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Must Objective Morality be Grounded?


EDITOR'S NOTE: Today continues our eight-part debate on the resolution, "Does objective morality depend on the existence of God?" We'll hear from two sharp young thinkers. Joe Heschmeyer, a Catholic seminarian in Kansas City, Kansas, will argue the affirmative view. Steven Dillon, a gifted philosopher and a former Catholic seminarian, will argue the negative. The eight parts will run as follows:

Monday (11/4) - Joe's opening statement (affirmative)
Tuesday (11/5) - Steven's opening statement (negative)
Wednesday (11/6) - Joe's rebuttal (affirmative)
Thursday (11/7) - Steven's rebuttal (negative)
Friday (11/8) - Questions exchanged (three questions each)
Saturday (11/9) - Answers (Joe and Steven answer each other's questions)
Sunday (11/10) - Joe's closing statement (affirmative)
Monday (11/11) - Steven's closing statement (negative)

Both Joe and Steven have agreed to be present in the comment boxes, so if you have a specific question for them, ask away!



I’d like to thank Joe for his opening statement, and I’ll try to be as fair and as open minded as possible in my response to it.

Allow me to begin by asking the following question: In what sense does Joe say that objective morality depends upon God?

You could, theoretically, say that morality depends upon God in any number of ways. For instance, you might say it causally depends upon God. However, since cause logically precedes effect, if God were the cause of objective morality, he—and all his essential properties including moral perfection—would have to precede objective morality. But, unfortunately, it’s not possible for objectively moral things like moral perfection to precede objective morality.1

Joe seems to argue that the way in which objective morality depends upon God is by being grounded in God.

To avoid lapsing into the causal dependence just refuted, I think we’ll have to understand Joe's claim to be not that morality is objective because of God doing anything, but rather because of God being something.

With that in mind, let’s turn to some general considerations about the arguments that Joe enlists.

Joe’s Arguments

It’s difficult to understand how Joe’s arguments would support the resolution if they were successful. You might say “Well, the basic idea is just that objective morality couldn't be grounded on atheism, while it could (and would) on theism.” But, far from supporting the resolution, this would actually undermine it, because then it wouldn’t be objective morality that depends on God, but grounded objective morality. That is, this would—contrary to the resolution—permit there to be objective morality on atheism, it’d just be ungrounded. Now, perhaps—contrary to what I've suggested—there's something wrong with saying that objective morality is not grounded in or by anything, instead being foundational itself. But, there's no argument for this in Joe's opening statement. So, you might revise: “Okay, but morality could only be grounded on theism.” This suggestion, however, fairs even worse because morality would certainly be grounded on atheism if it was subjective.

Maybe I’ve mischaracterized Joe’s case and it’s simply that morality would be objective on theism, but not on atheism. Unfortunately, if you were to ask why this is so, the only answer that can be found in Joe’s opening statement is that it’s because morality can be grounded on theism but not on atheism. And we’re back to square one. So, I don’t think Joe’s arguments would support the resolution even if they were successful.

But, let’s put the issue of how Joe’s arguments relate to the resolution to one side and see whether any of them are sound. I’ve kept his original headings for clarity.

Argument #1: We Can’t Ground Objective Morality in Anything Other than God

Here, Joe invites us to ask three questions of any given moral theory. “If the answer to any of these three questions is yes, your system is neither objective nor binding.” But, he doesn’t explain why this is so, and I fail to see how it could be. Consider his first question (where X stands for whatever the theory identifies as morally valuable or obligatory):

"1. Could there exist a person who does not want to achieve X?"

The whole reason of calling morality objective is to express the irrelevance of what people think to the moral nature of an action. That is, if morality really is objective, then it doesn’t matter whether anyone wants to achieve X. So, answering yes to this question can hardly mean your theory isn’t objective, quite the opposite!

Moreover, even if Joe’s argument shows that most non-theistic ethical theories fail to account for objective morality, it certainly doesn’t show that all of them do, let alone that every possible non-theistic theory would.

Finally, this argument is posed against non-theistic normative theories of ethics. These are theories which discuss what is good, bad, right and wrong. But, you don't need to hold a normative theory in order to endorse moral objectivism any more than you need to hold a theory of mental causation in order to endorse substance dualism. So, it's hard to see how taking normative theories away from the non-theist should prevent her from maintaining moral objectivism.

Argument #2: We Can Ground Objective Morality in God

It seems to me that this argument is incapable of supporting the resolution. Just consider what Joe could mean when he says we can ground objective morality in God. On the first possible meaning, Joe is saying that if God exists, is goodness and designed things with functions, then objective morality is grounded in God. As a purely conditional statement, this would not affirm that God exists, is goodness or has designed anything with functions. Thus, by itself, it’d offer no support whatsoever for the resolution. It’d merely identify a condition under which the resolution would be supported.

On the second possible meaning, Joe is saying that God does exist, is goodness and has designed things with functions. However, contrary to this possibility, Joe expressly tells us that he does not intend to directly argue for God’s existence. So, this option doesn’t seem viable.

If he did take this latter route though, the atheist would be entitled to reject the resolution on the basis of his arguments against theism.

Now, let me briefly comment on the conception of God that Joe is working with here. This is the Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of God, which I believe commits one to a host of extravagant and unnecessary positions. While I certainly don’t intend to turn this debate into one over this form of classical theism, I want everyone to understand some of what they’d have to buy if they followed Joe in this regard.

On this view, due to the doctrine of analogy, we can never say what God is or is like in a literal sense. He's so radically transcendent that we can only speak about him in analogies and metaphors. But, as philosopher Herman Philipse has noted:

“If no literal description is possible of an entity to which the word ‘God’ allegedly refers, however, since that entity, if it exists, can only be hinted at by irreducible metaphors and analogies, one should conclude that we could never succeed in providing the word ‘God’ with a referent. Indeed, we have no clear idea what kind of entity we are hinting at by using these irreducible metaphors. And if the word ‘God’ lacks a clearly defined referential use, the sentence ‘God exists’ cannot express a meaningful existential hypothesis.”2

This problem extends to every sentence predicating something of God, such as that God is goodness.

Imagine if I told you that Adfs is goodness. You ask what Adfs is. I say she's sort of like people. You ask how so. I say she has something sort of like a mind. You ponder what I mean and ask if I mean she’s a computer. I say no. Puzzled, you ask what she has that's sort of like a mind. But, I can’t tell you. I can only give more analogies. Eventually I think you'd just conclude that I don't really know what I'm talking about.

Without being able to say anything literal about God, it's hard to make any sense of the resolution because we have no idea what objective morality is being said to depend upon.

Argument #3: Why Theistic Morality Succeeds, and Non-Theistic Morality Fails

Here Joe argues that because moral obligations require binding ends, and such ends cannot be arbitrary or self-imposed, a higher source must give them and this is God. But, a number of problems rear their heads here, including self-contradiction.

Earlier Joe said: "If morality is objective, then it is binding upon everyone, even the most powerful." This entails that if God exists, then God has moral obligations. But, who gives God’s duties their binding ends? According to Joe they could not have been self-imposed or arbitrary and there’d be no higher power than God. So, Joe's claims are internally inconsistent. Either morality is not binding on everyone no matter how powerful, or some moral obligations have binding ends that are arbitrary or self-imposed. Either way, something has to give.


As they stand, Joe's arguments are unsound for several reasons (some of which I was unable to go over). But, the most important point is that they would not support the resolution if they were sound. So, it seems whatever repairs we make to them, they'd have to be fundamentally revised to support the resolution. This difficulty may amount to nothing however if Joe is able to raise comparable issues with my argument. But, and I suppose this bias is to be expected, I don't foresee this happening.

I proposed the following proposition as a counter-example to the resolution: "Agony is intrinsically bad." To say that agony is intrinsically bad is just to say that agony is bad, and that it is due to the essence of agony that it is so.

Because agony is intrinsically bad, it is impossible for agony to not be bad. That is, the counter-example is necessarily true, which entails the objectivity of morality.

Moreover, the badness of agony could not be due to anything other than the essence of agony lest it not be intrinsic. This entails that the counter-example isn't grounded by any deeper necessary truths: it's fundamental.

However, this proposition could still depend on God if either badness or agony were constituted by God. But, God's nature is neither identical with nor does it include badness or agony.

So, neither this proposition nor the objective morality it describes depend on God.

But, let's see what Joe has to say.

Thanks for reading!
(Image credit: Science Daily)


  1. This argument constitutes a sort of philosophical demolition of the following line of reasoning: Without God, there'd be no moral law giver. Without a moral law giver, there'd be no moral laws. Without moral laws, there'd be no objective morality. Thus, without God, there'd be no objective morality.

    Since objective morality cannot causally depend on God, it cannot depend on God giving any moral laws.

  2. Philipse, Herman. God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. p. 97
Steven Dillon

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  • Hey Steven - Thanks for another brilliantly argued article! I have three points I'd like to make.

    1. I think if we removed the word "objective" from the headers for Arguments 1 & 2, Joe's argument would remain the same, and it would completely dissipate the your concerns about Joe's argument not supporting the resolution. I think Joe is arguing (he can correct me if I'm wrong) that a sufficient condition of objective morality is that it is grounded, and that a insufficiently grounded morality cannot, by definition, be objective. So arguing for an "ungrounded objective morality" would be a contradiction in terms, not a deus ex machina solution.

    2. As to whether Joe's arguments about grounding morality are sound, I think it's best to focus on Argument 1, and how it might apply to your opening statement. I think your argument comes closest to system 2 ("Personal"), which grounds moral judgments in themselves, as foundational insights into reality, foundational as physical truths. No? But as Joe points out, these judgments are not objective judgments, because they are not sufficiently grounded in anything, meaning we are not bound to them, and their practical import of those truths into our lives is as voluntary as doing algebra. As he puts it:

    As for personal morality, the only reason that conscience is binding is because we believe that it corresponds to something higher than ourselves...conscience is no more binding than indigestion is “binding” on my decision to eat eight tacos.

    Setting aside your quibble with the first point of the three-prong test, how would you respond to Joe's case there?

    3. Lastly, a theological point. I'm baffled by your characterization of Aquinas' analogy of being in Argument 2. Theologians and believers often talk about God univocally (radical sameness to us) and equivocally (radical difference from us). Analogy is the middle way, and is about similarity - hardly the sense of "radical transcendence" you try to paint here, which sounds quite like equivocity. In fact, most Protestant theologians take great offense to analogy for presuming to know so much about God apart from faith (Barth called analogia entis "the invention of the antichrist"!). Which is all to say, the Thomistic notion of analogy is a metaphysics of reflection, participation, and similarity, not blind metaphors about something obscure. The relevance here for morality is that God is not a complete unknown in which to ground moral judgments, but a reality that can be seen, participated in, and known (though not completely) through love.

    Here's a great (and entertaining) article on Aquinas and analogy if anyone's interested to read more: http://taylormarshall.com/2013/05/the-golden-key-to-thomas-aquinas-analogy.html

    • Steven Dillon

      Thanks Matthew for the compliment and the thoughtful questions. I'll take each in order.

      1. If Joe is arguing that satisfying a grounding condition suffices to make morality objective, I think he's wrong. Suppose morality was grounded in our feelings. Then, morality would be grounded but not objective. It doesn't seem to me that being grounded is sufficient for objectivity.

      If Joe is arguing that there are no ultimately foundational moral claims (i.e. claims that are not grounded in or by anything else), then not only does this seem false, but self-defeating. It is false because not every moral claim can be grounded by another moral claim: that entails an infinite regression: some moral claim or other has to be ultimately ungrounded. It is self-defeating because Joe believes in ultimately foundational moral claims. E.g. 'There is goodness' is not grounded by anything on Joe's account because God is goodness, and nothing grounds God.

      2. Hm, I take it that true moral judgments are grounded in the same way that true non-moral judgments are: by faithfully corresponding to reality. So, what would ground true moral judgments on my account is reality. I.e. If an action really has the moral property of 'wrongness', then that's why it should not be performed.

      3. "[W]e must keep in mind Aquinas' doctrine of analogy, according to which, while the terms we apply to created things do not apply to God in either equivocal or univocal senses, they do apply in analogical senses." Ed Feser, Aquinas, p. 128

      The problem is, if the terms we apply to created things (such as loving, good, intelligent, etc. etc.) only apply to God analogously, then we don't know what we're drawing an analogy with. The term 'God' fails to mean anything.

      • BrianKillian

        #3 - Is this a problem with analogous reasoning per se, or just a problem with talking about God?

        Because if it's true of analogous reasoning in general, that would prove way too much, and make ALL statements meaningless.

        • Steven Dillon

          Usually we know what we're drawing an analogy with. Thus, when we say a computer is like a mind, we know what a computer and a mind are.

          But, when we draw an analogy with God, we have no literal descriptions of God. So, what are we drawing an analogy with? Who knows.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer


            But if you said that a computer is like a mind, and didn't know what a computer (or, if you prefer, a mind) was, it seems that you'd have some analogical knowledge, right? I mean, certainly, you wouldn't know the thing directly, but it doesn't seem like you'd be intellectually empty-handed. If analogies tell us nothing, why describe anything analogously?



          • Steven Dillon

            Joe: Hm, how could I say that a computer is like a mind if I didn't know what a computer was? It seems like I'd have to know what a computer was before I could reasonably compare or contrast it with something else. Otherwise, I couldn't tell whether my analogy made sense.

            It's occurred to me that I don't think we're actually reasoning analogously when we're talking about the Thomistic God. In order to reason analogously, we have to have literal descriptions to draw the analogy between. But, in the case of God, there are no literal descriptions available.

  • Loreen Lee

    So many theistic arguments are taken from the presumption that we can 'know' what God demands of us. Divine Law I think it's called. I'm not a logician, but I find this perplexing within the theory that God gave us free will, in that it cannot be a demand in the sense that there is no 'alternative' but to follow the Moral 'Law'. I hope I'm making an argument here.
    What if I thought, within my free will, "What's in it for me, this grounding in a moral law"? I have accepted the 'truth' of Kant's observation that 'life' (my life) is full of particulars which I cannot relate to a universal context. This can be described by the observation that it is difficult to make decisions, even pragmatic ones sometimes, and even morally I often find myself in a situation in which I don't know 'what is best'. This can be simple things, like how to treat an acquaintance who is rude to me. Morality is not necessarily restricted to the more obvious 'moral' sins, I maintain, but can perhaps be a perspective, a 'way' of thinking that is with us as an option to have within every particular 'human moment'. (The truth, the life, (beauty?) and the way or Plato's Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
    How can I be good? Do I need God.

    To begin God, like those universals, is something that I cannot define. Like Leonard Cohen's Song, You say I took his name in vain. I don't even know the name. Can my song, I therefore ask, be a 'secular hallulajah. Is it some kind of 'praise' (faith) or whatever that gives objectivity to our 'way' of doing things. The How rather than the 'What'.
    Although Kant offers as a teleology, four distinct characterizations of the purpose or 'goal' of the categorical imperative, his idea to treat people as ends rather than as means, would I understand be an example of an attempt to ground morality on natural means only. Indeed he writes of the need to have religion grounded on reason alone, a contradiction of his later years that contradicts his earlier position.
    You have have noticed that I associate grounding with purpose. I am given guidance in this life but there still remains the need to develop the ability to 'see'.
    If I considered morality to consist of some 'imperative' placed upon me, and indeed that which defines me as a human 'sapient' creature capable of sapient 'judgment' is there not an objectivity implied within this definition. Obviously, however, I do not always make 'good' sapient judgments. But the context of judgment conjures up in my mind a possible meaning of the last, or final judgment, as being the culmination of order in the placement of particulars within a universal. I like the Eastern Orthodox definition of this for the reason that this suggests that we might 'all' be saved- somehow. It is hard to imagine!!!
    So I 'know' not the goal, and I cannot, as you said speak 'objectively' about the theological understood as that unity that I believe is associated with God. But if to find a unity within myself can be my 'objective', I believe, with the help and guidance I can find, including the teachings of the Catholic church, and comments on this blog, that I can move towards this goal, which implies something beyond myself, call it God or ???, in any case need take into consideration not only 'how I treat myself and others, but to what I offer that secular or spiritual hallulejah!

    • Joseph Heschmeyer


      What if I thought, within my free will, "What's in it for me, this grounding in a moral law"?

      This is one of the most vital questions in all of this. There's no binding reason to follow socially-imposed morals, the Categorical Imperative, etc.

      Catholicism (and classical theism) offers a coherent answer, though: you were made with a specific nature, and inescapably seek your own human flourishing. You can't not seek it: whether you behave selfishly or selflessly, you're seeking to actualize your nature in some way. If you consider why you do what you do (at least, all of your intentional actions), you can see that this is true.

      This is because your life has a purpose given from God. He designed your nature, and knows what will result in its flourishing and actualization. Thus the moral law exists: it carries its authority because it drives us to the end. To turn away from our end is to act unintelligibly. I don't mean that it's disobedient: I mean that it's actually incoherent. We wouldn't be able to ascribe a rational motive to our actions in this view.



      P.S. If you think you can come up with some alternatives, spell them out, and we can see if they're really pursuing some other end.

      • robtish

        Joseph: "You can't not seek it: whether you behave selfishly or selflessly, you're seeking to actualize your nature in some way. If you consider why you do what you do (at least, all of your intentional actions), you can see that this is true."

        If this is visible to us as you say, then why do we need to bring God into it? Why can't we just accept it as a fact of reality and proceed from there, bypassing God.

      • Loreen Lee

        Thank you. I have noit felt up to 'competing' within the formal arguments, but I'm glad my rhetoric presented a case. I considered two examples, Kant, whose categorical imperative would be based on an interpretation of a subjective mandate to 'choose' the governing maxims within an individual's life. He supports this position by saying that if an individual's morality was not based on his/her individual assessment of what within the regulative criteria of universality and necessity, that because the morality was chosen by another, it would by definition be pragmatic: that is based on the purpose of 'pleasing another' or conforming to the standards or rules of 'another'.
        The other example was that of Leonard Cohen's song in which I interpreted the 'Hallelujah' as an expression of purpose, also based on indefinite ascertainment of what constitutes a higher order.
        I have already thought out in another section a rhetoric of 'obedience' in which I have put forward the proposition that to be obedient is to meet the demand to 'constantly' better one's appreciation/understanding within a development which may be theistically or naturally inclined towards a 'greater good'.
        These general observations I believe set forward the 'reality of the world'.
        Within the theism of Catholicism there exists the 'maxim' for instance that because the purpose of sex is to propagate, that the use of condoms is not conformable to a moral law. Although I have myself been 'chaste' since I determined that I no longer wanted children, my life could serve as such an example. However, I could not, can not consider myself worthy of being called a Catholic saint, because there are other factors; an avoidance of sexuality because of a trauma related to a sexual assault within my teenage years. The point here is that within real-life situations the individual's moral choices may, indeed usually, if not always, rest of factors which could in comparison with an absolute moral law, depend on seemingly arbitrary and diverse factors. I think that very few if any moral decisions within the context of the 'pressures of daily' living, and the complexity of human characteristics (which can be described as limitations within the scope of 'virtues') escape the limitations of our 'sinful' nature.
        I hope these examples (Kant and Cohen) reveal that reality.
        It is very consoling to think of ourselves as virtuous and even believe that we are following the 'essence' of moral law as defined by the Church. But how difficult is it to comprehend let alone live up to the 'highest' standards of morality. But as I have identified obedience with self-reflective power that can ascertain one's own individual limitations, perhaps we can agree that it is this obedience, even if not fully understood or acted on, which constitutes the purpose that can be identified with a God-governed moral law.

        It would be possible to cite examples, of course, from even the Old testament, which I believe could easily demonstrate the difficulty in ascertaining what constitutes the higher purpose. Perhaps humanity has advanced in the ability to 'recognize God's will'. I have identified through Cohen's song, purpose with the holy and the broken. Despite this, I believe that there is a ground within moral choices that is dependent on rationality: that is reason and faith, no matter how, within the sinfulness of human nature, these are interpreted.
        Thanks for accepting my rhetorical attempts to understand and address these issues. I can only hope that there is some reason and faith evidence within the 'argument'. Thank you.

        • Loreen Lee

          I had to come back, sir because I'm not sure I have addressed your reply.

          If you consider why you do what you do, (at least all of your intentional actions) you can see that this (the need to actualize your nature) is true.

          I believe I have attempted to identify this need to actualize the 'good' within oneself with obedience

          Thus the moral law exists: it carries its authority because it drives us to the end.

          This does not actually identify what 'exactly' the moral law 'is'. I understand Jesus to be the fulfillment of the law. I associate this with Truth, although within the Trinity there is an inter-relationship between truth, the way and the life: a unity so that Jesus also says I am the Way, the Life and the Truth. But it was truth that he emphasized when he was before Pilate, and I also believe it supports the association made between Jesus and the Logos and Kant's Pure Reason.

          To turn away from our end is to act unintelligibly. I don't
          mean that it's disobedient: I mean that it's actually incoherent. We wouldn't be able to ascribe a rational motive to our actions in this view

          One of the insights I appreciate within the deontological ethics of Kant is the difference between moral and amoral actions. I have benefited so much from his insistence that moral action requires intentionality. We need to be conscious or aware of what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it. So much of what is considered moral action is possibly far more 'mechanistic' than the 'doers' think it is. Thus I would place the development of rational coherence with respect to our thoughts words and deeds as the adjunct of a life of obedience, that is the need to actualize the good within oneself through a growing ability of 'rational discernment'.

          The rational coherence I believe is a gift (of the Holy Spirit). which I have identified with Beauty/Order/The Sublime/Teleology. Insights comes to us unexpectedly, for instance. But Jesus said, that no one goes to the father except through him, - The Truth - The fulfillment of Judaic law (The Commandments of Moses) and the Beatitudes, if I'm not mistaken. Is this what you consider to be The Moral Law as distinct from Natural Law? If it is, I do not believe there is any conflict in our positions. We also have legality, for instance, which I take to be external or mechanistic law, another amorality, which would distinguish it from the development of a moral consciousness, which can only happen through the unique experiences of each and every one of us, as 'individuals' although hopefully united in love with others, for the love of God. (The real 'moral' law!!!!!).

          Thank you.

  • DannyGetchell

    It seems to me that to claim that morality is "grounded" in God is evasive.

    "Grounded in" is an unsatisfactory substitute for "caused by".

    Either morality is without a cause, or it is not.

    If the former, then it is an uncaused thing. Can there be more than one uncaused thing in the universe? (If not, did morality then cause God?)

    If the latter, then the only uncaused cause (by Christian definition, God) caused it.

    And in that event, morality is whatever God has created it to be, and Euthypro's third definition is true.

    • Erick

      If I can present an analogy to make clear the meaning:
      Within the Trinity, the Father begets the Son. However, there was never a case/state where the Father existed without the Son. They always have and will exist together as one God.
      The argument is simply that Goodness is grounded in Existence in the way the Son is grounded in the Father. Existence and Goodness are always together as one nature of God.
      So while for humans, we can separate existence and goodness into two different concepts; for God, existence and goodness (and love and justice and mercy) are all the same concept.

  • James Hartic

    After reading all of this....I can only express one concern.....As per the Monty Python skit....

    Doctor....my brain hurts! ..............says I.

    Then it will have to come out!..... says the doctor.

    My reply.....will it hurt....will this cause agony?

  • Hey Steven,

    I have greatly enjoyed your argument and responses to Joe's argument.

    I am, however, confused about your reply to Objection 1. I think you talked past Joe's argument a bit. Joe defines morality before he lists those three things. The way he defines morality, is in terms of the conditional: “If you want to achieve X, you must do Y.” Joe doesn't say it very clearly, but it seems as though Joe is defining the objective good as "wanting to achieve X." If so, then obviously if someone doesn't want to achieve X, X isn't objectively good.

    I bring this up because I think you might have an interesting answer to his actual point. Maybe you don't define morality in this way? Or maybe you don't think those three things follow from Joe's definition of morality? I'm curious how you would object to the argument he seems to have made. I think you'd probably have a very interesting answer to what I thought was the strongest of Joe's arguments.


    • Steven Dillon

      Hey Paul, thanks for the question. My bad, I may have misunderstood his first argument.

      If Joe is defining the objective good as "wanting to achieve X" my response would be something like this:

      First, I do not think that 'goodness' is definable. I mean, we could stipulatively define goodness as whatever we wanted as we could any term. But, stipulative definitions aren't true or false, and I could just stipulate otherwise. Furthermore, there is clearly a lexical definition of goodness. But, what I mean is that I don't think we can analyze goodness into more comprehensible parts: it's a basic notion. In defense of this, I'd employ G.E. Moore's Open Question argument, by asking of any proposed candidate for 'goodness' whether that thing is good. If it's an open question, then it seems we haven't secured an identification. I think this works particularly well when we try to define goodness as 'God', or some such.

      Second, it's unclear to me why everyone would have to want to achieve X in order for X to be *objectively* good. The only condition for objectivity we've given is that a value or duty hold independent of our attitudes towards it. Isn't it coherent that X be good, hold independent of our attitudes towards it, and yet *someone* not want to achieve X? It seems so to me. Perhaps people can't want something unless they think it's good, but must it actually be good?

      Finally, and this is of less importance, I've noticed some curious deviations of Joe from Thomism, and this seems to be one of them.

      Joe seems to derive his position from Aquinas' claim that goodness is what all desire. But, Aquinas didn't mean an object of the will by "desire". As Ed Feser explains: when calling goodness 'desirable' "Aquinas does not mean that which conforms to some desire we happen to contingently have, nor even, necessarily anything desired in a conscious way. Here as elsewhere, it is the notion of the final cause -- the end or goal towards which a thing is directed by nature -- that is key." Feser, Aquinas, p. 35

      • Thanks for the detailed answer!

        I think you aptly addressed his point in the first part, and think that's a good objection (and hopefully at some point Joe can answer it). It was a bit ironic, even, how Joe quotes G.E. Moore during his rebuttal, even though I think G.E. Moore's ethical philosophy is a serious challenge to Joe's argument.

        The definition Joe provides for the good is very close to St Thomas's definition, as I read it, and I think you make his point in your response to me:

        But, Aquinas didn't mean an object of the will by "desire". As Ed Feser explains: when calling goodness 'desirable' "Aquinas does not mean that which conforms to some desire we happen to contingently have, nor even, necessarily anything desired in a conscious way. Here as elsewhere, it is the notion of the final cause -- the end or goal towards which a thing is directed by nature -- that is key." Feser, Aquinas, p. 35

        You (via Feser) seem employ Joe's exact test for objective morality right here. Joe's rule is:

        Could there exist a person who does not want to achieve X?

        Desires that we contingently have are therefore not the objective good, according to Joe (because they are not identical for all people). The goals toward which we are directed by nature are objective goods (because everyone wants to achieve those). In this way at least, Joe's ethics is not significantly different from Aquinas's.

  • Colin Gormley

    >On this view, due to the doctrine of analogy, we can never say what God is or is like in a literal sense. He's so radically transcendent that we can only speak about him in analogies and metaphors.

    Not really. What we mean by "an analogous sense" means that how we experience things such as "goodness" in a related but different way. This only makes sense as God would necessarily have a different relationship to "goodness" than we do, being the source of everything.

    Besides which, it is not necessary to understand "completely" a concept in order to base something off of it. That I may not know how to build a metal detector does not mean I cannot use it,

    • Steven Dillon

      I understand that the Thomist says God is something like goodness. But, this claim doesn't strike me as informative because he cannot say in a literal sense what it is about God that is similar to goodness. He can only say that what is similar in God to goodness is similar to something else. And that in turn is similar to something else, and so on. At no point can the Thomist tell us something literal about God that'd allow us to understand what he's drawing an analogy with.

      • Colin Gormley

        >I understand that the Thomist says God is something like goodness.

        Well actually it is the other way around. True Goodness is God. What we experience is "like goodness". It is the human that experiences goodness in the analogous sense. And this is the conclusion of the reasoning process (i.e. if the argument holds, it has to be true).

        And not to be snotty, but I reiterate my criticism that "we know morality when we see it" doesn't strike me as more reliable than the systemic thought of the Thomist system. ;-)