Saturday, August 24, 2013

Maring on Evil and God's Authority (Part Two)



(Part One)

This is the second part in a brief series of posts on Luke Maring’s article “A new problem of evil: Authority and the duty of Interference”, which appeared in Religious Studies in 2012. The article purports to offer us a new argument from evil, based on the notion that God, qua authority, is specially obligated to prevent certain kinds of harm.

Maring does not offer us a clear formulation of this new argument from evil, but in part one I suggested that the following might be thought to capture his reasoning:


  • (1) If God exists, he claims/has authority over all of us.
  • (2) For any X, if X claims/has authority over us, X has a duty to prevent, protect or (possibly) compensate its subjects for harm to their well-being that occurs within X’s jurisdiction.
  • (3) Therefore, if God exists he has a duty to prevent, protect or (possibly) compensate us for harm to our well-being.
  • (4) If God had a duty to do something, he would fulfill that duty provided it was not logically/metaphysically impossible to do so (because of his omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence).
  • (5) We frequently suffer harm to our well-being without being protected from/compensated for it.
  • (6) Therefore, God does not exist.


In part one, we spent most of our time looking at the account of authority that underlies premise (2). This is probably Maring most original contribution to the literature. He argues that traditional accounts of authority tend to over-emphasise the powers and privileges of authority, but under-emphasise the accompanying duties and responsibilities. In particular, they ignore the fact that authorities owe their subjects a “duty of interference”. This is an imperfect duty, which could encompass preventing, protecting or compensating for harms to well-being. I offered my thoughts on this in part one, and I shall say no more about it here.

My focus now switches to the more “religious” aspects of the argument. This involves two related lines of inquiry. First, is it really true (or probably true) that (3) follows from (1) and (2)? In other words, is it really true (or probably true) that God must be held up to the same standards as other, more human, authorities? And second, is premise (5) true (or probably true)?

In pursuing these two lines of inquiry, I follow Maring’s presentation, but I break the discussion down into four sub-sections. First, I look at the claim that human notions of authority cannot be applied to God. Second, I look at the “Eternal Life Argument” against premise (5). Third, I look at what Maring calls “direct” responses to the problem of evil. And fourth, I look at what Maring calls “indirect” responses to the problem of evil.


1. God and the Dikaiological Order
There is a feeling among some theists that human concepts, such as the concepts of moral rightness and wrongness, cannot be properly applied to God. This is a tempting notion, since we often think that distinct moral standards apply across different roles, but it is dangerous in its extreme form. If no such concepts were applicable to God, we would end up with a theologically empty concept of God. After all, our claims about God’s goodness and God’s worship-worthiness rely, in an often under-appreciated manner, on our ability to import human notions of value into our concept of God.

So the question is whether there is a more subtle, less damaging way to express the popular feeling? Maring mentions the work of Michael Thompson and Mark Murphy. They flesh out the popular feeling with the academic-y sounding notion of a “Dikaiological Order”. This is an intimidating word, but a relatively simple idea. In essence, the notion is that two or more agents can only make certain claims about and against one another if they share a common rule-based interpretive framework. Analogies help to make sense of this. I can only be said to foul another player if we are both playing the same game, for example football, within which my actions are recognised as a foul. Likewise, I can only lie to my friend, if we share a common language in which what I said is recognised as being false. If we do not share the common dikaiological order, we cannot do or say these things.

The suggestion that this might be a problem when it comes to the relationship between God and humanity, particularly as it pertains to moral claims. God is so different from us, it is said, that we are not playing the same moral game. It’s like a human blaming a lion for breaching a moral rule; or vice versa. This is relevant to Maring’s argument because that argument rests on the assumption that, when it comes to exercising His authority over us, God is playing the same moral game as we are. This is what allows us to hold Him to the duty of interference; to expect Him to protect our well-being. If it turns out that God is playing a different game, claims of this sort might be off-limits. Let’s express this more formally (numbering follows from part one):


  • (11) If God and humanity do not share the relevant (moral) dikaiological order, then we cannot hold Him to the duty of interference.
  • (12) God and humanity do not share the relevant (moral) dikaiological order.
  • (13) Therefore, we cannot hold God to the duty of interference.


Maring suggests that this argument fails to block his original inference. This is because premise (12) is dubious. If we look past the intimidating language, and feint air of sophistication this seems to bestow upon the argument, we are left with a radical, and extremely unpalatable claim. At least, from the theistic perspective. For if it is true that we do not share the relevant dikaiological order with God, then many claims that theists like to make about God fall by the wayside. Consider: we could not then be said wrong God by blaspheming him, or by disobeying his commandments; and he could not be said to exercise any moral authority over us,* or to rightfully punish us for wrongdoing.

In other words, Maring is arguing that if God wants to play the same moral game as us, he cannot avoid the duty of interference. That duty is an integral aspect of authority, and if God wants to exercise moral authority over us, he must be held to that duty.

Of course, many theists will balk at this. They will think it downright odd — or even “wrong” — for us to make such claims about what God can and cannot do; to hold him to any moral standards; to demand or expect him to shoulder a duty. But the burden of proof is on them to show why this doesn’t have unpalatable consequences for their concept of God. That, at least, is how I interpret the dialectic.


2. The Heavenly Compensation Argument
The previous argument tried to block the inference from (1) and (2) to (3); all the remaining arguments can be understood as challenges to the veracity of premise (5). As you’ll recall, that premise claims that harms to our well-being occur, and yet the duty of interference is not met. But how could we be sure about that? After all, the duty can be met in a few different ways: prevention, protection and compensation. So it’s at least open to the theist to argue that the duty will be met via compensation in the afterlife, not protection and prevention here on earth. Hence, just because harms do occur, it does not follow that the duty of interference is not being met.

Call this the “Heavenly Compensation Argument”:


  • (14) If God compensates us in the afterlife for the harms we suffer here on earth, then the duty of interference is met.
  • (15) God does (or probably does) compensate us in the afterlife for the harms we suffer here on earth.
  • (16) Therefore, the duty of interference is met.


I’ve laid this out formally, but Maring does nothing of the sort in his article. I think this is unfortunate because, if he did, he might have realised that his own response to the argument is weak.

His response is twofold. First, he attacks premise (15) on the grounds that there is no strong evidence the afterlife or for compensation in the afterlife. Fair enough; that might work in an evidentialist debate. Second, he argues that even if God did compensate us for earthly harms, it is still true that bad things happened “on his watch”. In other words, all the natural disasters, tortures, rapes and genocides that happened on earth still really happened, and God didn’t intervene. This line of argument might be viewed as a response to premise (14), but it’s not at all clear.

My own feeling is that Maring needs something much stronger than the whole “God still let bad things happen”-line to defeat this argument. What he needs to do is argue that post-facto compensation is not really an acceptable way in which to discharge the duty. Or, that it is only acceptable in extreme cases, for example when the authority was powerless to prevent the harm. Since God is not “powerless”, he cannot opt for the sub-optimal method of discharging the duty.

An analogy might help to make the point. Imagine a government that knew it was facing an imminent armed attack from an invading band of marauders. They have an army at their disposal, and a well-rehearsed defence plan, but they don’t want to put it into motion, not because they fear loss of life — they’ve done the force depletion calculations and the risk of serious loss of life is minimal, perhaps even nil — but because they don’t want to get their shiny new tanks dirty. Instead, they decide to let the marauders rape and pillage themselves to exhaustion, and compensate the victims ex post facto. Surely, in such a scenario, we’d say that the government was not properly discharging their duty of interference? Well, maybe something similar is true of God. The afterlife might be swell, but opting for it instead of preventing harms here on earth is a sub-optimal way of discharging the duty.


3. Direct Responses to the Argument
The next attack on premise (5) — though it may be more properly viewed as a counter to the argument as whole — is to offer some sort of theodicy or defence. We’ve looked at all the usual suspects in the recent posts on the problem of evil: the natural laws theodicy, the soul-making theodicy and the free will theodicy. One of the nice things about Maring’s article is that, rather than go through each of these responses in detail, he treats them as a collective. At least, this was nice from my perspective since I read Maring’s article after reading several other articles about the problem of evil, each of which dealt with the standard responses in considerable depth. I don’t think I could have handled another detailed analysis.

But, of course, Maring’s reason for treating them as a collective had nothing to do with maintaining my sanity. It had some solid reasoning underlying it too. His point is that each of these responses has a common structure. They all agree that the observed instances of suffering and pain are genuinely evil, but they that they are necessary in order to secure some greater good. In other words, they agree that the suffering observed may be bad, but that things would be worse if it didn’t happen.

Maring has a straightforward objection to all of these claims. The duty of interference brings with it a correlative right, and on any plausible account of rights — be they viewed as Dworkinian trump cards or Nozickian side constraints — rights cannot be breached or cast aside in the interests of some common good. Indeed, that is one of the attractions of a rights-based morality: it does not reduce to an unpalatable form of consequentialism. So Maring’s argument is that if there really is a duty of interference — which cannot be satisfied through post facto compensation — then the direct responses do not negate the moral wrong that God, qua authority, does to us.

This is probably correct, insofar as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Not in my opinion anyway. It just shows us how debates about evil and the existence of God all tend to assume, or devolve into a consequentialist framework. This is for the simple reason that if God really did have moral duties toward us, ones that could not be sacrificed or set aside for the greater good, it would be almost trivially easy to disprove his existence. Theists aren’t going to give up that easily.

So they will, of course, respond to Maring’s argument by pointing out that, in extreme cases, we do set aside rights, and that it’s a good thing that we do so. This is either because competing, more important rights are at stake — consider: the right to life of the mother versus the right to life of the unborn child in the case of abortion — or because truly calamitous consequences would result otherwise. Surely, God might confront similar moral choices?

Maring has two replies to this. First, even if rights can be set aside in such cases, the rights retain some “normative tug”. That is to say: in breaching them we still incur a moral debt that must be repaid. For instance, we need to apologise to or compensate the person whose rights were breached (this gets us back into the Heavenly Compensation Argument). Second, theists haven’t actually shown that God’s violation of the rights is justified. All they’ve done is offer some hypotheses or guesses. Arguably, that isn’t good enough. Again, imagine if a human authority had some justifiable reason for breaching a right. Would it be okay for them to leave us guessing as to what this might be? No; surely they must provide us with a clear and direct explanation. Which brings us to…


4. Indirect Responses to the Argument
An “indirect response” is the name Maring gives to what are more commonly called “skeptical theist” responses to the problem of evil. I have covered these at great length on before, at one stage doing an entire series on the various difficulties that proponents of the response get themselves into. I won’t belabour those difficulties here.

You all know the basic drill. The problem of evil, even in Maring’s form, tries to infer from the available evidence that some moral evil has occurred. Skeptical theists respond by saying that, given the kinds of creatures we are (finite, cognitively limited, etc.), and given the nature of God (infinite, maximally great, etc.), we are not warranted in making that inference. We can’t assume to know about all the goods and evils that there really are and about all the entailment relations that obtain between them. What seems wrong to us, may not actually be wrong. We need to be more epistemically humble. Analogies involving parents and dogs are often trotted out to underscore this point.

Maring’s response is fairly standard, and indeed reiterates what was said above. It may be true that, for all we know, what seems like a breach of the duty of interference is not really a breach, or is not an unjustifiable breach, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem. For if that really is the case, God owes us some account of, or explanation for, the apparent breach. Any authority would owe us that. Why? Because we sacrifice freedom and autonomy to our authorities, and because we are vulnerable to their demands and punishments. Consequently, it is all the more important that they justify themselves to us. Dougherty’s discussion of skeptical theism and the parent analogy would help to flesh out this argument.


5. Conclusion
To sum up, Maring has tried to present us with a new argument from evil. The argument works from the belief that God exercises authority over us, and that as an authority he owes us a duty of interference. This duty is such that he should intervene to prevent, protect or compensate us for harms to our well-being that occur within the jurisdiction of his authority. But since such harms frequently do occur, and nothing seems to be done about them, it follows that God (probably) doesn’t exist.

In this post, we’ve examined several possible responses to this argument. We’ve looked at the popular claim that we cannot hold God up to human moral standards, and found that it commits the theist to an unpalatable concept of God. We’ve looked at the claim that heavenly compensation suffices to discharge the duty, and suggested that this, being sub-optimal, would not be preferred by God. We’ve also examined traditional theodicies and skeptical theist-style rebuttals and found them somewhat circumspect too.

On the whole, I think that Maring has provided useful food for thought with his argument. I like the fusion of a political theory with the philosophy of religion, and I have myself pursued such a fusion in the past. I have noted what I believe to be the weaknesses in the argument as I went along, and I have suggested some possible modifications and repairs. One fairly significant stumbling block for me, which I did not mention prior to this point, is the way in which the argument as a whole — and the account of authority in particular — rests on claims about what we would and would not consent to. My feeling is that God, if he exists, would not have to rest any claim to authority on what we would or would not consent to. Admittedly, this may be because I’m falling foul of the “Dikaiological Order”-fallacy, outlined earlier. Still, I thought I’d end with this since it might provoke some interesting reflections.


* He may exercise purely brute/physical authority over us, but that’s a distinct notion.

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