Friday, December 23, 2011

Subjectivism and the argument from evil as a reductio

The reductio requires that you establish that a particular conception of goodness is essential to Christianity. I think it's a mistake to just say "no problem, it's just a reductio." Even if you argue that a theist must accept an objective standard of right and wrong, you then have to show that the standard that God supposedly violates by allowing the type of evil you are highlighting is a standard that Christians, in virtue of being Christians, are committed to. That's a bit of a demanding chore, in my book.

If you're a subjectivist, you can't say "This is the true standard of right and wrong, God violates that in virtue of allowing the evil he does allow, therefore, an omnipotent being, if he exists, can't be good." What you have to say is that Christians are committed to the standard that God is violating. Showing that commitment on the part of Christians is bound to be difficult.

A two or three years back on DI I got into some dialogue with Calvinists, in which I argued that a God who predestined some to heaven and some to hell would not be a good being in any recognizable sense. I still think that's right, but they argued that what it is for God to be good is that God's actions promote his own glory, and by glory they mean that God acted in such a way as to be able to exercise as many of his attributes as possible. God's goodness, as they understood it, required him to required him to exercise both his merciful forgiveness of sinners, which he does by giving them saving grace and welcoming them into heaven, but also by leaving people in sin and exercising his attribute of hostility to and punishment toward sin, which he exercises by punishing people eternally in hell. The Calvinists I was discussing with denied that they were theological voluntarists. God is seeking glory in this sense is, on their view, satisfying an objectively true standard of ethical conduct. Nor would I make the case that Calvinists aren't Christians.

I still think that this leaves us with too big of a disconnect between goodness as we understand in human relationships and goodness as practiced by God. But making that case as someone who believes in an objective moral standard is difficult enough. Making such a case if you are an ethical subjectivist strikes me as being just plain impossible.


Anonymous said...


One response is that God is not a moral agent and that acting morally is not following a divine command, but properly instantiating being. That is the position of classical theism, which was the standard of Christianity until some late scholastics introduced a new vision of God.

Have you ever considered this approach?

Thrasymachus said...


Denying the relevant normative claim isn't a subjectivst-specific reply. Anyone can go "where's the evil? I don't think this looks bad" when presented with the usual 'evidence' used in ePoEs.

These moves aren't made in the literature because everyone who writes on it are pretty convinced that (for example) the Mutilation, Rowe's fawn etc. at least look evil at first glance. This is because people's common ground about normative claims covers stuff like murder, rape, torture, etc. If someone would be willing to bite the bullet and say examples like the Mutiliation don't even appear morally problematic, I think they're crazy. If Christians aren't committed to that, so much the worse for Christianity

The usual move re. subjectivism is sort of a moral argument trump: "Unless you can provide grounding for objective moral values, Atheist, I don't need to answer the problem of evil, 'cos if there ain't objective evil, there is no problem.

This move badly misunderstand the dialectic. Subjectivism (or any form of non-realism) is inhospitable to Theism: if it is true, God does not exist. So Atheist does not need to show objectivism to run the PoE, for if Theist accepts there are no moral facts, then Atheist has shown Theism to be false. The metaethical terrain either allows atheist to run the PoE, or is inhospitable to Theism in the first place.

Victor Reppert said...

I think my comments about Calvinists actually entails that the denial of the normative claim does not require subjectivism. Calvinists do claim that their God satisfies an objective moral standard. Just not the objective moral standard that critics of Calvinism intuitively accept.

The reason these "where's the evil" counters to the argument from evil are not widely used is because atheists implicitly do accept objective moral values, even if they don't say they do.

Running out of time for now.

Anonymous said...

"Subjectivism (or any form of non-realism) is inhospitable to Theism: if it is true, God does not exist."

This is still false.

"So Atheist does not need to show objectivism to run the PoE, for if Theist accepts there are no moral facts, then Atheist has shown Theism to be false."

No, if the theist accepts that there are no moral facts, the atheist hasn't done anything at all. The atheist isn't running an argument meant to show that there are no moral facts. No credit where credit isn't due.

Again, what the exchange shows is that a materialist atheist who claims and believes that God is in violation of an objective moral standard and who at other times says and believes that there are no objective moral standards is guilty of inconsistency. They can't run that argument. That some other, unrelated argument which kinda-sorta looks like the original argument in that it's one based on objective moralities is uninteresting with regard to the original question.

Sometimes people are inconsistent, even (especially?) atheists. It happens.

Edward T. Babinski said...

If you can justify eternal hell you can justify anything. Besides all pains/shames are trivial compared to eternal pain/shame, no?

Some Christians LOVE the idea of God damning even their own wife and children to eternal hell and will praise God eternally for doing so should that person's wife and child turn out not to be believers, or not be one of the elect or one of the saved. That illustrates the extent of that person's "love and trust" of "God" and his "infinite justice." Such a view was nicknamed the abominable fancy. It used to be pretty popular with Calvinists and conservative Catholics.

It seems to me that people can and will believe anything and find ways to justify their beliefs.

Look at the poor folks who followed some guy who told them to buy Nike's sneakers, castrate themselves and then drink poison. Look at the poor folks who moved to a South Amer. jungle and later drank poison Kool Aid. Look at Pat Robertson who can get people to send him tons of money in lieu of asking them to drink poison.

I suspect that we're all primates with plenty we hate or that simply irritates us, and if we're religious primates we find and use ancestral echoes of our hatreds that we find in the Bible, and we cite such passages in all sorts of "creative" ways.

And the Bible is not at a loss when it comes to ethno-centric, xenophobic, spiritual-centric biases that do little to promote tolerance and a sense of community, even between Christians. In fact, moderates and liberals in diverse religions seem to get along better than conservatives get along with each other in the same religion. The conservatives may differ on relatively small points as seen by moderates and liberals, but the conservatives fear that the slipper slope to eternal hell begins with differences in interpretation of "God's inerrant word" from Genesis to Revelation, or in differences of church rituals and practices, or simply in acts of "disobedience" to one's church/pastor/denominational leadership, etc.

I see little point in the notion of "original sin," since it's obvious that animals have both aggressive and social tendencies and none of us human primates are absolutely tame. Animals were showing aggression and also social behaviors long before humans appeared on earth. Even Old Earth creationists admit as much. So what exactly was "the fall?" One might say we're all still falling yet also still bonding with one another.

Lastly, I think even C. S. Lewis did not live his life by any one book. He was heir to a world of books, and ideas--a wider social world than many conservative Christians, conservative Muslims, etc. inhabit today. Though not a univeralist he did come near to being one, and also depicted the "sins" of humanity in the Great Divorce in terms of selfish obsessions, not in terms of whether or not such people "accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior." In fact some of the selfishly obsessive traits of the people Lewis depicted in The Great Divorce seem like traits some Christian believers have displayed.