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God and “The” Good: An Essay on Morality, Part VI

January 26, 2012

V.      What is “The Good”?

I want to end this exploration into the relationship between God and the good by attempting to define “good” in a way that is consistent with all that is said previously.  So far, we have been talking about “the good” without attempting to define it.  Nevertheless, a definition is essential to our understanding of what makes a moral action good or bad.  Up until now, by arguing that God’s relationship to the good is that the good is grounded in the being of God (or in his nature) and that He is the source of good, we may have run the risk of stating a tautology.  In other words, it might be tempting to conclude based on the above considerations that to say that “God is good” is to say nothing more than “God is God.”  However, this would not give us any real understanding of what it means for an action to be good, for an action cannot be God.

So far we have said that if God exists, objective values exist.  That is, they are objective in the sense that they exist independently of the natural world.  Second, we have argued that God commands what is good, but that values are intrinsically personal and must be grounded in a personal being.  Therefore they are grounded in God’s nature.  Now I want to propose that values such as beauty, love, purity, and so forth, which make up “the good” are good because the promote what the Christian Scriptures call “the fullness of life” and what philosophers call “flourishing.”  In other words, I hold to a Welfarist view that the good must be good for someone.  Therefore “the good” is that which promotes the well-being, flourishing, or the fullness of life for others.

Does this not, however, work against an understanding of values as objective?  In order for “the good” to be objective should it not be independent of anyone’s well-being?  Further, is this not itself a naturalistic explanation of “the good” and therefore eliminate a need for the existence of a divine being?  I would answer no to both these questions.

As to the first question, we have already concluded that values of any type are intrinsically personal.  Personhood is required to make sense of the existence of values of any sort.  Therefore, it only makes sense to conclude that these values must also benefit or make possible the life or the flourishing of other persons.[1]  To remain objective, in the sense we have defined it, this flourishing would not begin with human life, but with the very life of God.  The Christian doctrine of the Trinity makes sense of this.  If God is triune being—or a society of persons—then objective values and the good can exist in the being of God, and at the same time, be defined as that which makes flourishing possible, for these values would provide God with the reality of flourishing.  We might call this the God-life.  From the flourishing of God, based on the unadulterated perpetuation of beauty, love, goodness, purity, and so forth, God lets this flourishing spill out into a creative act, and consequently creates all that is.  In this way, “the good” simply gets extended out from the life of God, to the life of creation, and most specifically to the lives of human beings.  Therefore, we can affirm that “the good” is an objective reality which can be defined by that which makes flourishing (i.e. the “fullness of life”) or the God-life possible.

As to the second question, I am just not convinced that nature alone can account for flourishing.  Flourishing, in the sense I have described it and in the sense that most people would accept it, seems to be more than mere physical sensations of pleasure.  Flourshing, in the way I would imagine most people describe it, takes on more of a metaphysical quality, as we hear terms used like “fulfillment,” or the Hebrew word “shalom” implying a wholeness.  Thus, I would argue that the very notion of “flourishing” is more than a biological notion, and therefore does not detract from an understanding of “the good” as an objective reality.

VI.                 Conclusion

The landscape of contemporary ethical theory is a rugged terrain indeed.  The issues are filled with complexity and difficulty surrounds every turn.  Every theory faces highly rigorous objections, and I am sure that what I have proposed here will be no different.  I have stated my claims somewhat tentatively and I have only scratched the surface of a Christian moral framework.   Still, I believe good ground has been made.  We have seen that nature does not, nor cannot produce objective values—or value of any sort for that matter.  Yet, the existence of moral values would seem self-evident to most people and provides the foundation for moral thinking.  We have also seen that the objections to objective values are based on the presupposition of a naturalistic worldview, and a theistic worldview can very plausibly respond to such objections.  We therefore have a grounds for believing that objective values can and do exist.  We have also accounted for how such values can be grounded in the being of the triune God and can be defined by those things which promote the ‘fullness of life’ or the God-life.  Thus, I would suggest we have a solid foundation for a robust Christian moral framework.

[1] Though I would argue these values are intrinsically personal, I would not limit their benefit to persons only.  Anything that promotes life of any type is “good.”

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