Satisficing Without Supererogation
December 19, 2009 — 7:29

Author: Jeremy Pierce  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God  Comments: 23

The following two claims seem plausible enough to me:
1. God is not morally obligated to create the best possible world.
2. There are no supererogatory acts.
Supererogatory acts are those acts that go above and beyond what duty or obligation requires. But if God isn’t obligated to create the best possible world, and is merely obligated to produce a good enough world, then isn’t it better if God creates a world that’s better than the minimally good enough world? It seems like a supererogatory act for God to create at all, since it will never be the best act of creation. So there does seem to be a problem if you accept both these claims. But, though I would not submit to martydrom for either claim, there do seem to me to be good arguments for both, and yet they seem inconsistent.
1. I think it’s plausible that adding one more intrinsically good thing to a world will make the world better, and its always possible to add one more intrinsically good thing. This means there is no best possible world, and thus it is impossible even for an omnipotent being to create the best possible world. Unless God is obligated to do the impossible, it seems that claim 1 is true.
2. Consequence-based ethical theories have usually required maximizing the best consequences, but a lot of people have rejected such an approach, because it implies that it’s wrong to go see a movie because that money could better be spent helping starving people get some food (for one example). So we now have satisficing theories approaches that say that all we’re obligated to do is seek good enough consequences. A similar approach occurs in non-consequentialist ethics, where perfect duties are duties everyone has but imperfect duties are acts that someone or other ought to do but no one particular person is required to do them.


We usually take supererogatory acts to be those acts that go above and beyond what duty or obligation requires. Someone can meet all duties or obligations but still be able to do more good than is required. Such acts would be morally better than the acts duty or obligation requires, and thus a person who does them would be morally better than a person merely meeting all obligations or duties.
I don’t have a good philosophical argument for why there are no supererogatory acts for humans, but I do think it follows from Jesus’ teachings. He taught that we ought to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give the shirt and not just the asked-for cloak, etc. It’s not just a recommendation to do more than seems morally required. It actually is morally required. So Christians at least have good reason not to believe in supererogatory acts for us.
That’s not a philosophical argument. But it’s always struck me that the idea of supererogation is often just an excuse not to be good enough, sometimes even to avoid clear moral obligations. For example, Judith Jarvis Thomson uses it to argue that it would be perfectly fine to kill your own offspring at a stage when that offspring has full moral status and is dependent on your body, as long as you made some reasonable attempt to prevent that person’s existence but knew your freely-chosen actions could nevertheless result in such a situation; Thomson’s principle actually implies the conclusion that you have no obligation to care for a baby left on your doorstep or even to inform anyone about it so they can do so. But you can probably accept some supererogation without the monstrous conclusions that follow from the principle Thomson uses to explain her acceptance of supererogation. So I don’t think this kind of consideration will necessarily support the claim that there is never any supererogation.
Nevertheless, I do have a philosophical argument for 2 if we restrict ourselves just to God. A perfect being is perfect by nature. God will only do what’s consistent with his nature. God won’t be more perfect by creating a world that’s a little better. So it doesn’t seem as if supererogation applies to God. There are no actions that are better to God for do, with other actions merely being less good but morally allowable.
It occurs to me that this way of removing supererogation actually doesn’t lead to the inconsistency, though. One way to remove supererogation says that we ought to do the best possible. But this way of removing it says not that we ought to do the best actions possible but that we ought to be the best possible person we can be and do actions consistent with that best moral character. A character-based approach to ethics (as opposed to an act-based approach) will thus think of supererogation differently enough from how we typically do, given the overwhelming influence of act-based ethics, and I think it actually removes the original inconsistency I was proposing above.
A character-based approach to supererogation says we ought to have the best character possible, which on the human level explains why doing lots of good is never enough, and I think that can ground the kinds of ethical claims Jesus taught. But it’s not the sort of view that requires maximizing good consequences, and it seems to me to be perfectly compatible with thinking that there is no maximum good world. Supererogation may seem like an excuse not to do what’s best, but if the issue is being the best person in terms of your character, then you will seek to be best without its being grounded in doing the best actions. The influence is the other way around. If you are good, then you will do good things because you are good. A perfect being will always act with perfect wisdom and goodness and can be said to act perfectly, even if there is no best outcome out of all the possible outcomes God could consider actualizing. So I think you get satisficing with respect to the best possible world. There is no best possible world for God to actualize. And yet it’s not because God only has to be good enough. God will be perfectly good either way. That perfect goodness can result in any of various possible levels of good in the world. The consequences of God’s acts aren’t what make God good. Rather, a good being will do good if that being creates at all, but God would still be good if he didn’t create at all.
Of course, if you take God’s perfect nature to be infinitely good, then it doesn’t matter how good or bad the finite goods of the created universe are on a consequence-based ethical view, because the universe isn’t any better with more good in the world and isn’t any worse with less good. So if I became convinced that my proposed solution to the inconsistency won’t work out, one way out of the problem might be to say that this is a maximally-good world if you include God’s infinitely-good nature in the calculation, and thus even if God created a world that, taken in itself, isn’t as good as another, it’s still true that the entire situation (created world + God) is infinitely good in a way that can’t be greater or less than any other situation (given that God’s existence is necessary).
So I think I can actually maintain both claims without any inconsistency arising, at any rate.
[cross-posted at Parableman]

Comments:
  • I don’t think Scripture implies that there is no supererogation, and the Western Tradition at least tends to reject the no-supererogation view.
    St Paul talks of how celibacy better than marriage, and forcefully rejects the view that marriage is sinful. This suggests that there is such a thing as supererogation (though one can get out of this argument by saying that celibacy is better in itself, but in the particular case, if one is not called to celibacy, marriage is better).
    Jesus’ words suggest that the love that we are required to have is at most the kind of love that gives up one’s for one’s friends. (Even there, it is not clear that Jesus thinks this is obligatory. That might lead to some paradoxical results where A is obliged to give up his life for B and B is obliged to give up his life for A.) If this is right, then we are not obliged to give up our lives for our enemies. But to do that might very well be good–Jesus did it. Hence there is such a thing as supererogation.

    December 19, 2009 — 8:30
  • Also, we are only required to love our neighbor as ourselves. But isn’t it better when one loves one’s neighbor even more?

    December 19, 2009 — 8:37
  • John A.

    Jeremy
    Thanks for a very interesting argument – a few comments/questions.
    1) Why can’t ‘best possible world’ be understood relative to the types of beings God created regarding how best these beings have a chance of fulfilling His ultimate plan. Assume that Hick’s is correct and that God created us as imperfect, immature beings and that He waned us to face experiences where we would have the opportunity to knowingly and freely turn to Him in a loving relationship,etc. If this is correct, then this might be the best of all possible worlds for allowing God and us the possibility that we will mature into the type of beings He wishes us to knowingly and freely become.
    2) If there is no maximum good world then how are we to understand Heaven? If there is no maximum good world is there a maximum bad world? I am assuming that for the Christian that Heaven is the best place to find oneself and that there is no better world to come. If there is a Heaven (and a Hell) then the point I made in ! seems warranted.
    3) If there are no supererogatory actions then how are we to understand the concept of Sainthood. I assume, not being Catholic myself, that being a Saint is the result of performing actions that the ordinary Christian is not duty bound to perform. I bring this up because I am a fan of Urmson’s argument in Saints and Heroes. I agree with him that allowing for this distinction enable us to better understand what our obligations and duties are. For if we are duty bound to act as the Saints and Heroes do then most of us are moral failures. But even though I know I could do better and have done things that I regret, I do not consider myself a moral failure. I could certainly be a much worse person then I am.
    4) How do you understand the concept of ‘good enough?’ If I were to say of another person, “he is a good enough person’ am I complementing him or being critical of the type of person he is? He is a good enough quarterback, but he is no Bret Favre. It seems to me that there is a negative connotation to the idea of ‘good enough’ and that somehow by saying of person S that he/she is good enough we are in fact implying that we think he/she not only could be better, but should be better. We might not necessarily give him/her outright negative sanctions for simply being good enough, but we might implore him/her to become better and praise him/her for doing so. We also seem to be implying that if S is good enough, that if we could find someone (S’) better for the role we would choose S’ over S. (Remember picking sides for games. We would choose the best, then those that were good enough, then those that we had to choose, but whom we didn’t necessarily want on our team because they lacked minimal skills.)
    Anyway, I enjoyed your argument and will continue to give it thought.

    December 19, 2009 — 8:42
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Alex, I don’t read I Cor 7 as saying that celibacy is intrinsically better than marriage. Paul explicitly says this is because of the present circumstances, which may well have something to do with the fact that he was writing to a church under serious persecution.
    The other major interpretation I’m aware of is that he’s speaking of the church age, in which case it seems to be an instrumental good that he’s speaking of. For the sake of the spread of the gospel, the best way to serve that purpose is to be single. But there are other purposes for Christians than single-minded pursuit of the spread of the gospel the way Paul did, and thus it’s not an argument for an ethical purpose all-things-considered.
    So either way I don’t think I Cor 7 is a strong reason to accept supererogation.
    There is actually a scriptural command to consider others as more important than yourself: Philippians 2:3.
    I wonder if there’s a Catholic-Protestant difference here too. I wonder if semi-Pelagian elements of Catholic theology give more reason to want supererogation too allow for a declaration of righteousness in fact as a ground of salvation, whereas Protestants usually have no interest in whether someone is declared righteous in fact because of forensic justification, with some motivation perhaps to try to emphasize our inability to achieve righteousness in this life (which a denial of supererogation helps achieve a lot more easily). That’s not an argument, but it might be a psychological factor for both of us.

    December 19, 2009 — 9:14
  • Jeremy Pierce

    John:
    1. I don’t think that would be a problematic view. I’m just trying to reconcile my two claims above. There may be other ways to do it. I’m not a big fan of Hicks theodicy except in very general terms (I think there’s a version of the soul-making theodicy that is sound, but I don’t like a lot of how he does it.)
    2. I think of Heaven (or better the new heaven and new earth) as a place where our moral character is perfect, but I think that’s consistent with continuing to increase in good actions. I don’t like the idea of a maximum bad world, because I’m Augustinian about evil. The maximum bad world would be empty. But we do need to distinguish between two different kinds of “less good”. One is privations of a natural function, ability, etc. The other is simply not having some ability. My inability to fly isn’t evil. It’s just not as good as I could be. My inability to process insulin properly is an instance of natural evil, and my choice to do something wrong is an instance of moral evil. As long as there’s no natural or moral evil, heaven can make sense. But there might be all sorts of improvements of the first kind as eternity progresses, and perhaps some of those will allow more good in terms of consequences.
    3. How I understand sainthood is that every genuine believer with a salvation-directed work of grace initiated by God is a saint. Every true Christian is a saint. I have no concept of those who are deserving of the title because of their actions or moral character. Sainthood is a gift of God given to all genuine believers, but it is totally undeserved. It is a reflection of having a regenerated moral nature, not a reflection of what one has done. I think we lose a core of the Christian gospel if we do not consider ourselves moral failures, so your argument here doesn’t move me at all. I do think I am a moral failure, and I think you are too. Jesus is the only human being in history who wouldn’t count as a moral failure, on my view (not that God will judge everyone that way, but that’s a forensic judgment on my view and not one that reflects actual actions).
    4. I think of the concept of “good enough” in a way similar to how Augustine does. He speaks of relative moral goodness in this life, which can make sense because some are morally better than others even if everyone is a moral failure apart from God’s work to reform us, which will never be complete in this life. This can make sense of the negative implications of the term as you describe in a way that supererogation can’t, since there’s nothing negative about meeting all your obligations. It’s more that there’s a certain standard you have for certain specific purposes, and something might meet those but not meet all the purposes you might have in mind.

    December 19, 2009 — 9:28
  • Mike Almeida

    I think it’s plausible that adding one more intrinsically good thing to a world will make the world better, and its always possible to add one more intrinsically good thing. This means there is no best possible world
    I wonder if it’s true that adding one more intrinsically good thing to a world will make the world better. It might be that the addition of one more intrinscially good thing also makes the world relationally worse. So, for a toy example, adding one more happy experience to Smith’s life might also make Smith more negligent about his health. The experience is intrinsically good (let’s agree) but relationally bad, and the world might be on balance bad as a result.
    To make this sort of argument work it has to be true that we can always add one more intrinsically good, and not relationally bad, thing to a world. It’s less obvious that we can always do that. Though I’m in general sympathetic to the view that there is no best possible world.

    December 19, 2009 — 11:06
  • Jesus’ words about celibacy are also relevant. I wasn’t arguing that celibacy is intrinsically better–it’s valuable because makes a certain singlemindedness (and not just in evangelizing–evangelization does not figure, at least explicitly, in Jesus’ remarks about eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom) and because it is a species of ascetical practice, a giving up of a good for a greater, like fasting.
    Philippians 2:3 does not appear to be a command to love others above oneself. It seems to be a recommendation humbly to consider others superior to oneself–this is about humility, not about loving others more than one loves oneself.
    Do you really see there being a Gospel command for Christians to give up their lives for their enemies, with it being a sin for them to fail to do so? (And is it even a sin if one doesn’t give up one’s life for a friend? Maybe one loves one’s friend as oneself, and one flips a coin whether to sacrifice one’s life or not.)

    December 19, 2009 — 13:40
  • Mike Almeida

    Do you really see there being a Gospel command for Christians to give up their lives for their enemies, with it being a sin for them to fail to do so?
    I’ve probably been misreading this, but I’ve always taken that as primarily a command to put the life goals of others above one’s own life goals. So, for one instance, to put the life goals of your children ahead of your career goals. Something along those lines. I mean as opposed to literally sacrificing one’s life for others (though in some cases it means this, too). In the former sense, it might well be a sin not to do so.

    December 19, 2009 — 15:29
  • John A.

    Jeremy
    “I think of Heaven (or better the new heaven and new earth) as a place where our moral character is perfect, but I think that’s consistent with continuing to increase in good actions.”
    Thanks for your helpful comments above. I am wondering if our moral character becomes perfect is our moral character identical to God’s? If so and we can continue to increase good actions then is God also increasingly performing good actions. Do we have to increase good actions in Heaven or can we rest content with what we have achieved? If we have to increase good actions then from God’s standpoint this seems to be an argument for continuous creation if His actions have ‘global’ implications. This seems consistent with what you said about goodness above. I take it that we would not be moral failures if we are perfect. We cannot help others in Heaven become better, but we can help those that are not in heaven. If I am in Heaven and I do not stop someone from doing an evil act like torturing a child to death simply to watch it die horribly, then am I doing something wrong – wait I cannot be doing something wrong if I am perfect. So a perfect being would not stop evil, but how is this doing a good action? I’m confused.
    If our world is good enough regarding what God is morally required to create, but he could create better (in all senses of better) worlds and would seem to be doing so if the above quote is correct and applies to Him, then would it be wrong for me to want to live in the better world and resent God for not creating this world in the 1st place. It does not seem to be morally impermissible to resent someone for simply doing good enough as regards me when others are benefiting from living in better worlds then the one I inhabit.
    It seems that if God creates a better world then this act of creation is supererogatory, in that He is only duty bound to create a world that is simply good enough unless He is duty bound to keep creating marginally better worlds infinitely and the world that is simply good enough is the starting point. (This seems consistent with the on-off switch and the switcher argument presented by Wes a few threads ago.)
    I apologize if this is somewhat confused and incoherent. I am just trying to understand your argument and its consequences.

    December 19, 2009 — 16:24
  • Luke Gelinas

    This means there is no best possible world, and thus it is impossible even for an omnipotent being to create the best possible world. Unless God is obligated to do the impossible, it seems that claim 1 is true.
    But it could still be that for any world which O could create, there’s a better world O could create instead. And if you think the worlds run up value-wise to infinity, then for any world which O could create, there are infinitely better worlds O could create instead. That seems like a prima facie problem.
    You might also just conclude that the view about increasing world-value that you find plausible is inconsistent with moral perfection.

    December 19, 2009 — 19:37
  • Mike Almeida

    But it could still be that for any world which O could create, there’s a better world O could create instead. And if you think the worlds run up value-wise to infinity, then for any world which O could create, there are infinitely better worlds O could create instead. That seems like a prima facie problem.
    Luke,
    It’s really hard to make this into a problem, even prima facie. Rowe says something like, it’s a problem because, it is not permissible for God to actualize a world w if there is a better world w’ he could actualize instead. But of course, if the sequence is infinite and that principle is true, there would be no world w’ which God could actualize instead. Which entails that he could actualize any world instead. Which entails that he could actualize no world instead. Which…and so on. So the principle entails the impossible proposition that God can’t actualize w iff. he can. So the principle is false. And so there is no problem.

    December 19, 2009 — 20:12
  • Luke Gelinas

    Rowe says something like, it’s a problem because, it is not permissible for God to actualize a world w if there is a better world w’ he could actualize instead.
    Mike,
    How come (whatever Rowe in fact says) the thing to say here isn’t that it’s a problem because God could always perform a better act, and that moral perfection requires that one always do the best?

    December 19, 2009 — 21:43
  • christian

    As a maximizing consequentialist myself, I think the right thing to say about supererogation is that it is a technical term. One can maintain that an action is supererogatory and also obligatory. These actions will be exactly those that we want to praise people for performing, viz. actions that come at a great personal cost. What the MCer has to give up is the idea that there are supererogatory acts in the sense of being merely permissible, but go beyond the call of duty. But the MCer already has to give up the notion of mere permissibility (permissible and not required actions).
    Anyway, why not say that God’s creating a good-enough world is supererogatory in this sense? It’s obligatory but He deserves praise for doing it.

    December 20, 2009 — 0:14
  • Mike Almeida

    How come (whatever Rowe in fact says) the thing to say here isn’t that it’s a problem because God could always perform a better act, and that moral perfection requires that one always do the best?
    Luke,
    It can’t be that perfection requires that you to do the best, since there is no best. Not even moral perfection requires the impossible. You seem to be suggesting, in the initial sentence, something like the following,
    P. (Vx)(Ey)(y is better than x only if God’s moral perfection does not require him to do x).
    Any action x that is bettered by some other action y is such that God’s nature does not require God to perform x. But that entails that God’s nature does not require him to actualize any world at all, since every world is bettered by another. There is still no problem. To get a quasi-problem you’ve got to add that it is better that God actualize some world or other than that he actualize no world at all. But even here there’s no logical or coherence problem. It’s just an odd dilemma for God to be in.

    December 20, 2009 — 8:20
  • Luke Gelinas

    Mike,
    It can’t be that perfection requires that you to do the best, since there is no best.
    I’m assuming (with Rowe) that worlds are ranked in terms of intrinsic value. But then we can doubt whether it’s not possible for one to do the best–perform the best act–in situations like this, since the best act might not be the one that brings about more intrinsic value. Betterness of worlds (as a function of intrinsic value) and betterness of acts might come apart, though a story about this would be nice. If worlds aren’t ranked in terms of intrinsic value, the thought that worlds ascend ad infinitum starts to lose its grip on me.

    December 20, 2009 — 20:20
  • Mike Almeida

    Betterness of worlds (as a function of intrinsic value) and betterness of acts might come apart, though a story about this would be nice.
    Well, right, if you reject the idea that it’s in general morally better to actualize a better world, then you have dissolved the problem, rather than solved it. I was working under the assumption that we were trying to identify just what the problem is supposed to be under the typical assumptions. Even then I was urging that it’s not obvious that there is a problem.

    December 21, 2009 — 9:38
  • Christian:
    Out of curiosity, what do you say about cases where for every action there is a better action?

    December 21, 2009 — 11:58
  • christian

    Alex,
    I think MC must appeal to expected value. Once they do this it’s not clear that for any action, there is another that can be performed that has a higher expected value.
    Maybe this is wrong. For example, maybe it is wrong for God. If so, then God can’t do the right thing. But this is supposing that it makes sense to talk about infinite value. It’s not clear to me that it does.
    Maybe this is wrong too. If so, Kagan and Vallentyne have offered some principles to supplement MC when infinite expected value is at stake. Maybe something they suggested is correct, namely, that MC only works when we are considering finite value, but other supplementary principles are needed when we are considering infinite expected value.

    December 21, 2009 — 16:12
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Grading has taken me away for a couple days, but here are some belated comments.
    Mike: You’re right that some methods of adding an intrinsically good thing might make a world on balance worse. But that’s not what Aquinas had in mind, I think. You could in principle make a world better by adding an intrinsically good thing that is in no significant way even related to any of the other things. What if God added a planet that doesn’t causally interact with the rest of the universe in any way that changes any matters of significance, and God includes one beautiful creature there that has an enjoyable existence but no libertarian freedom? Isn’t that adding an additional good to the world? Then God might have made another planet that never interacts with any others in any significant way with one such beautiful creature that leads an enjoyable existence. Isn’t the world better?
    I think that’s the kind of thing Aquinas had in mind. It’s not that adding an intrinsically good thing always makes the world better but that you always can make a world better by adding an intrinsically good thing in a way that it doesn’t affect anything else significantly.
    Alex: I do think it’s a sin to be unwilling to give up one’s life for something that really is for the good of one’s enemy. I’m not talking about cases when giving up one’s life for an enemy seems actually to be bad for the enemy.
    As for love and humility, I’m not sure I see the distinction between seeing someone as more important than oneself and loving them more than oneself. Seeing something as important does seem to me to be an instance of love.
    John: Aquinas makes the distinction between being perfected in the sense of having all your capacities in their best state (without having every perfection) and being perfected in the sense of having every perfection. This relies on the distinction between natural limits (which Augustine and Aquinas insist are not evil) and privations (which are deficiencies in one’s natural capabilities). If people become perfected in terms of having no privations of natural abilities, there will be no sin, but there might be improvements in the direction of becoming more capable of doing good by becoming less limited in ways one was naturally limited in this life. God has none of those limits, so God wouldn’t need to grow to become perfect.
    This allows us to conceive of becoming like Christ or becoming like God in some sense, because when there’s a limit you never reach it does make sense to think of approaching it by becoming more and more like it. But it doesn’t mean anyone will ever be like God in having all those perfections.
    I’m not sure if the rest of your comments follow given all this. If so, you can try again, but I’m having a hard time connecting them to my actual view.
    Christian: That seems to me to be a funny use of an already-existing technical term. Using technical terms to mean some other technical definition than the original one might be all right as long as it’s clear what you’re doing, but I would have thought philosophy had now accepted that we should see the supererogatory as what’s not morally required but morally better than what’s required. I don’t have a problem with what you’re saying, though. I have no problem saying that God does praiseworthy things that met God’s obligations, at least if we’re in the business of thinking God has obligations (I tend not to think so, but for the sake of this discussion I’ve tried to remain neutral on that question).

    December 21, 2009 — 18:36
  • Mike Almeida

    Once they do this it’s not clear that for any action, there is another that can be performed that has a higher expected value.
    Christian,
    They still have the problem. A classic version is being offered more and more utils as one stands closer and closer to a wall without touching it. Since there is no spatial locaiton that is closest to the wall without touching it, there is no best action. On Kagan and Vallentyne, the principle they offer does not (or does not obviously) yield the right recommendation in the sorts of cases described in my ‘God’s Bad Worlds’.

    December 21, 2009 — 18:40
  • DL

    Jeremy Pierce: Then God might have made another planet that never interacts with any others in any significant way with one such beautiful creature that leads an enjoyable existence. Isn’t the world better?

    But suppose that one of the things that makes this world so good is that it is designed to evolve everything; that is, God chose laws of physics and initial conditions from which everything most elegantly unfolds without requiring miraculous tinkering. Then it wouldn’t be possible to just stick in new planets at random.
    Of course, God could always create something completely independent of everything else by making a whole separate universe. But then to the objection, why didn’t God create that universe, you can always answer: He did! At least, for all we know, since by definition we could never detect a truly independent universe.
    I’ve actually been thinking this might provide a good retort to any “why didn’t God create a better universe” challenge. We have no reason to suppose that God didn’t create the better world; but then a multiverse that contained that very good universe would itself be better if God added our less-good universe to the mix. In fact, it might be that God creates all possible universes that contain any good at all (which might be all of them, on the view that the only purely-bad universe would be the one that contained nothing at all; however, it at least covers all possible worlds that have more good than evil).

    December 21, 2009 — 22:30
  • Jeremy:
    As to seeing another as “more important”, there is a translation issue. It could simply be interpreted as seeing another as better than oneself. But even if we stick to “more important”, I see lots of people as more important than me, without my loving them more than myself.

    December 21, 2009 — 22:50
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Alex, I don’t see any difference between treating someone better than yourself and loving them more than yourself, biblically speaking.
    DL, we need to keep straight the idea of possible world and the idea of different worlds within a multiverse. If there’s a multitude of universes, that’s just one possible world. You could always raise the question of God making one more very good universe. The possible world with all the universes God made and the possible world with all the ones God made plus one are two different possible worlds. Therefore, there’s always the possibility of another world existing in addition to however many God created. Unless God creates an actual infinite of worlds, the argument resurfaces. If an actual infinite is unrealizable, then the argument seemsto go through. If it’s realizable, then maybe it’s possible for there to be a best of all possible worlds if God creates all the possible cosmoi that are intrinsically worth creating.
    The only ways I can think of to ensure getting around this argument are:
    1. if God’s presence makes any universe infinitely good, and thus there’s no world better than the actual world (but it’s still not the best possible world, since they’re all tied in intrinsic goodness)
    2. if value depends purely on God’s subjective judgment, and goodness of a world then depends on how God sees it, and then whatever God creates can be deemed the best possible by God without even God’s nature constraining such a judgment
    3. if (a) the objective order of reality, whether based in God’s nature or not, has clear hierarchies of goodness such that the concept of a best possible world is at least meaningful and (b) some amount of order in the universe is so good that it always outweighs any attempt to make the world better by adding more things or adding more cosmoi within the multiverse
    I’m open to (1), but it sort of dodges the question of what reasons God might have to create the universe a certain way, and I think those questions are meaningful.
    I have little patience with (2). I think questions of goodness must at least be based in something objective, or they won’t be meaningful, even if that objective basis is God’s nature. Merely subjective whims, even ones by a very powerful being with no intrinsic moral nature logically prior to such whims, do not seem to me to ground morality in any meaningful sense.
    Leibniz (and in my view Malebranche, but he worded it differently without the “best of all possible worlds” language and explicitly even resisted Leibniz’s formulation) seem to have thought something like 3. I’m short of an argument for (a) or for (b), but I’m open to either. My goal in this post was to figure out what to say if that can’t be done. That’s why I said at the outset that I think the argument is plausible that there’s no best possible world. But I’m not going to go to martyrdom over it, and there may well be reasons in the end to resist it. Leibniz is one of my favorite philosophers, but I’m not sure there are strong enough arguments for 3 for me to want to rule out the claims I started with at the top of the post that I wanted to reconcile.

    December 26, 2009 — 6:01