (1*) captures the intent of (1) comes from how the premise is often defended. Consider, for instance, the following quote from Craig:

If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. After all, what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest. If, as Kurtz states, “The moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion,” then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably. (William Lane Craig, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality)

Notice that this line of argument envisions a world where we exist without God, and puzzles over where moral values and duties are supposed to come from in such a world.

Now, while natural law theory may not pose any obvious problem for (1) or (1′), once we recognize that these amount to (1*) the problem becomes clear. The whole burden of a natural law theory is to ground moral truths in the natures of things, and having the nature that we do is part of what it means for us to exist. In the world described by (1*), then, the fact that we still exist with natures means that we still have objective moral duties and values even though God is not in the picture — at least from the perspective of natural law.

Of course, the exact details of this will differ depending on the version of natural law theory we consider. On Platonism these natures will be unchanging Forms in some third realm, on Aristotelianism they are intrinsic teleologies in things, and the new natural lawyers focus more on the nature of practical reason than on the natures of things. And each of these has variants within it. Some versions of Platonism equate the Forms with divine ideas, so that taking God out of the picture will take out natures with him. But other versions have God completely separate, meaning that natures stay even after God is removed.

Thomistic natural law theory is of the Aristotelian variety and is the version I find most compelling. On the one hand, it agrees with Aristotle that morality is fundamentally grounded in the intrinsic teleology built into us by virtue of the natures we have. On the other hand, contrary to Aristotle, it says that this intrinsic teleology still depends on God. Mind you, not in a way that makes it distinct from our nature, as if our teleology could in any way be separated from what we are. Rather, it is by creating and sustaining us as the kinds of creatures we are that God upholds the intrinsic teleology that fundamentally grounds morality. Of course, the details of this are quite complicated, but the point is that on the Thomistic view our intrinsic teleology is not mutually exclusive with God being the cause of our nature.

This brings us back to (1*). This premise asks us to consider the world where per impossible God does not exist and yet we still do. Because in such a world we still exist, we also still have natures and the intrinsic teleology which fundamentally grounds morality. This remains true even our natures arose through blind evolutionary processes since what’s important is the nature we have, not how we got it. So, in this world where we exist without God there is still the foundational morality that arises from the natural law: it is still wrong for us to lie, to murder, to steal, etc.; we still have categorical obligations, are held accountable, and have a basis for moral authorities (see section 2.4 here); we still have objective virtues and vices; actions are still objectively good and bad. Of course, there will be no duties arising from divine commands, but on natural law theories, these are in addition to the natural law, not instead of it.

So, then, for those of us who accept the Thomistic account of natural law, the moral argument we’re considering should be rejected as unsound. And I suspect the same would be true for some other versions of natural law theory, whether they be Platonic, Aristotelian, or from the new natural lawyers. It is certainly true for Aristotle’s own version, which doesn’t even construe God as the cause of our intrinsic teleology. On the other hand, there is also a lesson for those defenders of the argument who don’t accept any of these natural law accounts: a full defense of the first premise requires a thorough critique of these different natural law theories, which is no simple task. Certainly not as simple as the quote above appears. After all, natural law theories have a long pedigree in the history of Western thought.

While this objection doesn’t affect all moral arguments, it is noteworthy because the version it does affect is quite common. The argument might still have apologetic value insofar as it could convince someone who already rejects natural law, but such a rhetorical strategy makes me somewhat uneasy.

Self-perfective immanent activity

At the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes two ways an activity can be related to the end for which that activity is done: either the activity is distinct from its end, or they are the same. We call those activities that are distinct from their ends transient and those that are the same immanent.

Now, because an activity can be done for a variety of reasons, it’s possible that sometimes it is transient and other times that it is immanent. For example, a paradigmatic example of transient activity is the building of an object, like a chair or house. In the paradigmatic case, you perform the activity for the sake of having the object, and since the object itself is distinct from the activity that brings it into being it follows that the activity is transient. But in another instance, you may not necessarily build a chair for the sake of the chair, but simply because you enjoy the process itself — perhaps you’ll break the chair down again after you’re done, so that you can rebuild it again tomorrow. In this case, the same underlying activity is now immanent. The upshot of this is that while we speak of the activity being transient or immanent, it’s really the activity considered with respect to a particular end that is transient or immanent. If we keep the activity but change the end, then we might also change between transience and immanence.

Moreover, there is a sense in which the distinction between transience and immanence is really between two ends of a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. To see this, imagine building a chair for the sake of developing skill in carpentry. There’s a sense in which this is transient, since the skill exercised in an activity — and future activities of the same sort — is not the same as the activity itself. But even so, the skill of an activity surely has more in common with that activity than the completely separate object it produces. So, we might say that building something for the sake of developing skill is more transient than building something for the enjoyment of building while being more immanent than building something in order simply to have that thing.

Speaking paradigmatically, then, the building of an object is a good example of a transient activity. A good example of an immanent activity, on the other hand, is the musical performance by an orchestra. In this latter case, the orchestra doesn’t perform in order to produce something at the end of it all, but simply for its own sake.

Interestingly, there are other immanent activities which seem qualitatively different from the orchestra performance, and our aim here is to give an account of this difference. The first example that jumps to mind is the activity of life in a living thing — life is, after all, a continual activity that a living thing is engaged in until it dies, and is immanent insofar as it is concerned with developing and sustaining the living thing. Another simpler example is the activity of learning, insofar as learning some things now enables me to learn other things later.

The main difference between the immanent activities that we’ve mentioned so far is that living and learning both involve a feedback loop of sorts, where earlier actions in the activity can enable or hinder later ones. If I start with learning correct things then this sets me up to learn more correct things later, but if I am taught mistaken information then this will hinder with my ability to learn correct things later — or, as Aristotle and Aquinas said, a small error in the beginning will lead to a large error in the end.[1] Something similar could be said for life, although in this case there are many feedback loops that we could consider. To take a simple one, if I eat improperly then this can interfere with my ability to eat food that is good for me, which in severe cases can even lead to things like refeeding syndrome. Or, again, if I damage my legs to the point where I can’t use them anymore, then moving myself to food and drink becomes more difficult.

Now, orchestra performances do not involve feedback loops of the kind we see in living and learning. Certainly what happens earlier in the performance will influence what should happen later in the performance, as the orchestra reacts to tempo changes or unplanned off-keys. In fact, such influence will occur even if everything is going exactly as planned, since the performance itself depends on the proper ordering of the actions within it. The difference here, though, is that earlier actions in the performance will not enable or hinder any musician’s ability to act later in the performance: the cellist playing a certain set of notes will not affect the violinist’s ability to play the violin.

In order to give an account of this difference between immanent activities, we must start with an account of activities in general which is expressive enough for us to point out where the difference lies. And indeed, we can give such an account: an activity is the measured exercise of powers for the sake of some end, where the end for which the activity is done determines the appropriate measure. A thing’s powers are what determine what it can and can’t do, and whenever that thing engages in an activity it does so by exercising its powers. The end for which the activity is done determines how and when those powers are to be used, which is what we refer to as their measured exercise. Thus, we can distinguish between three things: the activity, its end, and its powers.

We’ve already said that the difference between immanent and transient activities lies in the unity of the activity with its end: they are the same in immanent activities but distinct in transient activities. Going a step further, we can see that the difference between the two kinds of immanent activities that we’ve been discussing lies in the unity of the activity with its powers: either the activity influences its own powers, for better or worse, or it doesn’t. The orchestra performance does not affect the powers by which it exists, but the activities of living and learning include within themselves the development and sustenance of their powers.

Now, if the activity consists in the exercise of its powers, then what is happening when it influences its powers like this? To answer this we borrow a series of distinctions from Kenny: a power can be distinguished from its possessor, its vehicle, and its exercise.[2] The possessor is the thing (or things) that has the power, and the exercise is the manifestation of the power in a particular context.[3] The vehicle of the power is that feature (or features) of the possessor which grounds the power by providing the components used in its exercise. To give an example, I am the possessor of the power to walk, which I exercise whenever I use my legs to move, and the vehicle of which includes the bone and muscle structures in my leg together with the relevant parts of my nervous system. And the vehicle of a musician’s power to play an instrument includes their skill in playing that instrument, the relevant body parts, and the instrument itself. Influencing the vehicle of a power will influence the possessor’s ability to exercise that power, for better or worse, which is precisely what happens when an activity influences its own powers. When I stub my toe while walking, for instance, I hinder my power to walk by damaging a part of the vehicle of that power. And when I do physical exercise, I enable my power to walk by developing the strength of that vehicle.

All of this helps us see more clearly the difference between the immanent activities we’ve been considering. The orchestra performance does not affect the vehicles of the powers of the musicians to play their instruments, but what we choose to do in our life can and does affect the vehicles of the powers we exercise when living, causing our muscles to strengthen or weaken, our blood pressure to raise or lower, and so on.

Oderberg has called the latter class of immanent activity self-perfective, where the sense of perfection is that of completedness or wholeness or actualization rather than of moral perfection.[4] Self-perfective immanent activities are immanent activities which are unified with the powers that underlie them so that part of the activity is the further enablement of those powers. We might wonder, could there be an immanent activity which is done for the sake of hindering its powers rather than enabling them? Reflecting on what we’ve already said we can see that there could not: an immanent activity is done for its own sake and consists in the exercise of its powers. Thus, the hindrance of those powers would go contrary to that activity, and so if it were done for the sake of this hindrance the activity would both be done for its own sake and against its own sake, which is absurd.

Of course, this is not to say that a self-perfective immanent activity always succeeds in enabling its powers, for any number of things could cause it to fail to one degree or another. But in order to fail, you are nevertheless still aiming at the goal you failed to achieve, which is the point. Moreover, what it means for an activity to enable its own powers cannot be divorced from the appropriate measure of those powers. For example, part of human development is an increase in height, but it’s not as if increasing your height is always better for your life as a human. At some point, increasing your height will hinder your ability to live well.


  1. Paraphrased from the opening of Aquinas’s On Being and Essence, himself citing Aristotle’s On the Heavens and the Earth.
  2. I got this from Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics (p. 45), who was citing Kenny’s The Metaphysics of Mind (pp. 73-74).
  3. For a detailed discussion of this, see Oderberg’s Finality Revived: Powers and Intentionality.
  4. See Oderberg’s Teleology: Inorganic and Organic.


Dialogue on God’s interaction with the universe

Bob: How can an immaterial God interact with a material universe?

Alice: The question itself needs to be questioned before we can answer it.

Bob: How so? It seems like a fairly straightforward question.

Alice: Well, consider the word “interact.” God does not interact with anything. To interact requires action going in both directions, and since God is pure actuality this is impossible. Rather God acts on and through creatures without them acting on him.

Bob: Ok, so we’ll change the question to how an immaterial God can act on or through a material creature.

Alice: It’s better but still has problems. When you ask “how” God can act, what type of answer are you expecting?

Bob: I’m not sure I lay out exactly the type of answering I’m looking for, but I can give you illustrative examples. Fire heats by inducing mean molecular motion, I pick up things with my hands, and one stone acts on another by knocking into it. In each of these cases, I can point to the means or process by which some action is performed by one thing on another.

Alice: But on that account, the question is loaded! In each case, you could give some organ, part, or some material property by which one thing causes something in another thing. None of these kinds of answers apply to God since he has no organs, parts, or material properties. And to assume this in the question at hand is to preclude the possibility of giving an answer.

Bob: I grant your point but how, then, am I to proceed? Surely there’s a legitimate question to be asked here? And if we can’t use physical categories to have the conversation, then what can we use? After all, surely all our knowledge comes from our experiences of physical things?

Alice: It is true that all human cognition starts with sense data. But through abstraction and other intellective acts, we can move beyond these data, so that while our knowledge starts with our experiences it needn’t end with them. We do this, for example, when studying infinities in mathematics or when picking out idealized models in physics. Even in imagining things that don’t really exist, like fictional characters and stories, we are moving beyond what we have experienced. I agree that there is a legitimate question to be asked, but my point is that it should not be understood as a physical question but as a meta-physical one.

Bob: Ok, granted that the question — and therefore answer — is metaphysical, how would you answer?

Alice: One of the broadest distinctions we have in metaphysics is that between act and potency. Just as we’ve been saying, we come to understand this distinction through everyday phenomena like change and multiplicity. And once we understand act and potency, we can then move beyond these phenomena to talk about things beyond our everyday experience, like God. It is with categories such as these that we need to approach the question.

Bob: I understand the distinction between act and potency, and I understand that God is conceived of as a being of pure actuality. But how does this distinction answer the question?

Alice: It doesn’t by itself answer the question. But it is the first step in showing that the question is, in a way, misplaced.

Bob: I don’t see how it could be misplaced. After all, it seems quite natural to ask how a thing without arms or legs could act on material things.

Alice: Let me explain. Once we arrive at the distinction between act and potency we can draw out various corollaries, two of which interest us here. First, things act only insofar as they are in act. The basic idea behind this is that acting on something involves actualizing potentials in that thing, and since potency cannot actualize anything this can only happen insofar as the thing acting is in act. Second, potency limits act. When an act is understood as the actualization of this or that potency, it becomes qualified (or limited) by that potency. For example, the act of mean molecular motion is of itself not limited to a time or place or speed, but when it comes to actualize the potencies in something being heated then it will be limited in these ways.

Bob: I don’t see how all of this relates to the question. How do either of these help us find the metaphysical hand by which God acts on a material thing?

Alice: The point is that he doesn’t need such a hand in the first place! As material beings, we exist through the actualization of potencies in our matter. As such, our actions are limited in various ways, which is why we cause by means of organs, parts, tools, contact, etc. A particular fire can’t heat something across the world because it’s limited by its matter to a specific place and time. A particular stone can’t simply make another move whenever, but has to collide with it, because its causal influence is limited to where and when it is.

Bob: And what about God?

Alice: As we’ve said, God is pure actuality, which is to say that there is no potency in him that limits his action. He simply brings about his effects immediately, without any need for the various means we need as material beings. This is why I said the question is misplaced. If anything is surprising it’s that we limited beings can interact with each other, not that the unlimited God can act on us.

Bob: That may be evident upon later metaphysical reflection, but I think the question arises quite naturally from our everyday experience of how things interact with one another. After seeing that things typically interact by various means that depend on their materiality, we quite reasonably ask how it is that an immaterial God could do something similar.

Alice: That’s a fair point. The answer, then, is that an immaterial God does not do something similar. He does not interact, but rather he acts. And he does not act by means of something, but rather he acts immediately. His action is similar to ours in that it arises from him being in act, but it is different from ours in that his being in act is not limited by any potencies within himself.

Bob: I see. In a way, it is almost an inevitable consequence of his being the creator of everything. If he needed a means by which to act, then this means could not have been created by him.

McTaggart and meta-time

There is what I take to be an error common among my fellow Thomists regarding change and certain theories of time. Put tersely, this error says that the B-theory of time is committed to the Parmenidian denial of change. I had decided to write something about it, but after doing a bit of research, it occurred to me that a form of this error goes all the way back to the start of the contemporary debate about the nature of time. That is to say, a variant of this error is present in John McTaggart’s paper The Unreality of Time. Before I can write about the error of my fellow Thomists, then, it seems appropriate to first say something about McTaggart’s mistake. And that is the aim of this post.

As the name suggests, McTaggart’s paper puts forward an argument that time is unreal. In the course of doing this he introduces a distinction that is now commonplace in philosophy of time, namely the distinction between the A-series and B-series:

For the sake of brevity I shall speak of the series of positions running from the far past through the near past to the present, and then from the present to the near future and the far future, as the A series. The series of positions which runs from earlier to later I shall call the B series. The contents of a position in time are called events. The contents of a single position are admitted to be properly called a plurality of events. (I believe, however, that they can as truly, though not moretruly, be called a single event. This view is not universally accepted, and it is not necessary for my argument.) A position in time is called a moment.

The A-series is indexed by tensed terms like past, present, and future. The B-series, by contrast, is indexed by tenseless terms like earlier than, and later than. Both of these series index the same time into a time series (or timeline), but they do so differently: in an A-series there is a privileged moment we call “present,” and other moments are called past or present through reference to this moment. In a B-series, by contrast, there is no such privilege and all moments are, in a sense, on an equal footing.

McTaggart divides the time series into “moments” and calls the things at these moments “events.” Now, we need to clarify something here, because it’s key to understanding McTaggart’s mistake. We typically think of events as existing in reality and persisting across moments, as when I wave my hand for a few seconds. And at least initially McTaggart seems to talk in terms of change of reality, which aligns well with this typical way of thinking. However, he quickly switches to talking about change of the time series itself, which is what leads him into all manner of strange places. What do I mean by this? Let’s say I waved my hand from 12 to 12:05 and then stopped. Did the event of my waving go out of existence? Surely it did once 12:05 came along. But what if I asked whether the event happening at 12:02 went out of existence? On a typical reading — in which reality is the thing that changes — the answer would be the same, since I’ve just reworded the same question. But if we read it in terms of the time series rather than reality, then the question becomes whether me-waving-at-12:02 went out of existence. Do you see the difference? We are no longer asking about the event that spanned 12:02 (together with some other moments), but rather the particular slice of the event at 12:02 (rather than the slices at other moments).

As I said, in the course of his discussion McTaggart switches from talking about the event to talking about slices of the event. The confusing thing is that he refers to the latter as the event too. This is something important to keep in mind as we proceed.

With this in hand, we can formulate McTaggart’s argument as follows:

  1. Change is essential to time.
  2. Change is impossible if the moments of time are ordered only by the B-series.
  3. Therefore, the moments of time are at least ordered by the A-series.
  4. Being ordered by the A-series involves a contradiction.
  5. Therefore, the reality of time involves a contradiction.
  6. Therefore, there is no reality of time.

The relevant points here are (2) and (4). In defending both of these points, McTaggart makes unmotivated (and strange) assumptions about the nature of change and the interpretation of his distinction between the A- and B-series.

In discussing (2), he starts off well enough but quickly makes the switch that was discussed above:

If, then, a B series without an A series can constitute time, change must be possible without an A series. Let us suppose that the distinction of past, present and future does not apply to reality. Can change apply to reality? What is it that changes?

Could we say that, in a time which formed a B series but not an A series, the change consisted in the fact that an event ceased to be an event, while another event began to be an event? If this were the case, we should certainly have got a change.

But this is impossible. An event can never cease to be an event. It can never get out of any time series in which it once is. If N is ever earlier than O and later than M, it will always be, and has always been, earlier than O and later than M, since the relations of earlier and later are permanent.

The question in the first paragraph is about the application of change to reality. But by the time we get to the second paragraph he’s switched to talking about events as slices of real events. He correctly notes that if the slice of the event ceased to exist or came into existence, then “we should certainly have got a change.” But he incorrectly assumes that this change would be of the reality he was talking about in the previous paragraph. That he’s thinking in terms of slices becomes very clear in the third paragraph, when he evaluates the suggestion in the second. He says, for instance, that “An event can never cease to be an event. It can never get out of any time series in which it once is.” Now for a normal event to go out of existence, all that is required is for it not to exist at a later time. As soon as we start talking about getting out of the time series, then we’ve moved to talking about slices of events rather than real events. And once we start talking about that, then we’ve moved away from talking about change in reality toward talking about change of the time series.[1]

So we have that McTaggart intends to account for change in reality by reference to change in the time series. But now we have a problem, for this account seems to really only push the question of change up a level: from reality to the time series. What, then, accounts for the change in the time series? If we were to apply McTaggart’s account again, then we would have to posit a meta-time series which tracks the change of the time series. Changes in the time series would be accounted for by reference to changes in this meta-time series. But now we have the same problem again, for which we’d need to posit a meta-meta-time. And so on. Eventually we’d need be led to an infinitely nested collection of times and meta-times, and we wouldn’t have gotten any closer to accounting for the change we started with. In other words, McTaggart’s account of change leads to a vicious infinite regress.

This conclusion comes up in the paper a number of times in different forms, but it’s not clear to me whether McTaggart realizes that they’re all instances of the same problem. In the present section he rejects the possibility of the time series changing in this way (“the relations of earlier and later are permanent”), and thereby rejects the adequacy of the B-series given his account of change. Indeed, the same conviction continues through his entire rejection of the B-series being able to account for change. Consider, for instance, the paragraphs that follow:

Or shall we say that one event M merges itself into another event N, while preserving a certain identity by means of an unchanged element, so that we can say, not merely that M has ceased and N begun, but that it is M which has become N? Still, the same difficulty recurs. M and N may have a common element, but they are not the same event, or there would be no change. If therefore M changes into N at a certain moment, then, at that moment, M has ceased to be M, and N has begun to be N. But we have seen that no event can cease to be, or begin to be, itself, since it never ceases to have a place as itself in the B series. Thus, one event cannot change into another.

Neither can the change be looked for in the numerically different moments of absolute time, supposing such moments to exist. For the same arguments will apply here. Each such moment would have its own place in the B series, since each would be earlier or later than each of the others. And as the B series indicate permanent relations, no moment could ever cease to be, nor could it become another moment.

This entire discussion is predicated on the confusion between the change of reality and the change of the time series. Needless to say I think his criticism of the adequacy of the B-series to track change misses the mark, and this becomes fairly clear once we fix up this confusion. All one needs for change is that things can have different properties at different times, and nothing about this requires that we talk about these times in terms of past, present, and future (that is, the A-series). If time t1 is earlier than time t2, and I have different properties at these times, then I have changed. The B-series, then, is more than capable to track change.

McTaggart continues with his confusion when moving to discuss the A-series:

Since, therefore, what occurs in time [event-slices] never begins or ceases to be, or to be itself, and since, again, if there is to be change it must be change of what occurs in time (for the timeless never changes), I submit that only one alternative remains. Changes must happen to the events of such a nature that the occurrence of these changes does not hinder the events from being events, and the same events, both before and after the change.

Now what characteristics of an event are there which can change and yet leave the event the same event? (I use the word characteristic as a general term to include both the qualities which the event possesses, and the relations of which it is a term — or rather the fact that the event is a term of these relations.) It seems to me that there is only one class of such characteristics — namely, the determination of the event in question by the terms of the A series.

Here he envisages what we might call a “spotlight” theory of time. The ordered events permanently exist in the time series, and the present moment has a temporal spotlight shining on it. This enables us to track the progression of time by following the progression of this spotlight. Dropping the metaphor, this means that each of the event slices has one of three properties: it is past, it is present, or it is future. Only one such event slice is present, everything earlier than it is past, and everything later than it is future. McTaggart is forced into this because (1) he assumes change of reality involves change of the time series, and (2) he is convinced from preceding argumentation that this change cannot consist in the creation or destruction of event slices in the time series. Thus, his proposal: moments remain permanent without being created or destroyed, and the march of time consists in them merely changing their properties.

But this A-series proposal, just like the B-series proposal above, requires that there be some kind of meta-time. What, after all, would track the changes of the time series represented by the spotlight moving along it? Or, without metaphor, what would track the changes of the time series that occur when the event slices change their properties?

After much discussion about this McTaggart realizes that the way he’s construed things entails that there will be an infinite regress of times and meta-times. We might summarize the process as follows: we sought to give an account of change, and so we proposed the spotlight account. But this requires that we postulate a meta-time to track the change of the spotlight. If our original proposal was correct, then in order to account for this meta-time we need to propose a meta-spotlight. But this will in turn require a meta-meta-time. And so on. So we have a vicious infinite regress on our hands.

As far as it goes this is a valid conclusion, and one McTaggart could have raised when discussing the B-series earlier had he seen the implicit dependence upon meta-time there. As we’ve already said, however, instead of taking this as a reason to reject his account of change (in terms of the change of the time series), he takes it to mean that neither the A-series nor the B-series can be real. And since these are exhaustive options for time, he concludes that time cannot be real.

In fact, the problem isn’t with either the A-series or the B-series. As we did earlier, we can frame the infinite regress argument directly against McTaggart’s account of change without ever mentioning either series.

To summarize, then, McTaggart’s mistake was in confusing change to reality with change to time. Once this error is corrected, neither the A-series nor the B-series precludes the possibility of change, since both can track things having different properties at different times. And neither series necessarily leads one into an infinite regress.


  1. Initially McTaggart raises it as a hypothetical (“Could we say that…?”), and so long as it remains option that might admit of alternatives there is no problem in his argument. The only caveat would be that he cannot conclude to the unreality of time if he limits himself to only one option among others. The problem is that this is exactly what he does conclude.

We don’t do God

In a dialogue with the late Christopher Hitchens, John Haldane outlines why he thinks religion is crucial as a foundational political principle in societies made up of diverse cultures, religions, etc. Very roughly his position is (1) that the governing of such a society must be built around certain core notions like the respect for others’ rights or the pursuit of their well-being, and (2) that religion gives us the best (indeed, he thinks the only) grounds for motivating such respect or such a pursuit.

Backing up slightly it would be helpful to give some account of what we mean by “religion” and therefore, by contrast, “secularism.” The way I’ve come to understand it — and the way I think Haldane understands it too — is as follows: religion involves adding an extra layer to a worldview that admits of some form of transcendent reality, such that we can act justly or unjustly toward this reality. Religious living, then, is acting justly towards this reality. I deliberately phrase this in general terms because not all religions think this reality is one, or personal, or omniscient, or eternal, or any of the other attributes of the God of classical theism. Nevertheless they all have some notion of just activity toward this reality, even if perhaps they wouldn’t phrase it in exactly those terms. Secularism, by contrast, denies either (a) that there is a reality transcendent of us or (b) that we can act justly or unjustly toward it. For the purposes of living, then, the secularist has no interest in such a reality, even if they intellectually accept that it exists.

With this in hand, return to points (1) and (2) I mentioned above. I won’t say much regarding (1), but I appreciate that Haldane draws attention to the fact that “neutral” governance is an unachievable pipe dream. The point has been made in various ways before, but essentially it boils down to the fact that any governing system is committed (implicitly or explicitly) to a conception of the good that guides the decisions and trade-offs they make in governing.

With regards to (2) Haldane’s proposal for a religious grounding is that humans are created as image-bearers of God, and so our respect of other’s or our pursuit for their well-being would flow from our honouring God as part of our proper religious activity toward him. To phrase this in somewhat Thomistic terms, our respect for others is a participation in our respect for God. Of course, while this proposal doesn’t require the religion of a theistic sort, it does require a transcendent reality of which we can coherently be called image-bearers of as well as that justice toward this reality involve some form of honour. So while this proposal is certainly broader than the Abrahamic religions, it doesn’t extend to all religions.

At this point two clarifications can be made. First, contrary to what Hitchens assumes, Haldane’s proposal is not inconsistent with evolution, since the notion of creation he’s interested in is much broader than some seven-day account of creation. While it doesn’t even seem essential to Haldane’s proposal that we be created (since the key is that we’re image-bearers), even if we assume it is the creation could equally have occurred through evolution. This is an unfortunately common conflation found in the New Atheists, and is completely besides the point.

Second, and more importantly, Haldane is not proposing some form of divine command theory as his grounds. This point actually comes up explicitly in the discussion itself, but I thought it worth bringing attention to. His point is not that we respect each other our of duty imposed upon us by a God found in the revelation of a specific religion. Rather it is that grounding the motivation for following principles we can all agree to — such as the golden rule, or the respect of inviolable rights — requires a religious basis, and probably something like the particular basis he proposes.

Given these clarifications, what are we to make of Haldane’s position? The structure of the discussion unfortunately did not enable him to develop it to any great length or nuance, but we can comment on the gist of it that he managed to outline. As I’ve said already, I think point (1) is spot on. Regarding point (2), however, I’m inclined to think that it’s possible to develop an account of common goods that enables us to give the secular grounds of which Haldane is so skeptical. I’ve discussed this in one form or another on this blog for nearly two years, now that I look back. So to some extent I disagree with Haldane, but this disagreement is not as severe as might first appear, as can be seen in three points.

First, while I think such a secular grounds can be given, these ground are built on top of the nuanced Aristotelian teleological account of the good which Aquinas ably showed entails the existence of a supreme intelligence.[1] The grounds are secular in that they can be understood apart from religious considerations, even if they entail religious conclusions.[2]

Second, it must be admitted that the secular account doesn’t preclude the religious account given by Haldane. The two act together, enriching each other in ways sometimes inaccessible to the other. For instance, there is an existential impact of seeing all humans as images of a beloved Father that is out of reach for a purely secular account.

Third, while I think secular grounds can be given I have no illusions about how difficult such grounds would be to comprehend, let alone actually motivate someone to follow through on them. The difficulty of giving such an account has been a recurring theme since the time of Plato.[3] And once we have developed an account of goods and virtues, the particular kind commonness relevant to the project, powers and how they extend to common powers, the relation of common to private goods, rational duties, authority, justice, and so on, it’s difficult to be struck by anything other than the complexity and abstractness of it all, even if it appears to us satisfactory as a piece of systematic philosophy. And realistically, how many people will have the interest or capability to inform themselves of such an account? A further existential point is that such a dry account is far less motivating than the affection and honour found in the religious life. Overall then, I think a secular ground can be given, but that it is far too distant and disconnected from everyday life for it to be socially valuable. Haldane’s religious proposal is much better suited to this job.

In closing I want to clarify that neither the discussion between Hitchens and Haldane nor this post, are meant as an argument for religion. Rather, they’re discussions about the social value of religion in a diverse society.


  1. I am referring, of course, to Aquinas’s Fifth Way. Perhaps one of the clearest expositions of this is Edward Feser’s Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way in Nova et Vetera Vol. 11, No. 3. See also Haldane’s own defense in his contribution to Atheism and Theism.
  2. This is not unlike what is true of many arguments for God’s existence, which run from things like change, existence, contingency, grades of perfection, and so on.
  3. As Rob Koons and Matthew O’Brien say in their article on poltical animals, “In attending to social nature, the ethically minded metaphysician must avoid both the Scylla of atomistic individualism and the Charybdis of organic collectivism. The attempt to navigate successfully the narrow strait between them has been a recurring theme in Western metaphysics, from the time of Plato to the present.”

The real distinction

Whenever we have two concepts, A and B, we can ask to what extent the things they pick out in reality are distinct. If they pick out distinct realities, then we say that there is a real distinction between them. If they pick out the same reality, however, then we say that there is a real identity between them. Even if two concepts are really identical with one another we can still meaningfully talk about a distinction between them, and Thomists say this can happen in two ways.

A conceptual (or merely logical) distinction is when the two concepts pick out the same reality in every way, and the only distinction to be had is in the way we’re considering that reality. For instance, Superman and Clark Kent are conceptually distinct from one another. There’s nothing true of Superman that is not also true of Clark Kent, and vice versa. Another example is a particular incline that is understood as either a downhill or an uphill. These are the same thing considered from different perspectives.

A virtual distinction arises when the two concepts pick out the same reality, but where this reality is understood with respect to two other really distinct things. In other words, we say that A is virtually distinct from B when (1) both A and B pick out some reality Z, (2) A is Z understood with respect to some C and B is Z understood with respect to some D, and (3) C and D are really distinct from one another.

We saw some examples of virtual distinctions when discussing potential wholes recently, and we’ll repeat two of them here. First, faith is thinking with assent. Of itself, faith is a single action, but it has an intellective aspect (thinking) and a volitional aspect (assenting) each of which involves the use of a different power (the intellect and will respectively). These two aspects of faith, then, are virtually distinct from one another, because they are the same act understood with respect to distinct powers. Second, a water molecule arises from a single bond configuring two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom. Now, we can consider the configuration of one of the hydrogen atoms, and we can consider the configuration of the oxygen atom. These two concepts pick out the same underlying reality — the configuration making up the whole water molecule — but do so with respect to distinct elements of the water molecule. As such, they are virtually distinct from one another.

These, then, are the two non-real distinctions, and in each case we could say when such a distinction occurs. Can we do the same thing for real distinctions? One common proposal is that two concepts are really distinct when the realities they pick out are separable, that is when one can exist without the other. Now, certainly separability is a sufficient condition for a real distinction, but is it a necessary condition? For Thomists the answer is no, since we think that a real distinction can occur between inseparable things. In cases where two things are inseparable, then, what is the condition that accounts for their real distinction?

I want to suggest that what we said about virtual distinctions can help us answer this. Looking at the three sub-conditions I listed for virtual distinctions, the second is critical and what links the other two. It is because being understood with respect to C does not exclude being understood with respect to D that there can be one reality picked out by the two concepts. If one of these relations did exclude the other, then the two concepts must pick out distinct realities, and therefore be really distinct. We’ll call this the exclusion condition to distinguish it from the separability condition.

Now, if the exclusion condition is to be of value to us it cannot apply in all and only those cases the separability condition applies. There are clearly cases where the two conditions coincide. To give a simple example, let A pick out me thinking something, and let B pick out me thinking the opposite. Assuming I’m not beset with doublethink, these two realities exclude one another. And they are certainly separable from one another. To find a case of exclusion without separability we need to look a bit harder. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) example is the distinction between essence and existence in created beings. Aquinas argues that this is a real distinction, despite the two being inseparable from one another. His argument is fairly involved, so here we’ll just sketch enough for illustrative purposes.

Sherlock Holmes and I have a number of important things in common. We are both composites of form and matter, for instance, and we have similar sets of natural powers, even if he has some of these to a greater degree than I. The most salient point is that we share a common essence, on account of which we are both called human and by which we are distinguished from other kinds of substances. As far as I’m aware, however, I exist and he doesn’t. What this means is that our common essence itself cannot differentiate between an existing human and a non-existing human. Put another way, our essence of itself is indeterminate between existence and non-existence. I exist, then, because my essence has something else added to it which determines it to existence rather than non-existence. This something else is called esse in Latin, and is variously translated into English as “being” or “existence.”

All of this might sound like a convoluted way of saying what amounts to the tautology that I exist because I have existence. But such a complaint rides on an ambiguity. When I speak of a common essence shared by myself and Sherlock I do not have in mind some abstract universal that lies outside of each of us, but rather the particular feature found in each of us in virtue of which each of us fall under that universal in the first place. To illustrate the difference between these two consider the simple example of two groups of wood, each organised into a square shape. In this picture there is (1) the universal squareness which is instantiated twice, (2) the particular square organisation which is in the first group, and (3) the particular square organisation which is in the second group. It is in virtue of each of the groups having the organisation in itself that it can fall under the universal in the first place. So too with the common essence shared by Sherlock and myself.

Just as my essence is in me, so too its determination to existence is in me. It is because my essence is determined by esse and Sherlock’s is not that I exist and he doesn’t. So, then, our earlier conclusion really amounts to the non-tautologous claim that a certain fact about me (that I exist) is true in virtue of some feature in me (my esse).

Now, the argument I ran with myself and Sherlock can be applied to any being, so that all beings exist in virtue of esse within them. Esse, therefore, accounts for the similarity between all existing beings insofar as they exist, which is to say it unifies all existing beings qua existing. Essence, on the other hand, diversifies and differentiates these beings from one another, by qualifying their existence in different ways. For instance, two beings A and B are similar to each other in that they both have esse and thereby exist, but differ from one another in that A’s essence makes him an existing human whereas B’s essence makes him an existing angel. The essences of material beings additionally requires that their existence be qualified to a place and time, which allows multiple beings of the same species to exist.

Since esse unifies and essence diversifies, it follows that these two concepts exclude one another. And since a being can’t exist without its essence and esse these two are also inseparable from one another. So we have an example of a real distinction on the basis of exclusion without separability.

Before we close, we must introduce an important nuance. Strictly speaking, all that is needed for A to be a distinctly existing being from B is for A’s essence to qualify its existence in a way that B’s does not. Notice, however, that this leaves open two options regarding B’s essence: either it qualifies B’s existence in a way A’s essence does not, or it doesn’t qualify B’s existence at all. In the latter case, B’s essence would do nothing to exclude it from being really identical with B’s esse. Nevertheless, it is clear from the foregoing that at most one being can have unqualified existence, and so in all other beings there will be the real distinction between essence and esse we’ve been talking about.