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Only God Makes Degrees of Goodness Intelligible

It never ceases to amaze me how so many things in life can be a point of departure for reasoning to God’s existence. For example, I look at a cup suspended above the ground due to the causal activity of the desktop, the desk’s legs, the ground, etc. and realize that such a causal series—a series where the causal power of each cause is dependent at all times on the previous cause—cannot be without an ultimate cause that transcends the dependent causal series altogether, i.e., an uncaused cause or God (this is intended be a sketch, not a full-blown proof).

Harambe good; boy better

The recent tragic event involving the gorilla Harambe and the little boy at the Cincinnati Zoo serves as another example. I think this can be a point of departure for dialogue with our atheist friends who regret the death of Harambe but at the same time recognize saving the boy’s life was the greater good.

For example, atheist Hemant Mehta, the editor of Friendly Atheist, in a recent article at expressed gratitude that the boy’s life was saved:

Regardless of blame, a gorilla was killed so her son could be safe. A little empathy wouldn’t hurt, along with some real gratitude to the zoo officials who took quick action to save him.

In acknowledging it was better to save the boy’s life, Hemant is recognizing the boy’s life is a greater good.

The intuitive highest good

This recognition of degrees of goodness gives rise to interesting metaphysical discussions concerning God’s existence, which take center stage in St. Thomas Aquinas’ fourth way in the Summa Theologiae (I:2:3).

It seems reasonable to conclude that if there are degrees of goodness, more and less, then there must be a maximum of goodness. For example, we judge a triangle drawn with a straight edge on a piece of paper to be better than one drawn on the cracked seat of a moving bus. Such a judgment is made only because we measure the two triangles against the perfect, namely, triangularity itself.

Similarly, it would seem the only way to make sense of our judgment that one being, the boy, has a higher degree of goodness than the other, Harambe, is to posit a being that is perfect goodness itself, i.e., God. Such a being would make intelligible our measurements of all degrees of goodness.

Non-essential perfections  

Now, for some, the argument doesn’t need to go any further. If we have higher and higher degrees of goodness, then we must have a highest. But others will need justification beyond intuition for why there must be a best in order to make intelligible degrees of goodness. Hang on, because here’s where we get metaphysical.

Notice Harambe possesses the perfection of goodness but only in a limited way. He doesn’t exhaust goodness in its entirety, because there is at least one higher degree of goodness—namely, the little boy’s life. I think that’s easy enough.

Now, since Harambe has a lesser degree of goodness, it follows goodness is not an essential perfection—that is to say, goodness doesn’t belong to his nature. Think about it. You can’t have more or less of an essential perfection. For example, a man can’t have more or less rationality. He either is rational or not. If you think of a human without rationality or even without a little rationality, then you’ve ceased thinking of a human being.

Therefore, since Harambe possesses the perfection of goodness to a lesser degree relative to the boy, it follows that goodness is not an essential perfection. And being that the source of his goodness can’t be found in his nature, it must be found in some cause outside it.

Even the boy’s human nature doesn’t exhaust goodness in its entirety, because there are varying degrees of goodness even among humans. We need go no further than comparing my wife’s goodness to mine; if you knew her, you would quickly conclude she is higher on the goodness spectrum. Since humans vary in goodness, and essential perfections can’t vary in degrees, it follows no human beings possess goodness by nature; they must receive it from something outside themselves.

Moreover, just the fact that two different beings, Harambe and the boy, possess the same perfection, although in different ways, necessitates the fact that they don’t possess the relevant perfection by nature. How can that which makes them different—their natures—be that which makes them similar? How can their diversity be the reason for their unity in goodness? The answer is, it can’t.

If diversity could be the reason for unity, then we would end up with a contradiction—elements that of themselves are not alike and alike in the same respect at the same place and time. Harambe’s and the boy’s natures are different, but their possession of goodness is common, though in an analogous way. As such, their natures can’t serve as an explanation for their possession of the perfection of goodness. Only a cause outside their nature can do so.

Composite causes

What’s all this got to do with God as the highest good? Well, consider the fact that if no being in all of reality has the perfection of goodness by nature, and thus has to receive it from a cause outside itself, then no being would ever have the perfection of goodness. How would goodness ever get into the system of reality if no being has goodness by nature to give? The answer is, it couldn’t!

This would be similar to a series of interlinked train cars without an engine car. No car would ever receive motion from any other car, because no car has motion to give. There must exist an engine car in order for any particular train car to have motion.

So a cause must exist for which goodness is essential to its nature in order for goodness to be in the first place.

Have we arrived at God yet? Some would say yes, since it seems at first glance a cause that has goodness by nature would be unlimited or pure goodness itself, which is the definition of God. But some would object that it’s possible for goodness to be essential to this cause’s nature but only be a part of it and not identical to it. How do we respond?

I don’t think we need to refute the objection. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, this cause’s nature, we’ll call it Cause1, is not identical to goodness, and only has goodness as an essential part of its nature. If we grant this as true, then Cause1’s nature would be one thing and its goodness another, thus making Cause1 a composite being.

Now, if Cause1 is a composite being, then it would require a cause, since every composite needs a composer (see Summa Theologiae, I:3:7, I:65:1 and Summa Contra Gentiles I:22). If Cause1’s composer, say Cause2, which is not only needed for Cause1 to initially be composed but also to remain composed, is itself a composite being, then it too would need a cause, say Cause3. This series of composed composers, caused causes, constitutes what philosophers call an essentially ordered series, which is a series where every intermediate cause is an instrumental cause—that is to say, every intermediate cause derives its causal power from every previous cause at every moment it is causing.

As the philosopher Michael Augros argues in his book Who Designed the Designer?, such a series cannot exist without an uncaused cause. To say an essentially ordered series of caused causes can exist without a first cause is like saying a series of interlinked chains can hold up a lamp without receiving its causal power from a hook which in turn is receiving its causal power from the ceiling beam. No matter how many causes one posits in a series, if all are instrumental—deriving causal power from every other cause at every moment it exercises causal power—then there would be no causal power in the series at all, since there would be no cause from which the series derives causal power.

Pure goodness itself

Let’s return to our series of caused causes of composite beings—beings whose nature is distinct from their goodness. If an essentially ordered series of caused causes can’t be infinite, and our series of caused causes of composite beings is ordered essentially, then our series of caused causes of composite beings can’t be infinite. There must exist a cause that transcends the series of composite causes—a cause that is not composite and thus would not require a cause—i.e., an uncaused cause.

Relevant to the perfection we’re considering in this article, goodness would not be a part of this first cause’s nature but identical to it. Its nature would be goodness itself—subsistent and unlimited (infinite) goodness. And, given the medieval doctrine of the transcendentals, where the perfection of goodness is convertible with being, we can say subsistent goodness is subsistent being—ipsum esse subsistens. This is what we call God—pure Goodness, pure Being.

“But wait a minute,” you say, “There are a whole lot of other attributes you need to demonstrate to say this is God!” True, but those are going to have to wait for another post.

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