A common response to the problem of evil is to appeal to what I call greater good theodicies. Theodicies generally accept that a being with the attributes of God would have some moral obligation to prevent evil, all other things being equal.[i] They then attempt to provide a plausible reason why God might allow evil. In the case of greater good theodicies, this is accomplished by appeal to some good being made possible in virtue of there being evil or the opportunity to do evil. This is a balancing act where the good outweighs the evil, thus, it is worth it for God to allow the evil.
One of the common intuition pumps used to support this idea is exercise. No one likes to sweat excessively and push his or her body toward its physical limits, but we accept the discomfort because of the benefits it will bring. In other words, general health is greater than a small amount of pain.
We are told by many that God performs a similar measurement when deciding to allow evil. By evil being in the world, many theists say, wonderful things are made possible, including free will, “morally significant” action, soul-making, orderly natural laws, and the opportunity to show admirable character traits, like bravery, charity, and compassion. The greater good theodicy appeals to one or more of these goods and says, “Look at the good that is made possible by God allowing evil.”
I will argue that none of these theodicies can possibly describe why God would allow evil. In fact, no greater good theodicy can possibly do this. Let’s review what we have covered so far in the form of numbered premises:
(1) If God exists, then such a being would have an obligation to prevent evil, all other things being equal.
(2) When making choices (i.e., things are not equal), God would prefer to maximize greater goods over minimizing evils.
(3) Therefore, the obligation to prevent evil can be overcome if said evil brings about a greater good.
Greater good theodicies claim that God has a preference for greater goods, even if there are undesirable consequences brought about by instantiating those greater goods. They recognize it is undesirable that people die in car accidents and hurricanes, that children are born with terrible diseases and mutations, and that people starve. But they still maintain the goods mentioned above outweigh the evils. So, God is justified in allowing evil. I suspect that most theists reading this will agree with everything I’ve said so far, as long as they accept premise (1). But let’s continue the argument and see where it leads.
Now, if it is true that God has such a preference as long as it outweighs the negative consequences, then God would instantiate the greatest possible good, if there is one. If there is a good greater than admirable character traits or the making of human souls, then it should be instantiated even though doing so might cause us to lose out on those lesser goods. When there is a greatest possible good, then appeal to any other consequences fails if we accept the reasoning of the greater good theodicies.
To see this point more clearly, think of what is happening in cases like car accidents and hurricanes. There is some evil happening, like death and destruction, but there is also some good being thwarted. A person who suffers and/or dies misses out on getting to go on experiencing good in this world. Free will, for example is said to be important to God, but Hitler’s use of free will stopped millions of people from being able to continue to exercise their own free will. So, the continuation of that good (millions of individuals continuing to live and make free choices) must have been less valuable to God than the more abstract goal of free will with never a single interference from God. So, we might say that just like God maximizes greater goods over specific evils, he also maximizes them at the expense of lesser goods.
(4) When making choices, God would prefer to maximize goods of value GN over lesser goods of value GN-X.
So, we’ve said that God makes this choice and that explains evil. But can that really be so? Once you see that premise (4) is implied, you ought to realize that this means the greatest possible good should be instantiated by God, even at the expense of lesser goods. If there really is any greatest good, then any other good is necessarily of some lesser value (N – X).
Is there a greatest possible good in a theistic universe? It is God. Any method by which God accomplishes something is the greatest possible way the thing can be accomplished. The way God chooses and acts, the way God’s soul exists, the character traits of God, etc. are all as good as anything can possibly be. Period. This brings in another premise:
(5) The greatest possible good in a theistic universe is anything done in the same manner as God.
This causes greater good theodicies to collapse. It is said that we must have these evils in order to experience the good of free will, morally significant choices, soul-making, character building, etc. Yet, God is alleged to have a soul and to make morally significant choices and to have character, but God does not commit evil or experience suffering. Clearly, evil is not necessary to bring about those higher order goods. This leads me as an atheist to ask, “Why doesn’t God just create us with that same kind of soul or free will or whatever is in question?” Clearly, there is a God-like way of doing these things and a human way of doing them and the human way is also clearly of lesser value, given premise (5). And just as evil is not necessary to have a soul or to have character or to be morally free, neither is a human way of doing these things necessary. In fact, the God-like way ought to be preferred, per premise (4).
Conclusion and Objections
With all that in place, we should now be able to see that any appeal to a greater good is in vain in a theistic universe. Since there is a greatest good that does not require the existence of evil acts, both (1) and (2) can be satisfied by a possible world that includes no evil and also includes beings making morally significant free choices. In short, it cannot be the case that some God has a goal of maximizing greater goods because if that were so, this God would be maximizing the greatest possible goods.[ii]
Two potential objections come to mind. First, some might object that we will be losing out on all the good things we experience in this life if we just lived a God-like state. I tried to be very explicit in my development and explanation of (4) with this objection in mind. It is true that there are many good things that come from the typical human experience. But, if the reasoning of the greater good theodicies is correct, then that really doesn’t matter because an even greater good should be preferred by God. It wouldn’t matter to God any more than a woman who dies in childbirth will not get to see her child grow. God does not intervene, so we are told, because of the greater good.
The second objection may be stronger, but I’m not convinced. I think many would argue that God cannot give humans a soul like its own or the ability to make moral choices like it does. My initial reaction is, “Why not?” I’ve never heard a persuasive answer to this. Furthermore, even if you deny that we could go all the way to God-like, surely you would allow we could be closer than we are now, and that’s really all I need for the argument to work.
[i] There are other responses to the problem of evil which deny any obligation on God’s part, but that will have to be the subject of another post.
[ii] As it stands, this is an objection to greater good theodicies, but it could also be turned into an argument against the existence of God. In short, given the lack of certain maximized goods, any all-powerful God seeking to maximize these goods must not exist.