Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Simple Paradox Concerning God’s Goodness

Here’s a short way to understand the problem with attributing goodness to God.  There are vastly detailed issues in the background, but this rough sketch works to illustrate the point.  (I am deliberately conflating acting and failures to act, and leaving some issues concerning duties to rescue in the background for clarity.)

In introductory moral theory discussions, we make four standard distinctions:

How should we understand the category of morally wrong actions?  These are acts (and sometimes omissions or failures to act) where if you commit them, then you are deserving of moral blame and even punishment.  Agents have a moral obligation to refrain from doing these.  And people, the would be victims, have a right to not have these acts committed deliberately against them.  Murder, rape, child abuse, etc. fall into the morally wrong category.  
What acts are morally permissible?  these are acts that a moral agent may do or refrain from doing without violating any duties.  Committing them, or not, does not warrant any moral praise or blame.  Having toast for breakfast is morally neutral this way, unless maybe you killed someone for the toast.  

Which acts are morally obligatory?  These are acts that an agent has a moral obligation or duty to perform.  If he fails to do them, then he deserves moral blame.  Failing to feed your kids, or ignoring a drowning person while there's a life preserver there on the dock that you could toss to him are examples.  People have a right to receive these things from you.  

Which acts are morally supererogatory?  These are acts that you do not have a moral obligation to do.  But if you do them, you deserve moral praise.  People don't have a right to have you do these for them.  You violate no moral duty by doing them or refraining.  But we hold them in high moral esteem.  When someone runs into a burning building to save a child, they are going above and beyond the call of duty.  We praise them as heroes, but if he had not done the act, we would not find moral fault.   

God, it is alleged, is good.   He is morally just, infinitely good, or morally perfect.  How can we understand this description in the light of the distinctions above? We typically have the highest moral praise for those individuals who make the greatest personal sacrifices in order to perform morally supererogatory acts.  Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and many others are praised widely for their morally supererogatory acts. 

God is alleged to be all powerful and all knowing too.  So there will be no opportunities for supererogatory action that are unknown to him, or that are beyond his power to perform.  Does God perform all of the supererogatory acts that we might expect from an infinitely good, all powerful, and all knowing being?  The short answer appears to be no.  There are countless supererogatory acts that God could have done that he has not done.  There are countless supererogatory acts that God could have done but he did not do, but if a human had done them we would hold them in the highest moral esteem. 

Does God perform all of those acts which we hold to be morally obligatory for moral agents?  Again, the simple answer is no.  There have been countless opportunities to perform actions that we would consider to be morally obligatory for moral agents, but the action was not performed.  Again, God would not be limited by his power or knowledge in these cases. 

Has God committed morally wrong actions?  If God is the almighty creator of the universe, then there are countless instances where there was an event that God was either directly or indirectly causally responsible for that we would ordinarily identify as morally wrong.  Consider the class of actions or omissions that we would identify as morally wrong if a moral agent had been present and had committed them or allowed them to happen.  A person drowns by herself near a dock on a lake where a life vest sits on the dock.  If a person had been standing next to the life vest and saw her drowning in the lake, but refrained from tossing the life vest to her, we would think of that failure to act as morally abhorrent.  There are countless other events like these where it does not appear that God did what we would ordinarily have identified as the morally obligatory act.  Therefore, it would appear that God has committed (or by omission allowed to happen) countless morally wrong events. 
So it appears that God, if there is one, has failed to perform countless supererogatory acts that we would otherwise identify as morally praiseworthy.  And God has apparently failed to do many of the actions that we would ordinarily consider to be morally obligatory and good.  And God has apparently committed (or by omission allowed to happen) countless morally wrong actions or events. 

Therefore, we cannot accept the allegation that God is good, or that there is any morally perfect, infinitely good, perfectly just being.  There appears to be no such being.  And if there is no morally perfect being, then there is no God. 

As I said, this is only a rough sketch of an argument.  A carefully constructed version that ties up all loose ends, and deals better with some of the oversimplification would be much longer and much more boring. 

I am attempting to bring out into the light how severe the moral double standard is that we often apply to God.  In our ordinary, daily affairs, we invoke a set of straight forward and clear criteria for what sorts of things are wrong, which things are heroic, and which things are morally good.  But in our ideas of God we throw all of that out.  God is required to do none of the things we normally expect moral agents to do.  If he acts like the worst sort of negligent monster, again that is overlooked.  In effect, none of our judgments about good and evil apply to God, but we insist:  not only is God good, he’s the ultimate exemplar of moral perfection.  Nevermind that he doesn’t do any of the things that morally praiseworthy people do. 

Believers may respond by insisting that for God, whose moral perfection is so vastly beyond our fallible and sinful natures, goodness means something totally different.  Yes, I have to agree.  If God is good, then “good” doesn’t mean any of the things that I thought it did.  In fact, it appears to mean what we usually intend when we say, “negligent,” “abhorrent,” “genocidal,” “abusive,” “repugnant,” or just plain “evil.” 

There may also be this response from Christians, “But God has performed the ultimate of supererogatory acts; he has sacrificed his son for our sins, and offered us salvation from our evil natures,” or something to that effect.  These “God really has done wonderful things for us,” replies will miss the point, I think.  It doesn’t matter how great the deal from Jesus is, that doesn’t alter the moral status of the evil actions and failures to act.  Think of it this way—if an abusive parent neglects, ignores, or worse, actively tortures his kid with diseases, famine, suffering, warfare, and so on, for decades, and then after countless evil actions have passed, gives the kid a million, or a billion dollars, a wonderful life, or whatever reward you like, does that actually change the wrongness of what went on before?  Even if it’s infinite bliss for eternity in heaven, that doesn’t change what God was doing (or failing to do) while the neglect or abuse was happening.  Settlement money is nice to get for the victims of priest child abuse, for example, but I’d bet that lots of them would have glad traded the settlement to have not had the abuse happen to them at all.  Heaven won’t solve the problem I’m bringing out. 

How can it not bother a person to confidently ascribe goodness to God without attaching any of the praise, blame, or responsibilities of being good that are essential to the notion in every other case?  


Chris said...

A very good post!

Even in your simplified way of putting it, the answer is not so simple.

I think we can all think of at least one situation - in our own lives - that we think: if there was a God, why did this happen?

This question then supposes that, whatever happened, should not have.

From OUR perspective.

Let's take something that many can relate to (some more than others).

Death of a loved one. Even worse, in a car crash.

Why? We ask. Why didn't God stop it?

Of course in that moment, we aren't truly thinking clearly - we are grieving, we are in shock. A big part of our life has been ripped away. It's unimagineable...and no matter what, each tradgety is a tradgety unto it's own...no two are truly alike.

But, those feelings, if we are honest to ourselves, are selfish feelings.

Before anyone's fur gets up, just think about it for a second.

WE miss them. WE want them alive. WE are feeling the pain of their loss. WE want them in OUR lives still.

They aren't doing any of that. They are dead.

In our society funerals are a very selfish act - just look at them, how they are conducted...

So WE feel ripped off, by God. If not God, then by chance.

But why should God have saved them?

so WE don't feel bad? So WE don't miss them? So WE can be happy?

If you believe in an afterlife...If they are in the afterlife...shouldn't we be happy for them? Heck, WE even think they would they even want to come back?

If you believe there is no afterlife, then they are in no pain, and have no worries anymore are for sure they aren't missing us...

WE are "left" with the baggage so to speak.

But that's because of how we view the situation. Again, it becomes about US - not the loved one.

So in order to even try to understand how God could be "good" when sometimes what we see doen't jive, we need to rectify our thinking. Change our perspective and admit some things about ourselves that keep us from that.

Now of course, I haven't really answered the whole post, because that would be long - but I will, if needed try to address specific areas if needed.

My main, and waaaay tooo looooong, point was that in order to truly understand something, we need to understand OUR perpective and biases of situations.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Chris. Imagine a serial killer who is on trial and defends his grizzly murders of his victims by saying, "Your wailing and disappointment and outrage at my killing them is fundamentally a selfish act. If there is an afterlife, then they are all perfectly happy. Your being upset is just a matter of your limited perspective on the situation and its just a product of your biases."

Would we accept the sort of justification for God's immoral neglect that you have given in any other situation? No. Are you applying a double standard where God is permitted to do or allow things to happen that we would ordinarily call immoral without any of the fault or blame? Yes.

Chris said...

A double standard implies at least two identical situations and allowing for one outcome while condemning another.

Where is the exact same situation as the serial killer for God that you would like to use?

Nor was I arguing that anyone - even God would use such an excuse. My point was simply about our point of view of situations. They are biased and jaded and effected by emotion at that moment. That even allowing for ANY excuse is almost an impossibility.

To make a well informed critical judgement as to what is absolutely right and wrong would require us to have complete and absolute knowledge.

Knowledge we do not posses.

Is slapping my wife's face ALWAYS wrong?

Chris said...

I'm going to take a step back here and ask.

What's right/wrong?


Who gets to define it?

Matt McCormick said...

Well, I don't think I detect some real interest in engaging the problem constructively here, Chris. But I'll take one more stab at it. You're avoiding the question now, and trying to change the subject. The question is, how can we reconcile our standards of morality that lead us to identify some acts as good, some bad, and some supererogatory with our claims that God is good, where God doesn't do any of the things that we would ordinarily call good?

Your "who's to say?" suggestion won't cut it. Imagine our serial killer friend in the court room saying, "You can't judge me. What's right/wrong? Good/evil? Who gets to define it?" Obviously we can and do determine what is good and what is evil. You don't have any problem at all discerning them. And if you make this mistake about God, then you are applying a double standard.

Anonymous said...

Mr. McMormick,

I believe - at least according to some divine command theorists like Alston and Craig - that if we construe rightness and wrongness as, say, some act is morally wrong if it is forbidden by God or morally right if it is commanded by God then it follows that God has no moral obligations.

It was always my understanding that God's goodness isn't to be cashed in terms of deontic properities but instead axiological properties like just, merciful, etc.

I'm just an amateur so I'm not exactly sure if I am making myself entirely clear.


Andrew said...

Your argument here is almost exactly why I stopped being religious and started exploring atheism. I listened to a sermon about Martin Luther King, and how god in his amazing goodness sent MLK to ensure that the American people could all be one. Aside from the fact that 1) MLK ended up getting killed, so a pretty raw deal for him personally to have been sent, and 2) we're not all exactly living in peace and harmony, although to be fair things are at least a bit better than before MLK, there were a couple of things that *really* got to me:
1) So many of the people trying to keep the status quo were very religious, so how come they were missing something good which god was apparently willing to put so much effort into? And don't give me the freedom of thought excuse - if it was that important I'm sure something could have been done to turn them around, and let's face it there are still plenty religious racists around
but more relevant to your argument here:
2) What about all the African and African American people - slaves - who came before MLK? For hundreds of years poor people were kidnapped, removed from their families, stowed in ships (where so many died) and set up as slaves. Children never saw their parents again. Etc. But because eventually a supposedly good deity saw fit to do a half-assed job of trying to turn things around we're supposed to be all grateful?
I remember the moment as if it was yesterday, although it was on MLK day six years ago - it was a revelation similar to how people describe being born again in the way my eyes were opened.
It took me a while to get over the idea of there actually being a deity but from that moment I'd have points where I would be almost shaking when a priest would talk about how good god is supposed to be.

Matt McCormick said...

That's an interesting suggestion of an answer, anonymous. But it still seems like to me that the problem remains. If God doesn't have any duties, no rights, and nothing counts as supererogatory for him, then what remains of the claim that he is good? That means that by none of the measures we have for determining what acts are good, God qualifies. What does it mean then to say that he is good? If God was evil, or indifferent, would the world look any different? If the answer is yes, then we're back in the dilemma. Why does he fail on all the criteria of being good?

Chris said...

while I will still hold my questions apply, I will provide a different reply.

If you have a feeling or belief that the world isn't supposed to be the way it is, you're right.

We don't even get to turn the page in Genesis when we are shown this -the fall.

Regardless how you percieve the story, it's plain to see that we still participate in the fall everyday.

We have a responsibility to each other - Jesus clearly preached that. Yet, every day we still fail.

When a child dies from starvation - who's fault is it?


A woman raped?




Certainly we can look to the sky and demand that God step in - after all, he has the power right? But that's the easy way out, that's shunning our responsibility.

God why didn't you stop the rape?
We ask, hoping that it relieves us any duty that we might have.

If we don't believe that, then we have no ground to complain about how the world is. It's just doing what it's doing and we are just along for the ride.

But, God expects more from us. Of course we don't like that. We don't want the responsibilities, just the rewards.

We cause a problem, we want God to fix it. We let a problem slide, we want God to make it all better so we don't have to feel the guilt of our inaction.

We just want to play all day, but not put forth any real effort - after all, God's all powerful right?

And that should have been the case, but WE screwed it up.

God gave us free will. And we are free to chose what we do...or don't do.

We claim we want it, but then condemn him for it when things go wrong...though it's our fault.

That's why we hold up heros the way we do - because it's not the norm...though clearly it's supposed to be.

More often than not, we turn a blind eye to the horrors that go on - we turn on the tv and check out...and figure if God really wants it to stop, he'll do something.

Of course, that's a cop out. A cheap way out. A weak way out.

We also tend to forget that there is evil...at least as my faith goes, there's a devil, Satan, who roams the earth. The book of Job shows us this too.

The evil that we see, that we experience, no doubt, he is a part of that - of course with our help.

No, he's not to blame in the way people say, "the devil made me do it."

that's even a worse cop out - completely throwing any/all responsibility out.

But the devil is a part. take away the "d." You got evil.

We know what good and evil is, because God instilled it in our hearts. But we are limited in our understanding of it as well - which is clear every day.

Even if you aren't Christian, you would have to admit that we live in a broken and fallen society. That the world not just CAN BE, but SHOULD BE a better place than it is...

Your post shows that.

But to point the finger at God and wonder why he doesn't fix it...

Can God fix it? You bet.

Should he?

should he, or should we?

The Bible teaches that WE are responsible for each other - the choice is whether or not we want to, whether or not we truly beleive that we are our brother's keeper or not...

Christianity calls for the former. and to me, THAT'S what makes it stand out among the other religions.

The call not to take the "easy" way out and fall back to a God to fix the problems WE have created.

But to stand up and start to take responsibility and challenge others to do the same.

Unknown said...

Good Post.
And many people who would claim that there was some good reason that god does not intervene are the same people who pray to god to change completely unimportant things in their lives..."please god..make our team win"!

Chris said...

Yep! People do that. People do a lot of silly things like that. Heck I do, and have...

Matt said...

Notwithstanding all the major contradictions and previous arguments against the existence of god...

... -You can posit the existence of a god who is able but unwilling to prevent evil, but then I ask -is this being worthy of worship?

Anonymous said...

If i stand on the dock and watch a little girl drown, could i justify my action by claiming the response reflex what my GOD would do in the same situation. And i aspire to be more like him. Making me more Godly? Because who knows what is good or evil from our point of view. Better to follow Gods lead on everything when it comes to making moral decisions, Right?

pboyfloyd said...

Hope I'm not double posting this.

Man! Next you're going to tell me that my lucky rabbit's foot doesn't work either!

Unknown said...

simple question Matt seeing you know the difference between good and evil , are you good or evil?

Matt McCormick said...

The standard response when I point out that many people are applying a double standard whereby God can do nothing wrong seems to be to change the subject and demand to know how it is that I know what is right or wrong, or to point out how bad humans are. These are all evasions, folks. You're avoiding a legitimate question. Why is it when a human does X, Y and Z it's obviously to all of us that they are evil, negligent, or immoral acts, but when God does the same acts he's praised for them? Answer: people are applying a bogus double standard and they are refusing to acknowledge that their characterizing God as good is unintelligible. Stick to the question.


Chris said...

Matt - "You can posit the existence of a god who is able but unwilling to prevent evil, but then I ask -is this being worthy of worship?"

That's a different question - which we can discuss, but I would ask you this: in that context: what if WE are that action to prevent evil?

Anon - "If i stand on the dock and watch a little girl drown, could i justify my action by claiming the response reflex what my GOD would do in the same situation. And i aspire to be more like him. Making me more Godly? Because who knows what is good or evil from our point of view. Better to follow Gods lead on everything when it comes to making moral decisions, Right?"

Well, yes you COULD say that - you can say anything you'd like. I would say, Anon, we do it everyday. Everyday you and I ignore all the metaphorical little girls drowning.

You are wrong however, because OUR actions are not left up to debate. God did give us a commandment to action.

God's actions (or seemingly lack there of) is where faith comes in, to say it's even tested. If we, on faith, take God to be a loving God as expressed through Jesus Christ, then we take God's actions or inaction to be His will, and to put it simply: for the best.

I know, that's a little hard to wrap your head around probably - but that's where studying the Bible and theology comes into play. I'm guessing most atheist don't study the Bible, thus many theological issues don't make sense or seem "wrong."

But such beliefs are ill informed.

Most (Christians) I come across, when faced with an issue with God they don't understand - or like - dig deeper, look for answers, pray, meditate upon them. I do!

I don't just throw out EVERYTHING because I don't understand SOMETHING.

That would be foolish in any other area of study, correct?

Why wouldn't I apply this same "rule" to my faith?

I think there's a misconception that we Christians blindly walk in our faith and don't bother with "contradictions" or issues we don't understand.

while that may be for some, many - if not most - are like me...we dive in deeper and look...which the Bible suggests we do!

A question for you Anon: change the little girl to someone else, say...a child molester.

Say you are on a dock and see a well-known, admitted child molester drowing...what do you do?

Chris said...

Matt -
WE are given one commandment that, when truly looked at, is a cover-all for everything and thus how we should look at, and live in, the world.

"Love your neighbor, as yourself."

There is no ambiguity there. In any, all, EVERY situation we are to apply that rule, that ONE commandment to each other in our daily lives.

We don't, though. All of us, no matter how hard we try, fail miserably at this. You, me, Anon, you name them, them too.

All except one: Jesus.

So now, as to this double standard, in my previous reply to this I hope I addressed it, but I will expand.

In situations we don't know ALL the particulars. we don't know what the other people are thinking, what's in their hearts, what is down the road for them. When God acts - or more to the point: "fails" to act...well, that's when faith is most important.

Of course, I understand that being a bit abstract, but I'll try to make my point clearer...

We, all of us, like to blame God and say "Why?" Why did you let this happen?

So please, truly read and digest the following illustration:

It's a nice lovely day, warm and sunny. Your daughter wants to go swimming down at the lake. You let her go, why not?

All is well with life...yes, LIFE IS GOOD!

So, your daughter goes swimming, alone...

...she can swim...in fact she's a GREAT swimmer...yet...

...she drowns.

Terrible. A tradgety NO ONE should EVER have to face. Yet it happens.

At the funeral, would you think it right for us to point the finger at YOU and ask:

Why did YOU let this happen, MATT?

YOU had "authority" over her, you KNEW she might drown! Why did YOU let her go, MATT?

Why weren't YOU there watching her? Why weren't YOU there to save her, MATT?

Why did YOU let her swim all alone?

What kind of parent ARE YOU, MATT?! KNOWINGLY let YOUR daughter go into a deadly situation like that?

No LOVING parent would EVER do that, MATT! You obvioulsy DID NOT LOVE her and ARE NOT a good PARENT!

Would we expect someone to do that to you Matt?

God no.

Now, I know someone will gloss over that and point out ALL the stuff that God did in the OT and point to it and say: what about all THAT? You can't ignore THAT!

Nope, and I don't.

However, those who point such fingers, DO.


By not bothering to look into them. Not investigating to any possibility WHY?

Rather, they just write it off as "BAD" or "EVIL" and leave ANY responsiblity we might have to discover answers by the way side.

Matt McCormick said...

Chris, how about more arguments for these claims and less sermonizing? Assuming the truth of Christian doctrine and the Bible is begging the question and doesn't convince anyone who doesn't already believe.

Chris said...

If you would rather not have theological answers, don't ask theological questions. Your making claims about something you don't believe in to begin with...so what does the answer matter to you, because no answer will be satisfactory for you.

Like I stated, should someone truly want answers they would look for them.

The issue you pose - is non existent to you - a moot point. What do you hope to get from it?

I can answer as one who believes, and have.

What else would you like?

But your position, to continue to discuss outside of theology (God) well, why post it in the first place?

Matt McCormick said...

Chris, you're confused about what theology is. Obviously, theological answers are not confined to the narrow breed of Christian doctrine that you are assuming (not arguing for) and preaching from. Think of the challenge this way: there are people on the outside--Buddhists, Muslims, other varieties of believers, skeptics, and non-believers who are confused about something that appears to be deeply contradictory within the Christian doctrine and practice. God is alleged to be good, but none of the standards whereby we (including those Christians) typically identify someone as good seem to apply. There are lots of obviously good and evil acts. But apparently God, by this particular view, does not have to do any of the former or avoid/alleviate any of the latter in order to be good. That doesn't add up.

You've responded by changing the subject and pointing out all of the good things we could do better and all of the evil things we should avoid/not commit. If God if virtuous, and the virtuous thing to do by his example is to ignore suffering, inflict great pain, and make no effort to rectify injustice, then, I submit, your account of virtue/goodness/moral perfection is bankrupt. It doesn't mean anything. With all the rationalizing about God's goodness, it would appear that no matter what happens, it is all consistent with or allegedly proves God's goodness. What that actually means is that the claim is incoherent.

You can make a personal attack now, or evade the question, but I'm just trying to make sense of the allegation that God is good. That's all.


Matt said...

Chris, there's a number of problems with the idea's you've posted. I will try to address them in order, starting with the question you posed to me:

If "we" are that (or, more generally, the) action to prevent all evil, then in what sense is god "good?" In fact, what does it mean to call god "good" if he never performs good? I'm not implying he's bad, but if you take away the responsibility of the creator for the well-being of his creations, then you can hardly label him "good." Perhaps omni-indifferent would be a better label.

I don't think anyone has the idea that Christians blindly follow doctrine and don't question everything, however we do find that many people have a difficult time telling the difference between "false" answers and actual answers. It's a fundamental principle of theology that if it sounds deep enough, most people will just accept it and move on. Which says nothing to the truth of the statement. Case in point:

"No being at all is God" - common atheist type statement.

"God is no being at all" - Popular modern theological concept.

Here's the problem, they're logically equivalent. They mean the same thing. There is no "super deep" meaning contained in the second statement.

Your questioning of the Author in the case of a drowning girl is fallacious. He is not omnipotent, or omniscient. God, according to the accounts of omniscience, is all-knowing. So he KNOWS what will happen and willing does nothing to stop it. That is completely different from a temporally-limited being, like Matt, making a decision of which he cannot possibly know the outcome.

The question is not theological. The question is trying to determine if the claimed properties OF god are consistent with observation. It is a philosophical question, nothing more.

Chris said...

Now why would you think I would do either? I haven't before.

Chris said...

See again, you bring in Christianity. From what position should I discuss this issue? You haven't brought up anything but generalities- I answered as such.

You don't want answers though Matt. I understand that, that's fine. But I didn't change the argument- I just expanded it to include US.

Anonymous said...

Hello again Mr. McCormick, this is the anonymous from the 5th comment.

It seems like you are willing to grant for the sake of argument the claim that if the divine command theory (as construed by some theists) is true then God has no moral obligations. The reasoning for this would because it seems wholly implausible to suppose that God commands himself to love humans, for instance.

You then ask if God has no moral obligations or can perform no superogatory actions then how are we to make sense of claim that God is good? I would agree with you that it's a genuine paradox if the only way to construe the goodness of God consists of God having to carry out certain obligations and duties. Those are the deontic properties I spoke of earlier.

But - if we are talking about a Judeo-Christian conception of God - that there's good reason to think this isn't the way to understand God's goodness. His goodness is supposed to (or usually) be construed as God possessing certain traits/characteristics/properties. If a theist were to say God is good they mean to say he possesses traits like graciousness, mercifulness, loving, lover of truth, forbearance, just, etc. That way goodness is meant in terms of value, i.e. axiologically.

In summary:

1) Your argument seems to me to based on an assumption that goodness is to be understood in terms of moral obligation and duties.

2) This assumption is countered by the strong precedence among certain theistic traditions to treat God's goodness as meaning him possessing certain characteristics. I think one can see this when we hear theists say things like "God *is* love itself" for instance.

I think it also feel obliged (heh) mention that some Thomistic philosophers/theologians, coming from a much different theory of God's relation to morality than divine command theorists, have also come to the conclusion that God has no moral obligations.


Gareth McCaughan said...

So, Chris, first you ask all innocently why anyone would think you'd post a personal attack ... and then you post a personal attack. Nice. (Matt asks a question and you say "You don't want answers though Matt". You just called him a liar.)

Your answer to Matt's question, in so far as you've given one, seems to go something like this: The reason why God permits all the bad things in the world is because fixing them is our job, not his. If God did anything about them, that would be a cop-out, a cheap way out.

So. Suppose you run a company that makes medical equipment. Your company's devices need to be carefully tested and calibrated, because otherwise lots of patients will die horribly. But the people who are meant to do the testing and calibration are lazy and incompetent and your company is selling large quantities of dangerously defective equipment. You know all this. It happens that you have a super-easy way of fixing the equipment, not available to the people who are meant to do the job: in fact, all you need to do is to press a button on a machine in your office, and all the equipment will be fixed and all those patients will be OK instead of dying horribly.

Do you (a) press the button or (b) say "nope, it's the employees' job, and fixing the problem for them would be a cop-out"?

Note: choosing option (a) doesn't mean that you can't give them a stern warning and a boatload of training. Though, by analogy with God-according-to-Christianity, perhaps you'd just say: no need for that, their great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents got very good hands-on training, and that should be all they need.

Chris said...

Okay, let's try this:

You say there "seems" to be a double standard. What's one area where God acted completely contrary to what he requires of us?

And why is it?
What should he gave done instead?

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks, Anon. for taking the question seriously and trying to give a constructive and straight answer. I'm not willing to grant that if divine command theory is true, then God has no moral obligations. I don't know what it means to say that God's goodness is axiological and not to be understood as manifesting in any way as actions, duties, or obligations. There may be people who insist that God is good or love or whatever, but it is not reasonable to expect that to show in the world. That strikes me as rationalizing. If this is the way we are to understand God's goodness, then what exactly is the difference between God's having goodness and not? Suppose the serial killer insists that he is, in fact, infinitely good, and since his goodness is so far beyond ours, then none of the standard indicators in terms of obligations and actions apply. You wouldn't accept that for a second. So why is it acceptable when someone says it about God? What is the difference between God's loving us and hating us or being utterly indifferent to us "axiologically"? I can't see any, unless that can be measured in the ways he interacts with us.

There's a fallacy lurking here. It's probably closest to confirmation bias. Many believers are prone to credit selective good events and fortuitous happenings to God. "God loves us," "We are blessed," when we consider a new born baby, a good meal, friendships at church, winning the lottery, or whatever. But with the unfortunate events in our lives, the suffering, the pain, and the evil we see around us the blame, responsibility, guilt, and punishment gets heaped onto our own shoulders. So believers simply refuse to use apply the parallel standard they did with the blessings and connect those unfortunate events with God, much the way Chris has been doing.

So I ask again, it is widely alleged that God is good. What exactly does that mean? And what would be the actual difference in the world if God was morally ambivalent, negligent, or evil? If there would be no difference because God's goodness is beyond our comprehension or it is axiological, then I submit, again, that the claim that God is good is just empty gibberish.

Matt McCormick said...

What this guy is calling the Jug of Milk Fallacy concerning prayer is in the neighborhood of the mistake that I think I am detecting concerning God's goodness:

Jug of Milk Fallacy

Chris said...

What I meant to say wad Matt is not looking for answers as a seeker would. Sorry about the confusion. I don't attack ppl.

Your premise, however, is not a very good one.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Chris, whom are you addressing when you say "Your premise ... is not a very good one", and what do you mean?

David Pinsof said...


Your argument that it is our responsibility to fix evil completely fails when pitted against natural disasters. Nobody could have stopped Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti or the tsunamis of 2004 except for God. Stopping these tragedies would not have violated anyone's free will, nor would it have been a "cop out." If god failed to stop these tragedies (or caused them himself) then he is far far far from anything we would want to worship, much less call "good." And that's leaving aside diseases, genetic disorders, and miscarriages.

melior said...

(pig:) "...some of the guys were thinking, 'Hey, what if he just made us not taste so good?'"


Rosemary said...

I was wondering when someone was going to get to the natural disasters issue. Not before time! There is also the problem of other things caused by weather such as famine, genetic disease that causes excruciating pain until the baby dies of horrible death. These are the things that no person has the power to prevent, unless they have supernatural powers. People who care can only try to alleviate the pain that these things cause. What do we make of the many atheists who perform such tasks? Should the religious person acknowledge that they are more moral than the version of god that they believe exits but who is not manifesting in any responsible way at such times?

Let's go back to the hypothetical drowning girl.

On the pier there is a small child who cannot swim and whose brain is not get mature enough to know what a life raft and probably could not throw one to the woman anyway. The small child is no help to the drowning woman. We do not hold that child accountable for failing to help the woman.

On the pier is a man in a wheel chair. The life raft is out of his reach so he cannot throw it to the woman. He could wheel himself to the edge of the pier, throw himself out of the chair, try to swim to the girl and hold her head above water. Unless someone else gets him out of the water he is likely to drown along with the woman. We do not hold him accountable for failing to save the woman either.

On the pier is a man with extremely well developed muscles who is an excellent swimmer. It would be no problem for him to throw the life raft out to the woman and quite within his ability to swim out, bring the drowning woman to shore and administer first aid and CPR if necessary. If he does nothing on the grounds that the other two people on the pier are responsible then we can only exonerate him from deliberately failing to save the woman when he can if re are satisfied that he is incredibly stupid or brain injured in such a way that he cannot reason properly. We would not exempt him from blame if his lawyer argued that his failure to act in way that we would expect others to act stems from a moral judgment that was beyond the normal person's ability to understand because they do not come close to this man's superior intellect and wisdom. He would be laughed out of court and probably fined for contempt. This, however, is the argument that Christian's routinely expect non-believers to swallow without choking on their wheaties in the process.

Rosemary said...

Sorry. I accidently clicked the wrong button before finishing the editing. I trust readers can guess what I meant to type in several places.

Henry said...

A person could not know the difference between God and the Devil unless he or she already possessed intuitions about right and wrong before learning the claims made for God and the Devil. Therefore, morality cannot come from any god or gods that may or may not exist.

I find it both amusing and theologically inconsistent when believers assume that God shares their values. A Xian friend of mine was sick and praised God for antibiotics. When I pointed out that his praise should be directed instead at Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, he insisted that God should still get the credit for inspiring Fleming. Yet, I pointed out to him, that position directly contradicts the Xian solution to the Problem of Evil. If God chooses to allow evil and suffering, then there is no reason to assume that he would have inspired the discovery of antibiotics. In fact, it seems more likely, based on God's vicious disregard for humanity be-told in scripture, that Fleming would have been doing the Devil's work. The conversation stopped at that point.

Rosemary said...

Chris wrote:
“We know what good and evil is, because God instilled it in our hearts. But we are limited in our understanding of it as well - which is clear every day.”

There are few universal moral values; they change from century to century, decade to decade, nation to nation, village to village, community to community, and are greatly influenced by a person’s level of education, parented style, brain integrity and personality. This transcends any difference between the moral codes attributed to the various competing religions of the era If there is a “god-given” moral code is has proved impossible for humans to agree on what it is. Two people from the same church, synagogue, temple or mosque may have contradictory ideas about what their version of god thinks is the moral thing to do. If a god exists then it is clear that he/she/it suffers from a serious communication deficit.

Rosemary said...

Chris wrote: “I'm guessing most atheist don't study the Bible, thus many theological issues don't make sense or seem "wrong."”

You guess wrong.

A recent research project discovered that atheists are far more knowledgeable about religion than those who are religious, especially about multiple religions.

There is a quite a large community of atheists who were once extremely devout but reluctantly lost their faith through intensive critical analysis of their religion. Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) has said that the best way to cause a Christian to become an atheist is to have them read the whole of the Christian Bible, whole books at a time, instead of cherry picked snippets read together with carefully crafted apologetic notes.

I studied to be a Methodist Minister, but lost my faith on the way. In the course of my candidacy I spoke to a number of practicing clergy who tried to warn me about “getting trapped”. It was many years later before I realized that they were trying to tell me that they no longer believed in the religion they were forced to continuing peddling for the sake of their financial health, their childrens' schooling and their spouse’s mental and physical well-being. Someone has recently written a book about the plights of several such people. Their anonymity has been maintained, of course. One of them could be your pastor.

Rosemary said...

Chris wrote:
“We don't even get to turn the page in Genesis when we are shown this -the fall. Regardless how you percieve (sic) the story, it's plain to see that we still participate in the fall everyday.”

According to whoever wrote the book of Genesis, Eve was warned by the Yahweh god not to eat the fruit from one of the trees in the garden of Eden because it would cause instant death. A talking snake persuaded her to eat the fruit by telling her that this was not true. She discovered that the snake was telling the truth and the Yahweh god had lied: she ate the fruit and did not drop dead on the spot.

The Yahweh god was not around to take care of his naive creations during these proceedings. That was hardly responsible behavior if the fruit was, in fact, dangerous and his charges did not yet have the knowledge to figure this out for themselves. In other words, the Yahweh god set Adam and Eve up to fail. A fair human court would charge the caretaker with willful neglect and entrapment and would probably remove his charges from him. Unfortunately there were no suitable Foster Gods around at that time.

Eve and Adam ate the fruit from the forbidden tree before they understood the difference between right and wrong. They did not know that is was a “sin” to disobey a command not to eat the fruit from the tree. That makes them “not guilty” in any earthly court of law that is concerned about fairness.

According to Genesis, the Yahweh god was angry because Adam and Eve were now like him: they knew the difference between “good” and “evil”.

If doing something that provided the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong is a sin, it is a very strange one. Human societies have long recognized that being able to figure out what it is that societies think is “good” and “evil” is essential for the development of any moral code.

If that is The Fall, then it makes no sense in normal logic. It certainly does not justify the imposition of eternal punishment for the perpetrators, let alone the innocent generations to come. Of course, civilized human courts consider it to be barbaric cruelty to punish someone for the sins of someone else.

Animals Rights people would condone the sacrifice of goats and lambs by slitting their throats and letting them bleed to death before burning them. According to the Bible, the Yahweh god loved the small of burning flesh but it is not explained how it is that a non-material Being can smell anything or why torturing an animal made the god want to forgive humans for exhibiting the flaws he created in them.

The Bible says that the Yahweh god allowed his half-god son to be killed as a permanent substitute for the stream of goats and lambs that had previously been required to please his nostrils. At the point of death, the Yahweh god abandoned the human part of this hybrid. It is not clear whether or not the human half got sent to Hell for three earth days along with the god part or whether it got resurrected at all. In any case, at least the god part went back to the Father who had sent him off to be tortured, just like a normal loving god would. /sarcasm

The resulting divine message appears to be “Do as I say, not as I do – if you can figure out which contradictory commands are meant to apply to your particular circumstances.”

How many modern day Christians living in the Western world have their children stoned for defying their parents, refrain from eating shellfish an don't wear clothing made from a blend of different fibers?

Blamer .. said...

Scroll up and read both of the posts from Anonymous. Those are on point.

Anonymous is referring to "virtue ethics" as way of evaluating the goodness of a god. In contrast to human ethics which concerns itself with actions, intentions, consequences, and rules.

In my view, human ethicists can claim X is good, whereas theists seem only to be able to claim that their god Y is "good" within their chosen metaphysical (theological) context for evaluating the behaviour of gods.

Perhaps there's no paradox if we can agree that "morals" and "goodness" as they apply to humans, aren't applicable beings without physical brains.

Blamer .. said...

*applicable to

Anonymous said...

Natural disaster as a reason for God's evil?

Really, is the world suppose to be made of marshmallows....

I am sure the Katrina folks or Sactown folks moved near bad levees...

And um how can atheist folk claim it is legitimate to make demands on a God....

Since when do subjects of a God get to make demands...

They dont and if we understand the free will a God would give his subjects then we must also consider the relationship in such a situation - one in which garners growth for the subject giving life to things good and bad...

Atheist just dont get it. Their reason is really bad and requires looking at the world through a toiet paper roll...

Good post Chris

Chia said...

Hi Matt, thanks for the post and the replies; guys, good comments. Here are some points worth considering.

MM : (I assume you are referring to Christianity's triune God since you mentioned Jesus, and Him in the singular.)

1. Regarding your queries on applying double standards on God and Man, I do not discount the disparity, but would like to expand the scope for your argument -

"In our ordinary, daily affairs, we invoke a set of straight forward and clear criteria for what sorts of things are wrong, which things are heroic, and which things are morally good [...] (reply to anonymous) why does he fail all the criteria of being good?"

Logically and by definition, God and therefore his actions, being on a supernatural level, are beyond human classification. Perhaps, then, our double standards, being "man's definition of double standards", are irrelevant, just as "man's version of morally good" cannot be applied to God. Hence, if human morality is not God's morality, then God's actions cannot be analysed within the given context of "double standards", thus, inevitably, he fails man's standards - all of them. We, being human, simply will never know what God's standards are.

But you have said :

"What's right/wrong? Good/evil? Who gets to define it? Obviously we can and do determine what is good and what is evil."

Indeed, point 1. is a very simplistic, dismissive and condescending view; I will both explain it and deviate from it to better answer your question.

2. To explain it : God calls for 'faith in Him', which has an element of blind believe in the inexplicable. God places Himself well without the boundaries of man's rationality and philosophy, asking that man shelve his pride and need for intellectual answers, and just - like a child - simply have faith in Him.

Thus we do define good and evil, necessarily so, since society demands some form of order by this. But the realm of faith is outside society's definition. By extension, He wants us to believe that "(His) thoughts are higher than (our) thoughts, and (His) ways higher than (our) ways." (A Bible verse.)

This is not to say that religion, faith or God discourages intellectual debate and exploration - on the contrary, I think we are meant to question, as you are doing now. If we are able, find our answers; if we are unable, acknowledge the limits of humanity, and the dichotomy between God and Man as something never to be bridged while we live.

3. Now to deviate - forgive me for sidetracking to develop the point. In questioning God's 'absolute goodness', especially with regard to His control over life, death and suffering, another aspect of God to be factored in is His ownership of humanity. (Atheists do not believe in Creationism, but for the sake of keeping in line with the entire Biblical view, let us assume God, having created man, is man's undisputed owner.) Therefore, human life being under His authority, our lives are His to use - we are His to bless, His to judge and discipline, just as we judge and discipline (sometimes imperfectly) our children.

So here is one way of seeing it : God, who created us as we create plasticine figurines, instead of merely using us as we use our toys, has given us life, emotion, etc - and it entirely his right to take it away. To link to point 1. : we as creations have no right no impose our standards of morality on our maker, who has the authority to give and take as He pleases.

Chia said...

4. To further expound on point 3., one which you have already touched on :

"Therefore, it would appear that God has committed (or by omission allowed to happen) countless morally wrong events".

To which I would say : yes. God has deliberately allowed Badness, cruelty, rape, death, miscarriage to happen. Discarding momentarily that Christianity is a mindboggling spectrum of dissenting and competing factions, if we look as through the lens of the layman Christian's believe - as we must, since God's absolute goodness is derived within the whole Biblical context - physical torment on Earth is nothing to eternal torment in Hell. Therefore the absolute, most correct, best thing God can do is to make sure as many people as possible are 'saved' by believing in His power and His name. At the same time, He wants us to go to him freely, of our own freewill, not out of a machinised mindset. And it is mostly in times of trauma and severe grief that man, looking for comfort, looks for God and accepts God. The trauma and 'badness' here serves two purposes - firstly, to remind man that life is momentary, unpredictable; and, for all of man's intelligence and capability, completely uncontrollable. Secondly, such chaos causes man to need a greater being - God. In hardship, man is challenged to trust God implicitly, accepting that the world will continue to be flawed and faulted, and yet choose, of his own free will, to believe in God's 'goodness', and that 'badness' has happened for a reason.

To further discuss your question :

"Why is it when a human does X, Y and Z it's obviously to all of us that they are evil, negligent, or immoral acts, but when God does the same acts he's praised for them?"

As an example - in causing the miscarriage of a baby, both parents come to know and accept God. Thus two souls are given to Heaven instead to three lost to hell (parents and child.) I have heard that children below a certain age all go to heaven, but this is inconsequential - the point is that God, by allowing an 'earthly bad' (ie immorality), has done a 'greater good' - therefore He is to be praised for spiritually rescuing parents and child.

Or, to touch on Pinpin's and Rosemary's comments on Haiti and natural disasters in general, the hundreds killed are lost forever, but the thousands left behind get global attention, food, water, medical aid and development, a chance to rebuild (not replace) families, and can potentially hear and believe in the gospel. Without the earthquake/disaster, this would have been impossible; thus God should be praised for allowing the earthquake, bringing greater good, and ultimately spiritual salvation, to a nation wracked with poverty and corruption.

Preposterous as it seems, bear in mind that Jesus Christ and the love of God is almost entirely founded on salvation and eschatology. In light of this, God's apparent immorality might be understood, even justified, by humanity.

Of course - what about 'absolute good'? It's back to point 1. again - there's no 'absolute good' that can contain God.

5. I would anticipate a rebuttal to point 4, namely : scaring/traumatising man to believe in God is counter-logical to the freewill that we are given. However, the parents could have as easily turned their backs on God forever, in which case God might continue letting bad stuff happen to them (like striking both with terminal cancer?) in order that they both, with a shortened and painful temporal life on earth, would nevertheless have a completely joyous eternal life. To allow you eternal purgatory, cancer upon cancer upon cancer in Hell, against Heaven - which is 'good', which is 'bad'? Which brings me back to point 1, yet again.

Chia said...

6. You have further asked:

"You can posit the existence of a god who is able but unwilling to prevent evil, but then I ask -is this being worthy of worship?"

Your (personal?) unspoken answer is - no. I think, however, that nobody can answer this question for another person because faith, for all that it has been entrenched in politics, subjected to divided doctrine and hypocrisy, had - and should still have - its roots in something intensely evaluative and personal. If someone has just lost a lover, and later has calmed enough to admire a spectacular sunset, it is not wrong to worship the creator of a beautiful natural, everyday phenomenon. Similarly, it is not wrong that a mother's faith is shaken, even broken, when she loses a child during, say, an earthquake that could have been prevented. Caustically speaking, a spiritually lost mother might be 'exchanged' for the hundreds of new believers moved by the aid of Christian associations - is this the 'goodness' of God? We will never know.

You have reached the heart of the matter - faith and worship is matter of personal choice. If someone appraises the facts, treasures the beauty of the world, grieves over its chaos, does what he can to help others, and still chooses to hope in God who is good, I would respect his decision and admire his resilience to jadedness. On the contrary, someone who wilfully ignores the bad in this world and is blinded by his own good deeds/the wealth and fortunate circumstances around him, and praises God for that, would be less worthy of anyone's respect.

7. You also reply to Anonymous :

"What is the difference between God's loving us and hating us or being utterly indifferent to us "axiologically"? ... And what would be the actual difference in the world if God was morally ambivalent, negligent, or evil?"

May I reinterpret these questions as : "How does God and His conceived aspects relate to the world if He is entirely (as in point 1.) beyond human comprehension?" If my assumption is wrong, do correct me.

What God in his goodness gifts man with is eternal life after death. Once more, I will merit the improbability of this argument, and can only pacify it with the belief (let us assume it is fact) that the God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to die for the sins of man that man might, in accepting Christ as lord and saviour, be internally cleansed and have eternal life in Heaven instead of eternal damnation in Hell (as all sinners are doomed to). The wonder of this sacrifice is that man are just God's 'plasticine toys' - mere playthings, if you will - and yet he has the potential to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, as a child of God. In essence, God took man, the scum of the earth, and lifted him to be his child, a prince of Heaven.

Anonymous has pointed out that "since when do subjects of a God get to make demands..." He/she is right to say that man is merely a subject, a servant. In relation to point 6., being subjects, we are already honour bound to worship our maker. Yet, he gives us the free will to choose our own God/religion/lifestyle. I think free will, as opposed to mindless control, is worthy of celebration and worship.

Thus, with an indifferent God or a cruel God, there could still be 'happiness' in the world such as birth, celebration, success, and so on. But earthly life is temporal, and life after death is eternal. That we might have eternal life in Heaven is the difference that a "Good" God makes.

Chia said...

8. Finally, and in conclusion, good and bad have to coexist. Without good, all bad would be meaningless, and vice-versa. Might God have purposely created chaos and grief alongside order and celebration, that our lives would be more fulfilled, more diverse, that we would be more appreciative of existence? I think we can acknowledge that hardship has made us cherish joy more fully, death has made us realize life's preciousness, pain has made us more aware of our vulnerability, and failure has made us live less in the future plans and more in the small, immediate, present delights. Perhaps I am too ideally optimistic, but I do not think it is a bad thing to hope. Moreover, since life is continuous, events make more sense if examined in perspective, revealing, maybe, an aspect of God's 'ultimate' goodness - giving us both good and bad, allowing us a full, intense explosion of sensation and memory - allowing us to live life to the fullest.

Whew - I apologize for the length and verbosity of this comment, but I cannot summarize it anymore! Hopefully it is of use. This is the first post of yours I've read - I do look forward to reading more of your posts, and your book, when it is published.

-Regards, Chia

jaybry84 said...

Really? Good and evil have to coexist? That's like saying I won't know how good steak tastes unless I know how bad crap tastes. I've never eaten crap and I still love good steak tastes.

So how can one appreciate heaven if heaven has no evil?

Matt McCormick said...

It's a good point, Jaybry. But I think the more fundamental point is missed by a lot of people who trot out this "Good cannot exist without evil" excuse when confronted with the problem of evil. In order to make the problem go away, what they need to argue first, is that not even an all powerful God can create good without evil. That seems implausible, as Jaybry, points out because it sure doesn't look like it's logically impossible for one to exist without the other. Would we also say that the whole world could not have been red because red can only exist with non-red? I don't think so. Second, they need to argue that not even an omnipotent God could have created a world with any less evil, or any more good than what we have here. God could not have created good without evil, and God could not have created a world with any less evil in it. Both of those seem absurd.

What's also frustrating here is that apologists just refuse to face the real issue and change the subject to the inherent sinfulness of humans, or our need for moral liberty or some such, with explaining any of this in terms of "Not even an all powerful God could have created a world with . . . . " The problem is with God, not with the other diversions about humans or goodness.