So I was reading a book on philosophical theology the other day…

Don’t be too impressed. It is called Our Idea of God, and it’s simply an “introduction to philosophical theology”, less than 200 pages and quite easy to read. But I ran across something I found interesting.

A strategy deriving from the great medieval philosopher William of Ockham (c. A.D. 1285-1349) would take an entirely different tack. To put it as simply as possible, this argument begins be submitting that ‘good’ is to be defined as ‘whatever God wills.’ Thus

(A) God does good
(B) God does whatever God wills

express the same proposition. But (B) obviously expresses a necessary truth (derived from the quite general conceptual truth about the action of any omnipotent, omniscient being that no such being can be prevented from doing anything he wills to do). So (A) must express a necessary truth. But if it is necessarily true that God does good, it is impossible that God does evil. Whatever he does is, by definition, good. Thus, God cannot do evil. We have vindicated the conviction that divine goodness has the high status of necessity and have done so quite simply.

Or have we?
Ockham’s strategy and resulting argument suffer from one debilitating problem: they establish the necessity of God’s goodness only at the price of evacuating the claim that God is good in all of its rich, determinate meaning. Let us call this the vacuity objection. The vacuity objection first points out that most of us, when we call a person good in anything like a moral sense, mean to say that the person is, for example, a truth-teller and a promise-keeper. And this is a quite determinate characterization of a person. If we accept the Ockhamistic definition of ‘good,’ then to say of a human being that he is good is only to say of him that he does whatever God wills. Unless we also know what it is that God wills, the claim that a man is good will have much less content to it than the more determinate content most of us typically take it to have. And when applied to God, ‘good’ would lose all its determinate content whatsoever. ‘God is good’ would then be a vacuous statement and not the tremendously important substantive claim most of us take it to be. Its truth would be compatible with the claim that God is also sadistically cruel and a chronic liar. And that is utterly outrageous. Thus, the strategy suggested in the Ockhamistic argument exacts far too high a price for what it then makes an empty modal assurance about God.

Quite a thought provoking book. I’ll have more to excerpt later.

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