Confucius and Socrates

Confucius and Socrates

I’ve mentioned the term “Rectification of Names” before.  The term in Chinese is  正名, or in Pinyin transcription, Zhèngmíng.  This is a very important concept in Confucius’s philosophy, and in my view it is universally applicable.  The basic idea is that one has to have a clear understanding of the world as it is and to use this understanding to call things what they actually are.  In short, we are enjoined to be honest, and in order to be fully honest we must not only not lie, but we must describe things as they really are.  To this end, we must dispense with cant, jargon, obfuscation, propaganda, and so on.  We should call things what they are because only in so doing can we understand how we should behave in any given situation.  The paragraph below gives a succinct description from the Analects (courtesy of here):

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge

Rectification of Names is a Confucian term, but the idea behind it, as I said, is universal.  One of the greatest proponents of this concept, though he didn’t use that term, was the great Greek philosopher Socrates.  The “Gadfly”, as he called himself, was so important in the history of Western philosophy that all Greek philosophers prior to him are lumped together as the “Pre-Socratics”.  Socrates himself never wrote anything–our knowledge of him comes from his portrayals in the dialogues of his greatest disciple, Plato.  In his earlier dialogues, Plato is considered to have portrayed Socrates fairly accurately, though later on he uses him more as a mouthpiece.  In any case, I want to focus here on Socrates’ discussion of what is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, named after the dialogue in which it is discussed.

The setting for the dialogue Euthyphro is outside the Athenian courthouse, where Socrates is waiting for his preliminary hearing on the charges lodged against him.  As he waits there, he encounters the seer Euthyphro, who is bringing manslaughter charges against his own father for causing the death of a slave.  In the course of conversation, Socrates and Euthyphro begin a discussion on the nature of piety. It is useful at this juncture to note the original word for “piety”, ὅσιος (hosios), defined as “pious, hallowed, sanctioned by the gods, as opposed to δίκαιος [dikaios] “sanctioned by human law” (definition courtesy of here).

Socrates begins his typical program of attempting to “rectify names” by asking what “piety” should be understood to mean.  Both he and his interlocutor, Euthyphro, agree with the definition given above–“sanctioned by the gods”, or as Socrates puts it, “beloved by the gods” or “god-loved”.  Socrates, however, is not content to leave it at that.  What, he asks, exactly is it that the gods love, and what does it mean to say of something that it is loved by the gods?  Regarding the first point, Socrates points out that the various gods of the Greek pantheon are depicted as wildly contradictory, loving a wide variety of (sometimes questionable) things.  Euthyphro refines his definition by saying that the pious is that which is loved by all the gods.  At this point, Socrates makes the point most relevant to the discussion here.  Why, he asks, do all the gods love the pious in the first place?

In short, Socrates puts forth two possibilities.  One:  The pious is pious because the gods love it.  Two:  The gods love the pious because it is pious in the first place.

The distinction seems subtle at first, but is in fact vast.  In the first situation, the pious–henceforth, we’ll call it the “good”, since that’s what is being discussed–is pious only because the gods love it.  The good is an ethical “because I told you so” in which whatever the gods happen to love at the moment is good.  Truth, compassion, and mercy are good and theft, deceit, and murder bad not intrinsically but because the gods love the former and hate the latter.  However, they could change their minds tomorrow, in which case compassion would be impious–evil–and murder would be pious–good.  In effect “good” and “evil” have no independent meaning, but depend solely on divine commands.  To use modern terminology where we say “God” instead of “the gods”, we can put it more bluntly, courtesy of here:

A related point is raised by C. S. Lewis: “if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘righteous Lord.'” Or again Leibniz: “this opinion would hardly distinguish God from the devil.” That is, since divine command theory trivializes God’s goodness, it is incapable of explaining the difference between God and an all-powerful demon.

This is obviously extremely problematic; thus, in the dialogue, Socrates goes on to suggest that good actions are not good because the gods love them, but the reverse–that is, the gods (or God) love the good because of its goodness.  Truth and mercy are therefore not good because the gods arbitrarily love them; rather, there is something about them that is recognized as good by the gods, and for this reason the gods love them.

This removes the arbitrary character of the “pious”, but it involves a second difficulty.  If the gods–or God–love the good because it’s good, rather than making it good by their preference, this implies that there is some standard of Good that is above the gods themselves–or for monotheists, above God.  That is, God Himself defers to the definition of Good and is in fact limited by it.  This means that He is not arbitrary; but it does mean that He is limited.  This was less of a problem for the polytheistic Greeks–in the Euthyphro, it’s more or less left hanging–but more of a problem for monotheists (Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc.).

In my view, the second option–that God loves the good because it’s good–is a feature, not a bug.  As I’ve discussed before, it is not a contradiction to say that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet also limited in some respects.  For God to be limited to an exterior standard of good is not, in my mind a bad thing.  This could be reconciled in a different way, though, by making the argument, typical of classical theism, by arguing that the Good is one and the same as God.  That is, the Good is not so because God loves it; and it’s not quite the case that God loves it because it’s good–rather, God is the ultimate Good, and unchangeably so, and of course He loves Himself perfectly.  To be more precise:  God’s nature is such that truth, justice, kindness, respect for life, etc. are universal standards of good; and since God per classical theism is immutable (unchanging), He will never change His mind regarding the goodness of these things.  Thus the transcendence of the Good is maintained and established by God without being arbitrary or changeable.

The identification of God with the Good is not completely uncontroversial, but I’m satisfied with either of the alternatives I gave above–that is, Good as above even God, who confirms it, or Good as God.  Both of these avoid the problem of good as God’s will, and therefore arbitrary.  This brings us back around to the rectification of names.

As much as this series has rambled about, it is basically directed at universalism–that is, the notion that all are ultimately saved; or to put it another way, that there is no permanent hell.  A large component of the argument for universalism is that it would be morally wrong for God to condemn people to eternal torture, or alternately, to allow them to make decisions that result in eternal torture.  That’s to say nothing of the various unsavory things God is said to have done Himself (e.g. killing thousands of innocents among His own people:  2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21; or having bears maul children for taunting Elisha for being bald: 2 Kings 2:23-25) or to have ordered others to do (such genocidal episodes as can be found at some points in Exodus and all throughout Joshua), according to the Old Testament.

The typical response to the claim that such behavior “doesn’t count” because God is beyond us and we, His creations, have no right to judge Him.  This is the “pot has no right to criticize the potter” argument of Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9, and Romans 9:20.  It is the argument made by William Lane Craig in his discussion of the orders to slaughter all the Canaanites, my emphasis:

The problem, it seems to me, is that if God could not have issued such a command, then the biblical stories must be false.  Either the incidents never really happened but are just Israeli folklore; or else, if they did, then Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities, when in fact He had not.  In other words, this problem is really an objection to biblical inerrancy.

[O]ur moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.  Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself,  He has no moral duties to fulfill.  He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.  For example, I have no right to take an innocent life.  For me to do so would be murder.  But God has no such prohibition.  He can give and take life as He chooses.  We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.”  Human authorities  arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God.  God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second.  If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.

What that implies is that God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites when He sees fit.  How long they live and when they die is up to Him. 

So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives.  The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them.  Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder?  No, it’s not.  Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder.  The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

There in a nutshell is an argument for the type of Divine command theory that is rightly described by C. S. Lewis in the quote farther up as making Him indistinguishable from an “omnipotent fiend”.    If indeed God has the right “to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command,” then it is perfectly possible for God to command murder, genocide, rape, torture, or flying airplanes into skyscrapers.  Which, in fact, the hijackers believed.

Craig is at least admirably clear that he believes in this form of Divine command theory, rather than trying to obfuscate the logic of his viewpoint, which is essentially no different from that of the 9/11 hijackers.  Most people will fudge, since they want to say that God is perfectly good but that He can do anything that He wants.  This, however, is an outright contradiction.  This is also the point at which defenders of this kind of thing start talking about how God is nothing at all like us, and can be described only by analogies.

It is true, following Scholastic theology, that God can be spoken of only by analogy to us.  God lives, but not like we do (He doesn’t metabolize, eat, breathe, etc.).  God thinks, but not as we do (He has no physical brain).  God is good, but not in the same way we are good; and so on.  As far as this goes, I agree.  However, for an analogy to make sense, there must be some connection between the things compared.  If I were trying to describe “red” and “blue” to a blind person, I might say, “Red is warm and blue is cold.”  That’s not bad–fires burn red, we speak of something being “red hot”, our faces get red when we exercise and get hot.  Likewise, our hands and faces get bluish if we get too cold, ice has a bluish tinge, and so on.  Color is not the same thing as heat (a red strawberry in the refrigerator is still cold, and a gas flame can be blue and still hot), but it’s a good analogy for all that.  However, if I told the blind person that red is like a bicycle and blue is like the smell of cardamom, then I have an analogy so crazy it’s not an analogy at all.  “Red” and “hot” have an analogical connection; “red” and “bicycle” have no such connection at all.

The point is that while I don’t claim God’s goodness to be like ours except by analogy, nevertheless a God who can command (or commit) genocide, torture, murder, etc. while still being called not only good but all-good, has stretched analogy to its breaking point.  To say that such a God is still somehow “good” is like saying that red is like a bicycle–that is, pure nonsense. This is why, unlike Craig (and lacking a commitment to the type of infallibility he holds), I have no problem assuming that the accounts of mandated genocide in the Old Testament either are non-historical or that they derive from mistakes by the Israelites as to just what God’s will is.  This is also why I don’t much buy into the pot-potter analogy in the above-quoted verses.

The thing is that few are as straightforward as Craig.  They want to argue for the veracity of the Bible regarding divinely mandated atrocities or the concept of Hell without facing the logical implications this has for God’s nature.  As Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil, “One is most dishonest towards one’s God: he is not permitted to sin!”  I think we need to be honest, to be Confucian, and to rectify the names here in light of the Euthyphro.  If we want to say that God is indeed good, then He’s not good by fiat, by what He says or commands.  He’s good because He loves and embodies the Good.  Not to put too fine a point on it, if the standards of goodness applied to God are not at least reasonably recognizable as “good”, then we need to quit saying He’s good.  On the other hand, if God is really, truly good, then the same standards apply to Him as to us.

Now a parent may do things that their child doesn’t understand as being good, though they are for the child’s good–a shot or a trip to the dentist spring to mind.  However, there’s a clear difference between something like that and child abuse.  Likewise, God’s ways are mysterious to us and it certainly seems hard to understand why He allows a universe as nasty as the one we’re in (although I think this can be philosophically defended).  However, I think this is different from commanding genocide and His wanton murder of innocents directly, as seems to be the case in a literal reading of the Bible.  We might be willing to accept a complicated and tragic cosmos which is so for inscrutable reasons; but I don’t see how it’s reasonable to accept as justifiable actions on God’s part that would land any human in jail (if not death row).  If genocide and murder of innocents are wrong, they’re as wrong for God as they are for us; or if they’re OK for God, then He’s not good in any meaningful sense.

Now despite his honesty regarding Divine command theory, that is, that God can do what He damn well pleases without sin, Craig presumably still thinks God is still all-good, loving, etc.  How he manages that bit of doublethink is beyond me.  I think that if we rectify the names we either admit that God is a moral monster; or that like the poets that Plato derided, the writers of Scripture have said a lot of unworthy things about God.  The latter option, of course, is the one I believe.  Few are willing to take the bull by the horns and do this; but until we do, we’ll never be able to speak clearly on theodicy and universalism, let alone theology in general.

Posted on 13/03/2014, in Christianity, ethics, morality, philosophy, Plato, religion, Socrates, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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