In chapter 6 of his Philosophical Theology (1969), James F. Ross undertakes the very ambitious task of showing that the evil in the world does not provide even a prima facie case against divine moral perfection. Ross takes the phrase ‘a prima facie case’ in the legal sense: to provide a prima facie case is essentially to bring charges that need answering. So, for instance, someone who says that the evils in the world are justified by some greater good which would be impossible without them is conceding that there is a prima facie case and attempting to answer it. Ross believes that there is no such case that needs answering. After explaining his argument, I will show that, even if Ross’s answer to the alleged conflict between the evils of the world and divine moral perfection succeeds, the evils of the world can still be used to make a prima facie case against divine benevolence, and Ross’s strategy cannot be used to defuse this.
Ross’s case hinges crucially on the dialectical situation which obtains between the theist and the atheist. We are to suppose that the atheist is aiming to establish the non-existence of God. To do this, she must use premises which are known to be true, and her procedure must not exhibit epistemic circularity – that is, she can’t appeal to premises which she (allegedly) knows only because she (allegedly) knows that God does not exist, or that if God existed he would be morally responsible for the evils in the world, or some other similarly contested claim. Given that this is the case, the atheist’s argument needs to appeal only to general moral principles that can be seen to hold in our everyday experience. She cannot appeal to principles that are specifically about God (unless, of course, there is some reason why the theist must accept those principles).
Now this, according to Ross, puts the atheist in a tricky position, because God’s relationship to the happenings in the world is quite unique. In ordinary cases, when, say, Smith murders Jones, it is because of Smith’s role in the natural causal chain leading to Jones’s death that secures Smith’s moral responsibility. But God, according to the broadly Thomistic metaphysics Ross endorses, is not a cause among other causes in the way Smith is. Rather, God atemporally causally sustains the world as a whole. God is not an actor in the order of natural causes.
Fleshing out this Thomistic line of thought, Ross says that God is at a higher level of reality than natural objects, and the cosmos is metaphysically dependent on God. This sort of dependence is what God’s ‘causal’ role in the history of the world amounts to, and this is a very different sort of thing than ordinary natural causation. As a result, to formulate some general principle like ‘it is prima facie wrong knowingly and intentionally to cause the death of a sentient being’ and then apply this to God is to equivocate on the word ’cause.’ The principle that we know is a principle about natural causation, not the sort of metaphysical conservation that God is engaged in.
So suppose the atheist tries to formulate some principle that does apply across reality levels. According to Ross, the only case of this that we have a good grasp of is the relationship of human persons to fictional and imaginary objects. This is a case where an agent freely and intentionally brings about beings at a lower level of reality. It is also similar to the creation in that the author is not one of the causes within the fiction, although the author is the cause of the fiction as a whole, and the cause of each individual event in it. (We can distinguish, perhaps, between the ‘fictional’ cause of each event and the ‘authorial’ cause of each event.)
Now, Ross is quite clear that he does not mean to argue by analogy between divine and literary creation. The claim he is making instead is that the only kind of general, known, non-question begging principles the atheist could appeal to would be principles broad enough to apply to some ordinary, concrete cases we know about, and be supported by these instances. So, if the relation of authors to fictions (and imaginers to imaginings) are the only cases of this sort that we have a good grip on, then the atheist will have to formulate some general principle known to be true in the case of fictions. The atheist, that is, will be forced by the dialectical situation to argue by means of this analogy.
However, the relevant principles, as applied to fictions, are false. Macbeth is morally responsible for the murder of Duncan, and Shakespeare is not. Of course, Shakespeare is responsible for the fact that, in the fiction, Macbeth murdered Duncan, but, although Macbeth is morally criticizeable for this, Shakespeare is not. Likewise, authors are not blameworthy for writing natural disasters and other such things into fictions. So the atheist’s argument from analogy fails, and no prima facie case against divine moral perfection has been made.
The atheist may, of course, say that the cases are quite different because the fictional characters are, after all, fictional; they don’t really feel pain, for instance. So the analogy breaks down. But Ross, recall, insists that he is not arguing by analogy; instead, he is claiming that the atheist is forced by the dialectical situation to argue by means of this kind of analogy. To say that the analogy fails, according to Ross, is really to say that God’s relation to his creation is sui generis to such an extent that we don’t have an independent grasp of the moral and other issues involved in that relation.
Now, it seems questionable to me whether the atheist can really be forced to make this kind of argument by analogy, and I also don’t think that Ross has adequately answered the objection that, on his view, we can’t take any events in the world as demonstrations of the goodness of God. But even leaving this out, there is another problem. The atheist is in a position to use this kind of analogy to make a prima facie case against divine benevolence.
Divine benevolence is the doctrine that God wills that each of his creatures be as well-off as possible. This is, of course, a claim about what Leibniz and others have called God’s antecedent will – that is, there is a ceteris paribus condition here. The well-being of a particular creature may, in a particular case, be overridden by some other consideration. So we could state this as the thesis that God values the well-being of creatures, or that the well-being of creatures is among God’s ends in his volitional activity.
Now consider this argument:
- If an agent freely creating and sustaining beings of a lower level of reality from itself has the opportunity to further an end E with respect to them in its creative activity and neglects to do so, this provides a prima facie case that E is not among that agent’s ends with respect to its creatures. (Update: this premise is too strong. See comments.)
- God freely creates and sustains all creatures.
- God frequently has the opportunity to further the well-being of these creatures (e.g. by miraculously diverting hurricanes from them) and neglects to do so.
- God’s neglect of these opportunities to further the well-being of creatures provides a prima facie case against the well-being of creatures being among God’s ends, i.e., against divine benevolence.
Premise 1 is extremely plausible as applied to authors of fictions. One is inclined to think that if one of Shakespeare’s aims was that his characters should be as well off as possible, he wouldn’t have written tragedies. And, of course, the theist must accept premise 2 and 3.
Of course, this provides only a prima facie case. One can imagine a tragedian being extremely troubled by the suffering of his characters, and truly aiming to mitigate it, but feeling that he had some strong overriding reason for writing tragedies, rather than fictions of some other sort, and needing to abide by the conventions of that literary form. But the point is, there is a charge that needs answering here. Someone who claims that Shakespeare aims that his characters should be as well off as possible has a lot of explaining to do. So Ross’s argument, even if sound, does not render the project of theodicy unnecessary.
(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)