Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The "God Has Morally Sufficient Reasons" Theodicy

It's been a bad few months in terms of natural disasters. Back-to-back hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated countries and regions in the Caribbean that were already struggling financially, killing at least 59 and 75 people, respectively. Prior to this, hurricane Harvey slammed east Texas dumping more than 25 trillion gallons of water, flooding the Houston metro area and gulf coast with as much as $180 billion in damages, and killing at least 82 people in the process. A series of earthquakes rocked southern and central Mexico killing at least 422 people, including 25 children at a school. Thousands more were injured, and perhaps millions more were affected by property damage from the natural disasters.

It's in times like these that I'm reminded of the problem of evil — specifically natural evil. Natural evil is an evil for which "no non-divine agent can be held morally responsible for its occurrence." Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, droughts, meteor impacts, and diseases that cause sentient beings to suffer or die and for which no human being is responsible are examples of natural evil.

Natural evil doesn't exist on atheism since there is no conscious creator, designer, or sustainer to nature. But since many theists do believe nature has a creator, designer, and sustainer who is also omnibenevolent — meaning perfectly and infinitely good, there is big problem with natural evil on most forms of theism, particularly Christian theism. To deal with the stinging issue of natural evil, theists have come up with theodicies, which are attempts to explain why an omnibenevolent deity can coexist with moral and natural evil.

Once such theodicy is what I'm going to call the "God has morally sufficient reasons" to allow evil theodicy, or the MSR theodicy. According to the MSR theodicy, god allows natural evils so that some good thing can come from it at a later time, kind of like how the pain you endure at the dentist (an experience I had the other week) is all for the greater good of having healthy teeth. It appears that the MSR theodicy is a variation of the soul building theodicy, which says that natural evils can be god's way of challenging moral agents to goodness or some soul building benefit.

This prompted me to write the following Tweet at Christian apologist Randal Rauser, a big proponent of the MSR theodicy:

I asked him directly on Twitter for a definition of what a morally sufficient reason is and he wrote:

I'm a bit perplexed as to his answer. Moral value or duty to whom? And by whom? Given the context, it must be by god to people. But Randal's definition is emblematic of the main problem of the theodicy: it's overly vague.

What exactly qualifies as an MSR is not explained. Can anything be an MSR? Could god allow a billion people be to be tortured with disease for 20 years so that one little girl have a positive life changing experience? If not, what about a million people? Or a thousand? Or a hundred? Logically speaking, where do you draw the line that demarcates what an MSR is that an omnibenevolent god can have vs one that's not compatible? I've asked Randal to create a logical standard where one can categorize legitimate MSRs from illegitimate MSRs and he's never responded.

In fact, to my knowledge, he's never dedicated a single blog post towards an in depth explanation of the MSR theodicy. He's just sprinkled tidbits of it here and there whenever the problem of evil comes up. So the first critique of the MSR theodicy is that it's so vague it can't even be pinned down. This seems to make the theodicy unfalsifiable — meaning, any state of affairs no matter how long or how great the suffering can just be brushed away with a "God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing that" response. The theist doesn't even have to attempt to actually provide a reason, they can just assume there must be one since god is good and a good god won't allow evil for no reason.

But as one frequent commentator to Randal's blog wrote regarding god's alleged morally sufficient reasons:

This is wrong. You believe it to be true that God has morally sufficient reasons. However, (1) you have no evidence that God has morally sufficient reasons; (2) Your belief that God has morally sufficient reasons is not a basic belief; (3) You have no idea what these morally sufficient reasons might be; and (4) For all you know there is a supernatural being who does have misplaced priorities; (4a) For all you know this supernatural being inspired the Bible and sent Jesus to die on the cross for the purpose of confusing humanity.

Randal's logic seems to be based entirely on a basic belief that a god exists, and that this god must be good, and so any suffering and evil we see in the world must somehow be compatible with a perfectly good god because it has morally sufficient reasons for all the natural evil. So any state of affairs of natural suffering must have some MSR for it, even in cases where no MSR can plausibly be proposed. This is precisely ass-backwards. First, you cannot start with the basic belief that god exists. That's assuming your worldview ahead of time, on faith no less. Second, you need to logically outline what perfect moral goodness is and what state of affairs are logically compatible with it and what aren't, and then go out and see if there are states of affairs that are compatible or incompatible with it. This is the proper way to approach the condition of natural evil. If you start with the assumption that a good god exists, you've already started with the assumption that you don't have a problem. This is akin to presuppositionalism, which seems to be exactly what theists like Randal are doing here. If the MSR theodicy is grounded on an unjustified assumption, it takes a big hit for that.

Randal has even tried to deny that natural evil exists on Christian theism by arguing "if God is a maximally perfect being then he cannot commit an evil action whether it be through direct action (a “moral evil”) or through action or inaction in the creation and sustenance of natural processes (a “natural evil”)."

This is nonsense. First, god doesn't merely allow for natural evil to occur. Natural evil is built into god's plan and design for the universe. If

(1) God (an omnipotent, omniscience, omni-benevolent being) exists.
(2) Natural evil exists (as I've defined it above).
(3) God is the creator and designer of the physical universe, including the laws that govern it.


(4) Natural disasters, and the evil they cause, are a direct byproduct of the laws that govern our universe.

This prevents anyone from trying to claim that supernatural agents other than god are responsible for natural evil. Satan cannot be responsible for natural evil, nor can demons or evil spirits be. The very laws of physics that are supposedly fine tuned by god for our existence necessitate natural disasters and all the evil they cause.

Second, the question is whether natural disasters are evil. The theist could claim they aren't since god has MSRs for them. But again, that puts us right back to the problem of presupposing god has MSRs for natural evil. Theists like Randal are literally just assuming there are as a basic belief.

Randal gives no clear definition of an MSR and how one can properly categorize a legitimate MSR from an illegitimate one.

As far as the soul building aspect of the MSR theodicy, animals don't have souls and cannot be improved by suffering, and yet they do have the capacity to suffer. As C.S. Lewis eloquently wrote in The Problem of Pain, "So far as we know beasts are incapable either of sin or virtue: therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it."

And yet we live in a world full of animal death and suffering. In fact, given the fact of evolution, in which death, suffering, and mass extinction are built right into the process, the problem of animal death and suffering is compounded many times over. I've responded to many defenses of animal suffering before, showing how they're all failures in the end.

Given all this, how can the theist confidently maintain the MSR theodicy? What morally sufficient reasons could an omnibenevolent being have for hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering?

Skeptical theism is one route. But that has it's own problems. Without a logically coherent standard by which one can categorize legitimate MSRs from illegitimate MSRs, it leaves the door open to any level of naturally induced suffering, and that makes the idea of god's goodness and omnibenevolence absolutely meaningless and unintelligible. What wouldn't be compatible with omnibenevolence? Am I to believe that a god that wouldn't have designed natural disasters into his plan that kill and maim so many innocent people and animals isn't more benevolent than one who would?

"Perfect goodness" becomes meaningless on this theodicy and to reference goodness back to god is merely to make an unjustified circular argument.


The MSR theodicy is ill defined, vague enough to be seemingly infinitely malleable (perhaps by design), and totally unfalsifiable — the latter according to many of its own proponents.

But despite the claim that it's unfalsifiable, I think I've got a fairly solid refutation of the MSR theodicy: The animal suffering and death induced by natural disasters (along with the evolutionary process itself, which god supposedly used to create the diversity of life) cannot be justified by morally sufficient reasons because much of the suffering endured by animals has no beneficial value to the individual animal, morally or spiritually, or in any other way, and it makes god's omnibenevolence completely meaningless and unintelligible. And of course, compensation does not equal justification, but I'll give Randal the benefit of the doubt and assume he already knows that.

I think many theists are aware that this is a particularly difficult problem for them, and Randal has wrestled with it openly and honestly, which I applaud him in doing.

And finally, I'd like this not to be the final word on the subject, but rather to spark an intelligent dialogue that we can use to hopefully iron out the details of this proposed theodicy and any pros and cons it has.

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