omnibenevolence

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Does good always eliminate evil?

michael-binds-satan-william-blakeOne of the key components of the composition of the problem of evil (at least its logical variety)* is the notion that good will eliminate evil. The late J.L. Mackie put it this way:

A wholly good omnipotent being would eliminate evil completely; if there really are evils, then there cannot be any such being. (Mackie, 150, cited below)

Simply put, this statement and any like it seem fairly obviously false if made without any rather major qualifications. After all, it seems clear that the total elimination of evil is not actually a logically necessary end for a good being, even an all-good, all-powerful being.

C. Stephen Evans presented a case to show that Mackie’s statement (and those like it) are simply mistaken. He noted that the principle that good must eliminate evil seems to be blatantly false without a number of qualifications. He argued that there are some evils which good beings will allow in order to bring about a greater good. The analogy he used was that of parents not allowing their children to ride in automobiles. After all, this would ensure that they would never be involved in the evil of a car crash, but surely it would also prevent greater goods of interaction with friends, learning to drive and the responsibility that comes with, and more (127). However, Evans was quick to note that a deity is by no means directly analogous to a human parent. The resources God would have to prevent evil are infinitely greater than that of a human parent.

In the case of God, however, God cannot bring about the logically impossible. Rather than going for a full-on theodicy (an account of why evils exist), Evans argued that certain goods are impossible to achieve without some evil. Thus, courage necessitates some kind of suffering (128). He did not argue that this notion alone provides a comprehensive theodicy; but for our purposes it is enough. It seems clear that the notion that good must eliminate evil is not only unsupported by argument (it is an a priori assumption), but also patently false. That is, we have evidence that at least some evil must be allowed in order for some good to be brought about.

I want to be clear about my thesis in this post: I am not claiming to have a comprehensive explanation for all evil everywhere. My claim is rather that good does not, by necessity, eliminate evil. That’s all. I believe that I have established this thesis. If so, then Mackie’s argument (and those like it) fail.

*The logical problem of evil is basically an argument that there is a contradiction in theistic belief related to God’s power and goodness and the existence of evil.

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Sources

C. Stephen Evans, Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Reason & Religion) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998).

J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (New York: Oxford, 1982).

SDG.

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God and Moral Obligation, or Euthyphro, rethought

Euthyphro’s dilemma is so frequently discussed in philosophy that I don’t see a need to thoroughly present it. The horns, however, are going to be the topic of this post, so I’ll outline them below:

It seems that if God makes commands which create moral duties for humans (and others), then there may only be two options for the theist:

1) We ought to do what God commands because God commands it (and thus he could have commanded any random thing to be dutiful–i.e. torturing cute rabbits)

or

2) God commands us to do things because they are what we ought to do (and therefore there is some standard to which even God answers–see Richard Swinburne’s Revelation for an interesting description of a potential way around this problem)

If these are the only two options, it seems as though theists are in an uncomfortable position indeed! Normally, most theists would attack one of the horns of the dilemma or hit between the horns and find a way out. The late William Alston, however, ingeniously argues in Divine Nature and Human Language that the theist can accept both horns of the dilemma, albeit with some interpretation (DNHL 255).

The most important part of Alston’s solution is to assume that God is perfectly good essentially, that is, necessarily, God is perfectly good (257). In other words, God cannot perform a morally imperfect action. Alston makes no argument for this position, though I think that Stephen Parrish argues this rather well in God and Necessity. Regardless, I’m going to follow Alston’s assumption for the presentation of his argument, for now ignoring the potential problems with removing libertarian free will from God.

If it is the case that God is essentially perfectly good, then moral “oughtness” words such as “required”, “forbidden”, “duty”, etc. do not apply to God. This is because these terms “apply to a being only if that being has a choice between doing or failing to do what it ought to do” (257). But if God cannot fail to do good, then  His own nature “prevents him from acting freely in a way that is required for moral obligation… it is metaphysically impossible that God should do anything that is less than supremely good” (257). But then this means that horn 1 of the dilemma serves as no problem–God can not order things which would be arbitrarily evil, but it also means horn 2 is no problem either–God is not restricted by any “ought” statements.

Further, implicit in the dilemma is the idea that some form of Platonism is correct, that is, there are some objective morals as ideas somewhere. But again the theist can adapt this to theism and say that instead of some morals that just exist of necessity on their own (though again see Swinburne, Revelation for a defense of this very idea of theistic morality), God Himself is the “supreme standard of goodness. God plays the role in evaluation that is… assigned… to Platonic Ideas or principles” (268). Moral obligations are what we ought to do (horn 2 of the dilemma) because they are features of God (269).

Therefore, by accepting that God is essentially perfectly good, and further supposing that God Himself is the standard for goodness, the theist can accept the horns of the dilemma while arguing that they don’t really serve as objections to theism as classically supposed. God, having no “ought” statements apply to him, cannot be the subject of 2), while his very existence as essentially perfectly good means that 1) cannot apply to him either.

Sources:

Alston, William P. Divine Nature and Human Language. Cornell University Press. 1989.

Parrish, Stephen. God and Necessity. University Press of America. 2001.

Swinburne, Richard. Revelation. Oxford University Press. 2007.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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