Ask Augustine: If There Is No God, Can There Be Absolute “Good?”

Paul Tambrino, EdD, PhD

Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino


Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.

Question #5 – If There Is No God, Can There Be Absolute “Good?”

 

This question basically restates Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma which questions, is good only good because the gods say so, or do the gods only command that which is good?

Actually Plato, in his dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, addresses this dilemma in reverse.

He poses the philosophical question, do the gods forbidding something thing make it bad, or do the gods command against something because it’s bad?

“In Plato’s world, good and bad were simply what was declared by the gods.”In Plato’s world, good and bad were simply what was declared by the gods. To be good was to do what the gods wanted you to do.

And so it is today where the Torah, the Bible (plus papal edicts for Catholics) and the Qur’an, all contain moral and legal codes given purely by the edict of God and thus define what is right and wrong.

Plato has Euthyphro, contending that we can define “good” as what all the gods agree on.

To which Socrates says, we can’t find such uniformity among the gods because, in the same way that humans never agree on anything, the gods will never be of the same mind.

Of course today Socrates’ reply is preempted by monotheism, in which disagreements obviously are absent.

When there is only one God, how can there be disagreement? “God is a law unto Himself for He is consistent and obedient to Himself.”

Which takes us into the debate in the Middle Ages on whether God is “ex lex” (outside the law) or “sub lex” (under the law).

If God is ex lex, then He is arbitrary; but if He is sub lex, then the law is god.

Orthodoxy answered this by saying God is a law unto Himself for He is consistent and obedient to Himself.

God’s external behavior is consistent with His internal behavior; He does right because He is immutably righteous.

Therefore, if we eliminate God then morality is reduced to what what WE want it to be today – which then we can change tomorrow.

We’d say every person can define right and wrong for him or her self. “God’s external behavior is consistent with His internal behavior; He does right because He is immutably righteous.”

And if that is so, then we cannot say any person is ever acting in a way that we believe they should not; if that person believes he or she is acting correctly.

Because once we say another person is behaving incorrectly (regardless of what that other person believes about the correctness of such behavior) we are affirming some kind of moral good behavior that is not defined by us.

The only way for right and wrong to be absolute, objective, or fixed, is to contend that it must come from on high – from an immutably righteous sovereign God.

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