Call an objection to the existence of God a ‘problem of sub-optimal worlds’ when it appeals to the claim that God has reason to maximize the value of worlds. Since there are better (feasible) worlds than the actual one, these problems infer in some way or another that God does not exist. Although I haven’t looked at the literature closely, my impression is that every instance of the problem of sub-optimal worlds assumes a very simple relationship between the intrinsic value of a state of affairs and reasons for action (they don’t always talk about reasons, but my point could be cast in terms of virtues or whatever else one prefers). Something like this is typically assumed without comment:
Promotion: For every domain of intrinsic value D and subject S, S has reason to maximize D, i.e., for every additional degree of D that could be attained, S has reason to attain that additional degree of value.
Promotion is plausible for some domains of intrinsic value, such as welfare. It’s plausible that, for every additional degree of welfare that I could bring about in your life, I have some reason to take the necessary means of attaining that additional degree of welfare. But does Promotion hold for every domain of intrinsic value? I don’t think so.
Consider the following plausible candidates for intrinsic value:
Beauty may be the sort of intrinsic value that provides one with reasons not to destroy or reasons to appreciate, but it does not follow that one has even defeasible reasons to maximize this domain of value. Moral value (e.g., moral rightness, moral permissibility) might be the sort of intrinsic value that results when an agent correctly responds to other non-moral values, such as welfare, but it doesn’t follow that we have reasons to maximize the moral value in the world. Someone might be in an intrinsically valuable state when he or she knows that P or when she exhibits grace. But why suppose that an agent thereby has reason to maximize the knowledge or grace that is instantiated in this world?
The moral is this: if X is a domain of intrinsic value, it follows neither that an agent has reason to maximize X nor that an agent has reason to promote X to any degree at all. Once we recognize this point, those who advance the problem of sub-optimality must provide some reason to think that the overall value of worlds is a domain of value that an agent has reason to maximize. They also must identify some problem in the following argument:
- There is at least one domain of intrinsic value that (i) we do not have reason to maximize, and (ii) this domain of value is partly constitutive of the overall value of worlds.
- If 1, then the overall value of the world is also such that it does not provide reasons to maximize (the overall value of worlds).
- Therefore, the overall value of worlds does not provide reasons to maximize.
- If 3, then God’s being unsurpassably good does not depend on whether God maximizes the overall value of worlds.
- Therefore, God’s being unsurpassably good does not depend on whether God maximizes the overall value of worlds.
The premises in the argument are 1, 2, and 4, so let me quickly say something about each of them. In defense of 1: I’ve already defended that the claim that there are kinds of intrinsic value that do not provide reasons to maximize. What remains to be established is that some of these kinds of intrinsic value contribute to the overall value of the world. In the four cases I mentioned above–beauty, grace, moral value, and knowledge–I think it is intuitive that a world with lots of those kinds of value is better than a world with none. I think, therefore, that there is a pretty strong case for 1.
In defense of 2: The case for 2 is reasonably strong, but perhaps less so. We can commit the fallacy of composition here if we aren’t careful. I’m not assuming this: if X doesn’t have property P and X partially determines Y, then Y does not have property P. Beauty doesn’t have the property being appropriately attributable solely to maximal states of affairs but the overall value of worlds probably does have that property. But when we are considering the property providing reasons to maximize, the sort of inference does seem fairly plausible. If the overall value of worlds is determined in part by one or more kinds of intrinsic value that do not provide reasons to promote or maximize, it would be surprising to discover that the overall value of worlds does provide such reasons. At any rate, if the problem of sub-optimal worlds is going to be a strong argument, we need some explanation of why the truth of 1 fails to reveal that we do not have reasons to maximize the overall value of worlds.
In defense of 4: The fourth premise is pretty straightforward. If God has no reason–not even merely justifying ones–to maximize the overall value of worlds, it’s hard to see why God’s goodness should be affected by whether He maximizes the overall value of the world God actualizes. Analogously, since God has no reason to maximize the number of toothpicks in the world, His failure to do so, tells us nothing, by itself, about how good God is. (I’m also assuming here, that if the intrinsic value of the world does not provide God with a reason to maximize that value, then God does not have such reasons.)
Once we see that Promotion fails to apply to some kinds of intrinsic value, the proponent of the problem of sub-optimal worlds needs to provide some argument that the value of worlds is the sort of value that provides reasons to maximize. In addition, since 1, 2, and 4 jointly provide a plausible argument that the overall value of worlds does not provide God with reasons to maximize, the proponent of the problem must explain what is wrong with at least one of those premises.