Ordinary Morality Presupposes Atheism, not God!

Ordinary Morality Presupposes Atheism, not God! May 31, 2016

This one got lost in the transfer from my old blog to this one. Since it has come up in conversation, I thought I would post it again. From 2013:

I was listening today to The Reasonable Doubts podcast and I had a really interesting discussion that made reference to a fantastic paper written on morality. This paper concludes that morality and theism are juxtaposed to the point that if theism pervades, then morality is incoherent. Morality, it seems, presupposes atheism. This is interesting because so many apologists claim the exact opposite. The paper is by philosopher Stephen Maitzen and is titled “ORDINARY MORALITY IMPLIES ATHEISM“.

So, let us look at the principles of what he says. Firstly, he set out a principle which he calls theodical individualism:

(TI) Necessarily, God permits undeserved, involuntary human suffering only if such suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer.

This has a qualifier of undeserved “in order to satisfy retributivists who think people sometimes deserve to suffer; if you think people never deserve to suffer, simply ignore the qualifier.” This is a position which seeks to sum up the consensus of both theistic and anti-theistic philosophers when dealing with the problem of evil, such that Eleanore Stump declares:

“if a good God allows evil, it can only be because the evil in question produces a benefit for the sufferer and one that God could not produce without the suffering.”

I can’t overemphasise how important a statement that is. It is what defines the notion of God being a moral consequentialist as set out in my essay and post, “God is a consequentialist”.

Matizen sets out another principle, declaring that the compensation of an afterlife, or similar, does not justify suffering. This is a truly critical notion that many theist overlook, since it is often offered as a viable theodicy. This should not qualify as a theodicy for the reasons that follow:

Like Stump’s use of it, TI’s use of the word “produces” is significant, because otherwise we allow that God’s mere compensation of the sufferer—say, in a blissful afterlife—can justify God’s permission of suffering even if the suffering bears no necessary connection to the good that compensates for it. Without such a connection, the good may compensate for the suffering but can’t morally justify God’s permission of it. Consider an analogy to our ordinary moral practice. My paying you money after harming you may compensate for my harming you, but it doesn’t justify my harming you. Only something like the necessity of my harming you in order to prevent your harming me or an innocent third party has a chance of justifying my behavior: some necessary connection must hold between the harm and the benefit.

In talking about how this TI statement, ordinary morality and theism cannot exist coherently side by side, Maitzen claims that theists recognise this and drop one of the “triad”, namely TI. But, Maitzen claims, they show no good reason for doing this, since it appears that ordinary morality and TI seem fairly fundamental, conceptually, and that theism is the weak link.

What it boils down to is that God is using people, sufferers, instrumentally – as a means to an end. And the problem with this is that this is morally debatable, at least in the context of morality that theists seem to want to adhere to. It is entirely utilitarian in its approach – people are a means to an end.

Here is how Maitzen starts to set out his argument for atheism from morality:

(1) If God exists and TI is true, then, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer.

(2) If, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer, then (a) we never have a moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering or (b) our moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering derives entirely from God’s commands

We use vaccines in this way – to stop unnecessary suffering. But since suffering seems to be a command from God, who are we to get in the way of this?

As Jordan puts it, the antecedent of (2) in effect “guarantees the operation of a kind of fail-safe device that renders every instance of [undeserved, involuntary] human suffering an instrumental good for that sufferer.” We know that some vaccines can cause serious side-effects, but suppose that an abundantly available vaccine were, despite the painfulness of receiving it, known to produce a net benefit (the painfulness included) for everyone who receives it. Suppose, further, that no less painful procedure produces the same benefit. Under those circumstances, how could we ever have a moral obligation to prevent vaccination? I can’t see how we could.

As Maitzen posits, “we never have an obligation to prevent it unless God’s commands somehow give us such a duty”. This is because if we do not help people who can be helped, then they are going to suffer unnecessarily. But God can only allow such suffering, being omni, if it leads to a greater good. This is God’s failsafe. Thus there will always be a greater good to the suffering. But if we decide to step in and help, for example to vaccinate a child, we are stopping that greater good from taking place, as it necessarily must if we didn’t help. Maitzen analogises:

Consider the case (alluded to earlier) of David Rothenberg, the six-year-old boy set on fire by his abusive father. If God exists and TI is true, then necessarily David ultimately benefits whenever God allows him to experience undeserved, involuntary suffering of such an intense kind. Thus, even if we could easily prevent his suffering, our allowing it is always like allowing him a vaccination known to be for his own net good. Granted, it may be that God wants us to prevent the suffering, but if we fail to prevent it David will be better off as a result. I don’t say that TI and theism give us either permission or an obligation to cause his undeserved, involuntary suffering—although a case can be made for that stronger claim—only that TI and theism relieve of us of any obligation to prevent it.

Maitzen continues by talking about morality in cross-cultural contexts which does not rely on, or presuppose, God’s existence. In other words, we sometimes stop unnecessary suffering in the absence of (or in spite of) God’s divine commands to do so.

(3) We sometimes have a moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering, an obligation that does not derive entirely from God’s commands.

Two subconclusions follow from the three premises just established:

(4) So: It isn’t the case that, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer. [From (2), (3)]

(5) So: God does not exist or TI is false. [From (1), (4)]

As mentioned, theists such as Jeff Jordan (Jeff Jordan, “Divine Love and Human Suffering,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 56 (2004): 169–78; 172, 177 nn. 13, 23), whom Maitzen is targeting here, concede that TI follows from a Kantian view of ethics which states that humans cannot be merely used as a means to an end. If you are being used, in your suffering, as a means to an end, a greater good, then God is defying such Kantian ethical imperatives. As Maitzen observes:

If God causes or even permits your unwilling, undeserved suffering primarily for the benefit of someone or something else, it does look as if God is, at least indirectly, treating you merely as a means. Despite the presence of the word “benefit” in TI, the basis for TI is deontological rather than consequentialist: TI serves as an absolute constraint on God’s maximization of goodness or happiness. I don’t claim that ordinary morality itself implies theological principles such as TI. Ordinary morality, as the name suggests, concerns our dealings with fellow creatures rather than our dealings with God. Nevertheless, I’m arguing that TI is true even if not itself a tenet if ordinary morality and that TI and theism jointly destroy a type of obligation that does belong to ordinary morality.

As Jordan himself agrees:

If Theodical Individualism is correct, then … there is [an] outweighing good for the sufferer. The goodness of God requires, moreover, that this outweighing good isn’t only compensatory, but is also a “necessary means or the best possible means in the circumstances to keep the sufferer from incurring even greater harm.” God permits that suffering, in those circumstances, because that suffering provides the optimal benefit, in those particular circumstances, to the human sufferer.

Maitzen analogises to continue, then, his argument:

Suppose that God allows Jack to endure undeserved, prolonged, and unbearable pain because it’s the only way to get Jack’s crush, Jill, who has consistently ignored his affections, freely to send Jack a get-well card that he’ll read just before he dies from his painful condition. Jack secures some benefit from the suffering—a freely sent get-well card from Jill—but suppose that his suffering is involuntary in that he wouldn’t regard the benefit as remotely worth the suffering even if he knew that not even God could produce the benefit any other way. Surely God’s conduct in that case falls short of moral perfection. It falls short even if we also suppose that Jack’s suffering produces significant benefits for others obtainable no other way (perhaps news of his suffering triggers generous donations that his hospital wouldn’t otherwise have received). It falls short of moral perfection because it’s unfair to Jack, and this demand for fairness in the treatment of individual persons is what underwrites the Kantian claim. Jack gets some reward, but not enough: not enough because his reward fails, by any reasonable measure, to offset his undeserved, involuntary suffering. The Kantian claim, in short, does imply TI, including TI’s requirement of a net benefit for the sufferer:

 (6) If not even God may treat human beings merely as means, then TI is true.

What Maitzen looks to do, then, is show that his argument “presumes that a perfect being would never sacrifice an innocent person who didn’t volunteer for it”.

 It seems that when humans use other humans as means to an end, we fall short of moral perfection, so it can be claimed. As God appears to be doing this too, then God must fall short of moral perfection.

(7) Not even God may treat human beings merely as means.

It remains, then, only to draw the argument’s final two inferences:

(8) So: TI is true. [From (6), (7)]

(9) So: God does not exist. [From (5), (8)]

For Maitzen’s treatment of objections and other more detailed analysis, see his paper, here.

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