As English speakers, we use the word “good” in different ways. We use “good” to mean “enjoyable”: a good show, a good game, a good book. But we also use “good” to mean “effective,” even if the connotation of “enjoyable” doesn’t fit: a good warhead, a good scud missile, a good suicide vest. We also use the word “good” in its moral sense as when we mean to pass positive moral judgement on a person or an action: a good man, a good deed, a good decision. While certain philosophers — such as Aristotle, for example — thought that these three uses shared a single, basic definition, I do not think we need to share this assumption. The English language (and the Greek language, for that matter) could have evolved in a way in which a single word carries three, unrelated meanings; therefore, we should not look to relate the notion of “the moral good” with either of the two other “good”s.
But what do we actually mean by moral good? What does “passing positive moral judgement” actually mean? Many philosophers have dealt with this question, reaching various conclusions. Some, such as G.E. Moore, have concluded that “the good” — as a primitive term — defies definition and analysis; others, such as Kant and Mill, have attempted explanations with varying levels of success. Many religious individuals, however, tend to gravitate towards the Divine command theory.
In the classic formulation of Divine command theory, God’s commands determine the moral good. Consider the following example. We all consider protection of the vulnerable — the proverbial “orphan and widow” — morally good; the deontologist would say that this goodness derives from its rationality and its universalizability; the utilitarian would say that this goodness derives from the fact that it creates more happiness; the Divine command theorist would claim that this goodness derives from God’s commanding us to take care of the orphan and widow. Therefore, according to the Divine command theorist, in order to ascertain “the good,” we would need to ascertain what God commands us to do, and in doing so we would eo ipso know “the good.”
The Arbitrariness Problem
However, Divine command theory has its shortcomings. When discussing the Divine command theory, most ethical philosophers deal with what has become the standard objection: the arbitrariness problem. Stephen J. Sullivan’s description of the issue reads as follows:
On the one hand, if God has no reason for what He commands, then His commands — and hence morality as well, according to the theory — are fundamentally arbitrary. On the other hand, if God does have reasons for what He commands, then it is those reasons rather than Divine commands on which morality ultimately depends. The first horn of the dilemma is said to be too implausible to be acceptable; the second, to abandon the Divine-command theory itself (Sullivan, 34).
To illustrate this objection, people generally use an example of God commanding us to torture babies. Had God instructed us to torture babies, would that really make torturing babies good? This seems hard to accept. Yet, because God can command anything He so chooses, the Divine command theorist must concede that torturing babies would indeed become good were God to command it. If we assume God has no reason for His commands, whether we torture babies or not becomes arbitrary. I think most people, intuitively, would reject the possibility that what is moral and what isn't moral could be arbitrary.
But this really raises another question: why exactly should we view arbitrariness as a problem? I think that a possible solution may have to do with the phenomenology of ethics. Our conviction in ethical truth does not allow for the possibility of an arbitrary ethical system. Henry Sidgwick in his celebrated Methods of Ethics points to a difference between ethical preference and preference of taste. If I found something funny, and you found it boring, I would chalk it up to you having a different sense of humor. I like The Three Stooges; you don't. And that's it. But, if I considered murder immoral, and you did not, I would think that you had made a mistake (Sidgwick, 26). Our convictions in our ethics — in the truth of our ethics — necessitate that they amount to something more than arbitrary edicts or capricious whims. If ethics could have easily looked differently, we could not make sense of our experiences that they necessarily must appear the way they do and could not have appeared differently. In a word, the force and nature of our conviction in what is ethical necessitate that ethics derive from something other than an arbitrary will.
The arbitrariness objection received a lot of attention, and many thinkers developed different approaches. Needless to say, not all of the solutions, however, hold water. Thomas Aquinas, for example, thought that had God decided to command us to murder and rob, we would cease to consider these activities murdering and robbing (Rooney, 151). This, however, doesn’t seem reasonable at all; would you, in a moments notice, completely overturn what you thought about murder? I wouldn’t; actually, I couldn’t. Perhaps Aquinas could, but that speaks more about Aquinas’ lack of conviction in ethical truth than it does about his willingness to obey. Had Avrohom been willing to slaughter Yitzchok with the same bland equanimity with which he prepared his breakfast earlier that morning, we should hardly consider Avrohom's obedience impressive or significant.
John Hare, in God and Morality, presents another solution to this problem; a solution which, in truth, revolutionizes Divine command theory. Unlike most philosophers, Hare does not focus solely on the good, rather, he differentiates between two different ethical categories: “the good” and “the right.” Hare defines “goodness” as “God-like,” which marks his departure from classical Divine command theorists who consider God’s commands — not His likeness — as the determinant of “the good.” Hare then proposes that God’s commands determine “the right” (Hare, 264).
But what does all of this mean? Hare draws upon Greek virtue ethics to develop the idea that “God [functions] as a magnet, drawing us toward God-like activity which is our chief good… Let us [therefore] say that the good is what draws us and what deserves to draw us” (ibid. 251-3). More concretely, God’s actions determine “the good”: God acts mercifully, therefore we find mercy good; God acts with charity, therefore we find charity good; conversely, God does not act with cruelty, therefore we find cruelty bad; God does not act with vindictiveness, therefore we find vindictiveness bad. This goodness has a “magnetic pull” over us, so that we naturally “draw close” to the good, to the God-like.
“The right” refers to something else entirely: God’s commands. Hare carefully emphasizes that God’s commands, at least theoretically, need not conform to God’s goodness. To continue with our previous example: we consider keeping babies alive and well morally good and the torture of babies morally bad. Were God to command us to torture babies, that would not change anything about the nature of the good — the torture of babies would remain unethical, and God would indeed have commanded us to do something “un-God-like.” Nonetheless, Hare considers following God’s command “right” — even in this situation. This then leads to the obvious question: say God did command us to do something unethical, how would we navigate the conflict between “the good” and “the right”?
Hare writes that his theory “allows God to command anything at all, even the torture of babies, and that the theory requires obedience to such a command” (Hare, 263). To illustrate, Hare examines Akaidas Yitzchok. When God commanded Avrohom to kill his son, we ought not think that human sacrifice became good. Instead, although human sacrifice remained morally reprehensible, Abraham needed to follow the command of God because God’s command determined the right.
However, Hare’s position does not do enough work, as we are still left with two fundamental questions that Hare fails to answer. What makes God’s command “right”? And why should we subordinate “the good” to His will? As krum as the question may sound, we now need to investigate where God derives His authority.
A possible answer lies in Ramban's comments to Devarim 32:6 and Bereishis 1:4. Ramban notes that God’s creation of the world ex nihilo establishes the nature of God’s relationship with Man — and indeed all of His creations — as one of ownership, an ownership borne out of Man’s existential dependence on God’s will. God both willed creation into existence and wills its continued existence, and Man depends on both of these, for without either one, all of Creation will revert back to the state of nonbeing. The nature of this metaphysical relationship necessitates Man’s obedience to God’s will, even under circumstances in which God commands something immoral.
After having developed Hare’s theory, it pays to determine whether Hare actually succeeded: even if we take “the good” as coextensive with “God-like,” have we resolved the problem of arbitrariness? At first blush, it seems as though we have. In our above illustration, we pointed out that if God can just as easily command us to not torture babies as to torture them, His commands cannot serve as the basis for any real ethical system. According to Hare, however, His commands don’t serve as the basis for an ethical system; God’s actions do. Even so, in truth the arbitrariness problem resurfaces: Does God have a reason for acting the way He does — i.e. with mercy, kindness, etc. — or does He choose to act this way for no reason at all?
We can reformulate Sullivan’s objection so as to apply here: if God has reasons for acting the way He does, then those reasons should sanction “the good;” if He does not, then the goodness should become arbitrary once again. In a word, just as we can view God’s commands as functions of His will, we can likewise view His actions this way, thereby allowing for the same objection: we can no longer consider the good absolute.
Traditional views on God seem only to exacerbate the problem. Within the classical Jewish tradition, not only do philosophers consider God’s actions1 as non-essential2, some, such as Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, deem it heretical to say otherwise (Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, Likutei Moharan, 52)3. If so, what we now consider “God-like” could have been considered “un-God-like” had God decided. Therefore, Hare’s theory does not appear to solve the issue, but merely reframes it.
Beyond the logical issues with Hare’s theory, we encounter a more practical problem. Many people praise God — indeed, praise comprises a large part of the religious experience in Yiddishkeit. However, in Hare’s opinion, praise does not make much sense at all. We consider mercy good solely in virtue of God Himself acting mercifully. But why then should we praise Him for acting in good moral standing if His own actions determine and sanction what good moral standing means? Praise can only make sense if we praise someone or something who might have been another way4. We cannot praise God for being good if we view good as a function of however God acts.
God’s Goodness & Goodness’ God
I would like to suggest a modification to Hare’s theory to resolve these two dilemmas. Before considering the definition of “the good,” we first need to ask a more fundamental question: what sort of thing is “the good”? Plato famously proposed the theory about the Forms, and considered “the good” one of them (see Republic, II and V). More contemporarily, evolutionary ethicists suggest that the human mind fabricated the notion of “the good” as an evolutionary tool to better survive (see Krebs, 206).
I suggest that we view “the good” as one of God’s creations. God created emotions and humans who could express them; God created the laws of nature and the human capacity to apprehend them; God, in a similar vein, created morality, the human faculty that can discern moral from the amoral and “the magnetic pull” towards moral behavior.
(When I say that God created the laws of nature, I do not mean it in the same sense as when we say God created the sun. When we say that God created the sun, we pick out a particular entity as our referent. However, in this context, “create” does not have the same meaning, for we can’t “pick out” these laws in the same way. These laws do not have referents on the same plane of reality as actual entities or bodies. We can consider these laws “meta-natural” — as opposed to natural — because these laws facilitate the existence of nature rather than constitute part of nature themselves.)
God created the meta-natural laws of physics, chemistry, logic, and, more importantly for our purposes, morality. God Himself acts in accordance with the morality that He created. In truth, this idea can be thought of as a derivative of the celebrated Kabbalistic notion that estakel b’oraisah u’baara alma, or “He [God] looked in the Torah and created the world” (Zohar, Terumah, II, 161a). Among other things, this phrase means that God used the ideas and ideals in His Torah as a spiritual blueprint for the creation of the world. For our purposes, we can say that God created the laws of morality, “the good,” before creating Man who would feel “magnetically drawn” towards “the good”.
Let’s consider the issue of arbitrariness in light of this new theory. People find an arbitrary morality objectionable because the experiences we have with ethics — the strong conviction we have in their absolute truth — would only fit with an ethical system that shares that element of absoluteness. Relegating ethics to the sanction of Divine command would not allow for that absoluteness, because the Divine command could change. However, in the theory I have presented, by thinking of ethics as a meta-natural law, we can still consider ethics absolute — in the sense that we do the laws of physics, chemistry, and logic — while understanding that God’s Will determined its laws.
True, God’s Will determined the laws of ethics, so God could change them. We could conceive of a world in which we considered murder morally good, but we could also imagine a world in which the laws of chemistry did not operate as they do in ours. Indeed, as Rambam points out, nothing God created exists absolutely; because He willed it so, He can will it another way (Hil. Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:1). Absolute existence does come in gradations, however, and meta-natural law is as absolute as possible, and so sufficiently absolute to account for our convictions in the necessity of ethical truth.
Singing His Praises
With this modified theory, I believe that we can resolve our previous objection about God’s praises. God’s creation of the laws of morality does not logically necessitate that God act in accordance with these laws — much in the same way God can violate the laws of nature, as He does when He performs a miracle. Once we no longer think of “morality” as a function of God’s actions — impossible in Hare’s opinion — we can indeed think of praising God as reasonable.
In religious traditions, God does, of course, act in accordance with these ethical laws. While we may not think of God Himself as good — because He need not act in that manner — we may think of God’s ways as good. Therefore, we do not need to reject Hare’s formulation completely: we can consider moral behavior God-like in the sense that moral behavior resembles God’s behavior, even though it does not resemble God Himself. Indeed, in his ethical treatise, Rambam uses this idea as the groundwork for his moral philosophy. Rambam understood the verse “And you shall go in His ways,” (Devarim 28:9) as a command to behave ethically. God’s behavior — “His ways” — serve as the paradigm of ethical behavior which man must emulate: “We have explained this command thusly — just as He is called Gracious, so you must be gracious; just as He is called Merciful, so you must be merciful; just as He is called Holy, so you must be holy” (Hilchos Deos 1:11). God chooses to reveal Himself through the attributes that He determined as Good in His creation of meta-natural law. Although we shouldn’t think of these two terms, “the good” and “God’s ways,” as synonymous, we should view them as coextensive. Were we to ascertain “the good” we would have eo ipso ascertained “God’s ways,” and vice versa. (See Targum Onkeles ad loc., who further emphasizes the distinction between "God's ways" and God Himself.)
Real World Applications
Like much of philosophy, this discussion seems nice in the abstract, but it becomes problematic when we leave our ivory tower for real life. How exactly are we supposed to ascertain “God’s ways?” The religious individual may consider this task easier than his secular counterpart. Tradition can provide insight into “God’s ways,” and thereby “the good.” For example, in choosing the terms “Gracious” and “Merciful” in the above passage, Rambam purposefully references the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy — a tradition that God acts through thirteen attributes when dealing with His people which Moses learned after the Eigal Ha-Zahav (Shemos 34:6-7).
As Jews, we can also turn to our Torah -- not only as a means of ascertaining God’s Will, but as a means of ascertaining a broader ethical system. Ramban popularized this idea in his commentary to Vayikra 19:2 where he notes that the Torah endorses an ethic beyond Halacha — indeed, at times the "letter of the law" may not suffice in guiding our behavior. To illustrate, Ramban points out that in theory you can keep kosher and be a pig: all of your hamburgers were glatt, but you ate seven for breakfast. Clearly, such behavior does not follow the Torah’s ethical system, despite the fact that, strictly speaking, you haven't violated any halacha. By internalizing their values and ethical teachings, we can develop an ethical system from the mitzvos — an ethical system which exceeds the sum of its parts.
But what of the man without any religious tradition? Such an individual could fall into one of two camps: either he might believe in God, but would simply not have any tradition to guide him in his religious and ethical inquiries, or he might subscribe to secular beliefs, in which case God would not play a role in his life.
The individual who pursues knowledge of “God’s ways” without relying on any tradition can follow the instruction of Rambam and look to nature. He writes in The Guide of the Perplexed that
one apprehends the kindness of His governance in the production of the embryos of living beings, the bringing of various faculties to existence in them and in those who rear them after birth — faculties that preserve them from destruction and annihilation and protect them against harm… Now actions of this kind proceed from us only after we feel a certain affection and compassion, and this is the meaning of mercy (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, III, 34, p. 125).
However, Rambam’s view has a fatal flaw: just which part of nature should you observe? True, if we look to the embryo, we will see God’s kindness in nature. On the other hand, if we turn on National Geographic to see a pack of lions mauling a wildebeest after chasing it down the scorching plains of the Serengeti, we’d get a different picture. It seems that Rambam's position only holds if we look at nature intending to affirm our preconceived notions about the ways of God. If we know God to be kind through some other means, then we can reinforce our belief by observing the embryo. If, however, we would start from ground-zero, we could not come away with a certain and coherent conception of God’s ways from observing His world.
There must then exist some other means of determining the good, without relying on either tradition or nature — without relying on any sort of external sanction. Because we can apprehend “the good” as itself, we need not pursue knowledge of “God’s ways” to come to develop an ethical code. We can develop a perfectly valid moral system without any dependence on any external sanction. Indeed, certain ethical philosophers such as Kant and Nietzsche invalidated any moral system that relied on an external sanction. They and other philosophers like them devised various systems to develop their own views on ethics — producing these systems by using intuition and logic.
Of course, if we attempt to devise our own ethical system without assistance from God or His Torah, we can make mistakes. We previously discussed how we might resolve a conflict between “the good” and “the right,” but our calculus assumed our own judgement of "the good" to be accurate — how would we relate to a case where we had no such assurance? In addressing the same issue, albeit in a different context, Rooney writes:
We may be mistaken about the unchangeable moral status of an act; what we think of as justice may, with greater insight , be seen to be something else, and what we expect by way of just treatment from God may not be what ought to receive (Rooney, 157).
It seems that if an individual independently develops an ethical principle, he should defer to his tradition in the case of conflict.
In developing the concepts of “the good” and “God’s ways,” we resolved a classic objection to the Divine Command Theory. More broadly, however, these two ideas provide the groundwork for both the religious and secular individual to develop their own respective understandings of morality. The religious individual can focus on understanding “God’s ways” by delving into his traditions and texts; the secular individual, who has no such traditions nor texts, looks to understand the distinct, yet coextensive “good.”
I hope that this development can allow for a smoother dialogue about ethical dilemmas between these two groups. The secular individual might better understand that religious individuals have the same goal in mind — ascertaining the good — though religious people begin the discussion with certain a priori’s. The religious individual will not employ his own reasoning when it contravenes the teachings of his religion, for he places more faith in his tradition than in himself.
1. That is, in this world.↩
2. Which would per force mean that God could have acted differently — e.g. with cruelty instead of compassion etc.↩
3. A friend told me that R. Yosef Ber Soloveitchik holds the same position in Halakhic Man, though I have not been able to find the passage.↩
4. I would like to thank R. Shalom Carmy for relating this argument to me.↩
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Krebs, Dennis. The Origins of Morality: An Evolutionary Account. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011. Print.
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