Ethical Constraints on Theodicy – Part 2

In last week’s post, we found that a deontological ethic makes the project of theodicy more difficult. Generally speaking, theodicies in which “the end justifies the means” pay insufficient attention to the claims of individual sufferers.

Is God a Utilitarian?
Is God a Utilitarian?

In this week’s post, I’d like to explore three aspects of theodicy which deontologists are particularly concerned about: (1) how sufferers benefit, (2) the need for consent, and (3) improving what is good vs. preventing what is bad.

1. How Sufferers Benefit

Most theists agree that if God allows a person to endure horrendous undeserved suffering (henceforth, just “suffering”), then He will compensate that person with an outweighing benefit. But theists disagree about how that benefit should be related to the person.

(a) Some theists (like Marilyn McCord-Adams and David McNaughton) argue that the greater goods for which suffering is allowed must benefit to the victim in some way. They insist on this requirement because a God who allows people to suffer for reasons unrelated to their benefit is a cruel utilitarian for whom ‘the end justifies the means.’ These theists argue that it is wrong to treat people as mere tools (even if their suffering is compensated later) because people are ends in themselves.

(b) Other theists (like Swinburne) reject the requirement in (1a) as too narrow. They argue that the greater goods need not benefit the sufferer at all. God can provide entirely different means of compensation that have nothing to do with why he allowed the suffering in the first place. It is clear that outweighing compensation is required, but as long as God remains (on balance) a person’s benefactor, he is not treating them as a mere tool.

2. The Need for Consent

In last week’s post, we learned that the duty not to seriously harm someone can be suspended if that person voluntarily consents to endure it for the benefit of others. Consent ensures that the person is treated with respect, not as a tool. For the purposes of this post, I will define an “unselfish act” as one’s enduring suffering for the sake of an outweighing benefit to others.

(a) Theists who align themselves with (1a) argue that it is wrong for God to enforce an unselfish act – even if he compensates for it later. Perhaps God is justified in permitting lesser harms in this manner, but there are serious harms that no one, not even God, should inflict on a person without their consent. Think of child torture, for example.[1]

(b) Other theists (like Swinburne) either relax the consent requirement or meet it in an indirect way. Perhaps God’s being our ultimate authority and caregiver means that what prohibits human beings from enforcing unselfish acts does not apply to Him. Because the extent of God’s responsibility for us is much greater, and because his is infinitely resourceful in the ways he can make compensation available, his rights over how our lives should be lived (including how we might suffer) are also much greater than any human’s could be.

Another strategy is to argue that God obtains tacit consent. This kind of consent can be obtained when a caregiver decides for a dependant who is not competent to decide for themselves, based on what the dependant would have chosen. Now, it is hard to believe that any person would ever consent to horrendous suffering, but that might be because we are not in an adequate position to know what is at stake in the big picture. What if a person was made fully aware of all the relevant facts, including the outweighing goods at stake and the reasons why the suffering was needed? Clearly, only God could know with certainty what that person would do. If so, then God could have providentially ordered the world so that in no cases does any person endure such suffering who would not have consented to do so, had they been made aware of all the relevant facts.[2]

(3) Improving what is Good vs. Preventing what is Bad

Greater goods fall into at least two types, those which (a) improve an already good situation, and those which (b) prevent a bad situation from getting worse, as when a catastrophe threatens. Note: I haven’t yet thought about (c) improving a bad situation 🙂

For deontologists, there is a moral difference between scenarios (3a) and (3b) because non-maleficence duties (to not harm) have some independence from beneficence duties (to benefit). In particular, the duty not to harm is stronger than the duty to benefit, even if the benefit to others is outweighing.

For utilitarians, non-maleficence duties are not independent of beneficence duties. Therefore, situations (3a) and (3b) should only be distinguished on the basis of their net benefit to everyone concerned.

As expected, deontologists disagree with utilitarians over what captures the morally relevant difference between these two scenarios. Deontologists claim that in (3a), one may have the right to improve a good situation by making it better for everyone, but not at the expense of seriously harming an individual. But in (3b), one may have a duty to cause serious harm to an individual if there is no better way to stop a catastrophic harm to others.[3] Why? Because harms are being weighed against each other – not benefits – and because the situation is forced. If there were a better way to prevent a catastrophe, then the harmful action would no longer be justified.


[1] Because consent is so pervasively lacking in cases of horrendous suffering, Marilyn McCord Adams and David McNaughton are virtually forced to conclude that this suffering is somehow needed for an incommensurable benefit to sufferers in the afterlife. Even the most disturbing evils, they claim, are eventually defeated in the afterlife because persons who have suffered deeply gain a profound vision of the inner life of God, as revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion. It is not surprising, then, that Adams and McNaughton endorse some version of universal salvation for humankind. See pp.280-1 in McNaughton, “Is God (almost) a consequentialist? Swinburne’s moral theory.” Religious Studies 38 (2002).

[2] Notice that God’s knowledge of what persons would freely consent to requires that He have middle knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom.

[3] For example, one might be justified in killing an innocent person without their consent if there is no other way to prevent a nuclear holocaust.

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