Goodness And God’s Will -- By: Robert A. Larmer

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 35:2 (Jun 1992)
Article: Goodness And God’s Will
Author: Robert A. Larmer

Goodness And God’s Will

Robert A. Larmer*

The view that we can identify the moral goodness of an action with God’s will is generally held to be open to insuperable objections. It is thought that these objections establish not simply that the goodness of an action and God’s will are not in fact identical but that it is a conceptual error to suppose they could be. Consequently a theistic meta-ethic receives little sympathy in philosophical discussions and is generally mentioned only to be quickly dismissed. My purpose in this article is to suggest that such dismissal is premature.

The classic objection to a theistic meta-ethic is found in Plato’s Euthyphro where he has Socrates ask the question: “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?”1 Later ethicists have put the question somewhat differently, suggesting that it is illegitimate to derive statements of obligation from statements of fact.2 Any attempt to identify the moral goodness of an action with God’s will is bound to fail, therefore, since it will always be possible to ask the question whether what God wills is always good.3

This objection is generally formulated in such a manner as to suggest that the theist errs in supposing there exists, or even could conceivably exist, a nonaccidental relation between fact and value. Put this way, however, the objection begs an important question. It presumes that we can

*Robert Larmer is associate professor of philosophy at the University of New Brunswick, P.O. Box 4400, Fredericton, NB, Canada E3B 5A3.

easily think of (1) facts as some sort of brute given and (2) value as something extra added by the subject—a view that, naturally enough, leads to the suspicion that valuation is arbitrary and devoid of all foundation. But it is far from obvious that this view is correct. Examination of our moral experience reveals that it is no easy matter to separate fact and value in the way required. A. E. Taylor seems right in his comment that

the ideals of good which in actual history move men to great efforts only move so powerfully because they are not taken to be an addition imposed on the facts of life, but to be the very bones and marrow of life itself. Behind every living morality there is always the conviction that the foundation of its valuation is nothing less than the “rock of age,” the very bedrock out of which the whole fabric of things is hewn.4

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