I read your essay “Why the Natural Law Suggests a Divine Source,” in the anthology of Beckwith, George, and McWilliams, A Second Look at First ThingsYou seem to be making a kind of moral argument for the existence of god.  I don’t understand why you think a god is a plausible explanation of the existence of an objective good and evil.

Objective morality could be explained by any of the multitude of mutually exclusive alternatives to theism such as deism, naturalistic pantheism, pandeism, acosmism, panpsychism, transtheism, henotheism, polytheism, or an evil god.  For example, naturalistic pantheism can explain morality as a product of a law similar to gravity, simply a more advanced kind of law we have not yet discovered.

Besides, due to many philosophical difficulties, we have no basis to conclude that there is an objective anything (other than solipsism) much less an objective morality.

I agree that you need some kind of worldview to act as a basis for everything.  However, any of the mutually exclusive possibilities to theism can explain morality.  Let me know if you think I misunderstood something.


You ask me to tell you frankly if I think you are missing anything.  Yes, I think your thoughtful letter falls into two mistakes.

First, it is simply not true that every worldview can produce an equally satisfactory explanation of moral law.  For example, you mention the hypothesis of an evil god, but this hypothesis cannot explain how there can be an ontological distinction between good and evil.  In fact, the very existence of evil presupposes good, because evil is a privation of good.  Disease, for example, makes sense only as a flaw in health -- but health does not make sense as a flaw in disease.  Or consider your suggestion that the possibility of good might be a product of some other law we have not discovered.  This is merely hand-waving.  It is like saying that gravity might be due to undetected fairies.

However, the second difficulty in your letter is more fundamental.  I embrace the classical approach to epistemology which sets things before knowledge.  You embrace the modern approach to epistemology which sets knowledge before things.  This has been a dead end.  Even the skeptic has to assume that something is true; otherwise he has no way to decide what to do and how to live – the springs of action lose their springiness.  He cannot even justify his skepticism.  One must first try to know something, then go ahead and criticize the power of knowing.   We find out the weaknesses of the reasoning power only in the act of using it.

The Questioner’s Response:

If you have time, please let me know what you think.  You say evil is the privation of good, but from my understanding, under the evil god theory, good is simply the privation of evil.  Whether we pain with white paint on a black backgrop, or black paint on a white backdrop, we can paint the same picture.  With health and disease, or with light and dark, we can show which is really the backdrop, but with good and evil, we can’t.

When you say, “Of course even the skeptic has to assume that something is true,” you seem to reject views which rely entirely on appearances instead of asserting a reality.  I don’t see why.

Since even the skeptic has to assume that something is true, it would seem that we should start from apparent truth rather than actual truth, because we can be more sure about shared appearances than about reality.

My Reply:

Well, in the first place, the suggestion that good might be merely the absence of evil is not plausible.  You concede that it is implausible for health to be merely the absence of disease, but this seems to confirm my point, because health is a kind of good.

Second, the suggestion that it is arbitrary to propose theism because we lack any grounds for knowing anything for sure is self-undermining.  If this proposition were true, then we would lack any grounds for knowing that the proposition itself were true.  One should reject the argument for theism only if it is invalid – not because of a lazy skepticism which spares us the hard work of examining it.

Finally, it seems arbitrary to doubt everything except doubt.  The suggestion that we accept appearances and forget about reality is a counsel of despair, because the rational soul is ordained to seek and to know truth.  Besides – which of several conflicting appearances do you accept?  If shared appearances, shared by whom?  I am glad you wrote, but I think you are whistling past the graveyard.

New Book on Virtue