Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mill on Theodicy

Via Ophelia Benson by way of John Beversluis, here's John Stuart Mill expressing something so well that I can't count this precious, precious blog as complete without including it:

If in ascribing goodness to God I do not mean what I mean by goodness; if I do not mean the goodness of which I have some knowledge, but an incomprehensible attribute of an incomprehensible substance, which for aught I know may be a totally different quality from that which I love and venerate - and even must, if Mr. Mansel is to be believed, be in some important particulars opposed to this — what do I mean by calling it goodness? and what reason have I for venerating it? If I know nothing about what the attribute is, I cannot tell that it is a proper object of veneration. To say that God's goodness may be different in kind from man's goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good? To assert in words what we do not think in meaning, is as suitable a definition as can be given of a moral falsehood. Besides, suppose that certain unknown attributes are ascribed to the Deity in a religion the external evidences of which are so conclusive to my mind, as effectually to convince me that it comes from God. Unless I believe God to possess the same moral attributes which I find, in however inferior a degree, in a good man, what ground of assurance have I of God's veracity? All trust in a Revelation presupposes a conviction that God's attributes are the same, in all but degree, with the best human attributes. If, instead of the "glad tidings" that there exists a Being in whom all the excellences which the highest human mind can conceive, exist in a degree inconceivable to us, I am informed that the world is ruled by a being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn, nor what are the principles of his government, except that "the highest human morality which we are capable of conceiving" does not sanction them.; convince me of it, and I will bear my fate as I may. But when I am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this being by the names which express and affirm the highest human morality, I say in plain terms that I will not. Whatever power such a being may have over me, there is one thing which he shall not do: he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.
Here Mill destroys a maddeningly familiar dodge of theists who, when challenged to account for the misery and injustice that god allows in the world, claim that god is, despite appearances, promoting a super-secret version of good that he either will not reveal to us (because he prefers his mysterious ways) or cannot reveal to us (because we're incomprehending hayseeds compared with his heavenly urbanity).

Either good, love, kindness, justice, and their opposites are what we take them to be based on our deep reservoirs of experience and collective wisdom, or the ideas are meaningless. Serenely watching a world drown is not compatible with loving that world; on the other hand, if we change the meaning of love to reconcile it with serenely watching the beloved drown, then love and hate are arbitrary labels, and there's no point in using them or caring about their use.

Update: I meant to add that this objection to which Mill is replying, that god works by a standard of good unavailable to mortals, comes up frequently in Bill Maher's Religulous.


larryniven said...

I just started up an argument (again) with some guy about this - we'll see if either of us makes any progress...

Dale said...

LN, good luck with that.

FWIW, I made some slight edits to the last part of this post -- smallish stuff that tries to clarify but not change the meaning. I do that. I am like a dog that can't stop going back to the patches of carpets it has stained.

larryniven said...

I think this person gave up :-(

One of these days somebody will actually answer my questions...

Dale said...

LN, Maybe. You're not holding your breath, are you? I wouldn't.

Is this an e-mail thingy or is it a debate waging in comments to a post somewhere? Sounds interesting.

Mayhaps you could turn it into a post if it's not already publicly available? Or not. You're your own blogger, of course, but I find these kinds of arguments interesting.