Fictions, Imaginations, and the Prima Facie Case Against Divine Benevolence
May 5, 2012 — 14:31

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 32

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. God freely creates and sustains all creatures.
  3. 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.
  4. Therefore,

  5. 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)

Comments:
  • hiero5ant

    “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.”
    What step am I missing in his argument here?
    Why is the nonbeliever obliged to tie her hands behind her back and appeal only to general principles acceptable to all, while the believer is allowed to simply help himself to any old arbitrary jot or tittle of Thomistic arcana to make his point?
    Setting aside the issues of the basic incoherence of “sustaining causes”, or the consistency with which Thomists apply this doctrine in practice to miracle claims within their own tradition, what reason should compel a skeptic to accept the eminently implausible claims that “God is at a higher level of reality than natural objects, and the cosmos is metaphysically dependent on God”?

    May 5, 2012 — 16:44
  • Kenny Pearce

    The claim here is about what is dialectically appropriate for an atheist who is trying to prove that the (Thomistic) theist’s position is false. Proving the position false is of course more ambitious than just showing the position is unsupported. (To say, “you’re just making stuff up” – which is what I assume you mean by calling the position ‘arbitrary’ – is to say that the position is unsupported.) Nothing here compels the skeptic to accept any of the (Thomistic) theist’s claims; the skeptic is trying to compel the theist to reject them. That project limits what premises can appropriately be appealed to. The whole thing has nothing to do with what the skeptic accepts, but rather what premises the skeptic can make use of in this context. Ross is not claiming that the premises used in standard formulations of the problem of evil are false; he’s claiming that using them here would be begging the question.
    Note also that if the notion of a ‘sustaining cause’ really is incoherent, as you claim, than Thomistic theism is already sunk and there is no need to make any use of the argument from evil.

    May 5, 2012 — 17:37
  • DL

    Why must the theist accept (3)? That (3a) God is benevolent, yes, but it’s not clear that that is equivalent to “diverting hurricanes”. In fact, it is evident that well-being can involve at least modest pains; so it needs be shown that (3b) there is some event that lessens the well-being of some creature. Then from (3a) and (3b) it would follow that God neglects the well-being of some creature, and hence (4).
    I’m not even sure that Shakespeare wouldn’t have written tragedies for his characters to be well off. Macbeth gets killed in the end, but “getting one’s just deserts” is arguably a form of well-being. Furthermore, the purpose of Shakespeare’s characters is to provide some sort of illustration for us, the audience — if being brought to tragic ends better fulfils their raison d’être, then it furthers their well-being.

    May 5, 2012 — 21:27
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    The following premise doesn’t strike me as extremely plausible:
    1*. If an agent freely creating and sustaining beings of a lower level of reality from itself has the opportunity at instant T 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.
    I have the opportunity right now to further my wife’s welfare (perhaps by giving her a massage), but I’m writing this note instead. I don’t think that provides a prima facie case that her welfare isn’t among my ends with respect to her.
    Is 1 supposed to be 1*? If not, then premise 3 doesn’t seem obviously true (because it’s not just obvious that, for example, not diverting the hurricanes doesn’t further their welfare at some time).

    May 5, 2012 — 21:32
  • DL – The thing I said the theist needs to accept is that God has some opportunities to promote the well-being of his creatures which he does not take. That seems right, and it seems like diverting hurricanes from populated regions would be an example of one of the things God could, but doesn’t, do to promote the well-being of his creatures. Of course, the theist can, and should, say (and I personally do say) that God has good reasons for not doing these things, and in some cases it may even be that these sorts of interventions would result in a net decrease in human flourishing or some such. But this is to try to answer the prima facie case, not to claim that no such case has been made.
    Joshua – Premise 1 needs to be qualified somehow. I have been discussing this with Brandon Watson in the comments to the version of this post on my personal blog. I think it’s pretty clear that there is something in the neighborhood that is true and will make the argument go through. The point is that if an agent is sufficiently neglectful of the means a particular end, this makes for a prima facie case that the agent has not in fact adopted that end.

    May 5, 2012 — 21:42
  • It seems to me that the reason we don’t blame writers of fiction has little to do with the fact that the author exercises causality in some way different from how the characters exercise causality. Rather, the reason we don’t blame writers of fiction is simply due to the fact that they are writing fiction–that the evils described in the work do not happen, except according to the work.
    Suppose that we discovered a law of nature whereby whenever a writer of fiction creates a work of fiction, that work of fiction (perhaps per impossibile) magically causes there to exist an island universe where the work of fiction is acted out. After discovering this law of nature, we would do wrong if we deliberated created any work of fiction that contains too much evil and not enough good, even though our causal relation to that evil would be mediated by author – work-of-fiction causality. (I am imagining a short chain of causes: first the author – work-of-fiction causality, and second the magical causality between the work-of-fiction and the island universe.) Thus, the author – work-of-fiction causality does not insulate the author from blame.
    What insulates the author from blame in the actual world is simply that the question of blame does not arise because the events for which the author is supposedly to blame never happen.
    Or so it seems to me.

    May 6, 2012 — 14:18
  • Helen De Cruz

    I am reminded of Stranger than fiction, where [SPOILER ALERT] a protagonist slowly comes to realize he is part of a fictional story and tries to stop the author from writing out his “imminent death”. The author, once she realizes that the protagonist is a real person tries to prevent his death. She feels morally responsible for what happens to him. However, once the protagonist has the intended (draft) of the book analyzed, he realizes it would make for a beautiful ending, and he encourages the author to kill him. The author writes the tragic ending as intended (natural, not personal evil, a car accident), but stops short of killing him, although she realizes the book is now less perfect. This analogy is not as good as Pruss’ since the author and her character are on the same level of reality, but the intuition is still that the author is responsible for what happens.
    Similarly, when I read fiction and I read an author who puts his or her creatures through a large amount of evil, I feel uncomfortable with it, even though it is not morally wrong. I love reading Thomas Hardy but what happened to Tess and Jude, to take two of his novels is horrible. Were I to learn that somehow fiction would bring people into being, I would find it morally unacceptable were Hardy to write these novels.

    May 6, 2012 — 15:56
  • Robert Sloan Lee

    Given the comments as to your first premise being too strong, consider following as a revision of your argument:
    (1) God, being benevolently disposed towards all people, would not allow people’s lives to be a lives in which their well-being was not furthered or achieved (on balance).
    (2) The lives of some people appear to be lives in which their well-being is not furthered or achieved (on balance).
    (3) If (1) and (2), then there is a prima facie case against the well-being of people being among God’s ends (i.e., against divine benevolence).
    Therefore,
    (4) There is a prima facie case against the well-being of people being among God’s ends (i.e., against divine benevolence).
    The “on balance” clause is, obviously, inspired by Marilyn McCord Adam’s essay, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,” in The Problem of Evil (OUP, 1991), chapter 12.
    In this reformulation of the argument, we hopefully avoid the problem of the principle (in the first premise of your argument) being too strong. Often, trying to undergird a specific premise by appealing to a general principle can lead to the formulation a principle susceptible to counter examples (as Joshua Rasmussen illustrated in his comment). You could simply sidestep that problem by stating an intuitive specific premise without attempting to undergird the premise with a general principle.
    Given what you said about Ross (namely, that he thinks that “the atheist’s argument needs to appeal only to general moral principles that can be seen to hold in our everyday experience”), I suppose that Ross might reply that we need some grounds for accepting premise (1) as I formulated it. Further, Ross might say that any general principle to which one appeals would be subject to the same kinds of objections already discussed. However, it isn’t clear to me that this is correct. Can’t the atheist or theistic skeptic maintain that premise (1) is intuitively plausible? In any case, let’s suppose that Ross is right (and the theistic skeptic is wrong) about the need to appeal to a general moral principle that comports with our everyday experience. Perhaps the theistic skeptic or atheist could appeal to the following principle to support the first premise of the revised argument:
    (P1) An agent, G, that is benevolently disposed towards C, would not allow a C’s life to be a life in which his or her well-being was not furthered or achieved (on balance) — where G has the power to bring about the achievement or furtherance of C’s well-being.
    We can add (P2) to the general moral principle expressed in (P1).
    (P2) God has the power to bring about the furtherance or achievement of any person’s well-being.
    These principles give us the materials needed to support premise (1) — but are there counter-examples to (P1) that can be drawn from our everyday experience? That’s the question (assuming that Ross is right about the need to appeal to a general moral premise). I can think of supportive examples. Insofar as it is in my power, I attempt to further the well-being of my child because I am benevolently disposed towards her. Maybe a little more reflection will reveal a counter-example.
    To this end, I have concerns about people who are starving. Some say that they are benevolently disposed towards those who are starving, and they give to charity. However, they have the power to give a little more. Does it follow that they aren’t benevolently disposed toward the starving? It’s beginning to look like a counter-example (following in the footsteps of Peter van Inwagen’s vagueness objection to the problem of evil).

    May 6, 2012 — 16:00
  • John Alexandder

    As I was thinking of your argument the following question came to mind: Imagine that S is a designer of computer games such as “Grand Theft Auto.” Imagine that S develops a program that, if he integrates it into the game, will give his characters the ability to actually experience what they are doing. Should S implement the program? My intuition is that S should not. If S should not implement the program does this constitute a prima facia case against God?
    Tp Alexander’s point;it seems to me that if S implements the program then the game is no longer fictional.

    May 6, 2012 — 16:09
  • DL

    Ah, yes — the point is to find something that God is “supposed” to do: there is no moral law above and beyond God (Thomistically, God is super-natural and so it makes no sense to charge Him with not living up to His nature). However, God has to be benevolent, so it’s possible to raise a charge of failing to be benevolent. Hurricanes are just a particular example of the alleged failure. I wonder, though, if the Thomist cannot argue that whatever ends God applies to a creature are by definition the only ends it can have, so to say that God is neglecting some end is a contradiction. The atheist could try to argue against the premises (that God is rational, consistent, etc.), but that’s no longer an argument from evil.
    Like the moral argument, making the prima facie case relies on their being two competing standards, so that God can be accused of meeting one but not the other. Hence (1) pits “ends” against “well-being”. But for the Thomist “well-being” simply means “living up to one’s ends”. It doesn’t make much sense to say that “solving crimes” is not one of the ends of Sherlock Holmes; that’s what Conan-Doyle has him do, so as author that defines Sherlock’s end (or one of them). Authors aren’t in quite the same position as God because their fictional human beings implicitly have the same ends as real human beings, and so there are two competing standards in fiction — the author’s goals and God’s goals for real humans — and authors can make mistakes or be inconsistent (which God cannot).

    May 7, 2012 — 10:02
  • Kenny Pearce

    Alex and John – Of course that’s the most plausible account of why authors are not blameworthy for this sort of thing, and Ross does mention that a few times in the chapter. However, what Ross is arguing is that unless the atheist can make the analogy to the author-fiction case work, she hasn’t succeeded in stating a prima facie case, because there are no other general principles known to us from our ordinary experience which would apply to God. I’m not convinced that this is right, but my aim was to point out that even if it WAS right, there would still be another problem in the area.
    DL – One minor point: surely solving crimes is one of Holmes’s ends or aims. Of course, it’s only an end or aim in the fiction, not in reality, but facts about Holmes are in general facts in the fiction, so that’s not a problem. That Holmes should solve crimes is likely also one of Conan-Doyle’s ends, though it’s probably not an ULTIMATE end.

    May 7, 2012 — 12:21
  • John Alexander

    Hi Kenny: My point is that it is my intuition that the game designer is blameworthy for the harm caused if the characters experience sentient life as they would if S implemented the program. The analogy is to God deciding to create a ‘game’ and giving His characters sentience. If it is wrong for S to give his characters sentience, then it is wrong for God to give His characters sentience. This would seem to fulfill the requirement that Ross places on the atheist to proviode an analogy.

    May 7, 2012 — 12:48
  • Kenny Pearce

    John – Ah, I think you may be right. Of course, one might worry that if the game people were really (as opposed to fictionally) sentient they would be on the same level of reality as the game designer. I don’t really understand this ‘levels of reality’ business very well, so I’m not sure.

    May 7, 2012 — 13:21
  • DL:
    The Thomist will distinguish the immanent ends of an entity with the use to which God puts that entity. It is not among the immanent ends of a donkey to speak to Balaam. but God can put the donkey to that use.
    So the fact that God has a goal for an entity does not mean that that goal is the immanent end of the entity. So the problem of evil can still come up, I fear.

    May 7, 2012 — 14:46
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Kenny and Robert,
    My worry is that by finding a version of (1) that is plausible, we will then require another premise that is not so obviously true. In Robert’s argument, I find myself stalling on premises (2) and (3). First premise (2): The lives of some people appear to be lives in which their well-being is not furthered or achieved (on balance).
    It might seem insensitive of me to question this, but when I assign a neutral prior probability to the hypothesis that God exists and then I consider the most horrific lives I’ve ever heard of, I don’t find it apparent, or more likely than not, that their lives on balance are not ones in which their well-being is furthered. (My background reasoning is something like this. Either God exists, or not. If not, then the chances that their lives are in total good–such that their well-being is furthered on balance–is low, but greater than zero. If God does exist, then the chances that their lives are in total good is 1. Given a neutral prior probability of theism, I infer that the probability is slightly greater than .5 that their lives will be in total good. You might worry I’m cheating with probabilities, but the tricky thing here is that theism affects the very probabilities at issue.)
    Then there’s premise 3: If (1) and (2), then there is a prima facie case against the well-being of people being among God’s ends (i.e., against divine benevolence).
    My worry here is that it seems to me that if there’s benevolent god, then there would very likely be some bad events whose justifying good-making properties are unknown to me. So, I might not be surprised to find some lives whose well-being does not appear to be furthered (on balance). In the end, it’s far from clear to me that the appearance of such lives is more surprising on theism than on its denial. But then how can their appearance constitute even a prima facie case against divine benevolence?
    I’m so used to being the one giving the argument; it’s refreshingly much easier to be skeptical. Knowledge is hard work.

    May 7, 2012 — 16:34
  • Kenny Pearce

    Joshua – A prima facie case is a very weak thing. To admit that there must be some justifying reason unknown to me is to admit that there is a prima facie case, but then say that it is quite likely that the case has an answer unknown to me. To say that there is no prima facie case is to make the very strong claim that there is nothing that needs justifying. So if you say, ‘there are some events such that, unless there is a justifying reason for them which is unknown to me, it is not the case that God exists and is benevolent,’ you are admitting that there is a prima facie case against God’s benevolence, and that’s all that I, at least, am claiming.

    May 7, 2012 — 16:59
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Thanks, Kenny. I was wondering about that–about the meaning of ‘prima facie case’. I’m not actually quite sure what it’s supposed to mean. If my wife tells me there’s a blue box in my room, do I have prima facie case against it’s being blue on account of the fact that unless the box has a particular shade of blue unknown to me, my wife’s claim is false?

    May 7, 2012 — 18:33
  • Kenny Pearce

    No, in that example you don’t have a prima facie case. It’s supposed to be a legal term, meaning, basically (as I understand it based on Ross, not based on independent knowledge of the law), that there is some kind of evidence that would ordinarily call for direct rebuttal. So you make a prima facie case that Jones was the murderer if you show that Jones is in possession of the murder weapon. In this case, we want Jones to provide (and prove) some alternative explanation for his possession of the murder weapon because if there was some other reason for his possession, we would ordinarily expect him to know it. But of course he could also argue that it was slipped into his car without his knowledge, and try to answer the prima facie case in that way. There is a case against Jones that needs to be addressed ‘on the merits,’ as they say in law. So, basically, to say that there is a prima facie case against the justice/goodness/benevolence of God is just to say that we have reason to want a theodicy. Of course, it might be that we have some less satisfactory way of answering the charge, as would be the case if, for instance, Jones had an airtight alibi, but no explanation for his possession of the weapon. We don’t have a way of explaining away the evidence that made for the prima facie case in the first place, but we’ve nevertheless succeeded in answering the case. (Of course, in the example, Jones might now be accused of conspiracy, so the problem has not disappeared entirely.) Skeptical theism is like this: it says that, although we can’t actually explain away the evidence, we can still believe in the justice/goodness/benevolence of God because we have some reason for thinking there IS an explanation, although we don’t know what it is.

    May 7, 2012 — 21:29
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    That’s helpful, but I still have questions… Suppose that after my wife tells me about the blue box, my son says, “the box is fairly small, and therefore it’s probably not blue,” I might feel compelled to give a rebuttal, but not because I think my son has made a “prima facie” case. If we don’t have a prima facie case here, I presume that’s because no data has been presented, such that it would seem unlikely that the box is blue on that data in the absence of other data (where the other data could be a plausible just-so story or a priori considerations about probability). Does that sound right to you?
    If so, then I should say that it’s not actually clear to me why pointing to an extraordinarily sorrowful life is relevantly different from pointing out that the box is fairly small. In both cases, I question the premise that we’ve been given data, such that the conclusion in question is likely on that data in the absence of other data (such as a just-so story, skeptical theism, etc). By contrast, if Jones is found with the murder weapon, then it appears likely that he did the crime on that data (even if he can give an adequate rebuttal).
    I’m not saying I think there’s no prima facie evidence against divine benevolence. And I certainly agree that it would be cheap evidence. I’m just not entirely convinced that the arguments given in this post succeed in showing (or making evident to me) that there’s prima facie evidence against divine benevolence. In particular, I’m not convinced that if I say, ‘there are some events such that, unless there is a justifying reason for them which is unknown to me, it is not the case that God exists and is benevolent,’ I have admitted that there is a prima facie case.
    Here’s what might be going on. When you say “‘there are some events such that, unless there is a justifying reason for them which is unknown to me, it is not the case that God exists and is benevolent,'” what you mean is “‘there are some events, such that unless we are aware of some explanation of how benevolent being might well be justified in allowing them, it appears that God doesn’t exist [or it seems unlikely that God exists just on the data of those events in the absence of further explanation]'”. And you take that to imply a prima facie case. But when I express the quote in question, what I have in mind is structurally the same as this: the box has a feature (e.g., being small), such that unless being small is compatible with being blue, it is not the case that the box is blue. And you don’t think that implies a prima facie case.
    (Ironically, someone might cite sorrowful lives as part of a prima facie case for divine benevolence if that person could also support the premise that such lives are much less likely to occur anywhere, anytime if a maximal being isn’t at the foundation of reality than if a maximal being is at the foundation. My point: extra argument is needed in either direction.)

    May 8, 2012 — 7:49
  • Kenny Pearce

    So here’s the basic idea of the argument I was putting forward: we can see all kinds of things God could do to promote the well-being of his creatures and which he doesn’t do. This is ‘smoking gun’-type evidence against divine benevolence. An agent who habitually neglects the (known) means to some end (in cases where the means aren’t very costly, etc.) can be presumed not to value that end. Now, some people have attempted to answer this directly, and give reasons why God doesn’t take the means in question; others have tried to show that it is reasonable to suppose that there are some such reasons, even if we don’t know what they are. But the point is, the question ‘if God is benevolent, why doesn’t he take these actions to better the lives of his creatures?’ is a real question that needs an answer. Ross is claiming that it was a mistake to see any kind of problematic tension between the goodness of God and the evil in the world in the first place, that there isn’t even a need for justifying reasons. (As a result, I think he’s in danger of ending up with an amoral God.) I’m saying, it’s pretty easy to see that there is a real tension between valuing some end and neglecting the means to it. When we want to say both of these things about an agent simultaneously, we need some kind of explanation.

    May 8, 2012 — 11:08
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    That’s a nice summary, Kenny.
    An agent who habitually neglects the (known) means to some end (in cases where the means aren’t very costly, etc.) can be presumed not to value that end.
    I hate to be hard-nosed, but I’m not sure about that inference. Much depends upon the force of the term ‘can’.

    May 8, 2012 — 17:01
  • A. R. Diaz

    Let’s quote Ross:
    “The thing [missing premise] you’d need to know is this: Any real being which could, without cost or moral defect, preclude or avoid the evil acts and sufferings of other real beings which are metaphysically dependent upon it and fails to do so is morally imperfect” (Philosophical Theology, 1980, 2 ed. p.xxxiii)
    “preclude or avoid the evil and acts sufferings etc etc” is just what you want to use against Ross, namely, that if that being were benevolent, he would preclude or avoid the sufferings and evils (viz. would procure their being “well-off”) of the real beings who are metaphysically dependent upon it.
    “An agent who habitually neglects the (known) means to some end (in cases where the means aren’t very costly, etc.) can be presumed not to value that end.”
    But this is precisely what is in question with respect to God (the being upon whom all creatures metaphysically depend). But how do we know that that is true of God? Ross’ claim is just is that the premise in question is epistemically inaccessible. For “the premise applies only to one case and this is the case that is in doubt” (Mavrodes, quoted by Ross’ op. cit.). So you’ve actually failed to pose an objection to Ross argument. In fact, Ross’ argument is meant to apply or block objections of the sort you’ve precisely raised here. So you’ve “begged the question”.

    May 15, 2012 — 14:24
  • Kenny Pearce

    No, I don’t think that’s right. What Ross says is that in order for the premise to be epistemically accessible and non-question begging, it has to be a general principle that is known from well-understood cases, and that applies to the case at hand. (Hence the line you quote about principles that apply to only the one case which is in doubt.) He claims that, given the difference of ‘reality levels’ it’s hard to find such principles. But I’m proposing a very general principle about agents and their ends, a principle which is unaffected by differences of reality level (it applies, for instance, to agents creating fictions and/or imaginations, which Ross uses as an example). The principle, it seems to me, meets all of the criteria Ross asks for, modulo whatever qualifications are needed to state the principle with sufficient precision.

    May 15, 2012 — 14:38
  • A. R. Diaz

    Hmm.. Let’s quote Ross again:
    “One cannot determine that God is not good, no matter how bad the world might be, because there’s something else you’d need to know and can’t know. You’d need to know something of which God is the only possible instance, something which we do not know a priori or through any relevant experience. And if you do not know that missing thing, your reasoning from the condition of the world would be missing a premise” (op.cit.)
    Now the question is: how do you know your very general principle about agents and ends applies to (is true of) the being upon whom the creatures metaphysically depend? It makes no sense to say it is “unaffected by levels of reality”, since that already presupposes what is at question. Moreover, how do you know it is unaffected by “differences in reality levels” and thus that it applies to God, i.e. that real being upon whom other real beings metaphysically depend? Recall that God is the only possible instance.
    P.S. One can’t infer from Shakespeare writing tragedies that he is morally defective, right?

    May 15, 2012 — 14:52
  • Kenny Pearce

    Yes, that’s precisely why I switched from talking about moral perfection to talking about benevolence. We can infer from Shakespeare’s writing tragedies that the good of his characters is not one of the ends he is pursuing in his writing. (Of course, this inference is defeasible: it might be that this end was overridden by others.) It’s just that a writer is not morally obligated to adopt the good of his characters as an end. Now, if you wanted to apply this response in the case in question, then you would say that God is under no moral obligation to value adopt the good of his creatures as an end or, in other words, to value their well-being. But of course the Christian needs to say that, one way or another (whether or not he is morally obligated to), God does value the well-being of his creatures, and that’s enough to get the argument off the ground.
    Ross himself suggests that the atheist could use an argument that relied on a very general principle, provided the principle was general enough that it did not apply only to cases where the agent is one actor in an order of causes, and he has two examples of agents acting in other ways, namely, God’s creation of the world, and humans’ creations of fictions and imaginations. To enunciate a principle applying only to God’s creation would be question begging (unless the theist needed to accept the principle on independent grounds). However, my principle is general enough to encompass all the cases: the case where the agent is just one cause in the order of causes, the case of God’s creation, and the case of humans’ creations of fictions and imaginations. Furthermore, some suitably qualified version of the principle is surely true.
    The moral claim is beside the point, because the argument doesn’t start from the claim that God is morally perfect, but rather from the claim that God values the well-being of his creatures, a claim to which the Christian is independently committed.

    May 15, 2012 — 15:12
  • A. R. Diaz

    But of course, you take it that “God not valuing the well-being of his creatures” entails that God is in some respect morally defective, or that He lacks goodness (benevolence is a moral perfection). Otherwise, if “God not valuing etc” was compatible with moral perfection and, thus, benevolence, or if “creatures not being well-off” was compatible with “God values His creatures”, your argument wouldn’t get off the ground! So nothing much has changed with your formulation. (I suspect some people may actually contend that those claims are compatible, and deny that from all tragedies you can infer that the author is not good––or even that he does not intend or value the well-being of his characters. But I think Ross would simply respond otherwise: it is not, in principle, knowable from the conditions of the world that God does not value his creatures, real beings who depend metaphysically upon it, regardless of the suffering. The world, with all its suffering, simply cannot amount to a condition sufficient for giving us knowledge against the moral character or benevolence of God. This is what you object to, I suppose).
    Now, what we would need to know (have access to) is precisely what would need to be true of, or what would need to be the case with, the being upon whom other REAL beings metaphysically depend upon in order to know what could count against such a being’s moral character (or benevolence). But, as the Christian faith is committed, there’s only one possible instance of such a being (and this seems to throw the character-author analogy out the window in this respect). But the again, neither of us is that being. So how do we know that the very general principle of means-ends is true of THAT being? [I guess one could ask the same about your definition of divine benevolence].
    Let’s re-state Ross’epistemically inaccessible premise in your terms:
    (P) The thing [missing premise] you’d need to know is this: Any real being which could, without cost or moral defect, intend the being well-off of other real beings which are metaphysically dependent upon it and fails to do so is not benevolent (indeed, morally imperfect).
    How do you know this is true? And note the question is: how do you know that is true of the real being upon whom other real beings metaphysically depend upon!? There’s only one possible instance! You can’t respond: well, we infer that He is not good from creatures not being well-off, since this is what such a being should be avoiding. But that begs the question! Indeed, it presupposes that we do know the conditions under which such a being would be morally imperfect or not benevolent. But such conditions are epistemically inacessible! You can’t infer He is not good (just as you cannot infer that He is not morally perfect) from the tragedies of his creatures, because you cannot know that that is(the suffering of real beings who depend metaphysically upon it, i.e. from the lower levels) a condition sufficient to make that being not good. See? That’s Ross’ insight. It’s a via negativa. As Ross states:
    “The argument proceeds to show that the Principle of Limited Inference (in effect, the principle that you are not permitted to infer properties from lower to higher reality levels unless the lower beings would be impossible if the higher beings lacked those properties), and the fact the missing premise is not true by virtue of its meaning, make the missing premise epistemically inaccessible”.
    So the suffering of human beings is simply not condition to allow an inference against the moral goodness of God.
    So it seems to me that your objection to Ross is a non-starter. Sorry for the long post.

    May 15, 2012 — 16:54
  • A. R. Diaz

    I get the impression my last post was perhaps not that clear, so I apologize. Also, I hope we’re not talking past each other. Let me see if I can put the main problem more simply.
    You have premise 1). You comment that:
    “The point is that if an agent is sufficiently neglectful of the means a particular end, this makes for a prima facie case that the agent has not in fact adopted that end.”
    And from this, I suspect, you take it it follows that God is not benevolent. You think this is general enough to apply to the only possible real being (God) upon whom other real beings metaphysically depend. I guess Ross’ response would be: how do you know that it applies

    May 15, 2012 — 17:17
  • Kenny Pearce

    No, this isn’t right at all. I never attempted to derive God’s benevolence from God’s moral perfection. I just assumed that the Christian already believed in God’s benevolence. I, for one, am a Christian who believes in God’s benevolence. Even if it could be shown that God is under no moral obligation of benevolence to his creatures, I would continue to believe in divine benevolence. In fact, I take it to be pretty central to Christianity. My argument is not directed against anyone who denies divine benevolence, in the sense in which I have defined it. Ross, of course, doesn’t really talk explicitly about benevolence in this sense (at least not in Philosophical Theology), so perhaps I shouldn’t say my argument is against him. Here’s my interest: I, at least, am not in a position to make use of Ross’s approach, and must instead acknowledge that there is a prima facie case against the world’s being created by the sort of God I believe in, and see what can be done about answering that case. This is because I believe in divine benevolence. My argument, like any argument, can be escaped by rejecting one of the premises, so perhaps the moral should be that someone who wants to use Ross’s approach must deny divine benevolence (in the sense defined). To me, that seems to be a conclusive reason for abandoning Ross’s approach, but others may have different judgments about this.
    In your principle (P), you say “(indeed morally imperfect)”, but I agree that that principle is false, if the creation of fictions and imaginations is an instance of metaphysical dependency. Furthermore, I agree that by adding the ‘of other real beings,’ clause, the principle would become question-begging, for precisely the reasons you state. That’s why I didn’t add that clause.
    Ross treats his principle R1 (p. 263) as non-question-begging. This principle states: “Any being that could avoid or preclude the sufferings of others without performing an act of lower moral value than it would otherwise perform ought to do so.” This principle, he says, is false if ‘avoid or preclude’ is interpreted broadly enough to include the issue at hand, because it has false consequences regarding authors of fictions (the case of relations across levels of reality which we understand). He then considers its restriction to principle P (p. 269), which restricts the claim to ‘real beings’. THIS principle, he says, is question-begging. He does not claim to prove that it is false, as he did with principle R1. The reason it is question-begging is that God is the only instance to which the principle can be applied, and that is just the case in dispute. This, of course, presupposes that the theist is, given her other commitments, in a position to reject the principle, but let’s suppose that she is.
    My response was supposed to work like this. I state a principle which is like R1, only it is about benevolence rather than moral perfection. Like R1, the principle is general enough not to be question-begging. Unlike R1, the application of the principle to authors of fictions gets the correct result (we have good evidence that Shakespeare was not particularly concerned for Othello’s well-being). So we are not forced to restrict our principle to a narrow principle like the question-begging P.
    One might further think that in the case of metaphysically dependent real beings, benevolence is morally required, but that claim plays no role in the argument. If you deny that claim then you are in a position to deny divine benevolence and so escape the argument, but most Christians (whether philosophers, theologians, or lay persons) will not, I think, be very pleased with this gambit.

    May 15, 2012 — 17:27
  • A. R. Diaz

    I see, I see. So your point was about applying R1 in terms of divine benevolence (which, I think, you take not to be a moral perfection, right? For if it is, the argument would still be one in terms of moral perfection, albeit more specific. So I will assume you’re not committed to the claim that benevolence is a moral perfection of God).
    (DB) Divine benevolence is the doctrine that God wills that each of his creatures be as well-off as possible.
    I do not know if this really captures what orthodox Christianity understands by divine benevolence (some could formulate it in terms of their being saved, and thus eternally happy, which is what human fulfillment is all about––everlasting life with God, not absence of suffering in the path to it–––, as opposed to being well-off on earth, flourishing here, with as less suffering as possible––unlike Christ’s case, of course). But I’ll ignore this for a moment, because I want to understand your position better.
    R1 Any being that could avoid or preclude the sufferings of others without performing an act of lower moral value than it would otherwise perform ought to do so.
    Your reformulation of R1 is then,
    1. 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.
    Right?
    I don’t seem to be getting how this does not fall under Ross argument. I mean, “an agent freely creating and sustaining beings of a lower level of reality…” from what level? the dreamer’s level? God’s level? Certainly, Ross’ states that “by the same arguments with regards to sufficiency” God is not in the same level as his creatures just as Shakespeare is not in the same level as his characters (nor I, the dreamer, am at the same level of the dream. You’ve decided to focus only on the author-character analogy, why?). But this does not entail that God and Shakespeare are on the same level (of course).
    This is tricky, right? Because one could run the risk of making “…lower level” univocal (undifferentiated). But I do wonder if, in the case of God, 1. applies according to Ross in the same manner and respect to which it may apply to Shakespeare. In the former, of course, there’s only one possible instance at that level, so that to even formulate 1. with respect to God would be already to beg the question (namely, to know that something like 1. is true of the only possible instance of that (highest) level of reality). How do you know that? (namely, that 1. applies, univocally, to real creatures and to the being upon whom the real creatures depend? Or that it applies to the latter at all!? In all, perhaps Ross’ would contend that, just as “presence of suffering” is not a condition for an inference against the moral perfection of the being at that level (after all, it is inaccessible), “presence of suffering (not impeding suffering)” is not a condition against the benevolence at that level––or at least not a condition for an inference that God is not benevolent. So perhaps, being “well-off as possible” is not the absence of as much suffering as possible.
    This is on a side note: You’ve defined God’s benevolence from the vantage point of what is made. How would you define God’s benevolence apart from the vantage of what is made (say, God’s benevolence “prior” to creation or if God had never created anything, which was, of course, possible)? I’m asking because I’m not sure if you’re making the well-being off creatures essential to divine benevolence.
    Sorry, again, for the long post.

    May 15, 2012 — 18:33
  • Kenny Pearce

    DB is fine as long as we mean antecedent, rather than consequent, will. (I have Leibniz’s version of the distinction in mind.) There are all sorts of other things, besides this, that could be meant by divine benevolence, and the belief that a morally perfect being would have to be benevolent in this sense might be ONE reason someone could have for thinking God had this feature, but you are right that I am just taking for granted that God has this feature, and I don’t mean to assume anything about the relationship between benevolence and moral perfection.
    One note on the interpretation of DB: by ‘being well off,’ I don’t mean just being well off here on earth, I mean being well off overall, so if one had independent reason for believing in heaven (especially if one had independent reason to believe in universalism), then that would mitigate the problems I am raising quite significantly. (I don’t think it would make them disappear entirely. Infinite utilities are tricky, but an adequate theory should have the consequence that an ice cream cone now and eternal bliss in the afterlife is better than no ice cream cone now and eternal bliss in the afterlife, so suffering, or lack of bliss, in the present is still a missed opportunity for God to do good to promote the well-being of his creatures.)
    Also, by ‘well-off’ I understand whatever it is that makes a creature’s overall situation genuinely good, not just maximization of pleasure or whatever. You make this point toward the end of your post. So I suppose that if someone could make the case that we are not confronted with a bunch of missed opportunities for God to promote the well-being of his creatures, that would be a way of saying that no prima facie case has been made. But I think that it is more plausible to claim that God neglects to promote this individual’s well-being in this instance because he is moved by some other stronger reason, which might or might not be another individual’s well-being, which militates against the contemplated action.
    Yes, my premise 1 is supposed to be analogous to Ross’s R1.
    I focus on the author-character analogy because creators of fictions create them freely and intentionally. This is not, in general, true of dreamers (though it may occasionally be true), and there is usually a lower degree of intention and premeditation in the case of mere imaginings, as compared with fictions. My general impression from Ross is that he thinks the author-character analogy is the closest one we have at our disposal, and I suspect that these are (among) his reasons. At least, the author-character analogy is the one Ross discusses most.
    Ross’s strategy was to force the challenger to formulate a principle so narrow that it only applied to the one (disputed) case of God, and thereby beg the question. And Ross does warn against equivocating on ’cause’. But when he tries to explain what the other sense of ’cause’ is and what the differences in reality level are, he talks about this author-character stuff,and his criticism of R1 is that it has implausible results here. That’s how he tries to force the challenger to narrow it. My principle doesn’t have to be narrowed in that way, because it gets the right results here.
    I’m not 100% sure this ‘levels of reality’ business makes sense in the first place. Insofar as I have any grip on it, it comes from the more mundane cases Ross gives. So if the analogy breaks down too quickly, then it’s not clear that Ross’s theology has any cognitive content (or, at least, it’s not clear that he has communicated any propositions about God to me). So Ross is committed to getting some mileage out of this analogy, and that’s why he has to shut down any kind of argument by analogy that a challenger would make by claiming that the challenger is getting the facts about fictions and things wrong.
    On your last note, I don’t take benevolence to be one of the basic or essential divine attributes. God can’t be benefited, so although there can be love between the Persons of the Trinity prior to the creation, there can’t be benevolence. I would not be bothered if benevolence, in the relevant sense, could be construed only as a fact about God’s relation to his creatures, and therefore as contingent. (God’s moral perfection is surely essential, though, so it’s clearly not the same as his benevolence, even if it might entail benevolence in certain circumstances.) I also would not be bothered if there were other perfectly good senses of the word ‘benevolent’ which also correctly described God. But it seems clear to me, and clearly central to the Christian faith, that God antecedently wills the well-being of his creatures. ‘Benevolence’ (literally ‘good-willing’) seems like the right word for that.

    May 15, 2012 — 21:30
  • A. R. Diaz

    Sorry for the late response, I’m quite busy. So I’ll try to give my thoughts in a nutshell.
    I see your point. Then, as you noted, your argument is probably best rendered not as posing an objection against Ross’ but against your (reformed?) conception of divine benevolence: namely, as a contingent and even probably transient attribute of God resultant from creation, and to an extent dependent on creatures (for whom He can will antecedently their well-being, otherwise benevolence is vacuous), as you suggested. Were God to have created nothing, He wouldn’t be benevolent––here’s the impasse between you and Ross who, as a thomist, takes benevolence to be an essential divine attribute, not a contingent or accidental one. Thus, that seems to be the reason why creatures figure in the definition of divine benevolence you give, and why, consequently, benevolence is not an essential (or necessary) attribute of God, only an accidental (or contingent) one––I mean, you say you consider benevolence an “essential” divine attribute, that is, (of) God’s essence, but then go on to say it is a contingent divine attribute (prior to His creation, he willed the well being of no creature––in fact, there was no creature to will its well-being. Therefore, God “has” not been eternally benevolent. Is this a claim central to the Christian faith? What Christian faith then?).
    Now, since the idea that benevolence is not a moral perfection of God but a contingent, accidental, resultant property of Him––conditional on His willing the well-being of creatures––constitutes a shared impasse between you and Ross (and any Thomist)––for certainly, insofar as thomists or scotists are concerned, God is not contingently benevolent but rather essentially (a divine perfection)––then what you have is a prima facie objection to the notion of benevolence you endorse (not Ross’).
    Whether you think your definition of benevolence is popular amongst some Christians, is beside the point. Must Christians, in order to remain orthodox in their christian commitment, accept your definition of benevolence? I don’t think so. If benevolence is a divine moral perfection, then Ross’ argument stands untouched; if it is not, then philosophers and theologians who endorse the contingent-resultant view of God’s benevolence have a prima facie objection and have some work to do

    May 22, 2012 — 11:44
  • Kenny Pearce

    Maybe God has some other feature, which can rightly be called ‘benevolence’ and which is an essential feature and a moral perfection. I don’t know what that feature is, but maybe somebody could tell me. (Maybe I don’t read enough Aquinas.)
    There’s no particular reason why Christians should have to accept my definition of ‘benevolence’ as the correct way of using that word. Speaking a particular language is, after all, not a condition of orthodoxy. However, it’s hard for me to understand how a Christian could deny that God has the feature which I call by that name, that is, that God values or (antecedently) wills the well-being of his creatures. If you deny that, then how do you make any kind of sense out of all the Biblical talk about God’s love? Similarly, how can you claim that God has ANY feature which could reasonably be called ‘benevolence’? I would’ve thought that if there was some moral perfection (like being perfectly loving, or some such) which God has essentially and which is rightly described as ‘benevolence,’ then God’s having that feature would entail that, if there are any creatures, then God values their well-being. (These are not rhetorical question: if there are answers to them, I genuinely want to know.)
    Note also that it is not the case that if benevolence is a divine moral perfection then Ross’s argument is automatically untouched. It is only the case that if the definition of ‘benevolence’ uses moral notions in certain ways Ross’s argument is untouched. For instance, if ‘benevolence’ were defined as “valuing the well-being of others in the morally appropriate ways and to the morally appropriate degrees,” then Ross could appeal to the sui generis nature of God’s relation to creatures to get out of my argument, by claiming that it is not appropriate, given that relationship, for God to value the well-being of creatures to any degree. (Would Ross really claim that? Would you really claim that? Would ANYONE really claim that? It sounds crazy to me.) If my definition of benevolence is accepted, and it is agreed that God has that feature, then my argument goes through regardless of whether benevolence is a moral perfection.

    May 22, 2012 — 12:25
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