The best we can do in regards to objectively recognizing God's goodness is by means of the only true standard of morality, which God himself has established. Although our sense of goodness can be corrupted, that would only result in a poorly recognizing the truth. Therefore, true objectivity could only result in knowing God's goodness for what it truly is:
"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I
know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (1 Cor.
The Biblical adage of "an eye for an eye," the Code of Hammurabi and the scales of the Roman statue of Lady Justice all exemplify a basic principle which might be expressed as:
A just penalty is one whose magnitude is commensurate with the offense.
In practice, applying such a principle is not very straightforward because there are many factors to take into consideration such as the fact that intent weighs into the magnitude of an offense. However, I believe that it is perhaps the most basic principle of justice, and what I want to argue is that God is the origin of this principle as opposed to there being some eternal principle, such as a Platonic form, to which God is subject.
The first thing to notice about this principle is that, in spite of its apparent simplicity, it employs concepts that have some very important implications. Many people try to find a basis for this principle in the concept of property, and that's a reasonable idea because stealing is almost universally considered morally wrong, and killing can be thought of as stealing a life, adultery as stealing another's wife, etc. Therefore it's reasonable to conclude that the concept of offense, to some extent, involves the idea property. Afterall, there is no crime in eating an apple that doesn't belong to anyone.
However, that presupposes a right to ownership, which, in turn, involves the idea that people have rights to their property, and that includes their own lives. Therefore, this basic principle of justice presupposes that human life has intrinsic value.
An Evolutionary Origin?
As a Christian, I reject the theory of evolution as an explanation for the origin of mankind because it conflicts with God's revelation, but even if that weren't the case, it has a very limited capacity as an explanation for the origins of moral principles. I believe that the most logically consistent views on morality held by evolutionists are those that conform to a basic tenet expressed by B. F. Skinner:
"A culture may be defined as the contingencies of social reinforcement
maintained by a group. As such it evolves in its own way, as new
cultural practices, however they arise, contribute to the survival of
the group and are perpetuated because they do so." (B. F. Skinner,
"Evolution of Behavior")
This view reduces morality to cultural practices that prevail not because the purported objectives of those practices have any value in themselves, but because living as if they were important contributes to the overall survival of the group.
For this reason, the idea that life has intrinsic value cannot be defended as true from an evolutionary perspective; such an argument could, at best, establish that it prevails in virtue of its properties being propitious to replication. However, since replication is the last court of appeals for evolution, it has veto power over any principle for which it serves as a basis. I could go on to try to show what moral implications this has, but what is important at this point is that from an evolutionary perspective:
- The concept of truth is inapplicable to the principle of equity in justice.
- Such equity must be subservient to anything that is more favorable to replication.
Any moral doctrine whose principles cannot claim the status of being true fails to qualify as such a doctrine. Rather, it can only serve as an explanatory description of how things are instead of how they should be. This is consistent with the Humean adage: "You can't get an ought from an is."
Although I have independent reason for rejecting evolution as the origin of this principle, I just wanted to use this argument to illustrate that any origin whatsoever for the principle of justice must have a genuine basis for asserting that personhood has intrinsic value, and evolution doesn't even pretend to provide such a basis.
The Biblical Origin of Justice
Before any specific laws against killing were expressed in the Bible, Cain murdered his brother Abel, concerning which God said:
"What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from
the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground,
which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you.
You will be a restless wanderer on the earth." (Gen. 4:11)
Such a response only makes sense if Cain already had a sense that killing was wrong, and it is affirmed elsewhere that God creates us with some sense of moral principles. It's really a matter of God's justice that the penalty that men suffer for their sins is not in complete ignorance of the moral standards which exist:
"They show that the requirements of the law are written on their
hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts
sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them." (Rom.
The idea that the crucifixion was necessary (Luke 24:26) in order for God to show mercy presupposes the principle of equity in justice, because it would have been incommensurate to the offense to simply forgive without the penalty being paid:
"God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the
shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to
demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left
the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his
righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who
justifies those who have faith in Jesus." (Rom. 3:25,26)
For this reason, I believe that the principle of "an eye for an eye" is a fundamental principle of justice which God establish to have eternal validity. Jesus referred to this principle when He said:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on
the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." (Matt. 5:38,39)
Although, this appears to refute what I'm saying, the problem which Jesus was addressing was not the principle itself, because that would undermine the idea that the crucifixion was necessary. It would also undermine the doctrine that the moral principles arising out of God's eternal nature are likewise eternal; rather, He was speaking about the improper application of if since it is easy for us forget how unqualified we are to apply it. We are sinful and have received mercy so we should show mercy; and, the limitations of our knowledge make it impossible to apply such a principle with perfect equity.
The Intrinsic Value of Personhood
As mentioned before, the principle of equity in justices presupposes that personhood has intrinsic value. This serves as a basis for how we treat God as well as how we treat each other:
"Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can
fathom." (Psalm 145:3)
"Then God said, 'Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness'"
"What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you
care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you
crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their
feet." (Heb. 2:6,7)
The Aseity and Goodness of God
Theologians reject the idea that God is subject to anything which is independent from His own nature. This is known as the doctrine of aseity, and it is pervasively established in orthodox theology. For that reason, moral principles are not like Platonic forms, but rather, they are established in the person and nature of God:
"These two principles, then, are to be taken for granted; first, that
moral good is good in its own nature, and not because of its
tendencies, or because of its conformity to the laws of reason and,
second, that all law has its foundation in the nature and will of
God." (Charles Hodge)