Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Journal Club ♯3 - Street on Why the Price of Theism is Normative Skepticism





This is the third edition of the Philosophical Disquisitions Journal Club. The goal of the journal club is to encourage people to read, reflect upon, and debate some of the latest works in philosophy. The club focuses on work being done in the philosophy of religion (broadly defined). This month we’re looking at the following paper:

Sharon Street “If everything happens for a reason, then we don’t know what reasons are: why the price of theism is normative skepticism” in Bergman and Kain (eds) Challenges to Religious and Moral Belief: Disagreement and Evolution (Oxford: OUP, forthcoming)

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of Sharon Street’s work in metaethics. Street defends a form of constructivist antirealism, which I find quite attractive. I was thus pleasantly surprised to find that she had also recently written a paper dealing with one of my favourite topics in the philosophy of religion: the problem of evil and its moral implications. It’s a very good paper too, one that I’m sure will provide plenty of fodder for discussion.

In brief, the paper offers a twist on the traditional problem of evil. It argues that theistic belief, coupled with the existence of immense suffering, implies a thoroughgoing normative scepticism. That is: scepticism about what we are (or are not) morally obliged to do. I’ll offer a general summary of the argument below.


1. What is Street’s Argument?
The argument Street wishes to defend is simply stated:


  • (1) If theism is true, then everything happens for a reason.
  • (2) If everything happens for a reason, then we are hopeless judges of what reasons are.
  • (3) But we are not hopeless judges of what reasons are.
  • (4) Therefore, theism is false.


For those of you who might be interested in this kind of thing, the logical structure of this argument involves chained conditionals and the negation of their consequents (if p, then q; if q, then r; not-r; therefore, not-q; therefore, not-p). Street dedicates her attention to premise (2) in the article, but she does say something about the other premises and so we may as well start with them.

Premise (1) can be defended by appealing to the orthodox conception of a monotheistic god. If god is maximally-powerful and maximally-knowing, then it would indeed seem to follow that everything that happens in our world happens for a reason. Why? Because everything that happens is either a direct or indirect consequence of God’s action or inaction. Either God has deliberately caused that event to occur (or he set up the necessary original conditions); or God allows that event to occur (by not intervening). What follows from this? Well, since God, presumably, must act (or omit) with sufficient moral reason (he is the supreme moral agent after all), it would follow that everything happens for a (moral) reason of some kind. I think this is a plausible argument. Some qualification may need to be added in relation to the “everything”-claim, but I still think a sufficient amount of what happens in the everyday world — including those events at the heart of Street’s argument — would fall within the scope of the qualified version.

Premise (3) can be defended on three grounds. The first is that thoroughgoing normative scepticism is deeply implausible: it clashes with some of our most foundational epistemic commitments. This is something Street pushes quite forcefully in the paper. The second is that it is practically paralysing. This is something I looked into a little in my paper on this topic last year, though I was less bullish than Street on the grounds that certain considerations revolving around moral risk/uncertainty could resolve the paralysation problem. The third is that it would ultimately defeat theism itself, since theism is premised on the belief that there exists a supreme morally good being and Street’s argument, if correct, undermines any claim we might like to make about God’s supposed goodness.

That leaves premise (2) as the main bone of contention. We’ll discuss this in more depth below. Before that, I should say something about how Street understands her argument. It is, as she herself notes, just another version of the well-worn problem of evil, one that gets into some very similar issues as does the contemporary debate about sceptical theism. But there are some differences too. First, her argument is neither deductive nor evidential; it is, instead, a reductio. It is claiming that theism has practically and theoretically absurd implications, not that there is some logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of god, nor that the sheer volume of evil in the world provides evidence against his existence. (For what its worth, I’m not entirely persuaded by this distinction: it seems to me like traditional versions of the problem of evil have those absurd implications as well). Second, her argument is not intended as a reply to sceptical theism. It is a freestanding problem for theists, irrespective of their commitment to sceptical theism.


2. The Practical Dilemma and the Absurdity of Theism
Street’s argument presents the theist with a practical epistemic dilemma. To appreciate the dilemma, we need to appreciate some beliefs that all (or virtually all) theists are likely to share. First, there is the commitment to some sort of moral truth. That is: something about the nature of reality that allows us to meaningfully and appropriately apply labels like “good”, “bad”, “right”, and “wrong” to objects, events and states of affairs. Indeed, god is one of the things to which theists are most inclined to apply such labels. He is a supremely good being who acts in a morally justified manner. Second, there is the (prima facie) commitment to certain standard moral obligations. Street gives the example of intervening to prevent horrific suffering (which she discusses in light of a particular example of horrific suffering) in the paper. To be clear, this obligation is not absolute. Street emphasises that it is always possible for conditions to override that prima facie obligation. But, in the absence of such conditions, the obligation is something we generally agree upon.

The question then is what happens when we are confronting with cases in which god allows horrific suffering to occur. Given the standard conception of god, he could have intervened to prevent such suffering. The fact that he allows this to happen (over and over and over again) has consequences for our epistemic commitments. Street uses the analogy of a man who lives down the road from you and who you believe to be “good”. Suppose one day you learn that the man sat back impassively while he watched his children drown in his swimming pool. Would you still be committed to the belief that he is “good”? Presumably not. Presumably, learning this fact would force you to revise your belief.

Similar revisions are forced upon the theist every time they learn of an instance of horrific suffering that is not prevented by god. Only their revisions are not as straightforward. Prior to learning of the instance they have two epistemic commitments: (a) that god exists and he is good; and (b) there is a moral obligation to prevent horrific suffering. After learning of the instance of evil they will have to revise one of those commitments. Theists will probably seek to revise (b), clinging to the belief that god is good, but Street argues that this is the more implausible view. Revising our commitment to (b) does much more violence to our overall worldview. This is what is being defended in premise (2).

Of course, the argument isn’t fully persuasive yet. The typical theist will try to avoid the horns of this alleged dilemma. They will say that God’s permission of suffering need not impact upon their everyday moral commitments. This is because special circumstances arises (call these “C”) that provide sufficient moral reason for God’s permission of suffering, but that do not affect our moral obligations. Is this reply plausible? That’s the question at the heart of this debate.


3. Why the Dilemma is Significant
Here’s where Street’s paper gets really interesting. She carefully dissects the typical theist reply and argues that, no matter how you slice it, the dilemma remains. To do this effectively, she introduces a number of conceptual distinctions. First, she distinguishes between agent-neutral and agent-relative reasons for action:

Agent-Neutral Reasons: These are reasons for action that apply to all agents, irrespective of who or where they are.
Agent-Relative Reasons: These are reasons for action that apply to specific agents and/or in specific circumstances.

Our moral reasons come in both forms. Sometimes all agents have the same moral obligation, e.g. do not kill another person. Sometimes obligations are limited to a specific subset of agents, e.g. parents must look after their children. God’s reasons for action could also come in both forms. It could be that his reasons for allowing suffering apply to all agents, or it could be that his reasons for action only apply to him (given his unique properties). Since we don’t know which scenario obtains, we have to consider both (actually, we have to consider a third as well: the possibility that his reasons for action are sometimes agent-neutral and sometimes agent-relative).

In addition to this conceptual distinction, Street identifies another that bears directly on our (as opposed to God’s) reasons for action. This is the distinction between fact-relative and evidence-relative reasons for action:

Fact-Relative Reasons: These are reasons for doing or forbearing from some action, in some particular case, that arise because of the facts of the case. For example, if it is the case that tripping a pedestrian has the consequence of preventing him/her from being killed by an oncoming vehicle, then there is a fact-relative reason for tripping the pedestrian. 
Evidence-Relative Reasons: These are reasons for doing or forbearing from some actions, in some particular case, that arise because of the evidence you have at your disposal. For example, in the case of the pedestrian, you presumably could not know that tripping him/her would prevent a fatal accident. All the evidence at your disposal would suggest that tripping a pedestrian is wrong. Consequently, you would have no evidence-relative reason for tripping him/her.

The theist could, perhaps, avoid Street’s dilemma by arguing that god’s permission of great suffering either (a) provides them with no fact-relative reason for questioning their ordinary moral obligations (because they are agent-relative in nature); or (b) even if it does provide them with fact-relative reasons, it provides them with no evidence-relative reason for questioning their ordinary moral obligations. It is this line of reasoning that Street calls into question. She does so by going through the three scenarios mentioned above.

Scenario 1: God’s reasons for action are agent-neutral - In this scenario, god’s permission of suffering does indeed provide us with a fact-relative reason for disregarding our prima facie moral obligations. Nevertheless, the theist will argue that this fact-relative reason doesn’t spill over into the evidence-relative domain. Street says this is wrong. If God’s reasons for action are agent-neutral, then everything that happens is a piece of evidence that bears upon our moral obligations. Using the example of fatal road collisions, she argues that the fact that one such incident occurs (on average) every 52 minutes in the US gives us a reason to think it permissible to permit such incidents. We don’t know exactly why they are permissible, but the fact that they occur — combined with the fact that God’s reasons for action are agent-neutral — is enough to give us an evidence-relative reason for questioning our ordinary moral beliefs. As she puts it herself:

On scenario 1, all of history is converted to a source of evidence about our fact-relative reasons with respect to evils. And as soon as one has evidence that one has a fact-relative reason of a certain kind, one has information of direct practical relevance; in other words, one now has an evidence-relative reason too. On the assumption of scenario 1, we have indisputable evidence that there is, on a regular basis, fact-relative reason for us to permit evils. The only rational response to this evidence is to increase one’s credence, in the case of any given unfolding potential evil, that there is good reason to permit the evil to occur, even though one won’t have any idea in virtue of what.
(p. 11, online version)
So much for that. What about the other possibilities?

Scenario 2: God’s reasons for action are agent-relative - This scenario seems much more promising for the theist. It claims that God’s permitting evil provides us with no fact-relative reason for questioning our ordinary moral obligations. This in turn suggests that we have no evidence-relative reason for questioning those obligations. But this view is problematic. The problems emerge when we ask where we are supposed to learn of our moral reasons? There are two possibilities, either there is some plausible secular moral epistemology, or there is some theistic moral epistemology. We’ll consider the former possibility later on since it is one that most theists will wish to avoid (as it could effectively concede that morality is not grounded, ontologically or epistemically, in god). Let’s focus on the latter for the time being.

If moral knowledge must ultimately be grounded in god, how are we to come by knowledge of our moral reasons? It cannot be done by observing what happens in nature (i.e. what god permits) as that only has relevance for god’s reasons for action, not ours. So we must come by it through some form of divine communication (where this could take a number of forms, e.g. Bible, personal revelation or voice of conscience). But this suggestion is itself highly problematic. For it to work, we would have to have some way of reliably distinguishing false communications from real ones. We would also have to have some way of working out exactly what those communications demanded of us in particular circumstances. I won’t get into the full details here, but Street argues that we have neither of these things. All alleged communications from God are of doubtful provenance or of ambiguous and vague scope. This impacts upon our, evidence-relative, reasons for action. For if we have reason to question all alleged communications from god, we also have reason to doubt whether we have access to moral reasons at all.

So what about relying on a secular moral epistemology? Could a theist successfully pair-up his/her belief in god with a secular approach to moral epistemology? Unwelcome bedfellows though they may be, Street agrees that this is possible. The only problem is that it too leads to normative scepticism. Unfortunately, this part of the paper is pretty sketchy. This is because Street points to other work she has done to complete the argument. First, through her articulation of the “Darwinian Dilemma” she has argued that non-natural normative realism leads to normative scepticism. Second, she argues that normative antirealism isn’t a good fit with theism. The antirealist thinks that our normative commitments are constructed out of certain foundational attributes of our agency. On this account, a normative judgement is true if it withstands scrutiny from our own practical point of view (from our own foundational evaluative attitudes). The problem is that this doesn’t sit well with the notion that God has a moral reason for permitting suffering. To accept this, the antirealist would have to accept that they don’t really understand their own foundational evaluative attitudes. And accepting this would land them in a state of profound normative scepticism. They would no longer be able to trust their own judgment about what is right or wrong. So we end up in the same place.

Scenario 3: God’s reasons are sometimes agent-neutral and sometimes agent-relative: We no longer need to consider this scenario. Since Street has argued that normative scepticism arises no matter what the nature of god’s reasons are, it follows that normative scepticism would arise on scenario 3 as well.

This means that Street thinks her basic contention is correct: believing in theism is not compatible with our ordinary moral beliefs.

So what do people think? Is this a good/interesting argument? What are its weaknesses/flaws?

Comments are welcome below.

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