Is an Evil God as Plausible as a Good God?

Jerry Coyne has made a post linking to a video by Stephen Law that argues that the standard free will defense for God allowing us to act in evil ways would also work to justify an evil God. He posits that there might be an evil God who wants us to suffer and that might be the God who created everything. He then notes that the first counter to that would be that we’d imagine that the world would contain a lot more suffering than it actually does if that way the case, at which point he uses the “free will” defense to say that just as we can posit that a good God allows us to choose evil as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of us having free will, the evil God can allow us to choose good as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of us having free will. Thus, the free will defense allows us to justify both an evil and a good God, and so cannot be used to choose between them.

The first issue here is that it ignores the idea that allowing humans to have free will is, in fact, good in and of itself. If it is better for humans to have free will than it is for us to be nothing more than the willing puppets of God with the illusion of actually making free choices, then we can easily see why a good God would allow us to have free will and even why a good God would accept us acting evil out of that free will, but it’s difficult to see why an evil God would give us that great good in the service of willing evil acts. So, if we stick strictly to good and evil here, a good God would give us free will because giving us free will is in and of itself good, but it seems inconsistent for an evil God to give us such a great good. To oppose this, you either need to show that free will is not a good, or that it facilitates in some way some great evil. Both of those would be daunting tasks, to say the least.

However, as I’ve already discussed, talking about “good” and “evil” is almost always too vague. We need to work out what we mean by “good” and “evil” to really work this out. Even Law assumes that his evil God really wants to increase our suffering. So let’s compare, then, a moral God who wants us to act morally to a sadistic God who wants us to suffer. Since being moral requires us to have free will and the free will to choose to act morally — an argument that Coyne, at least, can’t oppose since he thinks that if we don’t have free will then the concept of morality is meaningless — we have a good reason for a moral God to want to give us free will. This doesn’t seem to work for the sadistic God. After all, if the sadistic God really wanted us to suffer, he could just turn us into self-aware puppets with a strong innate moral fiber, with the ability to understand that what we are doing is wrong, but being unable to stop ourselves from doing it. This world is not like that. Additionally, if we are given the free will to stop hurting each other, then we might, in fact, all just go ahead and do that, leaving a world with a lot less suffering. This doesn’t in any way promote the sadistic God’s plans. One might argue that allowing us to act immorally might mean that all of us might choose to always act immorally and so contradict the moral God’s plans just as much, but it is clear that the moral God needs to risk that in order for us to act morally at all. The sadistic God does not need to give us free will in order to make us suffer.

But wait, I can hear some of you cry! Aren’t you pulling a bait and switch here? Why are you comparing a moral God to a sadistic God? Why aren’t you comparing a moral God to an immoral God, a God who wants us all to act immorally all the time? After all, the immoral God requires us to have free will just as much as the moral God does. So, let’s take a look at that case.

In order to assess this, we first need to decide what it means to act morally. Let’s first consider the case where what it means to act morally is to act according to what God says is moral. In this case, then, moral God wants us to act according to the moral rules that he has defined, while immoral God wants us to violate those rules, well, pretty much all of the time. At this point, immoral God seems to be drifting towards “insane God”, setting up rules that he deliberately doesn’t want us to follow. The best we could say about this is that it might be a God that is encouraging us to think for ourselves … but since that might mean that we act according to the rules or not according to the rules as we see fit we no longer have an “immoral” God, but instead a God that allows us to make our own choices, and thus a “free will” God. But a free will God has little reason to make moral rules in the first place. Thus, an immoral God under this model seems rather implausible, as either it has to be advocating against follow its own rules, or ends up as a God that doesn’t really want us to act immorally at all.

Next, let’s look at moral relativism. Here, the moral God would want us to act according to and consistently with our own ideas of morality, while the immoral God would want us to, in fact, act against those assessments. But giving us the ability to assess the situation morally flies in the face of that. Why care about morality at all if we aren’t supposed to follow it? It’s difficult to imagine a reason why an immoral God would, again, want us to have any moral capabilities at all in that case. So we’d have to retreat to God wants us to suffer or God wants us to make choices. Either way, the immoral God seems out of the picture.

Finally, let’s look at there being an objective morality that is independent of what God thinks is moral (ie it’s not just defined by what God says is moral). A moral God would want us to follow it, while an immoral God would want us to violate it. But we have to ask why, in fact, each of them would want us to do that. A moral God can appeal to either the idea that as moral agents — created as such by God — it is our natural duty to try to act morally, or the idea that it is better for us to act morally. The immoral God can’t appeal to the idea that it is our duty to act immorally if we are created as moral agents, and if we are not created as moral agents we are amoral, not immoral. Again, in that case it would be better if they hadn’t created us as moral agents at all, and if immoral God doesn’t create us as moral agents, then it doesn’t need to care about morality — or free will — at all. However, immoral God can appeal to the idea that it is better for us to reject that objective morality and so that’s why we should act immorally, as well as why we should have an idea of what is moral, so that we know what to avoid. But then we can sub back into the original question and note that that’s not an evil God anymore. On that argument, both moral and immoral God are advocating that we do what it is in our own best interest, which is, therefore, a good God. Their disagreement would be over whether being moral is good or whether being moral is bad for us. And most of us, by default, are going to side with being moral being good.

Thus, Law’s argument doesn’t work. Evil or immoral Gods tend to either not care about being moral or end up being good Gods of some sort anyway, and always end up being less plausible than good Gods. This does not mean that we have good Gods and don’t have evil Gods, it just means that this little quirk on the Problem of Evil doesn’t work to establish the point Law is trying to make here.

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3 Responses to “Is an Evil God as Plausible as a Good God?”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    This was an argument completely dismantled by Dr. Feser several years ago. It’s totally debunked. http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/10/laws-evil-god-challenge.html

    • verbosestoic Says:

      The issue there is that he uses the classical theist model to dismantle it, but the version used in the video — focusing entirely on the “free will” theodicy — isn’t one that a classical theist would ever use. The classical theist, as Feser points out, is going to use the “privation” argument to defeat “The Problem of Evil”. So, as he puts it, it’s the “theistic personalist” view that’s vulnerable here, and clearly the one that I’m trying to defend.

  2. Andrew Says:

    Can I approach this from a different direction?

    All such discussions at some point intersect with the Euthyphro dilemma: which has primacy, good or god? Ancient Christian and Hebrew thought rejects the dilemma, placing YHWH at the apex of both.

    However, the dilemma is alive and well for the atheist. Is morality derived from human will, or does it exist externally? The issues with human will are obvious, but if it pre-exists then there are questions of where it came from and how it existed before humans did.

    How does this relate to “evil Gods”? It’s worth noting that “God is good” is semi-tautalogical. The tautological bit is that God is consistent with his nature and character, although even that makes a statement about the reliability and consistency of God. The non-tautalogical claim is that God’s ways are actually and ultimately beneficial, and therefore it is wise to follow and trust him.

    Good is that which is according to God. Evil is that which stands against him, his ways, and his character. Yet in the end even evil will act to demonstrate God’s glory when he purifies the world.

    Critically, Christian thought sees the existence of evil as temporal, tolerated by God for his purposes until he is ready to deal with it. Pushing this view further (and I know not everyone will agree with me), humanity and creation are first and foremost a great object lesson in God’s character, and also the audience thereof. Being God, God’s agenda is primarily about God, and humans can respond to what is happening by being objects of either eternal grace or eternal cleansing. Both scenarios demonstrate God’s goodness and holiness; one works out much better for the people involved.

    But what if the omnipotent God is evil? What does that even mean?

    Is he opposed to his own nature? That’s obviously a nonsense.

    Has he created the world because he desires harm? That’s a theoretically live possibility: kids make Minecraft worlds just to blow them up and kill things; why not God? But how do you usefully call this “Evil”, in the sense that there is a moral wrongness? What does it mean to say to your creator “I don’t like your nature”? And if we don’t like our creator’s nature, does that make him evil, or us?

    To claim that anything is Evil requires a moral standard that is over and above them. But that brings us back to Euthyphro – if the moral standard doesn’t come from the gods, from whence does it come. If we propose something greater than the gods, then we’re essentially saying those gods are only lesser (created?) gods, not “true” gods. It’s only meaningful to call God evil if there is a standard over and above him. Otherwise, the act of calling God evil is itself a terrible evil, in that we object to the nature of our creator.

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