OHPT: Thoughts on Moral Perfection (Chapter 10)

I have a bit of catch-up to do (HEGEL YOU BASTARD), so I thought I’d power through this chapter to get back on track. Luckily, I really enjoyed this chapter because philosophy of ethics is much more my thing than metaphysics, so thank goodness for this chapter as a breath of fresh, easily-breathable air.

This chapter, “Moral Perfection”, was written by Dr. Laura L. Garcia. Garcia is a Scholar-in-Residence in the philosophy department at Boston College. Her research focuses on the intersection of philosophy and religion, specifically regarding ethics. SIDE NOTE: we are over 200 pages and 10 chapters into this scholarly work and Garcia is the first female author. This demonstrates just how far academic theology needs to go to be truly inclusive and non-patriarchal.

But I’ll set aside my feminist indignation for the moment.

Garcia examines the idea of God as a morally perfect being, showing how divine morality is explained by the major philosophy of ethics schools of thought: virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism. Virtue ethics situates moral value in the agent, deontology situates moral value in the act, and utilitarianism situates moral value in the consequences of an act. Described this way by Garcia, I wonder what the next major ethical school of thought could be — what is an essential element in the ethical act that we’re not seeing clearly, where moral value could reside? (Is situationism the fourth, though generally considered the realm of psychology?)

The origination of God’s moral perfection is generally attributed to St. Anslem in his ‘perfect being’ ontology: God is that being greater than which none be thought. Since “good” is something that comes in degrees (qualitative, and perhaps quantitative?), a being “good”-er than which none can be thought is a perfectly good being, thus a morally perfect being, since morality aims at the good. A perfectly good being aims at, supposedly, the most “good” universe, though there are disagreements about whether that “highest good” is best achieved as a whole or individually. Ever since Anselm, theologians have been trying to figure out what “greater than which none can be thought” means in ethics and how it can be achieved. Is God’s moral perfection best demonstrated, explained, or defended through virtue ethics, deontology, or utilitarianism?

Garcia argues that deontology and utilitarianism both fail as ways to explain or defend God’s moral perfection. Deontology requires a couple things seemingly nonsensical with a divine being: a duty to obey and the freedom to obey or not to obey. The divine command theory provides some sense of duty by claiming whatever God wills is good (and allows moral perfection since God always acts according to her will), but since there is no external bar measuring what counts as “good,” this leaves open the possibility of God performing acts that, because she did them are considered good, we would consider to be cruel or malevolent.

As for the freedom requirement, God, on Anselm’s perfect-being theology, necessarily acts according to her will which is perfectly aligned with good moral principles. So there is a sense of moral good being absent if God cannot act otherwise. Thomas Morris provides an interesting counter to this, saying that God is not morally good, just good, and that she acts in a way that a being who has the potential to be moral — moral because free to be cruel or bad — would act if that being were morally perfect. But that jettisons morality entirely from the conception of God, which Garcia admits Christians are generally loathe to do. I kind of love it, though. It makes sense in a way I’ll argue later. But because deontology requires both duties to obey and freedom not to obey them, it fails as an explanation for God’s moral perfection.

Utilitarianism also fails, says Garcia. Utilitarianism holds that the action that produces the most amount of good relative to the bad it also produces is the morally good action. Garcia says this is difficult to defend for God because it separates good into the moral and non-moral kinds, and utilitarianism tends to make moral actions good or bad depending on the kind of non-moral good they produce. She says this seems strange. Further, for God, the church claims that a certain amount of human participation is required for good in the world. God supposedly cannot save anyone. Garcia quotes St. Augustine here: “God, who created you without you, will not save you without you.” Does it make sense to qualify God’s moral goodness on the utilitarian account if she cannot control or even foresee all the consequences?

Thus, the issue of divine foreknowledge is prominent here. God’s moral perfection involves her bringing about the greatest amount of good possible (even setting aside the “best of all possible worlds” argument), but if God cannot/does not know the truth value of future propositions, how can she know what she is bringing about? If humans are truly free, how can God know what her actions will “lead” humans to do, or how free humans will respond to the states of affairs God brings about? She says utilitarianism is a rather weak, limited way of understanding God’s goodness.

Garcia likes the idea of attributing a virtue ethics explanation for God’s moral perfection, specifically attributing to God an overarching virtue of “perfect love” that motivates her to act morally (or in a way analogous to morally) towards her creatures. Virtue ethics is an interesting lens for God’s morality, because it seems to clearly separate into two categories: human virtues and divine virtues. Garcia points to “humility” as an important human virtue that doesn’t make sense for a divine being. (Though, I prefer a definition of humility that is more about being grounded in one’s evaluation of oneself — neither puffed up with pride nor self-derogatory — so I am tempted to say that perhaps all virtues, rightly defined, could have application to both humans and the divine.)

My main argument with explaining God’s moral perfection in terms of her virtues (her settled character traits and perfect will that aims at the good of others) is how Garcia, and other Christian theologians, tend to set aside the consequences, the lived experience of others, in evaluating Christian morality. She says at the end that while Christians have been criticized for neglecting to work towards the material and economic needs of those around them, “one cannot blame Christians for working even harder to bring others closer to God, to a good that is unsurpassable, imperishable, and can never be taken away” (235). I’m struggling to understand how that makes sense on a human-to-human level, for morality to mean much of anything.

If we use the Morris model above, where God is good but not morally so, that makes morality a distinct feature of human existence. I like this. It seems to me that morality is inherently human, a way to guide and motivate the actions of an inherently social, self-conscious, limited, imperfect species. (We have to set aside the odd biblical passage, but I’m quite on board with this.) If this is the case, then consequences mean a lot. Yes, it matters what we will and how we think or feel or intend towards others. But if our actions and will do not promote the good and flourishing of creatures on earth, because flourishing is a world-contained concept, then does that diminish its importance?

I’m honestly not trying to be silly or trite, but this is part of me flourishing. It may not be a moral good, precisely, but it is a good that I believe should be aimed at in some fashion.

It think even Christian ethics would claim that enjoying communion with God is the highest good for this life and that it is good, in part, because it brings with it a set of psychological affects that make it desirable. Peace. Contentment. Resolve. So there is a world-contained or world-relevant consquentialist ethos to Christian morality, even when mostly virtue-derived.

However, if the highest good is to enjoy communion with God in eternity (regardless of experiencing communion with her on earth), and if that is accomplished for some individual by the greatest amount of suffering on earth, it seems as though there are two distinct moralities at work and that they clash quite strongly. What is “good” on earth (and what flourishing we aim for, intuitively and constitutionally, as humans) is wholly separate from the “good” we’re supposed to aim for when looking at eternity. At least, from a consequentialist point of view. Virtue ethics provides a nice escape route for those Christians who, out of their own self-importance and self-concern, act to make life on earth worse for people under the transparent guise of “I love you and am aiming for your eternal good, which is BETTER” ethos. This seems to throw us back, a bit, into the divine command theory where whatever God wills is good regardless of its consequences. That makes little sense to me, unless we want to ignore our intuitions about morality entirely. If we want to reject morality as a real thing, then sure. Divine command it up. But if we want to retain a sense of morality (as most people do), then consequences must play a part.

I also think Christians tend to have a rather flabby, simplistic idea of what it means to be free. We are not any of us really free. We are limited by our biology, our circumstances, and our history. What does it mean to say someone is “free” to choose to do a good deed? It means she has all the means to do so, including a brain chemistry that works appropriately, no psychological hangups that prevent her from thinking rationally or desperately, no outside forces (economic, social, political) that constrain her in ways that are not obvious, and essentially, no real reliance on maintaining the status quo in order to stay functional and healthy. We are all dependent, which means we are all less free than we like to believe. Until and unless Christian theology gets a better, clearer understanding of freedom and how through our actions we help determine the actual freedom of others (perhaps this is addressed in future chapters of the OHPT?), its ethics, human and divine, is suspect.

Finally, just as a side note, I tend to think all three moral theories are helpful and have their uses, so I’m not interested in explaining moral goodness ONLY as virtue, duty, or consequence. It makes sense to locate moral value in the cultivated character traits of an agent, in the consequences of her actions, and in the duties we owe each other to fulfill. I don’t think any of those make sense without the other, frankly. One cannot be committed to fulfilling one’s duty without the virtue of dutifulness. One cannot will the good of others without having a good consequence in mind. One cannot aim for the maximum good of one’s actions without the set of virtues that lead to one desiring and willing that good, nor the duties that make clear what that good is and how it is achieved. So I confess my evaluation of ethical philosophy is always receptive to the limitations of each system and finding the ways another system can help answer that limitation through locating additional moral value in another part of the human being.

One last quote: perhaps Christian ethics would benefit from taking situations into account, as well as moral luck. Both introduce similar complexities into ethics as a whole — situationism challenges the universality of virtues as a norm, moral luck challenges the universality of consequences as a norm. However, I can see how these would both complicate God’s moral perfection in a possibly undesirable way. Though Garcia did gesture to moral luck regarding the consequences of God’s actions being partially dependent on free beings (beings outside her chosen realm of control). But what about situationism? Does that change the above discussion of Christian ethics, as helping clarify the right norms for humans and God?

Favorite quote:

If the object of worship in the western tradition of theology is intended to be the ultimate reality, and if the Anselmian conception of God is coherent, if maximal perfection is possibly exemplified, then the God of religious devotion is the God of the philosophers.

Thomas Morris, quoted by Garcia 218


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