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God’s Relationship to “The” Good: an Essay on Morality, Part I

January 9, 2012

So far the magnus opus of my graduate career (which my professor proceeded to dismantle! :)).

God’s Relationship to the Good: No God; No Good

 I.      Introduction

 In what is easily one of the most provocative statements in ethical literature, J. L. Mackie makes the following claim: There are no objective values.[1]  That is, at the very bottom of things, there is no existence of things such as moral goodness or badness, or even other non-moral values such as beauty or love.[2]  For any person at all interested in morality from an ethical perspective, or even more importantly, for persons hoping to be morally good persons in general, this is an enormous claim indeed, for if it is true, then there is no such thing as good and evil or right and wrong.  In Mackie’s view, though we, as human beings are strongly inclined to believe in the existence of right and wrong, we have simply gotten it wrong.

My aim in the following essay is not to dissect Mackie’s utterly fascinating proposal, but instead to use it as a springboard to discuss a framework for Christian ethics and God’s relationship to the (if there is any such thing) good.  Nevertheless, I introduce Mackie for the purpose of beginning my exploration of a Christian ethical framework with an admission and a commendation of sorts.  My admission:  If God does not exist, then Mackie is undoubtedly correct and has done the philosophy of ethics a great service for disbanding the myth of objective values.  My commendation:  I am delighted to see an atheist be so straightforwardly consistent in denying the existence of objective values.  For now the lines are drawn a little more clearly—to deny objective values is to affirm atheism (or naturalism) and to affirm objective values is to be inclined toward the reality of a personal divine being.[3]  Thus, I want to begin my ethical exploration with an equally strong claim:  In regards to the enquiry of what God’s relationship is to the good, I want to suggest that if “the good” exists, then so does God.  More to the point, if objective values—both moral and non-moral—can be said to exist, then it would supply strong evidence that God exists.

However, while the issue of the existence of objective moral values is the primary aim of this essay, it is also only a starting point towards a more comprehensive framework for Christian ethics.  So, while establishing objective values is a valid starting point of Christian ethics, we must go further.  For example, a Christian theist must wrestle with Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma:  Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?  We must also answer the question, what is it for something to be good in such an objective sense—that is, apart from the mere subjective opinions of human beings?  I intend to explore these questions from what is hopefully a biblically faithful perspective.  In other words, I am presupposing a Christian worldview for the remainder of this essay.  However, it must be admitted up front that an essay of this limited scope cannot deal with the many intricacies of moral discussion.  It is, therefore, a broad strokes essay.


[1] J. L. Mackie, Inventing Right and Wrong (New York, NY:  Penguin Publishing, 1977), 15.

[2] Mackie writes, “The claim that values are not objective, are not part of the fabric of the world, is meant to include not only moral goodness, which might be most naturally equated with moral value, but also other things that could be more loosely called moral values or disvalues—rightness and wrongness, duty, obligation, an action’s being contemptible and so on.  It also includes non-moral values, notably aesthetic ones, beauty and various kinds of artistic merit,” 15.  Therefore, I do not go too far in stating that Mackie would deny the objective existence of ‘values’ such as love and beauty.

[3] I will use the word “inclined” here to allow for the obvious reality that many non-theists do, in fact, affirm objective values.  I merely think that Mackie is more consistent with his worldview than are other non-theists.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 10, 2012 2:05

    What did your graduate professor dismantle?

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