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Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 4

by Dave Sidnam

One of the reasons that I chose to investigate what Plato could tell us about morality is that he provides a great case study as to what can be discerned about God through general revelation. This thought goes back to the church fathers as this quote from St. Augustine demonstrates:

But we need not determine from what source [Plato] learned these things,—whether it was from the books of the ancients who preceded him, or, as is more likely, from the words of the apostle: “Because that which is known of God, has been manifested among them, for God hath manifested it to them. For His invisible things from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by those things which have been made, also His eternal power and Godhead.” From whatever source he may have derived this knowledge, then, I think I have made it sufficiently plain that I have not chosen the Platonic philosophers undeservedly as the parties with whom to discuss; because the question we have just taken up concerns the natural theology.[1]

In my previous post I looked at what Plato could tell us about moral motivation; in this one I’ll look at how this compares with Judeo-Christian thought on the subject.

Moral Motivation According to Plato

As discussed, Plato identified three levels of moral motivation:

The first and highest form of moral motivation is love of the Good. We should be motivated to be good because the Good is worthy of our love and our desire should be to be like it.

The second form of moral motivation is that the pursuit of and adherence to the Good leads to the very best life: the good life is obtained by acting in accordance with the Good.

The third (and lowest) form of moral motivation is based upon rewards and punishment. Those who do good will receive good things in this life (possibly) and after this life (certainly). Those who do evil will reap the consequences of those actions in this life and also after this life.

Just as his four requirements for a truly objective morality aligned well with the Judeo-Christian perspective, I believe his three levels of moral motivation align equally well.

Moral Motivation in Judeo-Christian Theism

The love of God as the primary motivating factor in Biblical ethics is fundamental in both the Old Testament (Tanach) and the New Testament. This centrality is seen in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This centrality is reiterated in the NT by Jesus as the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). In the Judeo-Christian worldview, the love of God is to be the controlling factor that frames every other concept—especially moral ones. The primary form of moral motivation for the Jew and Christian should be the love of God. We should want to be good because we love God—the source of all good—and want to be like Him. This love of God should spur us to “walk in His ways,” as Moses and Joshua frequently reminded the people (Dt. 10:12; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16; Josh. 22:5). In the center of one of his extended passages on Christian ethics, Paul tells us we ought to imitate God in our actions just like a loving child imitates her father (Eph. 5:1). If we truly have a love for God, this will extend not only to imitating the goodness of God, but also to obeying His commands (1 Jn 5:3). So, as with Plato, the best and highest form of moral motivation in Judeo-Christian theism is love of God/the Good.

The secondary motivation for morality in the Judeo-Christian world is that the life aligned with God’s character—that of godly wisdom—will bring about wellbeing, and that the life set against this—the life of folly—will bring death. Nowhere is this better seen in the Old Testament than in the book of Proverbs.

In Proverbs, the way aligned to God’s character is personified as Wisdom. She calls out to all who will listen:

And now, O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways.

Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.

Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.

For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord,

but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.[2]

On the other hand, the way of life not aligned with God’s character—personified in Proverbs as Folly—leads a person to personal disaster:

The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing.

She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,

calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way,

“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” And to him who lacks sense she says,

“Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”[3]

But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

Following the wisdom teachings of the Old Testament, the New Testament also teaches that those who align themselves to God’s character will do well and those who do not will harm themselves. James, in his epistle, contrasts what is brought about through the two different lifestyles—the one driven by heavenly wisdom (godliness), the other by natural wisdom:

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.[4]

In the Judeo-Christian world, godly living brings personal peace (even when outward circumstances are difficult), and ungodly behavior harms the soul (even if it is accompanied by all of the comforts of life).

As with Plato, the final form of moral motivation for Judeo-Christian theism is reward and punishment. This is clearly taught in both the Old and New Testaments. The Law of Moses is full of moral obligations and has specific punishments for those who do not follow them. And, even if reward tarries in this life, or if justice fails for the wicked, Daniel tells us everything will be made right in the next life:

At that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.[5]

In the New Testament, Jesus confirms this eschatological teaching:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.[6]

Interestingly, for both Plato and the Biblical authors, while love for God/the Good is the highest form of moral motivation, they spend more words on the punishment and rewards aspect of moral motivation than on the love aspect. I believe this is because both Plato and the Biblical writers understood that most people would not attain to this level of motivation. Plato affirmed multiple times that only the true philosopher could reach this lofty goal and that there would be few who attain to this level. Jesus also stated that the road to life is narrow and that there are comparatively few who find it. This common problem, I believe, left both to focus disproportionately on the lowest form of motivation because (unfortunately) it is applicable to the greatest number of people. But the goal of each is to encourage as many people as possible to attain to the highest level.[7]


So once again, we see discoveries that Plato made which align nicely with the Judeo-Christian worldview, and this helps us, along with St. Augustine, to see some of the possibilities of general revelation. Plato not only discovered the characteristics of a truly objective morality, but also the optimal and pragmatic aspects of moral motivation.



[1] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 12.

[2] Proverbs 8:32-36.

[3] Proverbs 9:13-18.

[4] James 3:13–18.

[5] Daniel 12:1–3.

[6] Matthew 25:31–46.

[7] Another potential take on at least the Biblical emphasis on rewards and punishments is to construe the salient underlying truth along these lines: in a classically theistic world, there is a deep correspondence between happiness and holiness. Aligning ourselves with ultimate reality, God Himself, is the very way in which to experience our deepest joy; and to lose out on this ultimate fulfillment is to forfeit or lose something of infinite worth. This connection between virtue and joy, happiness and holiness, doesn’t render the moral life as mercenary, but rather makes morality fully rational, affirms that reality itself is committed to the Good, which is one of the evidential and explanatory advantages of classical theism over secular and naturalistic perspectives in which no such connection or correspondence is guaranteed, thereby rendering a commitment to morality less than fully rational. This is one piece of what this site often describes as the four-fold moral argument for God’s existence.

Image: “Wisdom 62/365” by Andy Rennie. CC License. 

Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 3

By Dave Sidnam

In my first  two posts, I reviewed Plato’s requirements for a truly objective morality and then showed how Judeo-Christian theology meets his four requirements, providing a solid foundation for objective morals. With an objective foundation for morality in place, the big question becomes, “Why should I care?” Just because objective morals exist doesn’t necessarily mean I sufficiently want to obey them. This is the issue of moral motivation, and, unsurprisingly, Plato addresses this topic as well. In this post, I’ll take a look at the three levels of moral motivation that Plato describes in the Republic.

I’ve actually been working backwards in these posts. In the Republic, the question of moral motivation is the subject of Book II and the starting point for the investigation as to what justice (the Good) really is. After Socrates defeats Thrasymachus’s philosophically unsophisticated challenge that justice is merely “the advantage of the stronger” in Book I, Glaucon doesn’t let Socrates off the hook that easily, immediately challenging him to show why one should want to be just. While Plato asserts that justice is good in and of itself and good for the one who practices it, Glaucon responds:

Well, that’s not the opinion of the many…rather it seems to belong to the form of drudgery, which should be practiced for the sake of wages and the reputation that comes from opinion; but all by itself it should be fled from as something hard.[1]

Glaucon persuasively recites some popular arguments against acting justly, saying that it is best merely to appear just (so you can enjoy the benefits of a good reputation) rather than to actually practice justice—if you can get away with it. Given this popular opinion, why should one want to be good? Plato has three reasons, corresponding to three levels of moral motivation.

  1. It Is Good to Love the Good because It Is Good
As discussed before, in the Euthyphro the pious was loved by the gods because it was (obviously) pious.[2] It had an innate loveliness that impelled the gods to love it. Likewise, the Good is loved by the gods because they directly experience its goodness and cannot help but to love it. Plato describes this concept the most thoroughly in his Symposium where people are drawn to the Beautiful through a form of eros, erotic love. John Rist brings the point home well:

The Socratic person, as we have seen, is a philo-sopher, a lover of wisdom, an erotikos, as has been emphasized in the Symposium…. His knowledge of the Form is inseparable from his love of it; he is as committed emotionally as he is intellectually to the world of Forms and the Good; his mind is not that of a Cartesian calculator, but of a Socratic lover.[3]

The first and highest form of moral motivation is love of the Good. Those who experience the form of the Good directly—the gods for Plato—are captivated by it and happily arrange their actions according to it because of their love for it. If men could see the Good directly, they would always want to do good. Unfortunately, they do not. What then are we mortals to do? What should compel us to do good even if we do not have this love for the Good? We should do good because it is good for us.

  1. It Is Good to Do the Good because It Is Good for You
In the middle of Book II, after repeating the common man’s argument that it is best to act unjustly as long as people believe you to be just, Glaucon sets up the main challenge for Socrates that drives the rest of the book:

So, don’t only show us by the argument that justice is stronger than injustice, but show what each in itself does to the man who has it—whether it is noticed by gods and human beings or not—that makes the one good and the other bad.[4]

In effect, Glaucon wants to know what makes practicing justice good for the soul and practicing injustice harmful to one’s soul—this is the main question of the Republic. Through his investigation of the best and worst types of cities, Socrates is really discovering the best and worst types of man.

The very worst city corresponds to the most miserable man—the tyrant. This person, even if he enjoys wealth and good reputation (wrongly), is the most miserable because the turmoil in his soul will not allow him to enjoy the good things that are available to him. He is more a beast than a man. He cannot enjoy the best pleasures of this life because those enjoyments are experienced through our rationality and the tyrant has debased himself in this area. Because of the defilement of his soul, at best he can enjoy animal goods; but, because of his injustice, even those things cannot satisfy him.

On the other hand, the very best city, ruled by the philosopher-king, corresponds to the very best type of person: he who lives justly, who does the Good and can truly enjoy it. Because he is trained in philosophy, his rational abilities are honed and he can truly enjoy the best—the most human, or, better, the most divine—pleasures. Even if this person does not have material possessions, and if his fellow citizens do not understand him and hence mistreat him, his intellectual pursuit of and love for the Good make him the happiest man of all.

John Stuart Mill captures the difference between these two types of people in his famous quote:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

The pursuit of, and adherence to, the Good leads to the very best life, whether or not that life is accompanied by material possessions and the acclaim of men. For Plato, Socrates was the prime example of this. The pursuit of injustice leads to the worst possible life for a person. Even if it is accompanied by riches and fame, the debasement of the soul that it causes leads the unjust man to a truly miserable life, whether or not he realizes it.

So, for the rational person there are two good reasons to be moral: love of the Good is good in and of itself, and the Good is also good for you. In his Finite and Infinite Goods, Robert Adams similarly argues that what is best for us is what is good in and of itself. But what motivates the person who is acting irrationally?

  1. It Is Good to Do Good because the Just Will Be Rewarded and the Unjust Punished
In the early dialogues, Socrates teaches, and Plato appears to hold, that people will never knowingly do the worse when they know the better. In his middle and later dialogues, Plato appears to move away from this position and deal with the problem of akrasia, where people know the good to do but choose the worse. How are people motivated when they know the Good is good, and is good for them, but they still choose to do the worse? For these people—who are more like unreasoning animals than men—rewards and punishments must be offered to motivate them.

In Book II Glaucon challenges Socrates to show that acting justly was beneficial even if it was accompanied by poverty and scorn, and Socrates argues his case with this restriction in place. In Book X, Socrates asks Glaucon to let him correct this injustice and show that the just man will receive good for acting justly: “Thus, it must be assumed in the case of the just man that, if he falls into poverty, or diseases, or any other of the things that seem bad, for him it will end in some good, either in life or even in death.”[5] In this life, Plato believed that the just will typically receive rewards for the good that they do and that the unjust will typically receive punishment for their injustice; however, if it does not happen in this life, Plato had a story for what would happen to the just and unjust after this life.

Book X ends with the myth of Er, a valiant warrior who died in battle but came back to life after twelve days and shared what he saw in the “other world.” There, the just and unjust went through a period of 1,000 years of either rewards or punishment for their deeds. The just “told of the inconceivable beauty of the experiences and sights” in heaven, while the unjust “lamenting and crying, [recounted] how much and what sort of things they had suffered and seen in the journey under the earth.” While the common unjust suffered for 1,000 years, men who were tyrants, after suffering for that same duration, were bound and thrown into Tartarus, never to emerge. This is Plato’s message for those who would practice injustice, and the message “could save us, if we are persuaded by it, and shall make a good crossing of the river of Lethe and not defile our soul.”[6] If nothing else will motivate one to be just, they must be coerced with either the hope of reward or the fear of punishment.


So for Plato there are three levels of moral motivation. The first and purest is to be good because of a passionate love for the Good itself; this is the best, and only truly moral, type of motivation. For those who are too short-sighted to make the philosophical investment to know the Good directly, the second is to be good because doing justice is good for you—more importantly, it is good for your soul. This motivation leans more towards the self-interested side, but at least it remains a form of internal motivation. Finally, for those who will not strive to do even what is good for them, the third form is either to bribe with promises of rewards for acting justly or threaten with punishment for the unjust. This form is not strictly moral motivation, but, given the problem of akrasia, it is necessary to get some to act rightly in a world that is moral to its core.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at how Plato’s moral motivation compares with Judeo-Christian theism’s and briefly contrast these views with moral motivation typically found in certain naturalistic ethical systems.


[1] Plato, The Republic, Book II, 358a.

[2] Plato, Euthyphro, 10a, d.

[3] John Rist, Plato’s Moral Realism, p. 150.

[4] Plato, The Republic, 367e.

[5] Plato, The Republic, 613a.

[6] Plato, The Republic, 621c.

Image: “The School of Athens; a gathering of renaissance figures in Wellcome V0006665” by Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –;_a_gathering_of_renaissance_figures_in_Wellcome_V0006665.jpg#/media/File:The_School_of_Athens;_a_gathering_of_renaissance_figures_in_Wellcome_V0006665.jpg

Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 2

By Dave Sidnam

In my last post, I looked at Plato’s Republic and the standard he set for a truly objective moral foundation, one that can defeat Thrasymachean nihilism. In particular, I highlighted four items that he asserted were necessary: 1) a transcendent standard; 2) a standard that is recognizably good; 3) a standard people can know; and 4) a standard people are able to adhere to. For Plato, if any of these items is missing, nihilism wins. I also argued that, while Plato’s understanding of the requirements for a foundation for ethics was correct, his details for them were not. Instead, classical theism (in general) and Judeo-Christian theology (in particular) can provide a solid foundation for morality, hopefully in a way that Plato would have appreciated. In this post, I’ll take a look at how Judeo-Christian theism meets Plato’s four requirements for a truly objective morality.

1) God – The Transcendent Standard

In significant strands of Judeo-Christian thought, God is the Good. Like Plato’s Form of the Good, God is the ontological source of everything else. Goodness is established in His character and grounded in His immutable nature. Being loving is good because it is God’s unchanging nature to love. Grace, mercy, honesty, and patience are all good because they are eternal character traits of God. The Christian Platonic theistic ethicist who has made this case most powerfully in recent decades is, of course, Robert Adams, in his seminal Finite and Infinite Goods.

Unlike Plato’s Form, however, the Judeo-Christian God is a rational, personal agent; God is the type of substance that can actually bear moral qualities. This fact overcomes a major problem with Plato’s system: how can things that appear to be characteristics or qualities actually be substances? John Rist explains this aptly:

God and God’s nature, Platonically understood, are the successors of the evaluative Forms and of the Good itself, and not merely are they successors, but they indicate metaphysical progress, for goodness looks like a quality, though Plato, as Aristotle realized, needs his forms to be substances. Unless goodness is substantiated in and as some sort of “good thing,” it appears to be an ungrounded quality, and hence incapable of doing the philosophical work for which it was proposed.[1]

Augustine ties the conceptual worlds of Plato and Judeo-Christian theism together nicely:

There is, accordingly, a good which alone is simple and, therefore, which alone is unchangeable—and this is God. This good has created all goods.[2]

There’s another theoretical advantage here. If there is such a thing as “the Good,” God’s being the Good makes sense of “the Good” being good, morally and metaphysically, unlike any merely abstract object—causally inert, impersonal, and unable to be good. “God is good,” then, obtains, both as an “is of predication” and “is of identity.” Another way to put it is in terms of the de re / de dicto distinction. “God is good” obtains both de dicto (the proposition is necessarily true in virtue of the requirements of the office of Deity) and de re (God himself is good—necessarily, essentially, perfectly).


2) God as The Good – A Recognizable Standard

The famous dilemma in Euthyphro—Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?—was no dilemma for Plato; for him, the pious was loved by the gods because it was (obviously) pious.[3] Likewise, the Good was loved by the gods because they recognized that it is good.  For Plato, if you could see the Good directly you would immediately recognize its goodness:

In the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything.[4]

In Judeo-Christian theology, the same is true for God: If we could see Him as He is, we would immediately recognize his goodness. We get a glimpse of this in the book of Isaiah:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him…and one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)

From Isaiah, we see the biblical perspective that rational creatures in God’s presence immediately recognize (and constantly proclaim) that He is good (which is one aspect of being holy). Along with this rational response, we also see emotional responses: the unfallen angels adore and worship God for His goodness and fallen man immediately realizes that he fails to meet this perfect standard of goodness.

This is not to say that God’s goodness will always be easily reconcilable with our clearest moral intuitions. Old Testament conquest narratives, for example, can be difficult on occasion to square with such intuitions. But difficulty is not the same as impossibility, and even the difficulty may not be as bad as many think, as Matthew Flannagan and Paul Copan have argued persuasively in Did God Really Command Genocide? (chapters of which are summarized, one per Monday, on this site).


3) The Image of God – The Foundation for Moral Knowledge

For Plato, man, as rational animal, had the right faculties to know the Good (at least theoretically). Through recollection, right opinion, or through the hard work of philosophy, man has the ability to seek and comprehend the Good. In the Judeo-Christian world, it is the Imago Dei (image of God) that gives men and women the power to know God/the Good: God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27) The image of God in man provides the foundation for us to be rational agents.

Interestingly, both Plato and Judeo-Christian theism agree that while mankind has the ability to know God/the Good, this knowledge is generally limited and corrupted. For Plato, the process of the rebirth of the soul into a new body makes one forget what one has learned in the spiritual realm. This knowledge must be reconstructed via recollection, or right opinion must be converted to true knowledge via philosophy. As we can discern from the training Plato required for the guardians in The Republic,[5] this is an arduous task that requires proper conditioning and training from a very young age.

In Judeo-Christian theology, the fall of man has left him with rational faculties through which he can know God, but, by default, that knowledge is superficial and subject to corruption. Humankind can increase its knowledge of God both through general revelation[6] and special revelation (the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible, in Judaism, and the Old and New Testaments for Christianity). While God can only be known in detail through special revelation, general revelation is enough to provide mankind with a rudimentary knowledge of God and of morality.[7] For both Plato and the Judeo-Christian theist, knowledge of The Good is possible, but it requires effort both rationally and emotionally to acquire and apply.


4) The Image of God – The Foundation for Moral Ability

For Plato, the tripartite nature of the soul gives humans the ability to be moral (or immoral) agents. The head (rational element) allows people to know the right thing to do and the chest (spirited element/will) provides the power to do what is right. If these two are aligned in a just fashion, then people can and will act in a moral way. If however, the belly (bodily desires) becomes the guiding source for the chest instead of the head, then men will act in carnal and unjust ways.

In Judeo-Christian theology, it is the Imago Dei and God’s grace that impart the ability for us to be moral agents as well as rational agents. Through reason, man has the ability to know the good. Through the will, with God’s assistance, man has the (theoretical)[8] ability to do the good. God’s transformative grace can enable us not just to live morally, but to become new creatures, to be inwardly transformed, and ultimately to be entirely conformed to the image of Christ. If God commands us to do something, He will give us the grace, if we avail ourselves of it, to obey the command. Clement of Alexandria helps us to connect all of these concepts together:

Further, Plato the philosopher says that the end is twofold: that which is communicable, and exists first in the ideal forms themselves, which he also calls “the good”; and that which partakes of it, and receives its likeness from it, as is the case in the men who appropriate virtue and true philosophy.[9]



Plato was an amazing philosopher, and he had a deep understanding of the requirements for a truly objective morality; however, the details of his view on how these might actually be fulfilled were flawed. Classical theism provides a foundation for objective morality that arguably meets Plato’s four criteria in a way that would have both felt familiar to him, while also serving as a needed corrective on certain key issues his worldview was not able to address. Judeo-Christian ethics rests on a foundation that is transcendent, recognizably good, knowable, and that humans, with God’s assistance, can obey. This is obviously just a sketch of such an argument, but if it works, classical theism can defeat Thrasymachean nihilism in a way that other systems, especially naturalistic ones, cannot.

But, given this foundation, why should people be moral? In the next posts I’ll look at Platonic moral motivation and its corollaries in classical theism.

Part 3


[1] John Rist, Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality, p. 38.

[2] St. Augustine, The City of God, Chapter X.

[3] Plato, Euthyphro, 10a, d.

[4] Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 517c.

[5] If you are not familiar with The Republic, Plato spends a great deal of time talking about what type of education is required for the guardians and philosopher kings. This starts in their early youth as they are conditioned to love the right kinds of things and continues for decades with training in music, gymnastics, mathematics, and other subjects. Without this extensive and arduous training it is doubtful that one can come to know the good in the necessary way. This helps us see that the ultimate Good includes but is not exhausted by the Moral Good.

[6] See Romans 1:18-20.

[7] As discussed in the first post in this series and fortified here, Plato is an excellent source for seeing how much man can determine about God and morality solely from general revelation.

[8] Precisely how much ability mankind has is obviously a matter of debate. In the Judeo-Christian world there is a range of opinions on how much moral ability humans actually have. I think that most would agree, however, that most people in a certain circumstance can choose to either do or refrain from doing particular moral acts based upon their moral knowledge. Editor’s Note: This site is firmly committed to the view that God’s grace is operative in all (prevenient grace in the case of unbelievers), that such grace is resistible, and that such grace is needed to do good. We affirm total depravity, but reject unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace.

[9] Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book II, Chapter XXII.

Image: “Plato, Bibliotheca Universitatis” by Attila Brunner – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –,_Bibliotheca_Universitatis.JPG#/media/File:Plato,_Bibliotheca_Universitatis.JPG

Platonic Ethics and Classical Theism, Part I

 by Dave Sidnam

Why bring Plato into a modern discussion of ethics and classical theism? While moderns might nostalgically refer to him in their works, his theological and ethical teachings, especially in the form he presented them, are usually not considered serious contenders in today’s theologies and texts on the metaphisics of morals.  There are of course some notable exceptions, like Robert Adams, but even Adams admits Plato gets relatively little attention. In light of this, several key reasons can be adduced to show that Plato is very important—especially for the Christian community. One important reason is that early theologians like Ambrose and Augustine saw value in his work and Platonic thought helped shape their theologies. Another reason—one that should be particularly interesting to Christians—is that Plato provides evidence of the power of general revelation. As you read through his works, you will notice many things that align nicely with Christian theology. Most importantly, Plato was an amazing philosopher and many of his philosophical insights still have value today. My hope is to mine some of these insights (e.g., the foundations of objective morals, levels of moral motivation, etc.) over a series of posts. Hopefully you will enjoy the ride.

In The Republic, Plato’s Socrates faces his most difficult—and most important—challenge: the battle for objective morality. In Book 1 of the dialogue, immediately after Socrates defeats Polemarchus and removes convention as a possible foundation for justice, Thrasymachus attacks Socrates like a beast with his wild opinion that “the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger” (338c). In other words, true justice (or morality) does not exist—powerful men create morality to ensure that others will do as they wish. Thrasymachus is brash, but he is not a trained philosopher, and Socrates quickly shows his assertion to be inconsistent.[1] However, Glaucon and Adeimantus come to Thrasymachus’s aid (or at least his argument’s aid), presenting a more philosophically sound version of his nihilism, and together they press Socrates to show what justice truly is and why it is good in and of itself. At this point Plato’s Socrates claims to be at a loss, for his dialog partners would not accept the “proof” he offered to Thrasymachus that justice was better than injustice. However, he is willing to investigate the matter with their assistance to see if he can save objective morality.

In his investigation, Socrates discovers defeating Thrasymachus requires four things: 1) a transcendent standard; 2) a standard that is recognizably good; 3) a standard people can know; and 4) a standard people are able to adhere to. Without any one of these items, nihilism wins.

  1. The Transcendent Standard

The foundational insight that Plato provides in The Republic is that for objective value to exist it must have a foundation that is not merely an invention of some group—or even unanimously of all persons. An invention is merely convention, and Plato had forcefully removed that as a possible foundation for morality in Book 1 with his master’s discussion with Polemarchus. Any mere invention can always be reinvented and therefore cannot provide the unchanging foundation that true values require. For a standard to apply to all persons at all times, it must be transcendent.

The main vehicle Plato posits for this type of standard is the Forms, and the Form of the Good is his metaphysical and epistemic foundation for all transcendent value. An early intimation of the Form as this transcendent moral standard was arguably explored by Plato in Euthyphro where Plato’s Socrates asserts that the gods love the pious because it is pious—both gods and men were subject to the standard, the Form.  Later, in The Republic, Plato establishes the Form of the Good as the foundational form:

Therefore, say that not only being known is present in the things known as a consequence of the good, but also existence and being are in them besides as a result of it, although the good isn’t being but is still beyond being, exceeding it in dignity and power. (509b)

An important aspect of Plato’s assertion is that, since the Good is the source of the knowability, existence, and being of the other Forms (and everything else), it is ontologically prior to them. This is a critical insight: if something else—call it X—were ontologically prior to the Good, then X would possibly be the foundation of values. When you descend to the bedrock foundation of some value, you come discover the essential nature of that value; the buck stops there. The Form of the Good defines goodness simply because it exists and because of its nature—it is the type of thing that can possibly ground goodness—not for any reason outside its nature.

  1. The (Recognizable) Goodness of the Standard

Since (for Plato) the Form of the Good is the standard for goodness itself, it cannot be measured against anything to show that it is good; however, we need some way to know that it is in fact good. Plato provides for this by telling us that, if we could see the Good as it is, we would immediately recognize its goodness. When you eat chocolate peanut butter ice cream, no one needs to tell you it is delicious; you experience its deliciousness directly. Plato tells us that if we could also experience the Good directly, we would immediately know not only that it is good (like the ice cream being delicious), but that it is the foundation for—and source of—all goodness (unlike the ice cream which only partakes in deliciousness). He says,

In the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this in fact is the cause of all that is right and fair in everything…and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it (517c).

There is no external way to judge the goodness of the standard; it must be experienced directly. Once this is done, it will be obvious that all of the terms we try to use to judge the goodness of things owe their existence to the Good itself—they have no other source.

  1. Knowledge of the Standard

As you can see from the quote above, Plato tells us it is difficult to know the Good. His cave metaphor helps us to understand why. When an inhabitant of the cave, who is only used to seeing dim shadows cast on the inner wall of the cave, emerges into the brightness of the sun, he cannot perceive it directly.

At first, he’d most easily make out the shadows; and after that the phantom of human beings and the other things in water; and, later, the things themselves. And from there he could turn to beholding the things in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night—looking at the light of the stars and the moon—then by day—looking at the sun and sunlight. (516a)

The difficulty of knowing the Good, and the training it will take to make true philosophers who can actually achieve this (through the use of the dialectic), occupies most of Plato’s time in Books 5, 6, and 7, detailing the education of the Guardians (and true philosophers). Although it is difficult, and perhaps no man has done it well so far, in Plato’s economy it is possible to come to know the Good. But knowledge of the Good is indispensable: if you cannot know it, you cannot intentionally do it.

  1. Adherence to the Standard

The final piece of the Platonic puzzle is that of being able to live according to the standard once one knows it (what contemporary philosopher John Hare calls the “performative” question)—Plato’s view of the soul plays the key role here. For Plato, the soul has three components: the calculating part (the head), the spirited part (the chest), and the desiring part (the belly). By default, through nature and poor training, Thrasymachean order exists in the soul where the belly rules and the chest drives one to fulfill desires—the head is used only to calculate how best to get what one wants. Plato tells us, however, that if these three are in harmony—the head ruling the belly through the chest—then we can overcome our passions with knowledge (of the Good) and do the things that we should truly desire to do if we want justice. When properly cultivated, our knowledge of the Good can lead us to live just lives.

With these four items in place, Socrates was able to convince his friends that justice does exist and that it is worth pursuing independent of any practical benefits it might bring. While I believe Plato was wrong in many of the details of his stories describing the Good and how we can know it, I believe he was right philosophically on what is required to have objective morality. If any of the four items above is missing, the moral world risks becoming Thrasymachean. And these criteria have proven difficult for modern philosophers to find in their worldview. G. E. M. Anscombe highlights this in her influential paper Modern Moral Philosophy when she asserts that, while they may sound very different, modern ethical systems all struggle with such foundational issues:

Such discussions generate an appearance of significant diversity of views where what is really significant is an overall similarity. The overall similarity is made clear if you consider that every one of the best known English academic moral philosophers has put out a philosophy according to which, e.g., it is not possible to hold that it cannot be right to kill the innocent as a means to any end whatsoever and that someone who thinks otherwise is in error.

If your ethical system cannot confidently state that murder for fun is wrong, difficult work still lies ahead, work eminently worth the effort. Modern (naturalistic) moral philosophy is faced with the significant challenge of finding a stable foundation for ethics that does not produce unpalatable implications, yet still does justice to our pre-theoretical and nonnegotiable moral insights and apprehensions.

In my next post I’ll look at how classical theism generally and specifically Judeo-Christian ethics can meet Plato’s four requirements, thereby providing an adequate foundation for objective morality.

Part 2

Part 3


[1] Thrasymachus makes the assertion that the unjust man, inventing morality to gain advantage, is virtuous and wise. However, in his nihilism, Thrasymachus does not realize that when he dispatched the foundation for justice he actually destroyed all value. Unfortunately for him, he still held to a conventional view of virtue (in particular, wisdom in the crafts) and Socrates used this to show an inconsistency in his view of justice. Socrates uses conventional ideas of wisdom to show that unjust men cannot be virtuous and wise, and uses this to defeat Thrasymachus.

Image: “Platon, painted portrait”  by thierry ehrmann. CC license. 

A Fundamental Issue with Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape

By Dave Sidnam

In the Introduction to his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris states, “The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.” While others “imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist,” Harris asserts that a science of morality is possible. While I appreciate Harris’s efforts to come up with an empirically measurable moral system, and agree with some of his foundational points, I believe his system is fundamentally flawed because “other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be.”

A root of this issue comes down to some vagueness with the term “science” in Harris’s argument. Harris’s hope is that moving morality into the realm of science will give it a status and authority similar to that of physics or medical science; however, I will show that the type of moral science Harris proposes is significantly different than either of these and, therefore, would not carry the same epistemic clout.

In addressing morality as a science, Harris is concerned that some people define “’science’ in exceedingly narrow terms.” However, in the book, Harris’s working definition—“Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in the universe,”—provides so broad a definition that practically any rational endeavor fits, including astrology. While I know Harris, in practice, draws sharper boundaries than this, in his argument he ignores the fact that there are different types of science and that some types have more epistemic weight than others. For example, the “hard” sciences are seen by many as having more authority than the “soft” sciences; this leads to an interesting question: Is Harris’s science of morality a hard science or soft one? For many people, the answer to this question will lead to a qualitative difference in how the findings of this science should be viewed.

Physics, generally, is a hard science based upon the discovery of ontologically objective facts. That is, independent of any conscious minds, the physical world exists and the laws of physics hold. Once discovered, they are the same for all people—invariably. Harris’s science of morality, on the other hand, is fundamentally different because it is based upon ontologically subjective facts: There is no person-independent reality to draw from. Harris ignores this important difference when he states, “We must have a goal to define what counts as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when speaking about physics or morality, but this criterion visits us equally in both domains.” While he is correct that the standard must be set for each, the goal of physics is to accurately describe the objective world in which we live; however, there is no such ontologically objective starting point for Harris’s moral science. This ontologically objective base gives physics comparatively more authority, just as astronomy should carry more weight than astrology.

If Harris’s moral system is not like physics, what type of science should it be compared to? In his introduction, Harris discusses possible similarities between human moral flourishing and human health, so perhaps medical science or nutrition is a better match. Upon initial inspection, this analogy seems apt because there is definitely a person-subjective aspect here, based upon an individual’s biochemical response to events in the world. For some people, peanuts are a good source of protein and part of a healthy diet. For others, peanuts are poison.

But here, the type of subjectivity is still fundamentally different. In medicine and nutrition, people respond to different medicines or foods based upon their underlying biochemistry. These events, in principle, are directly observable from a third-person perspective and are not dependent upon a person’s first-person point-of-view. Harris alludes to this difference when describing how the “sciences of mind are predicated on our being able to correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.”  Unlike medicine or nutrition, however, Harris’s moral science needs to measure first-person experience—how people perceive events determines the “moral” quality of those events. While medicine has a subjective component, the subjectivity is not dependent upon first-person experience.

Although this problem does not remove morality from science broadly defined, it again shows a substantial qualitative difference between Harris’s moral science and medical science/nutrition and brings into question the authority with which such a science can speak.

At its core, Harris’s moral science is fundamentally different because it attempts to measure first-person experience. To make this a science (instead of an opinion poll or marketing survey), Harris rightly wants to correlate this to the brain states which underlie the experiences, and then draw broad conclusions from this. Unfortunately, this first-person to third-person gap produces significant uncertainty. For some, living a comfortable life—filled with fine dining and travel—produces in them brain states that they interpret as well-being. For others, living a difficult life—bringing some comfort to the poor and needy in Calcutta—produces in them a different biochemical response, which they interpret as well-being. More directly, a masochist’s perception of certain C fiber stimulation is going to be perceived very differently than the same event in other people.

While Harris is correct that a science could be formed like this, I believe it is obvious that it would not have significant imperative force behind it. I think that Harris will want to argue in his science of morality that some actions—like murder—are always wrong. This type of forceful statement works well with sciences based upon objective facts, but not so well with ones based upon subjective “facts.” Unfortunately, murder brings a biochemical response that some criminals interpret as a sense of well-being, and, at the biochemical level, it may be indistinguishable from the feeling others get from helping the poor. So while Harris has put together a system of morality that can be measured empirically, foundational issues leave it with very questionable epistemic authority or imperative force, unlike other branches of science.

Image: “Brain” by D. Schaefer. CC License.