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Ontological Hierarchy and Moral Decisions

Plato first posited the theory of an ontological hierarchy in his account of human beings a priori knowledge. He believed that humans gained universal knowledge through the direct contact between perfect, other-worldly Forms and our pre-natal souls. Augustine borrowed from this theory of an ontological hierarchy in his essay on moral decision making.

In his, On the Free Choice of the Will, Augustine attempts to resolve the problem of how there could be evil in a world created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent God, and how we might arrive at good, moral decisions with a corruptible free will. He starts at the very beginning by describing the nature of existence and being. He says that there is a hierarchical system at work in nature, as things that understand (humans) are better than things that merely live (beasts), which are better than things that simply exist (stones). Humans, because of their ability to reason and understand, are at the top of the natural hierarchical structure, but if there were something superior (higher in the hierarchy) to human reason, then that being would be God, unless there is something superior to it, which then would be God.

With this theory in place, Augustine goes on to show that there is something superior to human reason, namely a common truth that exists. This truth accounts for the human understanding of numbers and wisdom, which could not be grasped simply by reason. Therefore, since there is something superior to human reason, there must be a God.

The problem of how to make the right moral decisions still remains, though, for our free will has the ability to make bad or evil choices. Since we are imperfect beings, merely a deformed copy of the superior God, we are not fully able to make the right moral decisions simply based upon what we believe to be right, for evil is a deformity of the good, God-given gi…


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