Is God obligated to do all within his power to maximize the quality of life for each individual in our world? Let us consider the following principle: (P1) A necessary condition for the actualization of any possible world containing sentient, self-determining beings is that God do all he can within the legitimate constraints inherent in this world to maximize the quality of life for such beings. Since many, if not most, versions of the problem of evil are based on the contention that a perfectly good God would do more to rid our world of pain and suffering, all parties agree that P1 is a very important principle, perhaps the most important of its type. It might be argued initially that P1 stipulates an impossible task for God. Just as there can be no ‘best’ actualizable world, someone might maintain, there can be no maximal state of existence for any given individual since for every state of existence we might identify as such, there would, in principle, always be another state of existence with even higher quality that God could (or attempt to) produce.
Such reasoning, though, would be misguided in this context. Even if we cannot coherently conceive of one specific state of existence that represents the highest quality of life possible for an individual, we can coherently conceive of an ideal state of human existence — a state of existence in which an individual possesses all and only those properties that we believe make life worth living. [We can coherently conceive, for instance, of a state of existence in which an individual experiences no gratuitous evil, lives in a harmonious relationship with her `natural’ environment, feels fulfilled as a being, and possesses good health. And many would plausibly consider such a state ideal.]
Accordingly, even if it is not possible to maintain coherently that God is obligated to do what he can to ensure that each individual will experience a maximal state of existence, it is possible to maintain meaningfully that God is obligated to attempt to make each person’s life as ideal as possible (regardless of the manner in which ‘ideal’ is defined).
Furthermore, not only is this interpretation of P1 perfectly reasonable, it best captures what those concerned with the ‘maximization’ of human existence normally have in mind. Consider, for example, the common atheistic contention that a caring God would do more to make our lives worth living. Those making this claim are not troubled because they believe that the actual world is not the most satisfying or pleasing state in which we as human could exist. They are troubled because they believe that the actual world is a world which does not reflect all that an omnibenevolent creator would have chosen to do for his created beings. That is, such individuals are troubled because they assume that an omnibenevolent God would create a world in which he does everything within his power to insure that the beings therein possess some basic set of ideal properties and they see little evidence that this obligation has been met in our world.
Or let us consider the common, conservative Christian belief that Adam and Eve existed in the best possible human state of existence before the fall or the common conservative belief that heaven is the best possible state of existence for those who no longer have an earthly existence. Those who hold such beliefs are not arguing that Adam and Eve could not, for example, have experienced a greater degree of happiness in their pre-fall state, or that those in heaven could not, for example, experience an even more fulfilling state of existence. The implicit assumption, rather, is that Adam and Eve experienced, and those in heaven are experiencing, an ideal (or best) type of existence.
But even if P1 is interpreted in this sense — even if we interpret the requirement that God maximize our quality of life as the requirement that God do all he can within the legitimate constraints of this world to actualize an ideal state of existence for each of us — is this a principle that a theist must (or should) affirm?
All agree that if God is an act utilitarian (is obligated to “maximize happiness and/or minimize suffering” in each “particular case”), the answer is yes. That is, all agree that if God is an act utilitarian, then he must do all that can be done to maximize our quality of life (make our life ideal). But in two important and influential essays, Robert Adams denies that this is necessarily the case if God is not an act utilitarian. As long as an individual’s existence is on the whole worth living, he argues, a non-act utilitarian God is not obligated to do more.
It is first important to note the limited relevance of Adams’ contention. His claim is conditional: that a non-act utilitarian God need not maximize (or even attempt to maximize) the quality of life for an individual if that individual’s existence is on the whole worth living. But if the God does not have middle knowledge (MK)Â does not know exactly what will occur, given every possible scenario — then he is not normally in a position to know all that will happen to any individual before he decides what he should do for that individual. Specifically, he is not normally in a position to know whether any individual’s life will on the whole be worth living before he decides at any given point whether to do all that he can to increase the quality of life for this individual. Accordingly, Adams’ critique of P1 cannot be directly utilized by those theists who do in fact deny that God possesses MK (and do not assume that God will, when necessary, unilaterally ensure in a afterlife a life worth living).
However, what if we assume that God has always known (or comes to know at a given point) that a person’s existence will on the whole be worth living? Is it then true, as Adams believes, that if God is a non-act utilitarian, he is justified in doing less for that person than he could have done?
In defense of his contention, Adams attempts to respond to what he sees as the two major non-act utilitarian objections:
- “A creator would necessarily wrong someone (violate someone’s rights), or be less kind to someone than a perfectly good moral agent must be, if he knowingly created [a world in which he had not chosen to do what he could have done to maximize the quality of life for all individuals therein],” and
- “Even if no one would be wronged or treated unkindly by the creation of [a world in which God had not chosen to maximize the quality of life for all individuals], the creator’s choice of [such] a world must manifest a defect in character.”Adams’ most recent criticism of (1) can be summarized as follows:
- If those natural and physical evils which occurred prior to our existence or which we have personally experienced in the past had not occurred, we would not be the same individuals we are today.
- It is better to have an existence which is on the whole satisfying or worth living than to have no existence at all.
- Therefore, if our lives are on the whole satisfying, we cannot claim that God has been less than omnibenevolent to us who exist in the actual world in causing or permitting us to experience certain evils, even if this world is one in which he has, for reasons of his own, chosen to do less than he could have done to maximize our quality of life.
When Adams claims — in (3) — that we would not be the same people we are if our past history had been significantly different, he means that:
The farther back we go in history, the larger the proportion of evils to which we owe our being; for the causal nexus relevant to our individual genesis widens as we go back in time. We almost certainly would never have existed had there not been just about the same evils as actually occurred in a large part of human history. …We may ask why God does not intervene in the natural historical process in our lifetime to protect us from the consequences of [evil]. …There are evils that happen to people, without which they could, strictly speaking, have existed, but which shape there lives so profoundly that wishing the evils had not occurred would be morally very close to wishing that somebody else had existed instead of those particular people.
To illustrate how this concept of ‘sameness’ functions within the context of (3-5), Adams discusses the life of Helen Keller. Keller, Adams believes, lived on the whole a happy and satisfying life even though her life obviously contained much pain and sorrow. But let us assume, he argues, that Helen Keller had not been rendered blind and deaf by a fever at 19 months of age and that she would have had a better, happier life as a result. “Would it have been reasonable for Helen Keller, as an adult, to wish, for her own sake, that she had never been blind or deaf?” Adams thinks not. “Her actual life . . . was built around the fact of her blindness and deafness. That other, happier life would have contained few of the particular joys and sorrows, trials and triumphs . . that she cared about in her actual life.” Accordingly, Adams concludes, “her never having been blind would have been very like her never having existed,” and “why should she wish for that,” given that she lived on the whole a satisfying existence?
Or, to state this important point more succinctly, as Adams sees it, since Helen Keller’s life was on the whole worth living, we cannot maintain that God was unfair or less than kind to her, even if he could have brought it about that she would not have had the damaging fever at 19 months of age and even if her life would have been happier (of a higher quality) if he had done so.
Such reasoning, however, is far from convincing. It may be true that, if God is not an act utilitarian, he cannot be accused of having wronged Helen Keller solely because he failed to maximize her happiness. But it is not at all clear to me that God cannot be accused of having wronged Helen Keller, even if he is a not a utilitarian and did bring it about that her life was on the whole worth living.
My basic complaint can perhaps best be illustrated by an analogous hypothetical scenario. Assume that a man named Jones knows that his son has an interest in medicine and has no doubt that his son could become a doctor and in this capacity lead a very satisfying, fulfilling life. Let us also assume that Jones wants very much for his son to become part of the family business and has no doubt that if his son does so, he will lead a satisfying life, although not as satisfying as he would lead if he became a doctor. And, finally, let us assume that Jones’s influence over his son is such that his son will in fact do whatever he wants him to do. Has Jones wronged his son if he brings it about that he becomes a part of the family business?
Of course, given a non-act utilitarian perspective, Jones cannot be accused of having wronged his son solely because he did not maximize his son’s quality of life. But such a response, I believe, simply misses the point. The basic moral question here is not the maximization of value for the son. Nor is it the nature of the son’s subsequent life history. The basic moral issue at hand, as I see it, centers around the following principle:
(6) One ought not knowingly and voluntarily attempt to lessen the quality of life (the happiness, satisfaction, the actualization of desired ends) experienced by another person over whose life one has control solely (or even primarily) for the purpose of satisfying one’s own desires.
Of course, if Jones does not really have control over his son’s actions or he truly believes that some greater good for all concerned will be brought about if he convinces his son to stay at home or he does not consciously acknowledge the true nature of his intent, (6) is not applicable. But if Jones knowingly and voluntarily brings it about that his son leads a less satisfying existence solely (or even primarily) for his own benefit, then, given (6), Jones can rightly be said to have wronged his son, regardless of his son’s ultimate assessment of his life history. For given (6), it is the intent of the person performing an action, not the consequences of the action, that determines its moral status.
Likewise, given (6), God can rightly be said to have wronged Helen Keller, the healthy 19 month old, if he caused or permitted her to have the fever which rendered her deaf and blind solely (or even primarily) to satisfy his own desires. The fact that she subsequently lived a meaningful, satisfying life becomes irrelevant.
So the crucial question in relation to (1) — the contention that God necessarily wrongs someone if he does less than he could have done — is whether (6) is a principle that the theist must (or ought to) affirm — is whether the God of BFWT can do less for someone than could be done primarily to satisfy his own desires.
It seems to me that (6) ought to be affirmed, especially by a Judeo-Christian theist. The violator of (6) appears to me to be a paradigmatic example of a person whose actions are inconsistent with Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” or his exhortation that “as you would have men do to you, do also to them” or with the Apostle Paul’s claim that love “seeketh not its own.” In short, the violator of (6) appears to me to be a paradigmatic example of the type of selfish individual the Christian Canon condemns.
However, there is nothing, as I see it, that requires a theist to affirm (6). Thus, while I deny adamantly that those theists who believe that God possesses MK must agree with Adams that (1) is false — must agree that a non-act utilitarian God has not wronged us if he has not done all that he can to maximize our quality of life — I also deny that such theists cannot side with Adams on this point.
But what of (2) — the claim that the divine actualization of a world in which God has chosen not to do all he can for all inhabitants would necessarily manifest a defect in God’s character? In response to this challenge, Adams offers the following argument:
One important element in the Judaeo-Christian moral ideal is grace. For present purposes, grace may be defined as a disposition to love which is not dependent on the merit of the person loved….A God who is gracious with respect to creating might well choose to create and love less excellent creatures than he could have chosen. This is not to suggest that grace in creation consists in a preference for imperfection as such. God could have chosen to create the best of all possible creatures, and still have been gracious in choosing them. … It implies, rather, that even if they are the best possible creatures, that is not the ground for his choosing them. And it implies that there is nothing in God’s nature or character which would require Him to act on the principle of choosing the best possible creatures to be the object of his creative powers.
Adam’s terminology differs slightly from that which we have been using, but the essence of his argument seems to be the following: Since a gracious God can love equally individuals of any given sort (for example, can love those who suffer as much as those who do not), he is not obligated to create individuals of any sort (for example, not obligated to create individuals whose quality of life has been maximized).
I personally find this line of reasoning totally unconvincing in that it seems to me to confuse the important distinction between the reasons why a being might choose to express its love to other beings and the manner in which such love should be expressed. It may well be, for example, that a gracious parent can (or even ought to) love the child who is physically or mentally handicapped as much the child who has no such condition. To be gracious in this sense is simply to express love in an unconditional (agapeic) manner, and such graciousness is, of course, quite compatible with Judeo-Christian thought (and the tenets of the other major world religions).
It does not follow, though, from the fact that a gracious parent can (or even ought to) love all children equally that he or she can justifiably express love for (treat) a child in a manner that does not maximize this child’s quality of life. On the contrary, it seems to me that the truly good parent, even if gracious, is required to do all he or she can to help any child with problems lead as productive and enjoyable a life as possible.
The same, I feel, is true in relation to God. It is certainly consistent with Judeo-Christian thought to argue that God is gracious in the sense that he can love equally individuals of any sort, for this is simply to say that God’s love is unconditional. But it does not follow from the fact that a gracious God can love equally individuals of any sort that he, as a perfectly good being, can also express his love for them in a manner that does not maximize their quality of life. For example, it does not follow from the fact that a gracious God can love those who are mentally impaired as much as those who are not that he is not obligated, as a perfectly good being, to do what he can to help impaired individuals overcome their handicaps. Rather, as I see it, a God who is perfectly good is required, even if ‘gracious’, to do what he can to help those in need.
However, although I personally believe for this reason that (2) is true — that for God to do less than he can for us does manifest a defect in God’s character — I find nothing that requires those who believe God has MK to agree with me. They can, I again acknowledge, agree with Adams.
Accordingly, we must conclude, I believe, that Adams’ contention that God must to the extent possible maximize the quality of life for each of us — his critique of P1 — is in a limited sense successful. His critique is not available to a theist who denies that God possesses MK (which is ironic in that Adams, himself, does not believe God possesses MK). Nor is any theist required to agree with Adams — required to agree that a perfectly good non-act utilitarian God can do less than all he can for us if he has ensured that our lives are on balance worth living. However, there is, as I see it, nothing that prohibits a theist who believes God has Mk from adopting Adams’ perspective.
What if a theist, though, believes that God does not possess MK and thus that God does not know, when making decisions, if the existence of each person who may be affected by these decisions will on the whole be worth living? Or what if a theist believes that God possesses MK but does not agree with Adams that God’s creative options are limited to those worlds in which the life of every individual is on the whole worth living? Should a theist then maintain that God must at least do all he can to maximize the quality of life for each individual, or at least do all he can for any he foresees will not lead lives that are on the whole worth living?
As I see it, there is nothing that would require a theist to affirm P1 in either case. But there is also certainly nothing that would prohibit a theist from doing so. In fact, it might appear that it would be quite reasonable for a theist who does not believe God can or need guarantee a world in which all have on balance lives worth living to maintain that God must at least do all he can. However, one notable theist, William Hasker, believes it is unwise for any theist to affirm P1 — to maintain that God must attempt to maximize the quality of life for all — in any context.
In a response to my original critique of Adams, Hasker agrees that P1 is “logically coherent and is not open to the charge that it proposes an impossible task for God.” In fact, he grants that “it is not lacking in initial plausibility.” But Hasker believes that this creative obligation is incompatible with the reality of natural evil and for this reason ought to be rejected.
To illustrate his point, he makes reference again to the fever which left Helen Keller blind and deaf at 19 months. If we maintain that God must do all he can to maximize each person’s quality of life, we are then left to assume, Hasker points out, that Keller’s fever was “an undesired, but unavoidable, by-product of the significant freedom and/or natural laws which operate in this world.” But it is most unlikely, he claims, “that Helen Keller’s fever and disability were the direct consequence of a free choice made by some person such that God could not have prevented the disability without depriving that person of significant freedom.” Nor, as Hasker sees it, would God’s direct intervention in this case have disrupted the natural laws on which free choice is based, since “God could have intervened so as to leave Helen with only a slight hearing impairment without anyone’s becoming aware of this intervention.”
Accordingly, Hasker concludes, the theist who claims God attempt to must maximize the quality of life for all — who affirms P1 –is left with a theodicy which “ends rather unhappily.” In response to natural evil, such a theist will be “quickly reduced to a stone-walling mode of defense in which he maintains on a priori grounds a view which runs against the grain of universal human experience.”
But what is Hasker’s alternative for the theist? It is to drop P1 and thus its inherent requirement that God always exercise “meticulous providence — that is, a providence in which all events are carefully controlled and manipulated in such a way that no evils are permitted to occur except as they are necessary for the production of a greater good.” Rather, the theist should “promote an understanding of God’s dealing with the world according to which God can, and indeed does, permit very considerable amounts of gratuitous evil in the course of pursuing his overall plan for the world.”
It is first important to see that Hasker’s criticism is based in part on a common confusion. The contention that an evil state of affairs is outweighed by a related good can be given two distinct readings:
(7) The good which is produced by a particular occurrence of evil outweighs this evil.
(8) The good which makes possible a particular occurrence of evil outweighs this evil.
When Hasker claims that the proponent of P1 must affirm meticulous providence — that is, must believe all permitted evils are “necessary for the production of a greater good” — he is making it appear that the proponent of P1 — the person who believes God must attempt to maximize each person’s quality of life — must evaluate all natural evil in terms of (7). That is, he is making it appear that the affirmation of P1 requires the theist to maintain that an omnibenevolent God can allow a person to experience evil only when such evil will produce some particular good which outweighs this evil and which cannot be produced without it. But this is not so.
The proponent of P1 may, of course, plausibly attempt to explain some natural evil in terms of (7). She may, for example, agree with John Hick that God allows some individuals to experience some natural evil to build their character. But she need not always (or even usually) do so. She can also analyze natural evil in terms of (8). That is, a person who believes God must do what he can to maximize the quality of life for all can readily admit that many of the natural evils humans experience do not produce a greater good for anyone, maintaining instead that the intrinsic good generated by the creation of a context in which individuals can make meaningful free choices or experience moral or emotional growth outweighs the instances of intrinsically unnecessary evil which this context allows.
In short, once we clearly distinguish — as Hasker does not — between (7) and (8), we see that the concept of meticulous providence offers no basis for the rejection of P1.
Another aspect of Hasker’s criticism, though, remains to be considered. He is correct in arguing that most proponents of P1 — most who believe God must attempt to maximize everyone’s quality of life — will admit that God can (and does) at times directly manipulate human decision-making and/or the natural environment to lessen the impact of certain evils or generate certain goods. Thus, with respect to any given instance of natural or moral evil, it is reasonable to ask the proponent of P1 why God did not beneficially intervene. And it is true, as Hasker says, that the proponent of P1 will not always have a convincing answer – that is, will not always have an explanation which makes it clear to all why God could not have unilaterally removed the evil in question without significantly upsetting the intrinsically valuable context of freedom and growth in which he wants humans to function.
However, will it help the concerned theist to deny, as Hasker suggests, that God is obligated to attempt to maximize everyone’s quality of life? This does give us another possible explanation for the seemingly unnecessary natural evil which we experience, namely, that God is under no obligation to remove such evil even if he can. But what does such a response say about God’s moral integrity? I agree with George Schlesinger’s contention that we should “apply as far as possible human ethical standards in our appraisal of Divine conduct” since “we have no other notions of good and bad except those appertaining to human situations.” And it seems clear to me that we as humans generally do believe that we should do what we can to maximize the quality of life for others, especially when those `others’ are children which we have brought into existence. Accordingly, my question for those who would have the theist deny P1 is the following: Why should anyone desire to worship, or expect nontheists to respect the concept of, a being who appears not to be obligated to act as morally as some humans?
Responses which will satisfy some theists may exist. Hasker, for example, seems to feel that a proper understanding of the concept of divine grace will allow God to escape adherence to P1 with impunity. But any such response, I believe, will be no more satisfying to the nontheist or the majority of theists than will the response that proponents of P1 must give to instances of seemingly unnecessary evil. In fact, it seems to me that the ‘burden’ of proposing an explanation for natural evil that preserves God’s moral integrity is even greater if the theist follows Hasker’s advice and denies that God must to do all he can to maximize each person’s quality of life.
Thus, I deny that Hasker gives theists a good reason to reject P1. In fact, I believe that the types of considerations I have offered in response to Hasker furnish theists — especially those who deny that God can or need guarantee a world in which all experience a good life on balance — with good (although not logically compelling) reasons to affirm P1.
However, even if a theist denies that God must attempt to maximize the quality of life for all, ought not a theist at least affirm either that God must always recompense innocent suffering to the extent possible or God must attempt to ensure that every person has a life that is on the whole worth living?
It seems to me that the answer it yes. Moreover, most theists clearly agree. However, some (for instance Hasker), may not. And I know of nothing that requires theists to affirm even these minimal obligatory principles.