Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Double Standard of God’s Goodness

With the most morally praiseworthy people among us, when they acquire more knowledge or more power, their highest priority is to alleviate suffering in the world. Consider Jonas Salk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Bono. In these cases, as soon as they were able, when they become more influential in the world, accumulated more money, or learned more about the world, they dedicated their lives to employing that expanse of power and knowledge to achieve good in the world. They devoted themselves, sometimes with a great deal of associated personal risk and sacrifice, to eliminating any human suffering they could find. They worked tirelessly to learn more about the world, discover an AIDS vaccine, or find a cheap and efficient way to distribute necessary food to starving people, or achieve social justice against racism.

And we recognize their sacrifices. We praise them. We give them Nobel Prizes. We create awards and honors to acknowledge the great things they have done.

But with God, who has limitless power and knowledge, suddenly our sense of moral responsibility vanishes. Our recognition of human suffering evaporates. Our sense of right and wrong lapses. With God, we make excuses. Somehow, inexplicably, the moral sense that led us in the case of a multi-billionaire who donated hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent the spread of disease in Africa disappears. It would appear that it is a priori that God can do no wrong; he can fail no moral duty; he can be held responsible for nothing awful that happens; he cannot be criticized for not doing those very same things that we would give a human the highest praise for; he cannot be faulted in any way for failing to prevent the same moral atrocities that we would imprison or execute a human for committed or allowing.

Our perverse double standard leads us to blame the victim when some horrible suffering happens. “It must be God’s will that that hurricane killed hundreds and made thousands more homeless.” “There must be some divine plan for all of this.” “It is human arrogance and sin that leads to human suffering—God is infinitely loving and just.”

How can we simultaneously praise the humanitarian efforts of selfless, hard-working rescue workers and philanthropists, while completely absolving a being with more power, more knowledge, and more goodness of any responsibility? How can a person praise God and be thankful to him for sparing them from death from a tsunami while simultaneously refusing to assign any blame to him for causing or allowing the disaster that killed thousands others? How can we imprison or execute child molesters and genocidal dictators for their crimes while simultaneously insisting that there is an infinitely powerful, good, and knowing being who was present but did nothing to prevent those same crimes?

Many people have argued that from the highest vantage of knowledge and power, God would have objectives that could not be clear from down in the trenches. They justify the double moral standard by arguing that God’s infinite capacities will fundamentally change God’s relationship to the world. So God could be infinitely good in light of the full span of history.

Perhaps an infinitely good being would wish that suffering unfold in the world exactly as it does in ours. But the double standard argument above should raise some substantial defeaters. It is profoundly difficult to see how it could be that God’s goodness resembles in any respect the real, concrete, and best examples of goodness that we see among human beings. It is so difficult, in fact, that there is an enormous burden of proof upon the believer to explain how it is that “divine goodness” that in every regard resembles what we would ordinarily call neglect, indifference, criminal culpability, cruelty, hatred, and evil can be goodness at all. It is also obvious that the confidence that believers frequently have about God’s goodness is completely unwarranted. At the very best, the reasonable believer ought to have a great deal of skepticism and caution about the claim that God is good.

15 comments:

s d owen said...

This post brings up some questions and objections I have to the traditional notion of god's goodness and human beings responsibility as subjects to god if "it" were to actually exist.

That is, who cares if god is "good" or not? Whatever "good" is.

Jerry down the street may be "good," but why should I form my ethical judgments based on his POV? Jerry is a different person than I am, believes in capitalism, patriarchy, pre-emptive military strikes, and capital punishment.

Now, Jerry may also be smarter than me, or more wealthy and successful, but why should I care about any of that?

Why should human beings care that god is all powerful and all knowing?

Our own point of view is enough.

My ethics in life, what I see as good and bad, is almost completely relative to my experience, perhaps entirely so.

So why should I care what god thinks? His omniscience and omnipotence would make his point of view on good and bad much different than mine -- his omni-benevolence would be shaped by his power and knowledge -- and why should I be compelled to agree with any of THAT?

The human point of view is enough.

Human beings are inevitably anthropocentric -- we interpret reality exclusively in terms of our values and experience -- how could we not?

So if god's goals are more long range, more abstract and "perfect" somehow, why would we care to adopt THAT POV?

A good analogy for my point is that of a parent and child -- children inevitably adopt their own ethical system -- no one EXPECTS them to carry on or agree with every single goal or view of the parent.

So, if god existed, it might be that we would be smart to consider its point, but it would never follow that we HAVE to agree -- or that we would be wrong to disagree -- it would never follow that we had to get down on our knees and worship like slaves any values or system of a "greater being."

The human POV is enough; our values should differ from god because we ARE different.

We as finite and autonomous beings have no compulsion or need to adopt the ethics of an infinite being.

In fact, the ethics of finite beings are obviously far superior to an entity that views human beings as its subjects for molding and play.

It's the human being that fights to cure cancer after all, and the all good deity that allows the cancer to destroy in the first place.

It's pretty clear that from OUR POV, human beings are morally superior to god.

Jon said...

s d owen: I agree with about half of what you say, but not all. Here are my points of disagreement:

1. Anthropocentricism is a morally weak position, all you need to do to see that is to watch Star Trek. You may especially understand if your kid comes out only half human. Plus if the "Q" from Star Trek offered you the power of 'near Omnipotence and immortality', would you find that so easy to turn down?(Nothing Christian or Theist implied)-(Just from the hypothetical)

2. Your "experiences" are not an island, but tied to many social circumstances (you are not as "individual" as you wish to be).I'm not sure if your arguing from the egoist position.

3. I'm not sure that the Jerry example is clear or is a good analogy for god, if Jerry is indeed smarter and has different opinions, would not you want to understand why, either to improve your position or his? Your answer of "why should I care about any of that?" succumbs to saying that you "should not care about what George Bush thinks" even though what he thinks has consequences on the world.(Not that he is smarter, just more powerful)(I just meant it from him being a human and not an analogy for a god). Therefore what others think is valid or invalid from the worlds point of view, not just yours. But, I think you mean that the world should think more rationally, in which I can agree.

On a side point: I'm not sure that we are autonomous at all. Which is more rational to think, that we have a mystical autonomy floating in the brain somewhere or that our autonomy is an illusion generated by the laws of physics that construct our brain and regulate what emerges from it? Sorry to get off topic, but I think that is interesting.
Please clarify any points that I misunderstood or am not clear about, thanks.

Corey said...

Matt, in reading this, I have realized there is another double standard along these lines. Many theists will praise God for causing all these great and wonderful things to happen. In other words, all things that are "good" are because of God. So why is it that when something "bad" happens, God didn't cause it, but only allows it to happen?

If God is always "in control" and causes good things to happen, then it should be equally feasible that God also causes bad things to happen.

Matt Evpak said...

It seems to me that some of the believer's consistency on this matter depends on his or her views on the afterlife. For instance, unless existence itself is a 'good' stronger than any evil undergone during one's lifetime (and afterlife), a person who lives a life of suffering and then spends eternity enduring conscious torment in hell does seem to be a case of extreme gratuitous evil. On the other hand, if all people are eventually redeemed or granted peace or given a good 'final state,' things don't look so bad. I'm not prepared to claim that such an end would 'justify' or vindicate the present evil, but it certainly coheres better with the notion that God is good.

s d owen said...

"1. Anthropocentricism is a morally weak position, all you need to do to see that is to watch Star Trek. You may especially understand if your kid comes out only half human. Plus if the "Q" from Star Trek offered you the power of 'near Omnipotence and immortality', would you find that so easy to turn down?"

This isn't really going against what I said at all.

I'm not saying that human beings won't change and that their POV can't/won't change either -- but we will always see things from that human perspective no matter what that human perspective becomes.

I'm not saying it's right or wrong; I'm simply pointing out that our perspective will always be our own -- and that perspective will always contain our own presupposed values, like freedom and atheism.

So, even if the Star Trek future came true, we would still be "the human perspective/the human culture" interacting with new alien cultures. Would we change our views? Probably. Hopefully with more knowledge of our universe our perspective would keep growing and growing. But would we ever really stop imbuing the world with our own values? Maybe some would, maybe some wouldn't, but the point is, Star Trek is a kind of Utopian vison of the world, and if you notice, there are still plenty of aliens that are viewed as the "enemy" because of how we value them -- Klingons, the Borg, etc.

Even the most Utopian characters on Star Trek presuppose human values - why else oppose certain alien cultures?

And, moreover, your example of Q makes my point even clearer -- the Star Trek crew found such a powerful being to be unethical.

They judge him off of human values, and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that.

Jon said...

s d owen, I liked your points, and now I will attempt to rebutt the areas I disagree with and clarify the areas I agree with:

It may be a bit nebulous to say that humans will always see things from the human perspective while at the same time saying that humans will change perspectives. Is there a platonic human form and perspective?(biological or ideal?) Can certain values like freedom and atheism be seen in a universal sense? (Ofcourse atheism is universal and not just a human perspective, Klingon atheism is the same as human atheism)

Since we and everyone and thing in the universe are bound by the laws of physics, then all evil is natural evil and all good natural good. The individual is not autonomous nor really individual. I'm not sure that we can seperate our "humanity" with the natural world - What we like to think of as "our" perspectives might really just be part of nature's perspectives.

So, I still don't agree with the idea that our perspectives are trapped in our humanity, because there is no such thing as "humanity" - just various forms of nature that do not appear to have dividing lines or platonic forms.

On the side: Concerning the Q race and the Klingon's - On various accounts with the story or some of the episodes, and the values that the humans within the federation respect - The Klingons became friends through honour (honour as not just human?), on a side note the Q race was respected and there are many allusions to the various mortal races including the humans, trying to reach a Q like prominence (some of them even did)in the universe, only the one individual Q annoyed Piccard and the others, and later on they respected the lessons he had to teach them -especially Piccard in the last episode of the Next Generation.

Anonymous said...

Many things aren't held to the same standard as others. For example, if your dog jumps up on the stove and eats the Thanksgiving day dinner before everybody has arrived, you are angry, but you don't send the dog to its room or beat it because it doesn't know any better; it's in the dog's nature to do such inconsiderate things. However, if your wife starts eating the turkey before all the guests have arrived, you would be upset with her because she knew better. This example isn't about "knowing better," but rather it's about holding two different beings who acted similarly to different standards. Maybe this explains why we vilify murderers but don't do the same for God, the being who has allowed natural events like hurricanes to kill millions of people over the course of history. Why? They are two different beings, and we hold different beings to different standards. In the first example, it is correct to hold the dog and the human to different standards, since different things are expected from both. Perhaps people just expect different things from humans and spiritual beings like God, and that's how they justify God's allowing of suffering, just as we justify the dog's eating of the Thanksgiving dinner. But you're right, it's these standards we hold people and things to that we ought to re-evaluate.

-JoshCadji192A (I lost my password)

Layne Bratten said...

We do hold dogs, humans, and God to different standards, but I think it has more to do with culpability than to do with hierarchies of permissibility. The dog smells the turkey and follows his "gut" (nature) so he goes for it. There is training that we can apply to dogs so that they wont do that, but the nature of the dog is such that it wants the turkey. So we don't hold the dogs responsible for the stupid or disrespectful things that they do. But with humans, we hold them culpable because they know better, or I guess a better way put, they are capable of knowing better for the most part. That is, they have those sorts of capacities to help be respectful or patient etc. But what about God? Him being the creator of the universe and perpetual "holdertogetherer" of the cosmos, it seems He should be held culpable for some, if not all evil things going on right now. We don't want to say that God is out of control of it's own actions or that it doesn't or cannot know any better than what it knows or do any better than it can do. Problem is we cant enforce anything on God. He is, as Judge Dread says, "Above the Law."

Jon said...
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Jon said...

Great point Josh,: I don't think however that we should be treated like ants to an omni-god just because we don't have it's powers, for we are rational to an extant that is well beyond the ant or dog, unless of coarse you are speaking of a non-omni-god.

Maybe it is my failing to see how an omni-god could cause suffering and death to a high degree to a million children in concentration camps - Would an omni-being be that nonchalant about it? Just because we cannot "concieve" about the existence of that being does not mean that there should be a rational explanation about why that is not possible. - Thanks for your thought provoking comments, I enjoy being paused in talk of morality and standards.

Anonymous said...

How can human beings ever escape their own culture and language?

Even as that culture and language evolves, it is always our ground of being in which we interpret all reality.

Why would meeting an alien race necessarily take away our own human perspective?

We may find ourselves to be more ethical than aliens, and we are certainly more ethical than god.

In short, more power and knowledge does not make someone more moral and worthy of "worship."

Is ANYONE really worthy of worship?

Why MUST we worship beings greater than us?

Does this mean that bandgeeks have to worship cheerleaders and football players?

I think not.

Jon said...

I agree that nothing is worthy of worship, especially imaginary beings. However, there is no single "human" culture that we all adhere to. There is no Platonic cultural 'form' for human. Whether we are as a species (that is in constant flux both physiologically and mentally) to a lesser or greater degree better than some aliens is irrelavent to the god concept. I'm just arguing against the anthropomorphic view.

Shaun 192a said...

First things first, I applaud the Star Trek discussion. No discussion about God should go on too long before bringing up the Q.

Secondly, I find it odd that the people commenting here wouldn't hold their dog responsible for eating the Thanksgiving turkey. If my dog did that it would pay for it in the form of an ass whooping for no other reason than to teach it to not do that again. To act in any other manner seems fairly absurd to me.

Lastly, I take offense at Bono being under the list of people who are morally praiseworthy. This particular news story comes to mind: http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/pontin/17618/

Or as reason.com nicely summed it up:

“At June's Technology Entertainment and Design conference in Tanzania, Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist and social worker, spoke out against reliance on foreign charity, pointing out that it had never succeeded in reviving an economy anywhere in the world, least of all Africa. He made his points only with difficulty however because throughout the speech he was heckled from the back of the room with shouts of 'Bullshit!' and 'Bollocks!' The heckler was Bono.”

Shaun 192a said...

A side note about Klingon's and their religion. The Klingon religion contains the teaching that there were Gods, but the ancestors of the Klingon's killed them. I'm not sure if that makes them theists or atheists myself. A conversation could be had about how thinking there are dead gods reflects on the question of theism.

Jon said...

That makes them theists, just not the one's who believe in a god with a big "G", only a little "g" or "g's", since their god's were killed/can be killed. But they did exist, so the klingon must believe that they did in fact exist at one point in time.