Saturday, September 21, 2013

On God's Omnibenevolence

From guest blogger, Danny W.

I sort of wind-about in this post. My area of concentration, however, is confined to God’s omnibenevolence and questions about defining evil. I begin by setting the scene with one formulation of the Problem of Evil. I detail a possible counterargument to Argument I, and follow with Argument II (an objection to the theist’s hypothetical recasting of premise 4 below). The last few paragraphs are where I’m trying to focus my future paper. I think my aims actually depart from trying to grant the orthodox theist escape from the Problem of Evil; instead, my goal is to seriously question the attribution of classical omnibenevolence to God. I don’t get that far into this, however, and comments or criticisms would be much appreciated! My tangential aim was simply to put more blog-worthy material on the table for discussion…

I want to start by laying out the deductive argument which strongly concludes that it is logically impossible for God (specifically, the Anselmian-conceived god) to exist while evil simultaneously exists. The following valid argument states such a conclusion about God and evil coexisting (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

Argument I:

  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn't have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn't know when evil exists, or doesn't have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  7. Therefore, God doesn't exist.

There are various counterarguments that can be made against the abovementioned argument. Most theists take special care to preserve premises 1-3; thus, the theist will likely attempt to argue against the framing of premise 4 or 5 and thus refute premises 6 and 7—the conclusion that God doesn’t exist. Several camps of theists will pay special attention to premise 4, and argue that God’s moral perfection does not sufficiently entail Him willing that evil does not occur. The theist who takes this approach might cast God as a utilitarian of sorts; God permits necessary evil, which causally yields a net increase of moral goodness (despite the instantiated evil). Thus, premise 4 would turn into something along the lines of the following:

Premise 4*= If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to maximize moral goodness.

Under the newly-rendered premise 4*, the deductive argument becomes invalid; the existence of evil does not pose a logical contradiction (i.e., an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God could also exist). Again, God’s omnibenevolence (in this case) is manifested as the will to maximize moral goodness—not the will to eliminate all evil.

Most atheists could argue that if we accept Premise 4* as true, then it would need to logically coexist with our other Godly attributes, such as omnipotence. The truth of Premise 4*, however, seems to logically contradict the attribute of omnipotence, as demonstrated in the following argument:

Argument II:

1. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to maximize moral goodness (premise 4*). 
2. God is morally perfect by nature.
3. God has the desire to maximize moral goodness.
4. If maximal moral goodness (or perfect moral goodness) exists—in a logical reality—only good things exist (i.e., no morally undesirable things occur).
5. Morally undesirable things (such as evil) do exist.
6. Maximal moral goodness does not exist.
7. If God is omnipotent, then for every desire X that God has, He brings about the existence of X.
8. God is not omnipotent.

If the theist should take such a route—namely, altering premise 4 as demonstrated—they will be back to square one (as long as my argument is sound).

There are countless objections surrounding the Problem of Evil Argument that focus on the framing of premise 4. Counter-objections soon rise in response to said objections (as demonstrated) due in large part to the murky parameters which characterize omnibenevolence. Isolating a robust definition of omnibenevolence seems to be difficult at best; the lack of a cogent definition put forward by the theist permits the atheist ample imaginative space to characterize it on some type of moral spectrum. Omnibenevolence, seemingly pegged to moral perfection, is equated with desiring no evil or desiring only good (negative and positive definitions, respectively).

Basically, the theist’s dilemma is that it seems logically impossible for omnibenevolence to be defined in any meaningful way, unless an agent only wills for morally good occurrences (i.e., is morally perfect). Is there any other way we can define moral perfection/omni-benevolence? Perhaps it is false that omnibenevolence necessarily entails moral perfection. If that is the case, how would we define omnibenevolence in more accurate terms? What, besides morality, could benevolence be contained by?

However, it seems like most theists make the analytic proposition that omnibenevolence does necessarily entail moral perfection. Can we make analytic proclamations about some unseen, unobserved, difficult to conceive-of predicate such as “omnibenevolence”? If we are going to make an analytic proposition about omnibenevolence, it seems that we cannot actually extend beyond some discussion of ultimate goodness in a moral sense. That being said, it seems that the dilemmas that exist in ethics (e.g., moral realism versus anti-realism) might be significant in determining our ability to characterize God in moral terms (i.e., as necessarily being omnibenevolent).  

In a general sense, to what degree are good, bad, and morality-in-general anthropocentric constructs as opposed to metaphysical reality? Some might argue that we will quickly digress from the main point—God’s omnibenevolence. However, given the fact that omnibenevolence seems to rest so heavily on our conception of morality, understanding the tacit connections between omnibenevolence and morality seems a worthy goal.

From a dialectical perspective on the original Problem of Evil argument, it seems that premise 5—the idea of evil—might also be open to questioning (as we saw in class). Our inability to hone in on a common definition is a red flag that our definition of evil requires careful consideration. Is evil something metaphysically real and perhaps distinct from something that we can plainly observe from our natural surroundings. We observe it in events and actions in our lives, but what exactly are we observing? My main goal for my paper are to explore some epistemological concerns with evil and how we as humans come to know it—if we can actually know it, as opposed to just observing something very undesirable to us. Perhaps our understanding of good and evil is a product of social conditioning, a binary that has been etched out and cultivated in Western thought since the origins of Abrahamic religions. What if evil can be described naturally, as say a choice based on the agent’s degree of “empathy” at a neurological level. For example, could we describe Hitler’s evil as a reflection of neural circuitry (brought about by Hitler’s genetic makeup and experiences) which left him with strong desires for power, delusions about what is just, and zero empathy for the people he slaughtered. Under such mental framework, Hitler then went out and did the unthinkable; what’s wrong with that conception of evil? Or, evil could be some non-natural entity or force superimposed on natural events and we “observe” it simply by intuition. If so, what is the epistemological characterization of that connection between our intuitions and some non-natural realm of events? That is where I’m headed. I don’t have arguments for anything yet, but this seems to be getting at what evil actually is. Now, let’s discuss!

P.S.--I thought that this article provides a fairly leveled discussion about evil as a natural versus non-natural entity; however, it is not philosophically-rigorous in its form or intent.


Anonymous said...

What is your source for assigning omnibenevolence to God?

Anonymous said...

What is your source for assigning omnibenevolence to God? My point is that even Christ got angry from time to time.

Danny Witt said...

Anonymous, thanks for commenting! I'm assigning omnibenevolence to God because that is usually part of the tripartite, Anselmian conception of God (i.e., God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent). These aren't necessarily the true characteristics of God; however, if one is to argue that God's nature consists of the most perfect forms of worldly attributes, such as power, knowledge, and willingness to do good, then omnibenevolence seems to be one of those things. Thus, my source is just the age-old conception of God's character as outlined by the Perfect Being Theory.

Now, that doesn't mean God necessarily has any or all of those attributes, but the theory (namely, the Perfect Being Theory) is widely-held. I should have been a little bit more specific.

As for your comment, I have a few questions. In noting "Christ's anger" as a contradiction to God's omnibenevolence, I want to understand a bit more about your intended argument.

First off, are you referring to "Christ" as the equivalent to "God". If so, you seem to be arguing that "omnibenevolence" cannot coexist with anger (i.e., an emotion). I don't agree with this. As long as we understand benevolence to be either the intent or actual exercise of morally good actions, then God’s omnibenevolence seems like it should be conceptualized in moral terms (i.e., what God ought to do to bring about goodness for other people). Thus, morality roughly seems to be concerned with the agent (in this case God), the motivations for acting, the performance of some action, and the effect that the action has on some object (e.g., a human being). If an agent has a certain emotional experience X (e.g., anger), how does this impact the motivation for acting, the action itself, or the reception of said action by an object.

For example, Larry can be really pissed off when his mom asks him to take out the trash (action X). Despite his pissy mood, Larry realizes that taking out trash is really helping out his family and believes in helping out the family, which motivates him to take out the trash, and making his family happy. Larry does a morally good act, despite being angry. There seems to be little to no connection between doing morally good acts and one’s emotional state when doing them. Just to be clear, one’s emotional state is different from one’s motivations or reasons for performing an action. Like Larry, God could believe in morality, and do good acts all the time (thus being omnibenevolent), even if God is perpetually angry at the world.

If Christ and God are not the same, then the argument still doesn’t seem to be very relevant because we are talking about God’s purported omnibenevolence, not Joe Schmo’s benevolence

Anonymous said...

I thought to be more clear but posts here come under quite a bit of scrutiny and selection. I'll try again. A benevolent act may be pedicated on a selfish motive which in turn may be predicated on a passion that has nothing to do with benevolence proper. Hume juxtaposes anger and benevolence as passions. Schopenhauer describes passions as the adequate objectivity of character and disposition, or will. Anger is one of the deadly sins of pride, qualified in this manner, thereby limits to rage and resentment. Righteous indignation, or anger toward someone that would do harm to others, would be, I think, what apologists would assign to Christ's moments of anger. Describing God in terms of attributes that imply infinity - empty, covered dishes - are useless at revealing his character and disposition, or will.

Anonymous said...

In addition, you might look into one of the most probing dialogues on the subject: Hume's posthumous "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion". Empty, covered dishes are offered by the deist who plays strawman between the atheist Philo and the theologian Cleanthes. Consider the remark by Philo that essentially ends the conversation:

"It is contrary to common sense to entertain apprehensions of terrors, upon account of any opinion whatsoever, or to imagine that we run any risk hereafter, by the freest use of our reason. Such a sentiment implies both an absurdity and an inconsistency. It is an absurdity to believe the Deity has human passions, and one of the lowest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause. It is an inconsistency to believe, that, since the Deity has this human passion, he has not others also; and in particular, a disregard to the opinions of creatures so much inferior."

Will Psilos said...

I think the value of free will could be important for the discussion of omnibenevolence. It could be that a world with free will, which could be assumed to entail the existence of evil as an option open to agents, is more valuable or good than a world without the option of evil. Of course free will can have limits and one could contend that free will could exist (and be just as beneficial) without evil. This taps into a fundamental question about free will - is it robust and valuable if evil isn't an option? Overall in the discussion of evil, I think the theist can always double down on the value or goodness of free will, which is seen to require evil.

Anonymous said...

You posed a lot of questions so I'll try to get the ones I've missed: Is Christ the equivalent of God? This seems to a question of rank. From a humanities standpoint I think the question ought to be: Are the words of the prophets and the gospels authorized or inspired by God? Short of this, are they nonetheless, by and large, true. Short of this, is there something really profound here that would be missed should I elect to simply dismiss it out of hand as superstition. But, in answer to your question: "a true sceptic remains diffident about his doubts as well as his convictions" - Hume.

Consider Mill's assessment of Rousseau's philosophy:

"Thus, in the eighteenth century, when nearly all the instructed, and all those of the uninstructed who were led by them, were lost in admiration of what is called civilization, and of the marvels of modern science, literature, and philosophy, and while greatly overrating the amount of unlikeness between the men of the modern and those of ancient times, indulged the belief that the whole of the difference was in their own favor; with what a salutary shock did the paradoxes of Rousseau explode like bombshells in the midst, dislocating the compact mass of onesided opinion, and forcing its elements to combine in a better form and with additional ingredients. Not that the current opinions were on the whole farther from the truth than Rousseau's were: on the contrary, they were nearer to it: they contained more positive truth, and very much less error. Nevertheless, there lay in Rousseau's doctrine, and has floated down the stream of opinion along with it, a considerable amount of exactly those truths which the popular opinion wanted; and these are the deposit which was left behind when the flood subsided. The superior worth of simplicity of life, the enervating and demoralizing effect of the trammels and hypocrisies of artificial society, are ideas which have never been entirely absent from cultivated minds since Rousseau wrote; and they will in time produce their due effect, though at present needing to be asserted as much as ever, and to be asserted by deeds, for words, on this subject, have nearly exhausted their power."

Anonymous said...

Regarding Larry as will. I think it was a noble deed that Larry, despite his feelings, took out the trash. What occured was reason "his duty to assist his parents" suggested what a guilty feeling at best, shameful feeling at worst, it would be not to do so, so he consoled himself with anger. Were it love or compassion, there would be no sense of duty or anger. That is not to say Larry doesn't love his parents but he may have been a bit preoccupied at the time with himself. Reason may only point to, or suggest, a passion. It is the passion or desire operating under a cloud of reason that engages volition and compels us to act.

Danny Witt said...

I like the discussion about free will and evil. I guess my main question is: why does free will necessarily entail evil? I understand that we are equating evil with very bad things—which are free to occur given a free will model. However, our understanding of good and bad—as it pertains to labels of actions or events in our world—seems to be predicated on our definitions of what is morally good versus morally bad. So instead of saying evil, couldn’t we just say morally bad things happen? And if we can get this far, I feel like we start to look at actions and think about whether we are really able to mine any objective ‘badness’ from them. That seems oxymoronic, in the sense that a label of ‘moral badness’ is not universally objective, but confined to a culture, society, set of laws, or individual—all of which give the semblance of objectivity because we think, listen, and speak within a culture/society.

Whenever I think about morality, I can’t help but think about Sartre’s “existence precedes essence”. We exist as people and consciously predicate essence/value/“quasi-objective” characteristics onto our actions. So I feel like objective evil decays into moral wrongness which further lacks any objective, metaphysical status. We use the word “evil” as a descriptive adjective in everyday communication which gives it a “quasi-objectiveness” within our own cultural society (or a collection of cultures with similar moral beliefs). But when we use the word “evil” are we really doing anything more than giving a strongly emotional account of some action or event that is extremely undesirable to us? If it’s not apparent, I’m applying the moral relativist argument to suggest that evil does not exist mind-independently; we merely use the word evil in everyday social contexts to express extreme emotional disturbance imparted by an action.