Saturday, January 21, 2017

With God, Everything is Permitted: How Theism Destroys Morality

This March, the bestselling novel, 'The Shack', will be released as a major motion picture starring Tim McGraw, Sam Worthington, and Octavia Spencer. The plot is well known: Mac's 3-year old daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. In his despair, he retreats to a shack in the woods where he encounters Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit in various forms. The book cover claims:
"In a world where religion seems increasingly irrelevant The Shack wrestles with the timeless question, where is god in a world so filled with unspeakable pain? The answer Mac gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him."
The story in 'The Shack' is fictional, but it underscores an obvious fact: the real world we inhabit is overflowing with unimaginable suffering that serves no purpose that anybody can discern. How can theists reconcile this observation with the claim that all goes according to the plan of an omnipotent and morally perfect God? 

William P. Young, the Canadian author of 'The Shack', seems to think that this is the zinger of an answer that his masterpiece deserved: 
"I could have chosen to actively interfere in her circumstance, I could have chosen to save her from the murderer. But that was not an option for purposes that you cannot possibly understand now."-God comforting Mac regarding his daughter's gruesome murder
As immensely disappointing as that response is, it is common: God must have morally sufficient reasons to permit even heinous evil - reasons that we simply cannot understand. But as philosopher Stephen Maitzen argues (here and here), theists fail to follow this response to its logical and untenable conclusion: we have no moral obligations.

Let me explain. If God has morally sufficient reasons to permit the apparently gratuitous suffering of innocent children, then the suffering isn't really gratuitous, though it may seem that way to us. God's mysterious reasons make the suffering necessary. If it wasn’t necessary, a perfect and omnipotent being would avail himself of the other options rather than permit it. Moreover, the suffering must be necessary for the net benefit of the child because no morally perfect being would exploit a child. Well, if the suffering is necessary for the child's ultimate benefit, then we have no obligation to stop it. (The argument stops there, though I think that an even stronger case could be made, which is that we must let the suffering occur.)

If you’re having a hard time accepting that, imagine that you are an anthropologist studying a primitive tribe on a remote South Pacific Island when your young daughter becomes gravely ill with appendicitis. The surgeon among your crew points out that strapping her down for a life saving appendectomy is necessary even if few or no anesthetics are available. To the locals listening to the girl's screams, this appears to be an act of wild depravity, but you and the surgeon have a morally sufficient reason to permit the brutal operation: there is no other way to save her life. Like God in ‘The Shack’, you know of purposes that the locals cannot possibly understand.

An uninformed witness to such events would have a moral obligation to try to prevent your daughter’s abdomen from being sliced open, but if such a witness had reasons to believe that the surgeon was sane, upstanding, and extremely capable, that obligation would disappear since the operation and its attendant suffering are required to secure her survival; they're necessary for her net benefit. (An even stronger case could be made: an informed witness who prevents the surgery could only be a murderer trying to secure your daughter's certain death. And so it seems to me that if there exists a moral obligation in this situation at all, it is to ensure that the savage operation proceeds.)

Well, if God exists, then we have no moral obligation to prevent the apparently gratuitous, but actually necessary, suffering of children, and if we don't even have that moral obligation, then we have no moral obligations at all. Morality itself is destroyed.

A common response to this argument is that God has given us libertarian free will with which he must not interfere, even if doing so would prevent the intense, gratuitous suffering of children. But there are several reasons why we should reject this line of reasoning.

Firstly, Maitzen points out that, at least from a Christian perspective, on numerous occasions in the Bible, God does interfere with human free will. For example, he hardens the heart of Pharaoh (Exodus 14:8), and, as Paul tells us in the New Testament, he also hardens the hearts of others as a matter of policy (Romans 9:18). Apparently, libertarian free will isn't so important that God cannot interfere with it, and if God can harden hearts as needed, surely he can soften the hearts of those who rape and murder innocent children.

Secondly, the very idea itself that free will is more important than preventing the intense suffering of innocent children is simply outrageous; nobody really believes it. For instance, imagine that you have the opportunity, at virtually no risk to yourself, to prevent the rape of your child. Would it ever be acceptable to pass because of too much concern with preserving the free will of the rapist? Of course it wouldn’t, and it would be especially unacceptable for an omnipotent Father. God could only sacrifice his moral perfection in doing so, and if God is not morally perfect, then he does not exist.

The tension between the coexistence of God and morality as we know it cannot survive any ad hoc supremacy of the importance of libertarian free will. The only acceptable reason to permit the suffering of a child, even for God, is if it’s necessary for the net benefit of that child, and if it is, then we have no obligation to prevent it. (In fact, it seems to me that we may have a duty to permit it.)

Contrary to popular belief, Dostoyevsky had it all wrong; it’s only if God does exist, that everything is permitted. So while many theists claim that it’s our moral obligation to make this world better, ironically, it's only if God does not exist, that such moral obligations do. Morality implies atheism.


  1. Hey Yorgo,
    First, I have to ask whether the title of the post is supposed to be "With God, everything is permitted..."?

    Second, I have a response to this argument that I don't think you or Maitzen addressed. If we accept that our moral intuitions are informative of the objective morality assumed by the argument, then we should grant that moral truth is situational (e.g., that something may or may not be wrong depending on the situation). If this is true, and if agent knowledge is counted as a variable in the situation, then we can also say that the truth of a moral claim is a function of the agent's level of knowledge. This accords with our intuitions, in which we excuse acts done in ignorance that we would otherwise condemn if they had been done with full knowledge of the consequences. If these assertions hold then we can say that the moral truths for an omnipotent being are different than the moral truths for epistemically limited beings such as ourselves. This would imply that the limited beings should base their morality solely on their epistemic position without regard for the morality of an omnipotent being where full knowledge of relevant information is truly unavailable. I add that last caveat to preclude willful ignorance from consideration (i.e., intentionally avoiding information while knowing that it could change the moral status of the claim).

    There may be a counter-objection here that I haven't yet pursued to a conclusion, which has to do with the interplay of God's knowledge and our knowledge. If God knows the extent of our knowledge, and we know that God knows this (due to his omniscience), then it would seem that we have sufficient knowledge to trust that anything we do is morally correct because it is based on the level of knowledge that God has allowed us to accumulate, which presumably leads to a morally perfect consequence according to his omniscience (and so thus also from our limited yet sufficient knowledge). There might be an infinite regress in there and the levels of indirection make it a difficult idea to process, so for now I'm just throwing it out there for consideration.

    What do you think?

  2. Hi Travis,

    Thanks for your interest.

    You are correct, and I’ve updated the title to correct the typo, so thanks for that.

    Regarding your first objection, if God exists, then the state of our moral knowledge and action is irrelevant. It’s as if we are the tribes people and our village has a perfect surgeon. Anesthetics or not, we’d never have any moral obligation to intervene when the surgeon is operating on any of our children.

    Regarding the second objection, it remains true that whether we intervene or not, the consequences are optimized, and so I again see no moral obligation to intervene. If you choose not to intervene, God knows that, and the outcome is optimized for the net benefit of the sufferer. Same is true if you choose to intervene. If the outcome is optimized no matter what you do, then you can’t have any obligation to intervene. Goodbye morality.

  3. I don't think I quite communicated the ramifications of the first objection. Under the proposal, action A will always be morally perfect in relation to God, as a consequence of his omniscience and omnipotence, but it could still be objectively wrong in relation to us. A theist could even say that God will judge us according to our relation to objective morality, just as we would still convict a murderer who unknowingly saved many lives in a cold-blooded taking of a single life. The whole point is that the epistemic position does in fact inform the truth of a moral claim. That is part of the definition of morality under this objection.

  4. Theists regularly argue that the knowledge gap between us and God is a massive chasm, which is why unimaginable atrocities (like the Holocaust, for instance) are permitted by God. Accordingly, we'd have reason to believe that nearly always, what seems right to us actually provides a less than optimal outcome.

    But more importantly, even if what seems right to us is the right thing to do, we still have no moral obligation to do it, because even if we don't do it, God must optimize the outcome for the net benefit of the sufferer. Remember, the argument is that we lose all moral obligation. If you think that's wrong, you have to show how things would be different for the sufferer whether we act according to what we think is moral or not. If there's a difference there, that is, if the sufferer suffers more than optimally when we do not intervene, then God is exploiting the sufferer for some reason (to test us? to teach us a lesson?), but that's impossible because no perfect being would exploit a child. Moreover, such a scenario would still turn morality upside down because it would make moral action about improving our own situation with respect to God rather than about relieving the unnecessary suffering of the sufferer. That’s not acting morally. That’s acting prudentially.

  5. "This would imply that the limited beings should base their morality solely on their epistemic position without regard for the morality of an omnipotent being where full knowledge of relevant information is truly unavailable."

    If theism is true, the relevant information is fully available: God is perfect and omnipotent, which entails that all involuntary and undeserved suffering is necessary for the sufferer's net benefit, which entails that we have no moral obligation to prevent it.

  6. Consider how strange the Christian worldview is.

    God never permits anybody to suffer more than they need to for their own greater good, yet God gives us a yearning to relieve the suffering of others.

    This would be like a genius who develops an injectable vaccine that provides a net benefit to everybody, and who simultaneously instills into the population a yearning to prevent people from getting needles. It doesn't make any sense at all.

    On naturalism, on the other hand, our yearning to reduce the suffering of others is rather easily explained and makes perfect sense.