Thursday, March 24, 2011
Let’s frame the question of God’s goodness another way. There are countless ordinary cases where we judge a human to have acted rightly or wrongly. Very roughly, when someone is in a convenient position to do something about some serious instance of pointless suffering, and she knows about it, and she is a morally decent or good person, we expect her to do something. Or we do not expect her to act (or fail to act) in a way that brings about serious pointless suffering in others when she knows that the action will bring it about and a choice is available to her to pursue some other course of action that would not cause it. Furthermore, if serious, pointless suffering occurs, and she could act to prevent it at some risk or harm to herself, we very often label that action as heroic or supererogatory. And we hold those sorts of acts, such as running into a burning building to save someone, in high moral esteem. You’re a good person if you strive to avoid causing unnecessary harm to others, and you’re an even better person if you work to alleviate or prevent harm to others at great cost or risk to yourself.
This is all making very short work of a huge number of issues in moral theory, but I just need to get a basic idea across. We have a set of expectations about what morally good people do, what morally wicked people do, and what morally heroic people do. And we form out judgments about a person’s moral merits on the basis of their fulfilling or failing to fulfill those expectations.
Suppose a human stood by and watched someone drown, did nothing while someone was swept away and crushed by a tsunami when it was easy to save him, or she did not act to stop an instance of child sexual abuse, or she set up an apparatus that would kill or maim some innocent passerby, and so on, would we consider that human to be good? If a person labors endlessly to help the unfortunate, educate children, house the homeless, or give medical care to the sick, would we consider that person to be morally good?
God is, by most accounts, good. So here’s the problem. There are countless instances where, if a human acted with regard to some instance of suffering or tragedy the way God apparently acts, then we would readily and without doubt condemn that person as morally wicked. That is, if a person acts like God acts, there would be no doubt in our minds that that person was morally evil. We can ask this question about cases of apparently pointless suffering:
If a human did what God is allegedly doing right now, would we consider that a morally good action?
Some examples may help. If a person unleashed a virus on the planet that killed or maimed millions of people, we would think that person was evil. If a person could have prevented the suffering of those millions of people and didn’t, we would think that he is evil. The same goes for cases of famine, drought, war, genocide, and so on.
If working tirelessly to aid refugees, feed the starving, house the homeless, prevent disease, spread literacy, cure cancer, and end war are morally good, then why doesn’t God do any of them? If ignoring human suffering, tolerating child abuse, being indifferent to injustice, and allowing the propagation of ignorance and hatred are morally bad things, then why does a good God do them?
If the answer to the morality test question is no, then God fails it. If God fails the morality test, then we have (another) serious challenge to the claim that God is good. In general, if we gather enough serious challenges to the claim that X is good, then I think we are justified in rejecting the claim that X is good. At the very least, as the gap grows between what God does and doesn’t do and our normal associations with the label “good,” the more it seems like something has got to give.
The problem of evil is complicated, and I won’t pretend to capture all of the issues here. All I want to do is bring out a different way of thinking about it. There is a profound cognitive dissonance in the way that we talk about God’s goodness and our ordinary moral judgments. On a regular basis we ascribe moral goodness or moral wickedness to innumerable human cases, but we often fail to notice that God is doing none of the things that we praise, and he is doing what we’d normally consider to be evil. Yet we insist that he is good. The believer should take this question to heart:
If God is good, then why doesn’t he do the things that we consider to be good?
It’s on this question that I really want to focus. Experience has taught me that raising these issues provoke people to raise all sorts of tangential matters. Some reactions are predictable: how can we know what is really good or evil? Lots of those instances of suffering are caused by humans and not God. We must not hold God to the same moral standards that we apply to humans. God does act in morally good ways everyday through the acts of those that love him, And so on. Some of these are off topic, and none of them really answer the question.
God’s defenders will be quick to point out that the same standards of moral behavior should not be applied to God here that we apply in ordinary situations. But we must be particularly careful not to succumb to the temptation of ad hoc defenses, special pleading, confirmation bias, or bogus redefinition. We can acknowledge that God, if he were real, would be special. But the theist who would pursue this line is in danger of redefining his terms into incoherence. Imagine the ardent defender of Kim Jong Ill or Muammar Gaddafi:
“Yes, I know that Kim Jong Ill has systematically starved, abused, tortured, killed, and neglected the North Koreans, but he really is good.”
“It seems like Gaddafi has brutally oppressed dissidents, sponsored terrorism, assassinated his political opposition, and engaged is terrible nepotism, but in fact, he’s exceedingly virtuous and moral, and those actions are actually the extraordinary manifestations of goodness as it applies to him in his vast moral superiority to us.”
These sorts of redefinitions don’t work in any other cases. And what’s often driving the defender is confirmation bias, dedication, over zealousness, spin, emotional investment, or malevolence. We can only sustain the claim X is good in a case like this by utterly undermining the meaning of the term. If we must redefine the term entirely in order to sustain attributing it to X, then we should rather conclude that X is not good. If what you actually mean when you say “God is good,” is that God is indifferent, callous, or evil, that’s fine. Let’s just be clear by what our terms mean. I can argue that God is cheese too. Those behaviors aren’t what “good” means. And if that’s what you mean, then you really aren’t entitled to call God good, which is my point here.
What can we say about the overall result of applying the morality test to God? The results are grim. In general, God does none of the things that good people are supposed to do, and he either actively commits or by omission allows to happen countless events that only the most callous, murderous, insensitive, morally bankrupt human would commit or allow to happen. That is, by our ordinary moral standards that we apply to countless actions on a daily basis, God is a moral monster.
What are the possible responses to this dilemma for the believer? First, and obviously, the believer will insist that it is not fitting to apply the same moral standard to God. Owing to his infinite power, his knowledge, or his moral perfection, the ways that God’s goodness manifest themselves are not comparable or measurable by the human standard. Some of this is to be expected and to an extent, it is right. Were there such a being, we would expect the manifestation of his goodness to be different—it would transcendent our ordinary standards.
This approach is reflected in John Hick’s soul building defense, or Van Inwagen’s view in“The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence,” in Philosophical Perspectives, 5: 135-165.
Very generally, these arguments suggest that once we unpack the details of what it would be for an infinitely powerful, knowledgeable, and good being to create a world, we might well come to expect the world to be, more or less, just as we find it in terms of the amount and distribution of seemingly pointless suffering. That is, theodicists like Hick and van Inwagen think that the gap between the world we find ourselves in and the sort of world that God would create isn’t nearly so wide once we consider the requirements of creating a regular universe that fulfills the variety of God’s diverse goals, and once we appreciate how different a being of God’s capacities relationship to the world would be.
I don’t think that Hick or van Inwagen argue that the state of suffering in the world serves as favorable evidence for the existence of a good God, but I haven’t looked at them closely for just that question. I think their views are that if we have sufficiently strong independent evidence for a good God’s existence, then we can see that the suffering in the world is consistent with his goodness.
They might be right, but the problem with their account is that the world that they would have a good God create is indistinguishable from a world with no God at all. Or at least the differences between the world God would create and a Godless world are too small to make it possible for those of us living in one of them to be able to tell which one we’re in. When we put the question to them: If God is good, then why doesn’t he do any of the things that good people do? their answer seems to be: when you’re THAT good and powerful, your actions cease to resemble ordinary good or evil actions altogether. But now we are losing our handle on the claim because of the redefinition problem above. On what grounds can we still confidently assert that God is good? What does it mean to say that he is good now?
This is not yet a devastating argument against God’s existence or goodness. There is much we do not know, and God, if there were one, would no doubt be mysterious to us in many ways. But it is a very substantial prima facie strike against views that God is real and good. Unless the morality problem can be dealt with in some specific ways that I will detail below, God’s failure on the morality test should lead us to conclude that there is no God (where being morally perfect or infinitely good is an essential property of being God.)
Here’s the problem from another angle. If we had some other, independent grounds for thinking that God is real and that God is morally perfect, then our conclusion that God is real and morally perfect could withstand some of the challenge. In general, the conviction or confidence that we attach to the conclusion that God is real and good, like anything else, should be proportional to the quality and quantity of evidence we have. A rational person proportions the strength of their belief to the evidence they have. If that evidence is only weakly in favor of the conclusion, then we should only provisionally accept it. If that evidence becomes weak enough, or if the evidence mounts in favor of rejecting the conclusion, we should do so.
In the big picture, the evidence in favor of God’s existence is weak, and the evidence for God’s moral perfection is even worse. Neither the cosmological nor the teleological arguments give any indication of the moral status of the first cause or the designer. Quite the contrary, if one were to look at the state of the universe and try to draw some inductive conclusion about the moral character of the responsible party, only utter moral indifference would seem plausible. When confronted with the problem of evil, theists have spent centuries just trying to argue that God’s goodness is possibly compatible with the amount and distribution of suffering we find. That is, the strongest response that many theodicies have been able to muster to the problem is that there might be a good God out there. Even worse, skeptical theists have retreated to the meager position that we just can’t know what the function of suffering is in God’s plan. For our current purposes, those answers amount to a tacit concession that God’s goodness cannot be generalized or inductively inferred from the state of the universe.
The ontological argument has some more potential, if it were successful, to prove the moral perfection of God. It’s a deductive argument that proceeds from an analysis of the superiority intrinsic to the concept of a great, perfect, or ultimate being. So it could potentially prove, if successful, that God must necessarily be morally perfect. The problem is that by widespread concession, the ontological argument doesn’t work. See Graham Oppy’s The Ontological Argument for the best thorough and recent analysis. And even if there was some version of the argument that we found compelling, the problem of God’s failure to act in all of the morally salient circumstances under consideration would raise a serious question about that argument. If the ontological argument proves that God is morally perfect, then why is it that God doesn’t do any of the things we associate with moral virtue? This conflict could be taken as an indicator that there is something seriously amiss with the allegedly successful ontological argument.
Recently some theists have alluded to a moral argument for God’s existence that alleges to show that God, a morally perfect being, exists from the presence of a moral sense in us, or from the existence of moral facts. These arguments have yet to be defended in any plausible form in the open forum of philosophical peer review as far as I know. Until they are, I’m not sure that we need to take them very seriously. There is a reason that this alleged indispensible connection between moral facts and God escaped all of the greatest moral theorist in history (Kant, Hume, Mill, Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Rawls, Epicurus, and so on), namely, it’s implausible. Furthermore, God’s failure on the morality test that I am outlining here will be a substantial blow against the premises that might be put forward in such an argument. We can state the question a new way: If the existence of moral facts, or a moral sense in us, proves the existence of God, then why doesn’t God seem to appreciate or adhere to any of those facts?
The failure of God on the morality test gives us strong prima facie evidence against God’s existence that weighs heavily against these alleged independent grounds.
So we do not have the independent, substantial arguments we need to establish the goodness (or reality) of God that might withstand or overcome God’s abysmal failure on the morality test. God’s failure on the test should sustain the conclusion that there is no God until some answer is forthcoming.
Once again, the central question is clear and straightforward, and it ought to have a clear, non-evasive answer: If God is good, then why doesn’t he do any of the things that good people do? There is a great deal more that a good human could do, if she had the power and the knowledge. God is alleged to be a great deal more powerful and knowledgeable than we are. So if there were such a God, a great deal more of those good acts or ends would be achieved.
Many of the traditional answers to the problem of evil come roughly in the form of saying, “There could be some good, absolving reason for why a good God does not do what someone with moral virtue would do. So possibly God is good.” But notice that just restates the problem rather than answer it. It is also possible that there is no good, absolving reason for why a divine being hasn’t done what a virtuous person would do, in which case there is no God. The mere possibility that there is a good reason isn’t enough to solve the problem. It is possible that there is an infinitely evil and powerful being, but there are absolving reasons that prevent him from making things vastly worse than they are right now.
Posted by Matt McCormick at 9:35 AM