I am currently writing a book on the problem of evil. No doubt this is a monumental task, and I’ll admit I probably will not be completely satisfied with the final result. That nothwithstanding, something has come to my attention concerning the literature ranging over the evidential problem of evil. We recall the famous article by William Rowe (1979) entitled “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” His argument (simplified) is that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God is unlikely given the extent, distribution, and apparent existence of gratuitous evil. Of course, by gratuitous it is generally agreed that these are evils where no outweighing good results as a consequence of their having obtained. The vast majority of the literature in response to Rowe centers on a debate as to whether or not we can understand the reasons God has for allowing certain instances of evil to occur (often called theistic skepticism). Would we expect, given our finitude, to understand all of God’s ways and workings in creation–or is it more reasonable to believe that there are goods “beyond our ken” that only God apprehends that result from evil having occurred? Many suggestions as to what God is up to have resulted, ranging from various free will theodicies, soul making theodicies, or even eschatological theodicies (or perhaps some combination of these). Admittedly, I still do not understand the need for resulting goods from evil to be “outweighing” goods (perhaps someone can enlighten me). In terms of the consequences of actions, it seems that God can remunerate a “matching” good for the harm done, and that be a sufficient response to the problem (if in fact the matching goods theory were worked out–which is not what I’m doing here).
My observation is that there is an underlying assumption in the evidential argument that provides its force, namely that God has some obligation (moral) toward his creation that binds Him to act in ways that correlate to human relationships. In an excellent article entitled “The Persistent Problem of Evil,” Bruce Russell argues the following:
1. If God exists, then nothing happens which he should have prevented from happening.
2. If something happens that any human moral agent should have prevented if he knew about it and could have prevented it without serious risk to himself or others, then something happens which God should have prevented from happening.
3. Something has happened that any human moral agent should have prevented if he knew about it and could have prevented it without risk to himself or others.
4. Therefore, God does not exist. (the numbering of the propositions is changed for our purposes).
Of course, the critical premise is 2, and in the rest of my post I want to offer an initial line of thought (admittedly sketchy at this point) to respond to Russell. Rather than worry about the problem of outweighing goods, my concern is to ask “in what sense is God obligated to any of His creatures?” If there is no account of divine obligation, then we have sufficient reason to reject premise 2, and with it goes the rest of Russell’s argument.
Obviously we cannot obligate God in any meaningful sense. We do not have the status to legislate the moral values of actions to Him. The only account of divine obligation that makes any sense is that God obligates Himself to certain actions, and perhaps this obligation obtains as a result of His covenant or promises. But such a contruel is far from clear, and I think part of the confusion rests on conflating what is “good” with what is “right”. In perfect being parlance God is the sum of all perfections, His goodness is perfect. I understand this to mean that when he promises to work in a certain way (say, to bless Abraham as a result of His covenant with him) He will do what He says He will do. But more importantly, God does not need the force of an obligation to “draw” Him to fulfill His word. If God needed the force of an obligation to carry through with His promises, then that would imply a defect in His character–in effect saying that He doesn’t want to fulfill His promises, but will since He promised. Such a defect would give us reason to doubt his goodness (which is ontological), and to provide a moral injuction binding Him to His word (which would be deontological).
Thomas Morris provides a helpful distinction between an agent acting “under a rule” and acting “in accord with a rule.” (see his excellent introduction to philosophical theology called Our Idea of God. For a good buy see Amazon at http://amazon.com/dp/9781573831017?tagevangephiloss-20). Acting in accord with a rule means an agent carries out actions without any need of external motivation (such as a moral injunction). Acting under a rule speaks of when an agent requires the force of an injunction to carry out what they have said they will do. In other words, moral obligation only obtains on morally defective agents. God, being perfectly good, has no moral obligations. Therefore, saying that God should bring about an outweighing good implies that He is morally obligated to act in just such a way–a notion, I contend, is incoherent (contra premise 2).
Again, these thoughts are preliminary, but I think if they can be developed more sufficiently, then a different undermining objection to the evidential argument is on the horizon.