Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Arbitrary or Superfluous?

As I mentioned in my last post, I thought that Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong had one decent point at the debate I attended on Monday night at Dartmouth College. Arguing that we can be good without God, Sinnott-Armstrong brought up an idea that I hadn't really pondered before and, since then, has been rolling around in my mind.

The idea is simply this: either God's laws are arbitrary, or they are superfluous. In other words, God either bases his laws on something arbitrary, or he bases them on some type of reason. If it is the former, then why would we follow those laws anyway? And, if it is the latter, then God, Himself, is relying on a higher authority - namely, some type of objective reasoning that exists outside of Himself.

Take rape, for example. Why does God declare rape to be wrong? Obviously, He declares rape to be wrong because of the harm it does to His creatures. But with such an idea in place, if we removed God, rape would still be wrong because it would still be harmful to people.

This model, of course, relies on the idea that we can objectively reason our way through this process. It assumes that every person necessarily knows what is right and what is wrong. The reality is, though, if the standard by which we judge what is right and what is wrong comes down to whether it "harms" somebody, I'm afraid that we will never be able to reach some type of moral, objective standard. What I may consider to be rape, you may not agree with. And so forth.

Unfortunately, Dinesh D'Souza never addressed this point by Sinnott-Armstrong. He was too busy with his own agenda - criticizing the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens (who Sinnott-Armstrong clearly wanted to distance himself from anyway). This seemed to be the only good point of the whole evening in my mind (a point that one Dartmouth student blogger picked up on as well) and D'Souza failed to even hint at Sinnott-Armstrong's most poignant point of the evening.

But maybe there is an easy answer to this whole question in my mind. Maybe the only reason we think that these laws are objectively reasonable is because God has built that idea into our DNA.
We understand that rape is harmful, not because it is some objective reality in the universe independent of God, but because God has built into our DNA the capacity to reasonably think it to be so. In other words, if God didn't exist at all, would we still maintain that reason dictates that rape is wrong? Probably not. The only reason we think we can come to this conclusion independently of God is because He has, in reality, established reason in the first place.

Of course, believing that the laws of humankind are intrinsically good apart from God naturally leads us to believe that those things God has declared evil - which the modern philosopher and scientist views as arbitrary laws - to actually be good. Thus, today's skeptic and philosopher, for example, views restrictions against homosexuality as arbitrary. Homosexuality isn't harming anyone, after all, they say. The same will be said for bestiality in the future, I'm afraid.

So what are your thoughts? What are God's laws based on? Are they arbitrary? Redundant? I'd be curious to hear your ideas on this intriguing topic.


Nick said...

This quote by William Lane Craig should be sufficient to answer this question:

"As for objective moral values, Dr. Washington proposes the Euthyphro dilemma, that either the good is what God wills, or else whatever God wills is good. I would say that this is a false dilemma. You split the horns of the dilemma by saying that the good is the very nature of God and that the commands of God flow necessarily out of His moral nature. Because God is just, He commands things that are for us just. So the good is neither arbitrary, nor is it something outside and above God. Rather the good is the moral nature of God Himself, which is expressed necessarily in His moral commands, which become for us our moral duties.{4}"

If you're not already familiar with him, I strongly suggest reading/listening anything by William Lane Craig. He has Phd in Philosophy, Theology and also a degree in New Testament history. His website is:

Check out the "debates" section of the website - the above quote comes from his debate with Corey Washington.

Shawn Brace said...

Hi Nick,

Thank you for your thoughts. I think the issue has been clarified in my mind.

I was also a little familiar with Craig before, but thanks for the reminder and reference.