Friday, May 25, 2007

Morality for Neo-Platonists

Glen Whitman criticizes Al Sharpton for his theistic explanation of morality.

Yes, Sharpton's version of this is pretty bad. So why not debate someone serious, like Plato?

It is obviously just to act justly. But God is the greatest justice, the eternal form of justice itself. And it is absurd to claim that it is unjust to have to obey the highest realization of justice. Therefore, it is not unjust to have to obey God.

The argument often used against a theistic basis for morality, "I'm an atheist and I act morally" has no force against this form of theism: Of course, even someone who cannot see the pure forms beyond the cave mouth still can see a distorted image of them in the shadows they cast.


  1. That form of theism seems to dodge the issue by smuggling in a couple of assumtions: that God exists and that He embodies justice. The second doesn't follow from the first and the first doesn't follow from anything.

  2. What does it even mean to say that "God is justice" (or the greatest form of justice, or the eternal form of justice, or whatever)? It's a grammatical sentence, but it doesn't make sense to me. God is justice? So God is an abstract concept, a set of ideas?

    As Plato himself recognized, there are two ways to go here: either God decides what is moral (in which case the argument for morality rests on an implicit appeal to force), or else God knows what is moral (in which case morality must exist independent of God). Between these two, it sounds like you're going with the first.

  3. As Roderick Long himself recognized, there are three ways to go here:

    "One is that God stands outside that structure, as its creator. But this “possibility” is unintelligible. Logic is a necessary condition of significant discourse; thus one cannot meaningfully speak of a being unconstrained by logic, or a time when logic’s constraints were not yet in place.

    "The other is that God stands within that structure, along with everything else. But this option, as Wittgenstein observed, would downgrade God to the status of being merely one object among others, one more fragment of contingency – and he would no longer be the greatest of all beings, since there would be something greater: the logical structure itself. (This may be part of what Plato meant in describing the Form of the Good as “beyond being.”)

    "The only viable option for the theist, then, is to identify God with the logical structure of reality. (Call this “theological logicism.”) But in that case the disagreement between the theist and the atheist dissolves....

    "It may be objected that the “reconciliation” I offer really favours the atheist over the theist. After all, what theist could be satisfied with a deity who is merelythe logical structure of the universe? Yet in fact there is a venerable tradition of theists who proclaim precisely this. Thomas Aquinas, for example, proposed to solve the age-old questions “could God violate the laws of logic?” and “could God command something immoral?” by identifying God with Being and Goodness personified. Thus God is constrained by the laws of logic and morality, not because he is subject to them as to a higher power, but because they express his own nature, and he could not violate or alter them without ceasing to be God."

    So read some Aquinas, Glen, and you may come to understand what it even means to say what I said.

  4. Jeez, Jim, the existence of God not only doesn't follow from anything, it doesn't follow from anything? From anything at all?

    But in any case, the existence of God follows from everything. The fact that you don't see that hardly is an argument against its being so.


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