[Milton-L] obedience to your creator

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Wed Apr 9 21:38:46 EDT 2014


The problem is that this concept sets the moral law somehow above or prior
to God, which leaves us with a problem: where did this law originate if God
is subject to it rather than author of it? Attempts to answer this question
lead to absurdities, to circular logic, or to abandoning the original
proposition.

On the view shared by Milton, Gregory of Rimini, Francisco Suarez, and many
other theologians, the moral law as a set of divine commands and
prohibitions, is based on the moral law as a set of true assertions about
the intrinsic rightness and intrinsic wrongness of certain kinds of act. I
had forgotten that some opponents of this view reject it on the grounds
that it ends by setting up morality as a kind of sovereign to whom the
Supreme Being is "subject" or subordinate--but unfortunately for Milton and
Co., the notion of a Being who is both Supreme and Subordinate is absurd;
and so must be the whole moral philosophy that entails this absurdity.

Milton and Co. cannot help being familiar with this hoary objection, but
they are clearly undaunted by it. Why? I think because the objection rests
on a notorious fallacy, the oldest one in the book. More about this in a
moment.

Remember that on the view being objected to, the moral law does not
ultimately consist of commands, but of necessarily true assertions such as
"it is wrong to be cruel" and "it is right to be kind." Now come the
objectors, to ask about the "origin" of these true assertions. And here's
the rub: talk of the "origin" of true assertions is as incoherent as talk
about the "subjection" or subordination of an assertor to the truths he is
asserting.

The "origin" of a true assertion, if anything, is the fact that it
asserts--in this case, an infinite multitude of facts. God created a
universe containing numberless things with numberless properties, such as
thinness, redness, rightness, and wrongness. The thinness of each thin
thing is a fact, and so for all the rest of the properties. For a
necessarily truthful God to acknowledge the truth of a true assertion,
whether the fact expressed by the assertion is about redness or rightness,
is not for the necessarily truthful God to be "subject" to anything but
himself, and to one of his essential properties. For a necessarily just God
to command and forbid just and unjust acts respectively is not for him to
be "subject" to anything but himself, and to one of his essential
properties. For such a God's assertions to be "limited" to truths and his
commands to just acts, is for him to be "limited," once again, to what
makes him God. The absurdity (once can imagine Milton and Co. saying in
conclusion) is on the other foot.

But now another interesting question arises: what explains the long life of
the objectors' bad argument? I think the tacit assumption of the argument
is this: anyone who seriously reflects on the matter will seen, sooner or
later, that moral predicates such as "good," "right," "should," "ought,"
etc., do not express properties at all, and that Supreme Being, even more
than other Beings, is entitled to use them as he pleases. But to say this
is not to refute the view under attack; it is to use the naked act of
denying it as a way of refuting it. But this is to beg the question. And
begging the question is the oldest fallacy in the book.


On Wed, Apr 9, 2014 at 1:20 PM, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com> wrote:

> I would like to add that even some rather conservative authors such as
> C.S. Lewis -- who do not believe in playing with the net down -- do not
> accept the proposition that "God commands [moral laws] because they are
> right." The problem is that this concept sets the moral law somehow above
> or prior to God, which leaves us with a problem: where did this law
> originate if God is subject to it rather than author of it? Attempts to
> answer this question lead to absurdities, to circular logic, or to
> abandoning the original proposition.
>
> Rather than thinking either "It is right because God commands it" or that
> "God commands it because it is right," it may be that "right" or the "moral
> law" or "dharma" or the Tao or whatever you want to call it is the Divine
> nature itself expressed in the sphere of action, so that the problem is
> with dividing "God" and "law" into subject and predicate to begin with
> (whichever one occupies whichever position), so that the relationship
> between the Divine and moral law is the relationship between a tree and its
> leaves.
>
> But I won't argue that Milton was in the "God commands it because it is
> right" camp, which may well account for some of the more unsavory
> characteristics of his version of God.
>
> Jim R
>
>
>
> On Wed, Apr 9, 2014 at 12:54 PM, Harold Skulsky <hskulsky at smith.edu>wrote:
>
>> The conceptualist position survives in our day under the names of
>> "metaethical subjectivism" or "nihilism" or "expressivism" or
>> "noncognitivism." It has been popular because a great many clever writers
>> have tried to make it work, because of the natural human urge to find ways
>> of playing tennis with the net down, and just possibly because it is
>> unworkable.
>>
>
>
>>
>> Needless to say, an infinite mind can know what's good for us infinitely
>> better than we can. But it doesn't follow, and Milton clearly doesn't
>> believe, that in most matters that are of near concern to us, we can never
>> know what's good for us well enough to toddle a crucial step or two without
>> leading strings.
>>
>>
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