The Brothers Karamazov: III. The Foundation of Morality

In a previous post on Dostoevsky, I formulated his argument that belief in God is necessary for morality from an ontological perspective. In this post, I’ll formulate it from an epistemological perspective, following the method of René Descartes.

Foundation of Knowledge

In his Meditations, Descartes reasoned that ideas formed within our mind have their origin beyond our mind, that is, our ideas are caused by objective reality which is independent of us. Given the premise that cause is always greater than or equal to effect, objective reality is always greater than or equal to our ideas of it. Perfect knowledge, i.e., truth, is a conception that corresponds exactly to the objective reality, and falsehood is a notion that does not correspond to reality.

This correspondence between objective reality and subjective knowledge is the foundation of science, man’s endeavour to gain knowledge of nature.

To test the validity of his idea, man must have a touchstone of truth against which his idea can be measured. In the natural sciences, one can test his theory against observations and experimental results. But in abstract disciplines that deal with concepts of justice, freedom, morality and value, the touchstone of truth is harder to discern.

Objective Morality

Nietzsche proclaims that there is no such thing as objective morality, and that man has the power of will to create his own value. If that is the case, whatever “value” man creates can never be true, for truth is what corresponds to objective reality.

All men have some inborn notions of morality, e.g., conscience. Either these notions are nothing but fantasies of the brain, which have no correspondence with reality, or, they correspond in varying degrees to objective reality, the moral law, which is independent of our personal opinions and which we do well to heed.

Just as the knowledge of nature enables man to attain to a higher level of physical well-being through practical applications of his knowledge, so the knowledge of morality enables man to attain to a higher level of spiritual well-being. These, and none other, are the true values which we create in our lives.

Platonic or Personal?

Plato posits an abstract form of morality, the Absolute Good, which is intelligible to man, like the abstract objects of mathematics. This abstract form of goodness has no personhood, and is distinct from gods, who are capable of contemplating the Absolute Good, of which men are also capable, though to a much lesser degree.

From a Christian perspective,the Platonic form of Goodness falls short of the perfection of God. First, it lacks the power of agency; second, it lacks the power of knowing, and third, it lacks the power of loving. Consequently, it cannot account for the highest moral principle known among mankind, namely, love of one’s neighbour, and cannot be the ultimate foundation of morality.

God alone is Good, and is the ultimate standard of morality, there is none beside Him. The moral law is, in essence, a command to know God and be like Him.

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