Greatness and Power
May 13, 2010 — 22:08

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Concept of God  Comments: 12

While reading PvI (in Problem of Evil) on understanding God as the greatest conceivable being, I began wondering about my grasp of the concept of greatness. I understand moral goodness and the possession of virtues to be great-making properties. But I’m not sure I have this intuition about power.
To examine this intuition more carefully, I imagine a being B1, who, in circumstances C1-C10, would perform a morally right action in each of these circumstances. Being B2, in circumstances C1-C10, would perform the morally right action in C1-C9, but would perform a morally wrong action in C10. If we stipulate that B1 and B2 are otherwise identical, it seems that B1 is greater than B2.
But suppose P1 can perform actions A1-A100, and P2 can perform A1-A99 but cannot perform A100. We will stipulate that P1 and P2 are otherwise identical. It does not seem to me that P1 is a greater being than P2.
Suppose Steve would resist robbing a bank, committing adultery, cheating on his taxes, and lying to his neighbor. Tom would do the same, but he would lie to his neighbor. All else being equal, it seems that Steve is a greater being than Tom.
Suppose Jenny can walk, talk, ride a bike, swim, and wiggle her ears; Sally can perform all of these acts but cannot wiggle her ears. All else being equal, it does not seem that Jenny is a greater being than Sally, even though Jenny is more powerful.
Power, in itself, does not seem to be a great-making property. How does this sound to people?

Comments:
  • christian

    sounds wrong to me andrew.
    i mean, were you able to acquire some new abilities you currently lack, wouldn’t you do so? i would and the reason is that having such abilities would be better.
    i think there is an ambiguity in ‘greatness’. perhaps having certain abilities, perhaps even the ones you mention, wouldn’t make one a morally greater being. so under that disambiguation of ‘greater’ i think you’re right. but there is a different disambiguation of ‘greater’ such that having certain abilities makes one a greater being. we can hear it when we talk about one athlete being a greater athlete than another, one person a greater artist, etc. in this sense, to lack a better word, in this “neutral sense”, having certain abilities (not just any) would make one greater.

    May 13, 2010 — 23:32
  • Raymond W. Aldred

    Andrew it seems right to me. It would also probably be worth your time to check out some of the recent literature on disability. There is a whole host of problems in philosophy centering on claims about disability, claims about impairments, abilities etc. I think however once we begin to talk about particular abilities, and lacking of abilities we begin to tread on pretty rough terrain. For example, can we really say that lacking some ability would make someone “neutrally great” in christian’s sense of the word? I can recall there being a big debacle about an athlete who had a very high tech prosthesis and was temporarily excluded from competing with other non-prosthetic using racers because it was thought his prosthesis gained him an “unfair advantage”. Now this person is missing a leg, and without his prosthesis probably couldn’t run. But probably still has some sort of athletic capacity, just requiring a temporary limb. Before, he would have been excluded from competing because his older non-high-tech prosthesis prevented him from not performing well enough. Does this make the person less great in the neutral sense? it seems the athlete is a great athlete with a prosthesis.
    In addition many persons with disabilities advocate a “social model” of disability, pointing out that disability is in part causally socially constructed (whatever that means). Perhaps it means something like having more “power”, in terms of abilities, in part depends on the environment that one is in. I can imagine Jenny would lack power if she were in an environment where persons who have the power to wiggle their ears were seen as a curse, since Sally and everyone else in her society could not. Jenny is subsequently shunned from society because of her strange ear wiggling ability. When we start to make claims about particular biological types, or abilities being inherently “more powerful” or “greater” or perhaps less well off I become increasingly puzzled.

    May 14, 2010 — 2:19
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    “i mean, were you able to acquire some new abilities you currently lack, wouldn’t you do so? i would and the reason is that having such abilities would be better.
    i think there is an ambiguity in ‘greatness’. perhaps having certain abilities, perhaps even the ones you mention, wouldn’t make one a morally greater being. so under that disambiguation of ‘greater’ i think you’re right. but there is a different disambiguation of ‘greater’ such that having certain abilities makes one a greater being. we can hear it when we talk about one athlete being a greater athlete than another, one person a greater artist, etc. in this sense, to lack a better word, in this “neutral sense”, having certain abilities (not just any) would make one greater.”
    Is there an ambiguity here? If so, I take it, the idea is that there’s a kind of greatness such that:
    (i) Other things equal, A > B if A is a morally better person than B.
    (ii) Other things equal, A > B if A is a better F than B.
    If there’s an ambiguity here, I take it that it’s (ii) that Andrew is interested in and I don’t think that (ii) as understood here involves any sort of greatness that should interest Andrew. We have better torturers, better bankrobbers, better liars, etc…, do they count as greater beings than their less talented torturers, banrobbers, liars, etc…?
    You could try to restrict what we put in for F. I don’t think athletic ability makes some being greater than another but it will obviously make the being a better athlete. (It doesn’t follow from the fact that A is a good F that A is good.) I certainly don’t think that A’s being better at torturing prisoners than B entails that A is better than B (apart from better at torturing).

    May 14, 2010 — 6:34
  • Mike Almeida

    (ii) Other things equal, A > B if A is a better F than B.
    I don’t think (ii) can be right, and that’s what’s generating the counterexamples. Andrew is concerned with greatness simpliciter (the greatness of God) and it is not in general true that a being is greater simpliciter if the being is greater under some sortal. For instance, Clayton’s greater thief is not greater simpliciter. But Andrew’s question concerns the relation of power to greatness simpliciter. And maybe ‘power’ gets understood as having abilities. It doesn’t sound mistaken to me that someone who has the profile of abilities required to successfully rob a bank (among other things) is greater (all else equal) than someone who lacks those abilities. And I think that’s consistent with someone having, along with the skill set required to successfully rob a bank, an unalterable unwillingness to rob banks. That is, for all the well-known (if disputed) reasons, it’s a mistake to analyze abilities or dispositions counterfactually.

    May 14, 2010 — 8:38
  • I second Almeida’s remarks. Here is a way of cashing them out in greater detail. It could be that overall greatness is an organic property, so that some very small increase in power (I can now wiggle my ears, hooray!) does not correlate to some very small increase in overall greatness (but overall I’m still as insignificant as I was before :().
    Here is another, perhaps less promising idea. Power is not a natural kind, as it were. If so, perhaps some powers are great-making properties and others aren’t. The power to create universes might be great-making, but the power to wiggle ears may not.

    May 14, 2010 — 9:31
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Fwiw,
    I agree w/Mike and Ted that the relevant notion has to be greatness-simpliciter rather than greatness relative to some kind. That’s why I didn’t think Christian’s two notions of greatness was going to give us a sense of what the relevant notion of greatness amounts to. (Unless, of course, we hit upon the right kind. We could say that A > B if A is a better moral agent than B or better knower than B, but I think that’s going to get real messy. We could say that the powers that bestow greatness are the powers that bestow greater knowledge or greater ability to do what you ought to do, but given that there’s often an ability and power condition built into obligation, we’re quickly headed for a mess that I don’t think anyone wants to bother to sort out.)

    May 14, 2010 — 10:17
  • christian

    clayton,
    i was thinking along the lines of your (ii) and was thinking it was interesting. we do have to restrict F. under some restriction we will think having certain abilities makes one a better F. under other restrictions we won’t. my point, perhaps, should not have been put in terms of ambiguity. that was sloppy. more likely, there is some unspecificity here. ‘F’ hasn’t been specified enough.
    anyway, it’s not clear to me that there is a ‘greater being than’ simpliciter relation. i certainly don’t have any intuitions regarding the application of that concept. but i can hear, and it seems reasonable for someone to say, that having certain abilities makes a being greater in certain ways, but not in others.

    May 14, 2010 — 12:35
  • Mike Almeida

    A is greater simpliciter than B just is (I take it) the relation that A is more perfect than B. I’m not tempted to abandon the property of perfection in favor of relative perfection any more than I’m tempted to abandon the property of identity in favor of relative identity. It might be right that claims of comparative greatness or perfection are typically relative to kinds, but there’s no conceptual problem with non-relative comparisons, or even with non-relative superlatives. Saying that W is the best possible world doesn’t invite the correction, ‘oh, you mean, best possible world, morally’ or ‘oh, you mean, best possible world, aesthetically’, or ‘oh you must mean, best possible world, bingo-players-wise’, etc. It’s pretty clear that none of the precisifications is clarifying. ‘Best possible world’ means best world simpliciter. The only question open is what goes into being the best world simpliciter. That’s for philosophers to worry about, I guess.

    May 14, 2010 — 15:30
  • Andrew:
    I bet my kids would think that ear-wiggling ability is a great-making property, at least relative to human beings. I have this property and they don’t, but they really wish they also had it. 🙂
    And I think they’d be right to say it. I don’t feel any pull to denying that Jenny is greater than Sally.
    Is the reason you feel a pull to denying it because you think it is a trivial ability? But it isn’t trivial. For instance, there are physically possible circumstances C such that Jenny has the power of saving a city from complete destruction in C, while Sally does not. Just let C be: a crazy terrorist will destroy a city unless one wiggles one’s ears.

    May 15, 2010 — 9:29
  • Andrew Moon

    thanks for the comments everybody!
    Yeah, like Mike said, I am interested in greatness simpliciter; I think that that’s what’s at issue when people are trying to understand God as the greatest possible being. I think it’s also the relevant notion at play in the ontological argument. In discussions about God’s nature or the ontological argument, I don’t think that people are concerned with greatness-relative-to-F, but greatness-simplicter. And like Christian, I don’t have a very strong grasp of this concept, although I do think I have that grasp.
    I’m inclined to think that greatness simpliciter just is moral greatness. A morally good being with much power can perform more good actions than a morally good being with less power; hence, I am inclined to think that the former being is greater than the latter. This is why I think that if God is the greatest possible being, then God must be omnipotent.
    Hence, Alex, I think that the ability to wiggle one’s ears cum a degree of moral goodness (which would include an inclination to use one’s wiggling ears for good) does make one greater than someone who does not have that ability. However, somebody who would use their ability to wiggle their ears for wicked ends is not any greater for having that ability.
    I know that this opens up more questions, but those are questions I don’t have the time to explore right now!

    May 16, 2010 — 15:44
  • Mike Almeida

    A morally good being with much power can perform more good actions than a morally good being with less power; hence, I am inclined to think that the former being is greater than the latter
    Do you have the intuition that a being with greater ability to act morally is morally better than one with less ability? It seems easy to counterexample. For instance, beings with greater ability to act morally might in fact perform fewer morally right actions.

    May 16, 2010 — 16:06
  • I suppose it’s plausible that there is a narrow sense of “power” that is not a great-making property on its own. For instance, suppose Sally can do everything Jenny can, but Sally can, by a simple act of will, cause herself excruciating pain that lasts a week. Suppose that both Sally and Jenny suffer from excessive curiosity and lack of self-control. Sally will out of that curiosity and lack of self-control cause herself to suffer that pain.
    So without conjoining self-control, it does not seem to be a great-making property to have lots of different “powers”.
    But Socrates also argues in the Gorgias that that isn’t the right way to think about power. Without wisdom (or virtue or self-control–these are all the same to Socrates), one does not really have power. The unwise tyrant who can put anybody to death is the most impotent of men, since his so-called powers lead him away from the satisfaction of his desires. The tyrant does not really desire that the just man die. The tyrant desires his own happiness and falsely believes that the death of the just man will contribute to it. But by killing the just man, he departs further from the happiness he desires.
    So now we have the Socratic point that without wisdom, these so-called powers, or powers narrowly understood, are not really powers in the deeper sense. (Cf. Aquinas’ point that the God is not the less for being unable to do evil, because evil is a kind of falling short in action, and hence a kind of impotence.)
    Maybe we can say: One has a power to A in the full sense provided that (a) one can A, (b) one has the wisdom to know when one ought to A, and (c) one has the self-control to be reliably able to A when one ought to.
    So, then, it’s a great-making property to have powers in the full sense.

    May 17, 2010 — 11:43