God and Goodness: A Natural Theological Perspective (Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion)

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Oxford: Blackwell. Google Scholar. Coakley, S. Taliaferro Eds.

Stockholm: Forum. Hyman, J. Jantzen, G. Feminism in the philosophy of religion. Houlden Eds. London: Routledge. Johhannesson, K. God pro nobis. On non-metaphysical realism and the philosophy of religion pp.

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Leuven: Peeters. Phillips, D. Faith after foundationalism pp. So we might ask whether there is any such impediment to holding that God is necessarily perfectly morally good. One potential obstacle, which received extensive discussion in response to some worries raised by William Alston , is that there might be thought to be a tension between the theses that God is necessarily perfectly good again, understood de re and the thesis that the sort of goodness that God exhibits is moral goodness.

For it might be thought that to be morally good is to act in accordance with the true set of moral norms that applies to one, but one might think that a set of moral norms can apply to one only if it is possible that one fail to perform an action that that set of norms requires Alston , pp. That holy wills invariably perform the actions that the moral norms call for does not show that these moral norms do not apply to them.

Philo and the Problem of God’s Emotions

Far from it: that they apply explains why the holy will acts in accordance with them, for if per impossibile those norms did not apply, the holy will might well not act in accordance with them. See Stump and Leftow and Another frequently-raised objection to the prospect of necessary perfect goodness concerns the relationship between freedom and moral goodness see, for example, Pike , p. Not all beings are subject to moral assessment; we do not judge rocks to be dutiful because they never violate a moral duty.

It is plausibly thought that one of the features that a being must exhibit in order to be subject to moral assessment is freedom. And even apart from the connection between being free and being subject to moral assessment, it seems to be a great-making feature of a being that its agency is free agency. See the entry on divine freedom. It seems, then, that we must think that God is free.

There seems to be no conflict between holding that God is free and that God is perfectly good. A free being may have a perfectly good set of desires, slate of character traits, and career of actions. But if freedom involves the possibility of acting either way with respect to matters of moral relevance, then a free being cannot be necessarily perfectly good. For there is no possible world in which a necessarily perfectly good being acts wrongly; but for every significantly free being there is a possible world in which that being acts wrongly.

There are various ways to resist this argument. See the entry on compatibilism. So given compatibilism, we cannot object that God is unfree simply because at the point of divine choice the only real possibility is that God declines to choose to do wrong. Incompatibilists about free will — those who hold that free will is incompatible with determinism — have not been of one mind about whether the ability to act otherwise is a condition of free will, and if so, in what sense, or whether there is some other requirement on free action in the vicinity.

See the entry on arguments for incompatibilism.


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Those who hold to a strong version of the incompatibilist view might claim that for an action to be free, then at the very point of decision to perform the action, holding everything else constant, it must be possible for the agent to choose to act one way or the other. Such a view would indeed be incompatible with necessary moral goodness on the assumption that only free action is creditable to the agent. But other incompatibilists have held that even given a strong libertarian account of free will, it is possible for there to be beings whose orientation toward the good and vivid awareness of it is such that acting wrongly is not a real possibility for them.

It would be misleading to say that the glorified in heaven act rightly, but unwillingly; rather, they are hyper-willing to act rightly, and sinning is simply unthinkable, off the table, not a serious deliberative possibility for them Stump ; Kretzmann ; see also Swinburne , p.

Natural Theology

It is unclear how damaging that outcome would be. If one is convinced that moral goodness is a great-making feature that God must exhibit, then there is a deep problem for perfect being theology, as it seems that God must be free and God must be perfectly morally good, yet these cannot be co-realized. We will consider some suggestions toward this latter possibility below. Suppose that we allow that God cannot act wrongly, and that this does not threaten divine freedom, given the best account of divine freedom.

It seems that we must ascribe to God perfect rationality: God is a rational agent, and it seems obvious that if we hold that God is in any way suboptimal, rationally speaking, then that would count as a defect in God. Can one be perfectly rational and perfectly morally good? If the requirements of rationality can require an action that is ruled out by the requirements of morality, or vice versa, then we have a problem: the absolutely perfect being cannot be both perfectly rational and perfectly morally good.

So anyone who wishes to defend perfect moral goodness as a feature of the absolutely perfect being must hold that what moral goodness requires is at least compatible with the requirements of rationality. The compatibility of the requirements of rationality with the requirements of moral goodness is a relatively weak constraint, one that could be satisfied by holding merely that what rationality requires is thin compared to what morality requires: perhaps rationality leaves a lot of open space within which agents are not rationally constrained to choose one way or the other, and one of the ways that they might choose is the way required by morality.

But one might argue that this weak constraint is not enough, given that God is morally good necessarily. For what is to explain why God necessarily acts in accordance with the requirements of moral goodness, if God is perfectly free? Perhaps a perfectly free being will conform to the reasons that are relevant in the situation of choice; but is it compatible with perfect freedom to hold that God must act in a certain way, even though there are ex hypothesi entirely adequate reasons to act some other, incompatible way? The rationalist thesis as Smith describes it holds no more than that the fact that an act is morally right for an agent to perform entails that the agent has a good reason for performing it.

The strengthened rationalist thesis holds that the fact that an action is the morally best action for an agent to perform entails that it is the action that the agent has most reason to perform. What is being supposed here is that rationality, vis-a-vis morality, is very demanding: moral requirements just are rational requirements, so that a failure to act morally is a failure to act rationally. This strengthened rationalist thesis is of course a controversial metaethical view: some would deny that there must be any reason at all for an agent to do what morality requires, much less that there is decisive reason to do so.

But it is one route to the reconciliation of divine rationality and freedom with perfect moral goodness. Those who incline toward a compatibilist account of divine freedom might think that there is less of a problem here. Since divine action proceeds from the divine nature itself, one might say, it counts as free; and since that nature is morally perfect, the action that proceeds from it will be perfectly good as well.

We do not need to advert to any controversial metaethical thesis, then, to explain how divine freedom and rationality fit with perfect moral goodness. While this is an open strategy, there are some worries that can be raised with respect to it. The first is that it is unclear whether divine freedom is really being adequately respected.

This has an appearance of a lack of freedom, not the perfection of it.

Perfect Goodness

The second is about how we should think about the perfection of moral goodness on this view. One of the key issues within the methodology of perfect being theology is how the presence of certain items on the list of perfections is to be justified. There are some uncontroversial ways of ruling items off the list — if the perfection presupposes an imperfection, for example — but whether some feature that passes these negative tests counts as an intrinsically good-making feature is a more difficult question.

If moral goodness is a requirement of rationality, it seems much easier to make a case that moral goodness is a divine perfection. For it seems undeniable that rationality counts as a perfection for God, as it must for any agent. And so if moral goodness is itself a matter of responding appropriately to reasons, as it is on the strong rationalist thesis described above, then moral goodness must count as a perfection as well.

But if moral goodness is not a requirement of reason, is it so clear that moral goodness is a divine perfection? What considerations might one forward for the view that moral goodness is a perfection, if God has adequate reasons not to act in the morally best way?

We have seen that there are resources to defend the coherence of the notion of perfect goodness and even necessary perfect goodness, though making use of those resources requires one to take on further controversial commitments. It is worth asking, in light of these further commitments that one would have to make, how strong the reasons are to ascribe perfect goodness, understood as perfect moral goodness, to the absolutely perfect being in the first place.