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Is a Good God Logically Possible?

In this excerpt from his book Is A Good God Logically Possible? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. Pp.xi, 209.) James P. Sterba provides his answer to the question: “Is there a greater good justification for God’s permitting significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions?”

In my new book I defend atheism, but I was not always a nonbeliever. In fact, I was in a religious order for 12 years, leaving only just before I would have had to take the final vows. In fact, I only became an atheist recently after accepting a John Templeton grant to apply the yet untapped resources of ethics and political philosophy to the problem of evil. Work on this Templeton grant ultimately resulted in my developing the argument I will be summarizing here, set out in more detail in my book. Moreover, if anyone is successful in poking a hole in my argument, I am happy to give up being an atheist. My commitment to atheism is only as strong as the soundness and validity of my argument. Undercut my argument and poof, at least in my case, no more atheist.

My argument begins by considering whether there would be a justification for God’s not preventing—hence permitting—the final stage of significant and especially horrendous evil actions of wrongdoers, the stage where the wrongdoers would be imposing their evil consequences on their victims, for example, just before the infliction of torture by a would-be torturer. I assume that there would be a justification, at least in terms of freedom, for God’s not interfering with the imaginings, intending, and even the taking of initial steps by wrongdoers toward bringing about significant and even horrendous evil consequences on their would-be victims. I also assume that there would be a justification, at least in terms of freedom, for God’s not interfering when the consequences of immoral actions are not significantly evil. So here is the question I want to consider: Is there a greater good justification for God’s permitting significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions?

To answer this question it is important to see that goods that could be provided to us are of two types: goods to which we have a right and goods to which we do not have a right.

Goods to Which We Have a Right

Providing us with goods to which we have a right is also a way of preventing evil. More precisely, the provision of such goods by those who could easily do so without violating anyone’s rights is a way of preventing the evil of the violation of people’s rights.1 Thus, if I provide someone with food and lodging to which that person has a right when I alone (other than God) can easily do so, I prevent that person from suffering an evil. Correspondingly, the nonprovision of goods to which we have a right is also a way of doing evil; more precisely, the nonprovision of such goods by those who could easily provide them without violating anyone’s rights would itself be morally evil.2 Thus, if I do not provide someone with the food and lodging to which that person has a right when I alone (other than God) can easily do so, my omission, which is morally equivalent to a doing here, is also morally evil.

In addition, goods to which we are entitled are either first-order goods that do not logically presuppose the existence of some serious wrongdoing (like the freedom from brutal assault) or second-order goods that do logically presuppose the existence of some serious wrongdoing (like providing aid to a victim of brutal assault). For all such first-order goods to which we are entitled, the basic moral requirement that governs their provision is:

Moral Evil Prevention Requirement I: Prevent rather than permit significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions without violating anyone’s rights (a good to which we have a right) when that can easily be done.3

For example, if you can easily prevent a small child from going hungry or aid someone who has been brutally assaulted without violating anyone’s rights then you should do so. This requirement is an exceptionless minimal component of the Pauline Principle never to do evil that good may come of it which would be acceptable to consequentialists and nonconsequentialists, as well as theists and atheists alike. This requirement would be acceptable to consequentialists and nonconsequentialists alike because as this minimal component of the Pauline Principle has been formulated there are no good consequentialist or nonconsequentialist reasons for violating it. Theists and atheists also accept this requirement for the same reasons that consequentialists and nonconsequentialists accept it. However, theists also believe that God, without violating this requirement, can be morally justified in permitting significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral action in order to prevent greater evil consequences.4 Atheists would love to be able to demonstrate that theists are mistaken about this.5

First-Order Goods to Which We Have a Right

Now with respect to first-order goods to which we have a right, we are sometimes stuck in a situation where we can only provide some people with such a good and hence prevent a corresponding evil from being inflicted on them by not providing other people with another good whose nonprovision inflicts a lesser evil on them. For example, we may only be able to save five people from being robbed and assaulted if we don’t try to also save two other people from being robbed and assaulted who are farther away. God, however, would never find himself causally stuck in such situations. God would always have the causal power to prevent both evils, and it would be contradictory for him to be logically constrained from doing so. This is because if God were logically constrained from preventing such evil consequences when at best we are only causally constrained from preventing them, that would make God impossibly less powerful than we are. Accordingly, God would have to prevent both evil consequences in all such cases unless there is a good to which we are not entitled, the provision of which would justify God in permitting the lesser evil in such cases.

Second-Order Goods to Which We Have a Right

With respect to second-order goods to which we have a right, such as receiving medical care after being brutally assaulted, of course it would be wrong not to provide such goods when one can easily do so without violating anyone’s rights. However, given that the need we have for such goods depends on the existence of significant moral wrongdoing, it would be morally preferable for anyone who could do so to prevent the consequences of that wrongdoing on which the second-order good depends. This is because the victims of significant moral wrongdoing who would have a second-order right to such goods would have morally preferred that anyone who could have easily done so would have kept them from suffering the consequences of the wrongdoing that would ground their right to any second-order goods of rectification and compensation. For example, a victim of a brutal assault would have morally preferred that anyone who could have easily done so would have prevented the consequences of his assault to his now having the right to second-order goods resulting from that assault. So we have:

Moral Prevention Requirement II: Do not permit rather than prevent significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions simply to provide other rational beings with goods they would morally prefer not to have.

This requirement too is an exceptionless minimal component of the Pauline Principle that would be acceptable to consequentialists and nonconsequentialists and it should be acceptable to theists and atheists as well. Again, this requirement would be acceptable to consequentialists and nonconsequentialists because as this minimal component of the Pauline Principle has been formulated there are no good consequentialist or nonconsequentialist reasons for violating it. Theists and atheists should also accept this requirement for the same reasons that consequentialist and nonconsequentialists accept it. In virtue of this moral requirement, God should have acted so as to respect the moral preferences of those who would now have rights to such second-order goods, and that would have eliminated the need for those goods. But clearly this has not been done.

Goods to Which We Do Not Have a Right

With respect to goods to which we do not have a right, not providing such goods, even when we could easily do so, is not morally evil. Such goods are also either first-order goods that do not logically depend on serious wrongdoing or second-order goods that do logically depend on the existence of serious wrongdoing. For all goods of the first sort, the basic moral requirement that governs God’s provision of them is:

Moral Evil Prevention Requirement III: Do not permit rather than prevent significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions (which would violate someone’s rights) in order to provide such goods when there are countless morally unobjectionable ways of providing those goods.

This requirement too is an exceptionless minimal component of the Pauline Principle that would be acceptable to consequentialists and nonconsequentialists as well as theists and atheists alike. Again, this requirement would be acceptable to consequentialists and nonconsequentialists because as this minimal component of the Pauline Principle has been formulated there are no good consequentialist or nonconsequentialist reasons for violating it. However, theists also believe that God, without violating this requirement, can be justified in permitting significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral action in order to provide goods to which we do not have a right.6 Atheists would love to be able to demonstrate that theists are mistaken about this.7

First-Order Goods to Which We Do Not Have a Right

With respect to first-order goods to which we do not have a right, then both God and ourselves would have numerous ways of providing people with such goods without violating their rights by permitting rather than preventing significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions to be inflicted on them. In cases where we humans are causally constrained by the lack of resources and are thus unable to provide someone with such a good without permitting the serious violation of the person’s rights, God would never be subject to such causal constraints, and it would be contradictory to assume that he is subject to logical constraints here. This is because if God were logically constrained from preventing such evil consequences when at best we are only causally constrained from preventing them, this would make God impossibly less powerful than we are.

Second-Order Goods to Which We Do Not Have a Right

Unlike first-order goods to which we do not have a right, the very possibility of second-order goods to which we do not have a right is conditional on the existence of moral wrongdoing. For example, consider the opportunity to console a rape victim. No one is entitled to be provided with such a good and its very existence depends upon God’s permission of a rape. Given then that the would-be beneficiaries of this good would morally prefer that God had prevented the rape rather than that they receive this good, God should have acted to respect their moral preferences. Even the perpetrators of such wrongful deeds, who later have the opportunity to repent them and seek forgiveness would always morally prefer that God had prevented the external consequences of their immoral deeds. So in virtue of Moral Evil Prevention Requirement II, God should have acted to respect the moral preferences of all those who are the beneficiaries of second-order goods to which they do not have a right and not have permitted significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions on which such goods depend for their existence.

Conclusion

In sum, all goods that could be provided to us are either goods to which we have a right or goods to which we do not have a right. Each of these types further divides into first-order goods that do not logically depend on moral wrongdoing and second-order goods that do logically depend on moral wrongdoing. In virtue of Moral Evil Prevention Requirement II, God is morally required to eliminate the need for second-order goods of either type. With respect to first-order goods, the Moral Evil Prevention Requirements I and III morally constrain the pursuit of greater good justifications for both God and ourselves.

We can also restate the argument to approximate the form that the atheist philosopher John Mackie should have used to succeed in his famous exchange with the theist philosopher Alvin Plantinga as follows:

  1. There is an all good, all powerful God. (This is assumed for the sake of argument by both Mackie and Plantinga.)
  2. If there is an all good, all powerful God then necessarily he would be adhering to Evil Prevention Requirements I–III.
  3. If God were adhering to Evil Prevention Requirements I–III, then necessarily significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions would not be obtaining through what would have to be his permission.
  4. Significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions do obtain all around us. (This is assumed by both Mackie and Plantinga,)
  5. Therefore, it is not the case that there is an all good, all powerful God.
About the Author

Jim Sterba teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in ethics and political philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He has published 35 books, and over 200 articles. He is past president of the American Philosophical Association, Central Division, the North American Society for Social Philosophy, past president of Concerned Philosophers for Peace, and past president of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, American Section. He has been visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester and at the University of Lativa in the then Soviet Union on a Fulbright Award. He has also been visiting distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco, the University of California at Irvine, and Santa Clara University. More recently, he received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to do research and run two conferences on bringing the yet untapped resources of ethics to bear on the problem of evil.

Notes
  1. This will imply that someone who is not overburdened by such a provision will have an obligation to provide the relevant goods.
  2. Again, this will imply that someone who is not overburdened by such a provision will have an obligation to provide the relevant goods.
  3. As it should be, these moral requirements apply to us as well as to God, although our ability to prevent is obviously different.
  4. This is because they think that it may be logically impossible for God to prevent the evil consequences of both such actions.
  5. In the course of my argument, I propose to do just that.
  6. This is because theists think that there may be no logically possible alternative way for God to provide for such goods that is morally unobjectionable.
  7. In the course of my argument, I propose to do just that.
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