Is a Good God Logically Possible?

James P. Sterba

I defend atheism in my new book, Is A Good God Logically Possible? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). But I have not always been an atheist. In fact, I was in a religious order for twelve years, leaving only just before I would have had to take final vows at age twenty-six. And I only became an atheist recently—after accepting a John Templeton grant to apply the yet untapped resources of ethics and political philosophy to the problem of evil. My work under this Templeton grant ultimately resulted in my developing the argument I will summarize here, which is set out in more detail in my book. Moreover, if anyone is successful in poking a hole in my argument, I am happy to give up being an atheist. My commitment to atheism is only as strong as my argument’s soundness and validity. Undercut it and poof, at least in my case, no more atheist. So, what is my argument?

It is really quite simple. It begins by specifying three Moral Evil Prevention Requirements. These requirements are morally important but minimally demanding, exceptionless components of the Pauline Principle that we should never do evil that good may come of it (Romans 3:8). They are as follows.

Moral Evil Prevention Requirement I

Prevent rather than permit significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions without violating anyone’s rights (a good to which we have a right) when that can easily be done.

We are sometimes stuck in a situation where we can provide only some people with a good to which they have a right and hence prevent a corresponding evil from being inflicted on them, by not providing other people with another good whose nonprovision inflicts a lesser evil on them. For example, we may only be able to save five people from being robbed and assaulted if we don’t try to also save two other people from being robbed and assaulted who are farther away. God, however, would never find himself causally stuck in such situations. God would always have the causal power to prevent both evils. Accordingly, God would have to prevent both evil consequences in all such cases unless there is a good to which we are not entitled, the provision of which would justify God in permitting the lesser evil in such cases.*

Moral Evil Prevention Requirement II

Do not permit, rather than prevent, significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions simply to provide other rational beings with goods they would morally prefer not to have.

With respect to goods such as receiving medical care after being brutally assaulted—to which victims have a right, of course—it would be wrong not to provide such goods when one can easily do so without violating anyone’s rights. However, given that the need we have for such goods depends on the existence of significant moral wrongdoing, it would be morally preferable for anyone who could do so to prevent the consequences of that wrongdoing on which the good depends. This is because the victims of significant moral wrongdoing who would have a right to such goods would have morally preferred that anyone who could have easily done so would have kept them from suffering the consequences of the wrongdoing that would ground their right to any goods of rectification and compensation. For example, a victim of a brutal assault would have morally preferred that anyone who could have easily done so would have prevented his or her assault to his or her now having the right to goods resulting from that assault.

Alternatively, no one has a right to be provided with goods such as the opportunity to console a rape victim, and the would-be beneficiaries of such goods would morally prefer that anyone who could have done so would have prevented the rape rather than that they receive this good. Even the perpetrators of such wrongful deeds, who later have the opportunity to repent them and seek forgiveness, would always morally prefer that anyone who could have done so would have prevented the external consequences of their immoral deeds. So, anyone who could do so should not permit the significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions to provide such goods that their beneficiaries would morally prefer not to have.

Moral Evil Prevention Requirement III

Do not permit rather than prevent significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions (which would violate someone’s rights) to provide such goods when there are countless morally unobjectionable ways of providing those goods.

With respect to goods to which we do not have a right to that do not depend on wrongdoing, such as an offer of friendship, others would have numerous ways of providing us with such goods without violating our rights by permitting, rather than preventing, significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions to be inflicted on us. In cases where we humans are causally constrained and are thus unable to provide someone with such a good without permitting the serious violation of the person’s rights, God would never be subject to such causal constraints, and it would be contradictory to assume that he would be subject to logical constraints here because, by assumption, the goods at issue are not logically dependent on any wrongdoing.

Now the only logically possible reason anyone could have for not abiding by these morally important, but minimally demanding, exceptionless requirements of the Pauline Principle is either that one is grossly immoral or that one is causally or logically incapable of doing so. Accordingly, in the case of God, if he exists, his widespread failure to act in accord with these requirements would either make him grossly immoral (which is logically impossible) or make him logically incapable of acting in accord with these requirements, with the result that God would be much less powerful than we are (which also is logically impossible).

Hence, the god of traditional theism is logically incompatible with the significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions that exist in our world.

 


Note

* Which then makes it a case to which Moral Evil Prevention Requirement III applies.

James P. Sterba

James P. Sterba is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and a Founding Faculty Fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He has published twenty-four books, most recently the award-winning Justice for Here and Now (Cambridge, 1998), Three Challenges to Ethics (Oxford, 2001), Terrorism and International Justice (Oxford, 2003), and The Triumph of Practice Over Theory in Ethics (Oxford, 2005.) He is currently working on a book project for Oxford titled Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men: A Debate, co-authored with Warren Farrell, a well-known critic of feminism. Sterba is also a past president of the International Society for Social and Legal Philosophy, the American Section, a past president of Concerned Philosophers for Peace, and a past president of the North American Society for Social Philosophy.


I defend atheism in my new book, Is A Good God Logically Possible? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). But I have not always been an atheist. In fact, I was in a religious order for twelve years, leaving only just before I would have had to take final vows at age twenty-six. And I only …

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