A Recap

[The following is not for general consumption but is a recap of a discussion posted here:  http://www.millennialstar.org/sam-harris-on-science-and-morality/, which I am posting on my own blog as I suspect its length is more than the comments section of the other blog will allow.]


Mine and Andrew’s discussion started with Andrew’s comment 14, in which he wrote (to you), ‘If God does not define morality, but morality exists independently of God, then God is limited in a certain way. However, if God does define morality, then the problems that you mention arise (e.g., couldn’t God *conceivably* change his mind?)’

To which I responded, ‘I would say (as a Catholic) that the objective standard of morality is God, but that doesn’t have to make morality arbitrary on God’s part. He himself simply is the definition of goodness, and so to be good is to conform oneself to his nature. Without God goodness simply would not exist (nor would anything else).’  (18)

Andrew replied by asking me, ‘why is God good?’ (20)

To which I responded by arguing (basically) that God just is, and so is goodness, and there is no further explanation for either.  (22)

Andrew then argued on in the same vein (‘”is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it?”‘), and claiming that I had copped out as to that question by saying that good simply is.  (23)  But note that at this point the question concerned the nature of “good” and its relation to God, and whether or not good is subjective.  We were not discussing morality in the sense of a law pointing to the good, but were discussing goodness itself.

I replied in 25 by saying that I suspected that his doubts as to the objective existence of good and evil were based on a kind of skepticism (not atheism per se but philosophical skepticism); and we thereafter agreed to disagree.

What came next, from my point of view, was that you jumped in and said that Andrew and I had argued the issue very well, but that I seemed to have contradicted myself in comments 18 and 22.  (35)  Let’s look at this.

What I was addressing in 18 was Andrew’s question whether, if God defines morality, he could not change his mind about it.  To which I replied that to a Catholic, God is the standard of morality, but that doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary on his part.  (Note that this is the first time the word “arbitrary” is used in the comments, as opposed to the original post.)

Whereas in 22, the question I was addressing was Andrew’s question, “why is God good?”  To which I replied that he just is.

Now in 35, you say that my alleged contradiction was this:  “In #18 you state that God is not arbitarily choosing morality but has reasons for it.  But in #22 you more or less state that morality is not a choice at all but was the only logically possible choice.”

But note that in 18, I was specifically addressing *morality*, whereas in 22 I was addressing *goodness*.  At this point you were already treating them as synonyms whereas I was not.

I learned later that the reason you thought I was saying that God “has reasons” for morality in 18, was because I said it was not arbitrary, and you were defining “arbitrary” has “not having reasons” (therefore “not arbitrary” means “having reasons”).  I think you now realize that that’s not what I meant when I said morality was not arbitrary.  Rather, I meant that God did not have multiple moralities before him, from which he chose one for no particular reason over the others.

You also misstate (in 35) what I said in 22, when you characterize my position as “morality is not a choice at all but was the only logically possible choice”.  Whereas in reality, I never mentioned “morality” at all in 22, but was addressing goodness specifically.

This explains my rather puzzled response in 36, where I say, “I don’t know how to prove that I didn’t say those things, since I don’t know why you think I did.”

In 37 your misunderstanding of 22 continues, where you say, “#22 is a, in my opinion, brilliant way of demonstrating why morality is the way it is – because nothing else is actually possible”.  But again, I was not addressing morality in 22, but goodness.

In 38 I try to explain the definition of “arbitrary” that I was assuming in 18, when I say, “When I said the objective standard of morality is God, but that doesn’t make morality arbitrary on his part, I meant that the context assumed in that definition doesn’t exist: God doesn’t decide that morality will be one way or another “for no reason beyond his own discretion” – because he doesn’t *decide* morality at all.”

In the same comment I define “morality” for the first time, and I do it this way:  “Morality is the rules governing the conduct of beings with minds, or in other words, spiritual beings. The moral law is the law governing rational beings insofar as they are purely rational.”  Now this is the same comment in which you say that I conflate “morality” and “goodness” by saying that God, in a sense, is morality.  But that could only be true if I were also defining “goodness” as “the rules governing the conduct of beings with minds” — which I have never done in my life. The fact that I define “morality” in this way in comment 38, proves that the statement that “God in a sense is morality”, in the same comment, was not intended to mean that “goodness” and “morality” were synonyms.

Further, in that same comment I write, “Because God is mind, logic exists. Because God exists, existence exists. Because God is good, goodness exists, and existence is good.”  But note that I do not say, “Because God is moral, morality exists, and existence is moral”, which to my mind would be nonsensical; particularly the statement “existence is moral”, which to me makes no sense at all.  So again, I always knew, at least intuitively, that “morality” and “goodness” were not synonyms.

In 40 (in response to your 39) I say, ‘To clarify, I don’t say morality “just is that way”. I say God “just is that way”.’  This again points up the distinction I had always held in mind between goodness and morality — they are closely related in that the latter has to do with the former, but I never considered them synonymous.

Then I further explain the distinction between the two by saying, “Goodness exists as an attribute of God’s. Morality, or the moral law, is that which tells us – us rational creatures – what is good and what isn’t.”  Which is consistent with how I had used both words previously, particularly when I defined “morality” in 38.

Yet in 41 you rather snarkily grant me “clever points” for ‘deciding to make a split between “goodness” and “morality”‘.  However as explained, there never was a time when I did not distinguish between them (except perhaps by careless choice of words).1

You say that I suddenly decided to make this distinction “for the sake of taking word-offense against what I said rather than respond to the actual meaning of the point being made.”  However I did not make the distinction for that purpose, rather I had the distinction in mind all along, implicitly if not explicitly, as shown above; and I pointed out the distinction for the purpose of trying to clarify the position I had been holding all along.

You go on in 41 to say, ‘you know plain well that “goodness” and “morality” can also be used as synonyms and in fact used it that way yourself.’  But in fact I had not done so, at least not on purpose.

In 46 you say “I’m going to make one more attempt to explain why I felt you had gone back on what you had previously said via equivocation. . . if you continue to claim that you never said, in essence, that ‘morality is just that way’ then I’ll continue to claim you did and you can claim you didn’t and we’ll be done …”

You then quote me as saying, ‘God doesn’t decide that morality will be one way or another “for no reason beyond his own discretion” – because he doesn’t *decide* morality at all. Rather, in a sense he *is* morality.’  You write, “I took your meaning here to be that you see ‘morality’ as being an aspect of God’s Eternal nature and a synonym for ‘goodness.'”

But as shown above, I never considered them synonyms.

You then (also in 46) quote me as saying, “At some point you have to hit a wall, which is the source of other things because it just IS.” And, “They [mind, logic, God, goodness] just are, and there is no further explanation beyond God himself. Andrew argued that there needed to be a further explanation to avoid the charge of copping out, and I argued that further explanation was neither logically necessary nor logically possible.”  And you write, “So naturally I took your meaning to be that morality, as an aspect of God, is ‘just that way’ and has no other possible logical explanation.”

But again, the latter quote was in direct response to Andrew’s question, “why is God good?”  And the former, as I stated in the comment from which you quote it, was “in answer to [Andrew’s] question, whether good is good because God arbitrarily decides it is, or God decides it’s good according to some external standard”.  Again, addressing goodness specifically, not morality.

You also write, “You go on to partially agree with me but still seemed to me to be claiming I misunderstood you based on a split between the meaning of ‘morality’ vs. ‘goodness'”.  That is exactly what I was, and still am, claiming.  And again you write, “It seemed to me that you were arguing that I had misunderstood what you had said and were denying that you ever claimed morality was an aspect of God’s nature on the grounds that ‘goodness’ was rather than ‘morality.’ [sic]”  Again this is what I was, and am, arguing.

You continue, “But even a simple and innocuous attempt on my part to summarize what you said almost always ends in a disaster where you carefully correct me but your corrections seem like a restatement of exactly what I just said with no further clarification other than a lot of extraneous definitions. Then, when I point this out, you then usually accuse me of having a motive of maligning your character.”

What I accused of being a maligning of my character was your statement that I knew “full well”, and yet denied, that “morality” and “goodness” are synonymous, which implies that I was being disingenuous.  That’s all.

In 46 you again explain that you understood that I considered goodness and morality synonymous on the ground that I had said “God in a sense is morality”.  You write, “I took your meaning here to be that you see ‘morality’ as being an aspect of God’s Eternal nature and a synonym for ‘goodness.’”  I realize that you took it that way, however I afterwards explained (in 49) that I didn’t mean it that way when I said, ‘But note that I said “in a sense”. “In a sense” conveys that I meant it “in a manner of speaking”’.  This was the first of several times that I tried to explain this.

I even admitted (in 49) that ‘when I made the quoted statement above, I had not yet arrived at the express distinction between “goodness” and “morality” that I expressed in a later comment’.  By this I didn’t mean that I was unaware of any distinction, but that I had not yet thought of it expressly.  If you had asked me at any time during our discussion whether I considered them synonyms, I would certainly have said no, since that would have caused me to focus on the question.  As it is I didn’t focus on it until the course of the discussion led me to do so, at which point I promptly explained that I considered them distinct.

As I explained, ‘If I had [focused on the question], I might have worded the quoted statement more precisely.  I still say that “God doesn’t decide morality”. But instead of saying “because God is morality”, I would now say, “because God is goodness and morality is a way of expressing what is good” (or something like that).’  Yet you continued to hold me (in nos. 5 and 9) to the “God is morality” statement as if I meant it in some literal sense as being one of God’s very attributes.

Further, in 49 I said ‘Nevertheless I have never understood “morality” to be strictly synonymous with “goodness”, nor “morality” to be an attribute of God’s. If I implied otherwise it was unintentional.’  But you apparently didn’t find this credible.

After 49 we drifted off into the area of giving and taking offense, and somehow worked through it to the point where we could get back to the main point.

As for my changing meanings, equivocating or contradicting myself, I quite simply deny it, and I don’t believe I have anything more to defend in this regard.  I have admitted fault for my occasional carelessness, and have clarified and re-clarified what I intended to say.  I feel it’s time to let the record speak for itself and don’t care to say any more about it.

1  An example of a careless choice of words was this statement in comment 38:  “No. 22 is basically an elaboration on 18: Explaining that morality has no other cause or standard than the attributes of God’s own nature.”  This was a misstatement since, again, no. 22 doesn’t mention morality at all but was a response to Andrew’s question, “    Why is God good?”  You’ll have to excuse me, most of the time when I’m commenting here I’ve got a lot to say and not a lot of time to say it in.  So it’s often done from the hip and in a fair amount of hurry, without a leisurely review of what I’ve said before or what I’m about to say.  Which might explain a lot.  : )

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