The Fourth Way — the Argument from Gradation or Degrees of a Quality
The Fourth Way to demonstrate the existence of God is from the objective degrees of desirable qualities of things. In order for qualities to be objective rather than subjective, degrees of quality must be relative to a fixed point of reference that is the unchanging maximum, or highest, quality possible, i.e. perfection. When everyone uses the same reference point of perfection, degrees of perfection are consistent and not subjective.
St. Thomas uses goodness, trueness, and nobility as examples of what we might think of as a sliding scale. It would be futile to speak of these types of qualities in a relative sense without that fixed, absolute point of reference, which resolves the question, “Relative to what?” That fixed point is the maximal degree, or perfection, of that quality or virtue.
A being is good only to a degree relative to the absolute or perfect Good. And it is only against this perfection that an objective reference can be made. Conversely, a being is evil only to the extent that it lacks absolute Goodness, or false to the extent it lacks absolute Truth.
Perfection of a Quality
St. Thomas’ argument recognizes a fixed, objective reference point of perfection. Beings can hold perfect qualities without being perfect in essence (essence being that which makes a being the kind of being it is.) Humans hold perfect qualities such as trueness or dignity, yet, can only achieve a limited degree of perfection of these qualities because of the imperfection of being human.
Just as the First, Second and Third Ways show that nothing that is caused to be, can cause itself to be, by extension, nothing that is caused to be, can cause its own qualities or virtues to be. Beings receive their qualities from that which caused them to be.
By implication, the source of all perfection must possess His own qualities and virtues to perfection. (St. Thomas treats God’s perfection of being in Question 4, Article 1). God must have a tremendous sense of humor, which is evident in humans’ imperfect, but prevalent, senses of humor.
One way to define God is the most developed, perfect and all-inclusive being, the highest of all beings, and as existence Itself. The Biblical reference to this is Exodus 3:14: “God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”
Degree of Quality: Subjective vs. Objective
An example of subjective measurement might be how a person embracing postmodern philosophy measures good relative to an individual’s perception. Such perception is different for each person or situation, and is dependent upon inconsistent personal assessments, and that is what makes it entirely subjective. There is no consistency, as everyone who defines good based upon their own measure of good will have a different set of criteria by which to make their assessment. One person may think that a certain popular artist’s style or voice is good, and another may not like that artist’s style or voice and think it is awful.
This kind of thinking grew out of the challenge, “Who is to say what is perfect for any given quality?” And because people either couldn’t answer the question satisfactorily, or refused to acknowledge that there is a degree of perfection for each quality, the false idea of relativism has been widely accepted.
Catholic Stand managing editor Anthony S. Layne has a noteworthy comment about today’s thinking on the idea of objectiveness:
A person steeped in postmodern philosophy may argue, “There is no objective reality. All we have is our subjective perceptions. Reality is a social construct, an artifact of language and the sciences. Therefore, there can be no objective qualities or virtues.”
But this is nonsense on the face of it. The only condition under which objective reality could not exist is if nothing — no real being — exists. And what doesn’t exist can’t have an opinion and can’t be deluded.
Without an objective reality, since nothing exists, there can be no society to construct a language, let alone “construct” reality through that language. And what doesn’t exist can neither deny nor affirm that anything exists; you may as well stop talking. Your being real proves there is an objective reality.
The person might try to repair their position: “Okay, let there be an objective reality. However, because our senses can be fooled, because our minds might be impaired, because we can suffer from biases, we can’t perceive objective reality straight on.”
But the objective possession of qualities and virtues doesn’t depend on our ability to perceive them. It’s like thinking that whether London has a Piccadilly Square or not depends on whether you have perfectly working eyes. The objective degree to which Joe Smith or Mary Rogers possesses goodness doesn’t depend on whether you or I think they’re objectively good or merely poseurs.