Ethical Constraints on the Project of Theodicy – Part 1

An explanation that tries to reconcile the existence of God with the reality of evil is called a theodicy (from the Greek theou dikē, meaning ‘justification of God’). Put simply, a theodicy is an attempt to justify the ways of God to human beings.

utilitarian4Generally, a theodicy must pass a basic acid test in order to successfully increase the likelihood of certain evils on the view that God exists: (1) it needs to be a coherent story that resonates with theistic belief; (2) it should (to some degree) lead us to expect the evils in question, and fit with other things we know to be true. And (3), it should conform to known ethical principles that spell out the conditions under which it is permissible to allow undeserved suffering.

Richard Swinburne – the Emeritus Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, at the University of Oxford – has written extensively on the project of theodicy[1] and is known for defending explanations of evil that appeal to greater goods. However, one of Swinburne’s main critics – David McNaughton – argues that this ‘greater goods’ response to the problem of evil is incompatible with a deontological moral framework and should therefore be rejected because it fails to pass requirement (3) of the basic acid test.[2]

Both authors hold to a deontological moral theory but disagree about the constraints this theory places on project of theodicy, vis-à-vis requirement (3). McNaughton believes that deontology makes this project more difficult than consequentialism does since, according to the former, agents do not normally have a right to allow others to suffer greatly even if doing so is necessary for some outweighing good.

According to McNaughton (2002), a deontological framework is built upon four categories of duty: beneficence (benefiting others), non-maleficence (not harming), justice (or fairness), and positional duties which come from the kinds of relationships we enter into (p.269). He says the duty not to harm is a principle in its own right which involves more than simply ensuring a positive balance of well-being for others. However, he does admit that extenuating circumstances can limit or override that principle, making it permissible for a human being to cause or allow harm to befall others. But when is the non-maleficence principle limited in this way?

McNaughton provides some examples: (a) to rescue someone from a greater harm, (b) when enforcing just punishment, and (c) when someone voluntarily consents to suffer so that others may benefit. However, in none of these examples is one justified in (d) permitting horrendous (undeserved) suffering to befall a victim in order to secure a greater good for others, especially if the sufferer has not consented to endure it. Perhaps much suffering could be justifiably allowed, without consent, if there is no other/better way to prevent a worse catastrophe, but surely not as a way “to make an already good situation better” (p.271). Therefore, McNaughton concludes that theodicies involving scenarios akin to (d) are morally unacceptable and thereby fail the basic acid test.

Swinburne (2002) replies to McNaughton’s criticisms by arguing God’s duty not to harm (or inversely, his right to allow harm) is not similarly restricted because God has a unique relationship to the creatures under his care.[3] This relationship can be understood in terms of (though not reduced to!) the rights and duties of caregivers and their dependants.

To some degree, carers have the right to make decisions on behalf of dependants who are not competent to direct the course of their own lives. For a human parent, this right involves a very limited prerogative to allow their children to suffer for their own benefit or for the sake of others. But according to Swinburne (1998), the extent of God’s prerogative is much less limited than for human parents, since (as our Supreme Caregiver) his responsibility for our well-being and our relative incompetence are vastly greater.[4] This means that God has a right to allow us to suffer even serious harms for the sake of greater goods, provided that He remains (on balance) our benefactor. God’s right to allow harm without our consent is much greater in his case.

As you may have suspected, the main disagreement between Swinburne and McNaughton has to do with the role of authority in matters of care. McNaughton (2002) argues that “some actions are wrong because they treat people in ways that it is unacceptable that anyone should be treated, irrespective of authority” (p.280). Swinburne (2002) acknowledges that God’s authority does not involve unfettered rights to harm his creatures, but he disagrees with McNaughton about the extent of his duty not to allow harm: “While I agree with McNaughton that there are harms so awful that no-one, not even God, ought to impose them on anyone else, our disagreement concerns what those harms are” (p.303, cf. p.305).

How might you, the reader, respond to this disagreement? If God exists, does He have a right to allow some harm to befall his creatures? If so, does that right extend to cases in which creatures endure horrendous undeserved suffering without their consent? If so, would God be justified in allowing this suffering to make a good situation better, or only to prevent a worse situation from happening instead? What are your “gut” reactions to these questions?


[1] Richard Swinburne. Providence and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

[2] David McNaughton, “Is God (almost) a consequentialist? Swinburne’s moral theory.” Religious Studies 38 (2002), 265-281. It should be noted that McNaughton’s criticisms do not apply to theodicies which explain certain evils as side-effects, rather than means. For example, some versions of the free will theodicy explain moral injustice as the byproduct misusing a very good thing, namely freedom of the will. These injustices are not the means to securing free will – they are an outcome of it.

[3] Richard Swinburne, “Response to my commentators.” Religious Studies 38 (2002), 301-315.

[4] See Chapter 12 of Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil (1998) for a more detailed explanation of where the rights of caregivers come from and why God’s rights as a Supreme Caregiver are so much greater than those of humans.

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