Jun 07

Greater Good Theodicies

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.

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  1. Paul So

    So let me hash out (i.e. summarize) your arguments just to make sure that I’m on the same page with you:

    If the proponent of Greater Good Theodicy accept the following argument:

    (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.

    Then this implies premise 4 (When making choices, God would prefer to maximize goods of value GN over lesser goods of value GN-X). You (Mike Gage, not “you” in general) then examined premise 4 to find out that the qualities of God (i.e. moral choices, soul, free-will, etc.) qualifies for the greatest possible good, so if God qualifies for the greatest possible good then according to Premise 2 God’s qualities which is a superior good than human qualities is preferable, therefore God ought to maximize goods in regards to his qualities at the expense of human qualities, which basically is (or leads to) premise 5 “The greatest possible good in a theistic universe is anything done in the same manner as God.” Is this a correct summarization of your argument so far?

    If that is the case then what if a theist presents this theological objection in the following manner:
    Mike, didn’t the bible say that in the resurrection (or rapture) Human’s mortal bodies will become transformed from the imperfect mortal form to the perfect immortal form? If that is the case then this perfect immortal form would posses God-like qualities, which is the final end or outcome of human individuals who suffered and struggled to be loyal to God. Their struggle and suffering in the name of God is rewarded with a much greater good which is having a perfect immortal form of the body at the expense of the mortal form; their body and soul will become glorious as if it was completely restored into God’s image.

    How would you respond to this objection?

  2. Mike

    I’d say your summary is correct. To the objection, I would respond that we should just be made in that perfect immortal form to begin with. The good being appealed to is a reward for deeds done in human form. But God has a perfect immortal form without going through any such thing. So we know two things. 1. The human precursor is not required to reach this form. 2. The good of the reward is once again outweighed by the good of being like God (not rewarded but just possessing).

    I like this approach because we can say this about any proposed good we’d be missing out on. God just has it – he didn’t develop a soul, or build character, overcome trials, etc. and his nature is supposed to be the epitome of goodness.

  3. Paul So

    What’s interesting about your argument is that if your conclusion is correct (along with your arguments) then premise 3 would be incorrect since you do not need to start with some necessary evil to bring out the greater good; Premise 4 and 5 which together implies that you do not need to start with the necessary evil but could start with the greatest good as a way to prevent evil is consistent with premise 1 and premise 2 but not consistent with premise 3 since premise 3 implies that you start with some evil to get to the greatest good, but premise 1 and 2 does not.

    But I want to point out another problem with the Greater Good Theodicy argument which might support your position (or simply clarifying your position, if that helps) : Premise 1 and 2 does not seem to strictly imply the conclusion that God prefers to maximize Good over minimizing evil by using evil to bring about greatest good. Premise one only says God has the obligation to prevent evil (all things being equal) and premise 2 says if God were given the choices he would prefer maximizing the Good over minimizing the evil, but the conclusion that God maximizes good through evil is not strictly inferred from the above premises alone because these premises alone can be plausibly interpreted to allow another inference to another conclusion which is your conclusion “God can prevent evil by creating a maximized Good to begin with which is creating human beings with God’s qualities (i.e. God’s soul, free-will, moral nature, etc) since such a being cannot suffer to begin with”. Such conclusion can be inferred from Premise 1 and 2 (along with other implicit premises that you pulled out in your article), so the Greater Good Theodicy is committing a false dilemma to the extent that they say that the only way God can overcome the obligation to prevent evil is to use evil to bring about the greatest good. You are arguing that conclusion does not follow from the premises alone, since another alternative conclusion can follow.

    What do you think?

  4. Paul So

    I hope you respond to my previous comment soon, but I thought a bit about on how a theist could respond to your argument in the following manner:

    Let’s grant you the assumption that your critique on Greater Good Theodicy is correct which in turn grants that the greatest possible good that God chooses to maximize (over minimizing evil) is to actualize (or create) beings with God-like qualities. If we accept these following premise:

    1) Greatest possible goods that God should maximize are God-like qualities (i.e. Free-will, Soul, Moral choice, etc.) since God is already the greatest possible good.

    then what would that entail? It would entail that God, being the greatest possible good, should create all being with all of his qualities. After all since God is the greatest possible good then to qualify for this is to possess all of God’s attributes. But from the theist’s point of view this is impossible because there can only be One God. This is what Theists call the Monotheistic Thesis:

    1) There can only be One God in so far as that God posses attributes X, Y, and Z that no other entities posses.
    2) God is the only necessary being

    The monotheistic thesis is supported by the fact that if all entities do posses God’s attributes then this could violate the laws of identity or principle of indiscernibles. If all entities posses God’s qualities then they will become God, but this would entail that they are identical to God which would lead to a problem of identity. The point of this argument is that if we assume that God is omnipotent in so far as he can only do what is logically possible, then God cannot offer entities the greatest possible good in his form since that one is logically impossible for him to do since it violates the laws of identity in conjunction with the Monotheistic thesis #1. It would also lead to a contradiction since if God creates beings with his attributes, then this would entail they are both contingent and necessary beings which is a contradiction. So God cannot logically create beings who are like him in every way since it would make them both contingent and necessary.

    So to see it from a logical point of view, it is logically impossible for God to achieve the greatest possible good for all entities by making them like him. But precisely because this greatest possible good is impossible, it does not count as the good that God can maximize since God can only maximize that which is logically possible, so the option is not available to him. This does not mean that there is no “greater good” option, it’s just that the “greater good option” that you mentioned is logically impossible. God can only maximize a greater possible good that is logically possible; the kind of greatest possible good that you mention is already by default the greatest impossible good since there can only be one being that is the greatest good.

    A theist, then, would make a distinction between the absolute good and the relative good; absolute good meaning God which no other being can attain since it is logically impossible, but a good that is an approximation to the second to the best is the relative good; God can only accomplish that which is a relative good for all beings….

    That’s the objection that I could think of if a theist were to try to debunk it, what do you think so far?

    DISCLAIMER: any of those reading this remember that I am not a theist, but I am an atheist playing a devil’s advocate.

  5. Mike

    Hi Paul,

    I do agree that the starting premises don’t have any necessary connection to God using evil to maximize good. I think that’s the right way to state it because obviously it seems like an all-loving being would just create the good without the evil wherever possible. So all I wanted to get out of it was that if you have a situation where the two co-exist, evil and good, the greater good theodicy would have us believe that God is not obligated to eliminate the evil if it would also eliminate some greater good. Some theological perspectives would not say God is responsible for that evil, so I want to avoid that source of evil issue by focusing on whether God should remove it if it would rid us of a good. The evil could come from our “Fall” or Satan or some other weird source (just ignore that God created these things and is all-knowing for the moment). As for what you say about pulling out that conclusion of a false dilemma, I think that’s correct as long as you’re dealing with a theology that says that. Just remember that some won’t state it that way and so the critique will have to be phrased appropriately to each perspective. That being said, I think this approach can counter any possible greater good theodicy. For the record, I know many theists who also don’t like such theodicies; they just don’t seem to work.

    On to your proposed critique:

    That’s roughly what I had in mind with my second objection I mentioned. My critique should still work even if you’re correct about what is possible.

    Even if it is correct that God could not have created creatures with God-like qualities that are on par with God’s, surely he could have created creatures much closer on the spectrum than we currently are. For example, many theologies might consider angels to be closer in some respects. If GGTs are correct, then we should at least be further up the scale even if all the way to the top is impossible. So, I’m pretty confident that the argument doesn’t even hinge on the possibility of being God-like. I’ll work through it with a brief scenario.

    Let’s say there is a God who seeks to maximize the greatest possible qualities in any act of creation, and these greatest possible qualities are also those of this God. Now, let’s also grant your assumption that it should be considered impossible for any being to be the equal of God (I’m not sure I would actually grant this, but I don’t think it will matter here). With all this in place as assumed, what is to stop God from creating beings that fall just short? Note that my argument isn’t actually saying that other gods should be created. Rather, it says the greatest POSSIBLE good should be maximized. So, if it really is impossible for goods X,Y, and Z to all be maximized, then it should not be impossible for goods X and Y only or goods X,Y, and Z-1 to be maximized. These beings would not have to be necessary or identical to God. Further, this should still be a perfectly good way of maximizing goods in a world without evil. A being with several God-like qualities, but is not eternal, for example, shouldn’t be committing murders. Remember that this type of theist grants the obligation of God to prevent evils as long as such prevention would not take away some greater good. If there is an obligation to prevent evil and bring about greater good, then this world I’ve described would be the case. It is the best of both worlds – fulfills God’s obligation to prevent evil AND brings about the greatest possible good at the same time! Since that is not the case, either God does not exist or God does not have such a greater good goal.

    Do you think that adequately responds to the objection?

  6. Paul So

    I think your response is something that I somewhat expected since I recognize that one can respond not all of God’s qualities are required to completely prevent evil, only a selected few of those qualities diversely distributed among beings could prevent evil. I think it’s an interesting response but there are two counter responses I have:

    First, which of God’s qualities are at minimum sufficient to prevent evil?

    Second, your critique is built on the argument that since God qualifies as the greatest possible good then God should maximize the greatest possible Good by creating other beings with his qualities, but you also argue that God maximizes the greatest possible Good by creating beings with some of his qualities. If this is the case then the greatest possible Good would not be God himself but rather some of God’s qualities. Would this mean that only some of God’s qualities is the greatest possible Good but not God himself? If we define God in terms of enumerating the following set of predicates {X, Y, Z, E, F} and all created-beings have some of these predicates in the following subset {X, Y, Z} from out of the total set, then it seems that the greatest possible good would be beings with subset predicates {X, Y, and Z} which is not God in so far as it is not the total set {X, Y, Z, E, F}. So does this mean that if God wants to maximize the greatest possible good {X, Y, and Z} then that greatest possible good is greater than {X, Y, Z, E, F}? Is the subset {X, Y, Z} greater good than the total set {X, Y, Z, E, F}?

  7. Paul So

    I want to clarify my previous message a little bit because I don’t know how to erase or edit the previous message:

    You argued that: “Note that my argument isn’t actually saying that other gods should be created. Rather, it says the greatest POSSIBLE good should be maximized.”, but this is the problem I have with your response for the following reasons:

    You argued that God qualifies as the greatest possible good. If we define God in terms of the enumerated predicates that corresponds to all of God’s attributes then God can be defined in the following total set of predicates: {X, Y, Z, E, F…}. So if God qualifies for the greatest possible good then the total set of predicates {X, Y, Z, E, F….} qualifies for the greatest possible Good. To maximize the greatest possible good would mean to bring about the total set of predicates. However, if you argue that only some of God’s qualities are sufficient to prevent evil that can be instantiated in the following subset {X, Y, Z} out of the total set, then God would not be maximizing the greatest possible good. If the subset {X, Y, Z} is the greatest possible good then it would be greater good than the total set {X, Y, Z, E, F….}.

    A possible objection to this response, I think, is that God would not count as the greatest possible good since there can be no beings that is exactly like God (since you granted this assumption), if that’s the case then only some of God’s qualities can be a possible good, then the question I have is how much and which ones of those qualities would count as the greatest possible good?

    Overall, I think you response is adequate…I just realize that the subset can be the greatest possible good while the total set would not be the greatest possible good since it is an impossible good that cannot be maximized.

  8. Simon

    What about the greater good theodicy that there is some kind of universal court case unfolding that we are caught in suffering of all manner must be permitted for a while to let the evidence accumulate. The idea is that God is only temporarily allowing all this suffering because he has bound himself to let some time pass to settle some universally significant legal or moral claim and so is constrained from intervening in the short term (a few millennia compared to eternity). Some claim the Bible reveals that the devil challenged God’s sovereignty and rightfulness to rule and claimed man did not need to be ruled by God to be successful. God could have wiped out the rebels immediately but that would only prove that might was right and not settled the issues once raised. Hence God has needed to allow time for the evidence to accumulate whether these claims are true or not. The suffering, as despicable as it is, is tolerable in the long run since all victims of the suffering will eventually be resurrected and live eternally, so the theodicy goes.

  9. Mike


    “First, which of God’s qualities are at minimum sufficient to prevent evil?”

    Any number of them would do the trick by themselves. Here are a few off the top of my head: God’s moral knowledge, God’s propositional knowledge (assuming all things happening make sense under some al-knowing plan as Craig and Plantinga claim), God’s motivation, and God’s omnibenevolence.

    “Would this mean that only some of God’s qualities is the greatest possible Good but not God himself?”

    It would be the greatest possible good with respect to something. So, God is the greatest possible good. End of sentence. If it is truly not possible for humans to possess all of God’s characteristics, then the greatest possible goods for humans could be less than God. Let’s say you have two runners. One of them is taller than the other. Other things being equal, the taller runner should have a fastest possible speed that is faster than the shorter runner’s fastest possible speed, since his strides will cover more ground. It’s perfectly coherent so long as there is some constraint on possibility for one of the beings that is not present in the other, as you suggested might be the case with humans vs. God.

  10. Mike


    Thanks for the comment. Sorry it took a while to respond.

    In short, I don’t find that story plausible under standard theological assumptions. It sounds like the gods bickering under older mythologies and doesn’t make much sense under any sort of perfect being theology. First and foremost, let’s recognize that the response fails for all the reasons mentioned in my post. There are greater goods than living in this sham court case scenario and eventually living in eternal bliss, thus, under that scenario God is not maximizing goods.

    But that just means it can’t be used in a successful greater good theodicy. How about if it’s just true but god isn’t trying to maximize goods? Well, I still don’t think it holds up. Here are a few reasons. 1) If God is all-knowing, then what is the purpose of letting evidence accumulate? 2) If God is completely just, then any decision he makes would be necessarily just with or without evidence (which as I already said in point 1 is not really necessary). 3) If God is completely good and everything he does is the very definition of good, then any decision he makes would be necessarily good. 4) Why would God respect a challenge by the Devil? I recognize certain things are in the Bible, but that’s a completely implausible scenario considering the attributes of God and the attributes of the Devil. The Devil would know god’s attributes (under traditional theology) and God would know the Devil would know. So, the whole idea of carrying out a façade is just completely pointless.

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