Malebranche and Robert Adams on Creating the Best
February 4, 2011 — 18:10

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 20

Leibniz famously argued that the actual world must be the best of all possible worlds (BPW). His argument, which he repeated in several places, went something like this:

  1. The actual world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good being.
  2. An omnipotent being can actualize any possible world.
  3. A perfectly good being always chooses the best outcome from among its choices.
  4. Therefore,

  5. The actual world is the BPW.

Most people have found the conclusion of this argument incredible, and sought ways to escape it. The logical problem of evil is essentially an argument to the effect that the only premise that can be plausibly rejected is (1). Free will defenders often instead target premise (2). However, premise (3) is also open to question. In fact, many of Leibniz’s arguments (e.g. the opening sections of the Discourse on Metaphysics) seem to be directed against Malebranche’s 1680 Treatise on Nature and Grace, in which the denial of (3) was defended. (3) is also famously denied in Robert Adams’ 1972 “Must God Create the Best?”
(3) is amoral proposition, and so its evaluation will depend on one’s moral theory. (There is one way of denying (3) that is independent of one’s moral theory, and that is to deny that there is a unique best possible world; for purposes of this post let’s set that (epistemic) possibility aside.) The only moral theory on which (3) cannot possibly be denied is pure consequentialism. However, there are two major rivals to consequentialism: deontologism, and virtue ethics. (Mixed theories are also sometimes advocated.) So there are two main possibilities for the denial of (3): either the creation of the BPW would violate some deontological constraint, or the creation of the BPW would demonstrate a less than perfectly virtuous character. (I assume that a being who is perfectly good, at least if it is also perfectly rational, would at least allow goodness of outcomes to play a tie-breaking role, and so would create the BPW unless there was a moral reason not to.)
Malebranche takes the first option. He frequently speaks of “the perfection of God’s ways.” How would God’s ways be imperfect if he created the BPW? According to Malebranche, it seems, the BPW is irregular – it has a lot of miracles. Personally, I think regularity is much more plausibly construed as a good-making feature of worlds than as a good-making feature of God’s creative activity, so to my mind Malebranche’s suggestion is a non-starter. Might there be some other deontological constraint that could stand in here? Well, perhaps we could use a modified free will defense: contrary to the usual free will defense, we allow that God could actualize the BPW, but claim that he could do this only by engaging in some morally objectionable meddling with the freedom of creatures.
Adams is, of course, well known for his work on virtue ethics, and, as might be expected, takes the second option. According to Adams, a being who created the BPW would not be displaying the virtue of grace. This virtue is displayed by treating people better than they deserve. But the beings in the BPW deserve to exist, and deserve to be treated as well as possible. We, on the other hand, do not deserve to exist, since we are not part of the BPW. So God acts graciously toward us by creating us at all, and also by treating us as well as he does. A nice feature of Adams’s view is that it is easy to see how, on this view, it can be maintained that no one has a just complaint against God: the inhabitants of the BPW don’t exist, and therefore can’t have been wronged (even though, in some sense, they deserve to exist); we wouldn’t exist in the BPW, and so can’t very well complain about God’s not creating it, since that would amount to complaining about our own existence.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]

Comments:
  • Malebranche and Robert Adams on Creating the Best

    Leibniz famously argued that the actual world must be the best of all possible worlds (BPW). His argument, which he repeated in several places, went something like this: The actual world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good being. An omnipot…

    February 4, 2011 — 18:13
  • I actually take Malebranche to assume there is no such thing as a best possible world. He says several things that suggest this, and in fact explicitly says it in one of the Elucidations to the Search. He does think that God creates this world rather than any of the better worlds we can imagine for the reason you give; but Malebranche doesn’t need the concept of a BPW to make this point, which is that God creates this world rather than any better one because creating this one was the best action for the divine purposes.

    February 4, 2011 — 19:59
  • Kenny Pearce

    Brandon,
    It looks like you’re right that Malebranche rejects, or at least does not endorse, the assumption that there is a unique BPW, but he does explicitly hold that there are worlds that are actually better (not just from our perspective, but absolutely) than the actual world, in, e.g., Treatise 1.1.14. (And this comes up several other places.) Now that you mention it, I notice that Leibniz is very careful in his formulation in the title of DM 3, “Against those who think that God could have done things better,” and that he there characterizes his opponent (probably Malebranche, Spinoza having already been dismissed in DM 2) as holding “that nothing is so perfect that there is nothing more perfect.”

    February 4, 2011 — 20:35
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hey Kenny,
    You summed up Adams’ response saying:
    “So God acts graciously toward us by creating us at all, and also by treating us as well as he does. A nice feature of Adams’s view is that it is easy to see how, on this view, it can be maintained that no one has a just complaint against God: the inhabitants of the BPW don’t exist, and therefore can’t have been wronged (even though, in some sense, they deserve to exist); we wouldn’t exist in the BPW, and so can’t very well complain about God’s not creating it, since that would amount to complaining about our own existence.”
    It’s been ages and ages since I looked at Adams’ discussion, but is he saying that no one can complain about having been created? On its face, it seems rather plausible to me that some people can complain that they were created rather than others because their lives are just horribly bad (and I don’t see why God getting a chance to flex his virtues compensates for this). Given a sufficient amount of suffering isn’t non-existence sometimes less bad than existence?

    February 7, 2011 — 13:45
  • Derrick

    “Given a sufficient amount of suffering isn’t non-existence sometimes less bad than existence?”
    There is some sense this seems plausible, but, how do we cash this out? More specifically, what is less bad? It’s not like the state of these non-existent people is any better off, since non-existent objects in general do not have any states. So, what is better or worse in this case?

    February 7, 2011 — 16:02
  • Kenny Pearce

    Hi Clayton,
    I take it you accept he claim that the inhabitants of the BPW, since they don’t exist, cannot have been wronged. Adams actually doesn’t say that no creature can complain about having been created (though Leibniz does make that claim, and I think it is at least somewhat plausible). Adams thinks (p. 320) that the world God created would have three characteristics: (1) it wouldn’t contain any of the inhabitants of the BPW; (2) it wouldn’t contain any creatures whose lives are so bad that it would be better for them not to have been created; and (3) it wouldn’t contain any creatures who would have been happier in some other world. He notes that (3) is the most difficult to defend, and suggests that we might be able to drop it. A complaint that there is a world in which I am happier would be unreasonably selfish if that world would be worse (in part by making others much less happy) on the whole. Adams’s position seems to be that if all of (1)-(3) are satisfied, then it is obvious that no creature has a just complaint, and if only (1) and (2) are satisfied then it is less obvious, but still true, that no creature has a just complaint.

    February 7, 2011 — 17:52
  • Luke Gelinas

    The only moral theory on which (3) cannot possibly be denied is pure consequentialism.
    Hi Kenny,
    I’m not sure what ‘pure consequentialism’ is, but (3) is ambiguous between a subjective and objective reading. If (3) requires perfect creators to maximize expected value, the conclusion doesn’t follow. (This requires that God lacks exhaustive knowledge of actual outcomes, but for people already so committed it’s a simple way out.)
    As far as I can tell the issue is whether God can perform a better creative act. If creatable worlds ascend value-wise ad infinitum, Adams story looks less compelling. Why should the expression of virtue trump the production of tremendous (infinite!) amounts of value, so far as evaluating the creative act?

    February 7, 2011 — 22:35
  • Kenny Pearce

    Hi Luke,
    By ‘pure consequentialism’, I mean the view that consequences are the only things relevant to the moral evaluation of the an action.
    I agree with you that open theists have a way out of the argument, but I think they get out by denying (2): for open theists, things aren’t so simple for God as just actualizing whatever world he wants.
    Finally, if worlds ascend infinitely, then there is not a unique best outcome, so (3) is false, independently of the concerns raised by Malebranche or Adams. Also, if there is no unique best, then God could exercise the virtue of grace in the way that Adams suggests in any possible world.

    February 7, 2011 — 22:49
  • Peter Singer distinguishes between what he calls prior existence utilitarianism and total view utilitarianism. The former seeks to maximise the happiness of those in existence. The second seeks maximise the number of happy people in existence.
    Its not clear to me that on a “prior existence view” God is required to create a best possible world, prior to creation there is no prior existing people and so he has no obligation to maximise anyones happiness ( accept perhaps his own) its only after he has already created a world that such an obligation kicks in. So, I am inclined to think that one can only get an obligation to create a best possible world if one holds to total view utilitarianism.
    There is a second worry here however, suppose one can (alla Bentham) quantify the amount of happiness in the world. Wouldn’t the greatest possible world contain infinite happiness, but if the current world is infinite in duration then doesn’t it follow that there is an infinite amount of happiness in the actual world, and hence no alternative world can have more happiness than the actual world does.

    February 8, 2011 — 5:22
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hey Kenny,
    That’s helpful, thanks. I think I have a clearer picture of what’s going on in Adams’ discussion. I’ll need to take a look at the paper when I get some time, but a few remarks on your remarks.
    On (3), you glossed Adams’ view as follows:
    “A complaint that there is a world in which I am happier would be unreasonably selfish if that world would be worse (in part by making others much less happy) on the whole.”
    That seems wrong to me. Think about one of the standard complaints about utilitarianism and rights-we can violate the rights of one if the overall utility is greater by violating rights than respecting them. If that complaint has force, I take it that it causes trouble for the justification offered for (3). What if the burdens you’re forced to shoulder are burdens that others cannot force you to shoulder without violating your rights and if you were to relieve yourself of them? This would lead to an overall worse state of affairs in terms of aggregate utility. You can reasonably complain and the alternative in which your rights are respected are worse overall.
    As for (2), am I right to say that Adams is on the hook for saying that _if_ there’s someone such that they would have been “better off” having not been created, God didn’t create this world? If so, I think this defense fails as I think it’s pretty clear that there are some who suffer so terribly that they would have been better off having never been created (small animals killed in forest fires early in their lives so they have enjoyed little and suffered greatly, non-combatants who are raped, tortured, and die slow deaths afterwards, anyone sent to suffer for eternity in hell…).

    February 8, 2011 — 8:33
  • Kenny Pearce

    Matt,
    Yes, I think that’s another way to get out of the claim that God would actualize the BPW. The worries about infinity are also interesting, but doesn’t that just make standard versions of utilitarianism implausible as applied to God? Surely it would be better, other things being equal, if some of the people some of the time were happier than they are.
    Clayton,
    You’re right that there could be worries about rights violations or some such, but these would not be simply because I am happier in some other world. The other factors you bring in would have to apply. So it might be that when we drop (3), we need to bring in some other constraint about fairness or something.
    Adams is committed to the claim that none of the actual people would be better off if they never existed. I think he’s a universalist. (I know Marilyn Adams is a universalist.) So if you think everyone ultimately spends eternity in perfect bliss, then it is pretty plausible to suppose that that’s enough to make existence on balance a good thing for them. For people who believe in hell, things are much more difficult. As far as animals, it is, of course, a notoriously difficult question how much moral weight should be attached to them.

    February 8, 2011 — 11:06
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hi Kenny,
    Just a few quick points.
    I think the rights stuff might have been a red herring, we can make a similar point without it. I own a generator and can use it to do one of two things. First, I can use it to power a respirator and extend someone’s life. Second, I can use it to power a series of radios so that a sufficiently large number of people get to listen to some whistling while they work. The utility that each worker would receive is minimal, barely the sort of thing that they’d notice, but the overall utility of providing them with radios exceeds the benefit that would be received by the person on the respirator. I think they could complain if I choose to distribute barely perceptible goods to the many rather than extend their life, but I take it that no one has a right to my generator. I violate no rights no matter how I choose to use it.
    On the universalism, I have the following worry. Some horror is visited upon someone (limbs lopped off with machetes and then they are set ablaze). If this hadn’t happened to them, they’d still get a perfect eternity of bliss. So, am I supposed to say that they’re not better off either way because of the eternity of bliss? I take it that the claim that you’re not worse off for being set on fire is not all that plausible, but if you think it’s justified on grounds that we’ll all receive something of infinite value regardless of what happens, then why can’t we just go with that? Why can’t we just say that so long as God creates one person with the gifts of heaven waiting for them, God can force this one to suffer horribly for some finite duration and that world is good enough. This world is no better, naturally, so we can’t complain about it.
    So, I think there’s a dilemma. Either everything in the post is otiose because the infinite value waiting for us in heaven means that nothing that happens to us on Earth matters or we can say that we can be made worse off for having to endure suffering here in which case universalism doesn’t help. We can still complain.

    February 9, 2011 — 13:03
  • Kenny Pearce

    Hi Clayton,
    I don’t have the same intuition about the power case. I do think that in that case I haven’t acted optimally (which might be enough), but I don’t think the person on the respirator would have a just complaint, precisely because I don’t think that I’ve violated her rights. Adams’s approach is not, all by itself, a complete theodicy, but I do think it’s enough to get the result that no one has a just complaint against God.
    The universalism line is not supposed to get (3), but only (2) – that is, it’s not supposed to show that everyone is as happy as possible, but only that there is no person who would be better off if he hadn’t been born. I think it will succeed at that. The worry that’s left is what kind of fairness constraint we might need to replace (3) with, and whether it is empirically plausible that that constraint is satisfied by the actual world.

    February 9, 2011 — 16:28
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hi Kenny,
    Thanks for being a good sport. This is probably a distraction from the main issues, but I thought I’d ask about your last set of remarks. You wrote:
    “The universalism line is not supposed to get (3), but only (2) – that is, it’s not supposed to show that everyone is as happy as possible, but only that there is no person who would be better off if he hadn’t been born. I think it will succeed at that.”
    Two points. First, is it really a constraint on God’s creative powers that those who are born couldn’t have received eternal bliss without having been born and suffered the horrible fates that were waiting for them? If not, I think we’re back to the problem of those who are worse off for having been born.
    Second, universalism might not be offered to show that everyone is as happy as possible, but I don’t see how it could fail to do that. (Was it Lewis who had the joke about how someone didn’t intend to formulate the theory that was subject to counterexamples?) As I understand the proposal, everyone gets eternal bliss. What’s better than that? And, if you are just as well off with eternal bliss + being set on fire as you would be with no eternal bliss, we’re all very very well off no matter what happens to us. At this point, what heavy lifting is left. The problem of evil solved.
    As for just complaints, I think it’s strange that you can only complain when your rights are violated. What about duties of beneficence? If someone is duty bound to render aid and doesn’t, I think someone can say, “Hey, you were obligated to lend a hand and you didn’t and look how horrible my lot is”. The speaker isn’t accusing anyone of a rights violation. To my ear, that sounds like a complaint. To my intuitions, it sounds like a just complaint.
    At any rate, the point about the generator case was just this. One complaint people have about utilitarian/consequentialist views is that they think patterns matter, not just aggregate amounts of value. If you have distribution intuitions, you’ll think that you can complain about your lot even if redistribution leads to an overall worse state of affairs.

    February 9, 2011 — 16:46
  • Kenny Pearce

    So, infinite rewards and punishments cause problems for utility calculations in general. I thought that you were suggesting that the right way of doing the utility calculations (which would be hard to work out in detail) would have the finite goods and evils that happen on earth still matter, even if there is infinite bliss later. That sounds right to me. So the claim is that God could indeed have made a world in which people received eternal bliss without suffering first. Therefore (3) is not satisfied: people could be happier than they are. However, since eternal bliss vastly outweighs any temporary suffering, everyone’s existence is a good for him, i.e. (2) is satisfied.
    As far as rights and just complaints, I haven’t thought seriously about this for a while (I don’t really work on ethics), but the last time I did I wrote this, and I think I still agree with all of the things I say there about rights, obligations, and grievances, though I am now even less confident of the application to abortion than I was then (and I put forward the suggestions pretty tentatively to begin with).
    As far as distribution, surely very few people think that you can justly complain about your lot in just any case in which it could be better. For instance, I can’t possibly be justified in complaining just because I don’t have all the money in the world. So, again, there may be some fairness constraint that should be put in as a replacement for (3), but depending on the details, it might turn out to be a constraint that is plausibly satisfied. Of course things get complicated by the fact that we are judging whether it is fair that I am this far below the maximum happiness that I could have, and those modal facts may be tricky. (It might turn out that one advantage of Adams’s approach is that it allows us to run a ‘skeptical theist’ type response with a much more restricted skepticism: suppose we just don’t know whether a qualitatively similar person who was much happier than I am now would actually be me. If we don’t know how much happier people could be, then, whatever the fairness constraint is, it will be very difficult or impossible for us to even guess at whether it is satisfied.)

    February 9, 2011 — 18:28
  • One quick thought. You wrote:
    “However, since eternal bliss vastly outweighs any temporary suffering, everyone’s existence is a good for him, i.e. (2) is satisfied.”
    I wasn’t equating being born with existing. Those who exist and were born could have died prior to their births (at some point post conception but prior to birth) and been whisked away to heaven. For those whose lives were filled with suffering, it would have been better for them not to have been born. And, if you think earthly suffering matters (even if there’s infinite goods waiting for us in the afterlife), I think we still have a problem.

    February 9, 2011 — 18:33
  • First, is it really a constraint on God’s creative powers that those who are born couldn’t have received eternal bliss without having been born and suffered the horrible fates that were waiting for them? If not, I think we’re back to the problem of those who are worse off for having been born.
    But anybody who received eternal bliss without suffering in the ways I’ve suffered wouldn’t be me, but another person.
    Obviously, it depends on your view of personal identity, but especially if you have Parfittian sympathies (which I do), it’s plausible to suppose that certain misfortunes are so deeply interwoven into my overall life history and my present psychological constitution that any life lacking those misfortunes wouldn’t be my life. Adams himself gives the example of Helen Keller contracting meningitis at 19 months of age and becoming deaf and blind. Although there is some sense in which “Helen Keller” could possibly have not been struck blind and deaf, from the POV of Helen Keller in the actual world, the resulting life (even if it would have been a happier life than hers) wouldn’t be her life.
    You’re right though that this doesn’t get around all problems. For most people suffering terrible misfortunes, things don’t turn out nearly as well as for Helen Keller, and for certain misfortunes (like some terrible fate at the end of one’s life) considerations of personal identity won’t seem to help out.

    February 10, 2011 — 10:53
  • Kenny Pearce

    I agree that this is a plausible line to take. Leibniz, of course, pushes it hard, and that’s, no doubt, where Adams got it from.

    February 10, 2011 — 12:22
  • Hey Tim,
    “But anybody who received eternal bliss without suffering in the ways I’ve suffered wouldn’t be me, but another person.”
    Is it an implication of the view that present facts about identity depend upon contingent facts about the harms waiting for whoever it is that resides in this body? I guess I just don’t share the modal intuition that Helen Keller (or myself) couldn’t have died just prior to being born. Are there arguments for this necessity of suffering to identity view that are as strong as the arguments for the necessity of identity or essentiality of origins?

    February 11, 2011 — 7:54
  • Tim:
    I really like your last comment. Here’s one way to take it without controversial metaphysics. Significantly different and valuable kinds of lives are incommensurable, in the same way that the existence of different individuals is incommensurable.

    February 11, 2011 — 8:44