Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Situation Ethics (Part 4): The First Proposition - Love Only is Always Good

The First Proposition: “Only one ‘thing’ is intrinsically good; namely, love: nothing else at all.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Nominal Good

What gives something its value? Why do we deem something to be Good? This has been a much-debated topic in moral theory throughout the years. In terms of Christian ethics, the problem can be expressed in the following manner: Is something Good because God says it is Good, or does God acknowledge something to be good because it is Good in itself (or because it is inherently Good)? The former locates the source of Goodness in God, whereas the later does this largely independent of God (or irrespective of what God says).
The idea that something is Good because God says it is, is called Nominalism. This is in contrast to Realism, which holds that good things are Good because they have an inherent quality of Goodness in them.

Situation Ethics is closely aligned to the Nominalist position. Nothing is deemed to have value in and of itself, but attains value insofar as it works for the sake of others. This means something we do only becomes ‘good’ when it helps people, and ‘bad’ when it does the opposite. Also, persons (both human and Divine) can evaluate the things we say and do and determine whether they are good or not, this being based simply on whether they are beneficial to others. This is in contrast to the Realist position where value is something inherent in a thing (such as lying, which is usually deemed to be ALWAYS wrong). Inherent value also needs to be revealed to us or discovered (say by God, or a Priest). Thus Realists judge things by how much they adhere to an immutable, or unchanging (and unchangeable) standard.

"The rightness of an act, then, nearly always and perhaps always, depends on the way the act is related to circumstances." (Joseph Fletcher)

Love is a Predicate

According to Fletcher and Nominalism, there is no objectively real or independent quality in things. The only thing that is intrinsically good (as far as Fletcher is concerned), is Love. But this is not to suggest that Love is a thing or a property. Love is something we have, or something we are, or something we do:

"Our task is to act so that more good (i.e. loving-kindness) will occur than any possible alternatives." (Joseph Fletcher)

To say that Love is the only Good, is to say that acting in a loving way is the only good thing. It is to speak of Love as the regulative principle of Christian ethics.

“Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

Only in God is Love is a property. It is something God both is, and has. With humans love is something we do, and when we act in love we become like God. For when we we act in love we are not only obeying the command to love, but also imitating God. For the Christian this is also an acknowledgement that we have been created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27).

Following St. Augustine, the Situationist would argue that we can know what a person is like by what they love. This is why Jesus told the rich young man to sell all he had and give his money to the poor. His first love was for money, not God or other persons (Matthew 19:16-30). This man said he wanted to love God, but his life showed that he loved his money before everything else (and would continue to do so).

For the Christian obedience to God and becoming Christ-like is not about what we what we believe, but about how much we act in loving ways towards others. It is not so much to do with knowing the right thing, but doing the right thing!

"The other side of the proposition that only love is intrinsically good is, of course, that only malice is intrinsically evil. If goodwill is the only thing we are always obliged to do, then ill will is the only thing we are always forbidden to do." (Joseph Fletcher)
"The lowest point, as far as Christian ethics is concerned, is manifest in the phrase, “I couldn’t care less.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Only Extrinsic

Situation Ethics is pragmatic. It is focussed on working to increase love in the world.

"There are no universals of any kind. Only love is objectively valid, only love is universal." (Joseph Fletcher)

The concept that one might act according to the ‘Lesser of two evils’ is contrary to Situation Ethics. There is either working for the sake of love or not. If one does “The lesser of two evils” one is still doing an evil thing, not acting in a pseudo-loving manner. For example, there is no such thing as a ‘White lie’. A lie does not start out as something we shouldn’t do, only to have us try and justify our telling of a ‘White lie’ later on. What makes a lie right or wrong is the intention, or purpose. If our intention in telling a lie is to harm someone, then it is wrong. If our intention in telling a lie is to help someone, then it is good, and that is all.

"Right and wrong, good and bad, are things that happen to what we say and do." (Joseph Fletcher)

In this sense Situation Ethics is consequentialist. The “Good” things we say and do are evaluated according to the most loving outcome. There are no ‘exceptions to the rules’, just the one rule to act in Love.

There is a whole class of actions (stealing, lying, killing and adultery) that are so destructive of human relations that no difference of time or society can change their character. But this does not mean that in certain circumstances these could ever be right. [Questions related to] rape and incest. Can they ever be justified by [loving] motives, circumstances and consequences? (Henlee H Barnette, The Situation Ethics Debate, [Brackets mine])


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways (Part 2): Contingency, Goodness, Design

The third way: The way of CONTINGENCY

The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to be corrupted, and consequently, it is possible for them to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which can not-be at some time is not.Therefore, if everything can not-be, then at one time there was nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist begins to exist only through something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence - which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has already been proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore, we cannot but admit the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God. (Aquinas)

Things exist, but they could easily not exist! There was a time before certain things existed, and there will be a time when they no longer exist. There must also have been a time when nothing existed. This means that objects that exist have contingent existence, which means they could or  could not exist. For Aquinas, the only thing which has always existed is God (who would therefore have necessary existence). Aquinas saw no way to explain how anything was here, unless something existed prior to it. Thus for him, if God did not exist then nothing else would.

The essence of Aquinas’ argument in bold above, assumes that God created the world ex nihilo (out-of-nothing). It was literally caused to be here from no other natural cause. Of course this could be challenged today by Cosmologists who argue that although there was no form to matter before the “Big Bang”, there was still something prior to the ‘Bang” which led to it occurring (E.g. Quantum fluctuations).

The fourth way: The way of GOODNESS

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like. But more and less are predicated of different things according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest, and, consequently, something which is most being, for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being... Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus, as fire, which is the maximum of heat, is the cause of all hot things, as is said in the same book. Therefore, there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God. (Aquinas)

We see in the world degrees of perfection and goodness. Some things are really bad, some not so bad, some things are better than others. Aquinas argues that we only know things are 'degrees of x' (i.e something is really bad or not so bad) because we compare them to the best in any group (or genus) of things. So something not so bad is being compared to something that’s really bad!

Now in terms of morality, as humans have the capacity for both good and bad deeds they cannot logically be the source of Goodness (i.e. the most Good thing), because if they were they would not do bad things. Therefore, the maximum in the genus of morality must be something non-human, and not in the world (because this too is not completely good), which leaves us with God as the most perfect being, and the 'first cause' (or source) of all goodness and perfection. Of course, it might be argued that this is not so much an argument for the existence of God, but for the existence of some standard of morality. We could could say there is an ultimate standard of Goodness, without requiring us to posit the existence of God. Far more compelling (in terms of any moral argument for God’s existence) is to use God’s existence as as way of explaining why humans are something compelled to act in an altruistic manner, if there is nothing more than this world or life.

The fifth way: The way of DESIGN (or teleology)

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. (Aquinas)

Aquinas' argument here is basically suggesting that inanimate objects (E.g. Planets), could not have ordered themselves on their own (i.e. got themselves into the orbits they have), because they lack the intelligence to do so. As the planets are aligned so perfectly, this means it must have been done by a Being with the ability and intelligence to do this. Although humans are intelligent and can explain planetary motion, they cannot move planets, so that leaves us with God (who Aquinas believed could move planets if God chose to do so).

From simple observation nature suggests a realm of order and purpose. This is the basis of science. The world is able to be observed, understood and explained. For Aquinas, anything which has in it a sense of purpose and order requires a 'guiding hand'. For instance, an arrow only hits the target because it has been fired by an archer. Thus if nature appears ordered, it must have a 'guiding hand', who Aquinas believed was God.

A weakness with Aquinas’ Fifth Way is that for science to be capable of observing, understanding and explaining the world we live in, we must first assume a sense of order and stability about things. The idea that there is some Deity acting in and on the world raises questions in terms of science’s ability to test, examine, and explain things. For instance, we cannot easily talk about the ‘laws of nature’ being constants, and have a God acting in the world doing miracles for example. So the scientific enterprise has gradually removed the notion that God acts in nature, to one where nature acts independently of any Divine Being. In the end, the more science provides us with an explanation of how and why things are the way they are, the less we find any need for a Divine Creator.

Further reading

Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways (Part 1): Introduction, Motion, Causation


In Summa Theologica (1265-74), Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) outlined five proofs for God’s existence. As with Catholicism today, Aquinas believed it was possible to discern truths about God based on reason (human rationality), and revelation (divinely revealed truths not available to reason). Aquinas lived at a time when Aristotle's teachings were popular, and he made wide use of these in his theological writings.
The chief idea Aquinas harvested from Aristotle was the notion that things that changed, required an unchanging source. Aquinas explored variations of this theme in the first three of his proofs for God’s existence and have formed the basis of what are popularly known as COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENTS. Aquinas’ fourth proof is related to MORAL ARGUMENTS for God’s existence, whilst the fifth way is related to DESIGN (or TELEOLOGICAL) ARGUMENTS.

In summary

  • Cosmological Arguments: Proofs 1 -3
  • Moral Argument: Proof 4
  • Design (Teleological argument): Proof 5

It should be noted that for each of his proofs Aquinas is already assuming the existence of a God who is uncreated and independent of this world, the universe and their respective processes. This means God is not reliant on the world and the universe for God's existence. However, for Aquinas the world and the universe are reliant on God for their existence. In other words, without God nothing would be here.

The first way: The way of MOTION

It is certain, and evident to our sense, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is moved is moved by another, for nothing can be moved except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is moved; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be moved from a state of potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality... it is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is moved must be moved by another. If that by which it is moved must itself be moved, then this also needs to be moved by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and consequently, no other mover, seeing as subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are moved by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is moved by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at the first mover, moved by no other; and this everyone understands to be God. (Aquinas)

Everything in the world changes! Aquinas' proof here needs to be set against the background of Aristotle's discussion of astronomy. Aristotle argued that planetary motion, which he believed caused the seasons to change, required an Unmoved Mover who would maintain the order of things. Therefore, Aquinas used this notion to speak of the sustaining work of God. God makes sure the world and the universe remain the same, but was also behind the changes which led to the years passing by.

The essence of Aquinas’ argument in bold above, is that the potential for something to become something else has to come from outside of itself. For example, a pot will not simply appear from a ball of clay without the input of a potter! The potential for the pot to be formed from the clay is there, but it requires something external to the clay to work on it to achieve this.

The second way: The way of CAUSATION

The second way is from the nature of efficient cause. In the world of sensible things we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or one only. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, or intermediate, cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God. (Aquinas)

The notion of cause and effect, means you cannot have the latter (effect), without the former (cause - here called an efficient cause, because it is the means of bringing another thing into existence, or causing something to change). For Aquinas (and Aristotle) there cannot be an endless regression of cause and effect. An event always implies a cause, and if we continue to seek causes of events we will naturally look for a first cause of everything. According to the natural sciences, the first cause of everything is found in such things as singularities and a “Big Bang”. According to Aquinas though, the first cause is God.

The essence of Aquinas’ argument in bold above, is that that there would be nothing here if there wasn’t a cause of everything. The world and the universe cannot have always existed, (i.e. be infinite). Even though logically this is possible, Aquinas rejects this idea.

Review (The First Way)

Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways (Part 2): Contingency, Goodness, Design