Divine Goodness, Divine Commands, and Deception


Brett (www.pilgrimsduress.blogspot.com) and I have been discussing issues related to divine agency, divine goodness, and divine authority. Because I think a lot of the questions are complicated and related to all kinds of meta-ethical and epistemological issues, I will attempt to explicate some of them here (though I know little of meta-ethics or epistemology):

Regarding divine lying and the belief that God can do anything He wants to, we need to carefully qualify this with the following.

If God can do anything He wants to, we need to ask what God WOULD WANT to do. If God is perfectly good, He would never want to do anything bad. To be more specific, God COULD NEVER want to do anything bad. So whatever God in fact does is therefore good.

To say God isn’t bound by duties isn’t to say God could do just whatever, anything, randomly. Its to say that the moral laws God gives to human beings do not apply to Him in the same way. However, those laws are built off of more fundamental objective truths about morality. Those truths establish the range of which laws it is acceptable for God to mandate.

If God is necessarily good, (and if He is “the Good”) then whatever God does in his actions would be in harmony with the more fundamental moral principles upon which divine commands are based. Thus God would always choose to do what is good; He won’t choose to do “just anything”.

You have brought up the possibility of divine lying. Why think God is not lying to us? There are three responses I have. First, there are two possible reasons I could give for believing God does not lie to us. And in addition, there is a point that needs to be made about our definition of “lying”.

1. First is a deductive reason. I can claim (and I think this principle may be true) that a fundamental principle of morality is what I will call the “strong truth principle” (TP) which states:

(TP) goodness always entials the absence of falsity-conduciveness.

This principle is not a divine command, but rather a basic metaphysical/metaethical principle about what is always the case if some person or thing is called “good”. It follows logically from this that if God is good, then He will not willingly (as opposed to permissively–a distinction I will address in a future post) represent anything as contrary to how it actually is. If this is true, then it follows that God never lies. For lying always involves a willful mis-representation. In this case God would never will to misrepresent something.

2. Second is an abductive reason. Lets start with the assumption that there is a fundamental principle of morality which we will call the “weak truth principle” (pT). It can be stated as follows:

(pT) Goodness is co-extensive with the absence and negation of falsity-conduciveness.

All that basically means is that the better a thing is (whether morally or aesthetically) the more it tends to (1) not misrepresent truth, and (2) prevent misrepresentation of truth. Now, this doesn’t mean that it is never morally-good to lie; for instance, we could hold a graded-absolutist view of the hierarchy of moral goods with a “greater of two goods” view about moral dilemmas. Some moral goods are higher than others (graded absolutism); and in circumstances of moral dilemma, achieving a higher good is morally justified even if it involves doing things that under normal circumstances might be morally wrong. This kind of action would instead count as being morally good in such a dilemma. So lying may be morally good in some situations. It may be the greater of two goods, and hence it may be morally best to lie.

Now, if this principle (pT) holds true and applies to God, what seems to follow is that God will tend overwhelmingly to represent reality correctly to us. In normal circumstances, where God wants human beings to exercise their libertarian agency to grow in virtue and has no overriding reasons to lie, He will not lie and reality will tend to be properly-represented. If God has some kind of overriding reason to lie, then maybe He would; but these reasons would need to be very specific and strong to justify lying to a person about things.

Abductively then, the normality of circumstance and (pT) would make it very plausible that the best explanation for my awareness of certain things, that seem to be facts about God through religious experience or otherwise, is that I am actually aware of these facts and they are real. This doesn’t mean I’m certain, but it definately counts in favor of God being truthful in how the world is represented to me.

3. A final issue is our definition of lying. Is lying just any misrepresentation of the truth, or is it something more specific? If lying requires, for instance, malicious intentionality, then it seems that if God is by definition good, then He will never lie. What may be a possibility would be a misrepresentation of the truth for some higher good. So the dilemma becomes “how do I know God isn’t misrepresenting the truth to me?”

But then what becomes of the existential dilemma of “how do I know God isn’t misrepresenting the truth to me?”? The dilemma seems to disappear, because if God were misrepresenting the truth to me for the sake of some unknown higher good, then this would be morally unobjectionable. Of course I would be very confused and scared, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether it was wrong or not.

I will address some issues related to God’s will and providence (and where certain biblical passages and concrete experiences fit in) at some other time, though of course if you could raise questions related to this that would be helpful. However, I think some of your inquiries would be more appropriate to discuss face-to-face.


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