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#333 Is God a Consequentialist?

September 02, 2013
Q

Dear Dr Craig,

Thank you for considering my question and responding to it (hopefully!). My question concerns what appears to be a contradiction in your position on moral epistemology. I'm acutely aware that this is not an area you prefer to focus on but the contradiction perhaps also speaks to the incoherence of Christian theism.

You have said that a Christian would not practice utilitarianism/consequentialism and that a Christian would typically be of a deontological persuasion. However, one of the main arguments in your response to the problem of evil is that God may allow horrific suffering to millions upon millions of people on earth because it can bring about a greater good. In this case the only greater good is that it brings more people into a saving relationship with God. However, this approach is clearly the opposite of a deontological ethical approach it is outright utilitarianism.

At the heart of Christianity is obviously Jesus's demise which again seems morally wrong from a deontological point of view i.e. that one person can be put to death because in the act of killing a person huge numbers of other people can benefit. It does not seem to me that Jesus's demise could be passed off as a self-sacrifice because he did not commit suicide.

If the answer is simply along the lines of the morally nihilistic divine command theory I would be most disappointed. If you could answer the question of how to resolve this apparent contradiction, both with and without divine command theory, I would be (perhaps eternally) grateful.

Kind regards,

Mark

United Kingdom

Dr. craig’s response


A

Yours is a question which often comes up, Mark, but I think that it is based upon a certain misunderstanding or misapplication of consequentialism. It is not really a question of moral epistemology, as you claim (God, after all, faces no epistemological challenges!), but of moral ontology: what determines the rightness or wrongness of an action?

Consequentialism is an ethical theory concerning the determination of our moral duty which holds that it is our moral duty to act in such a way as to bring about the most beneficial consequences for people. Now immediately a problem arises in applying such a theory to God, namely, on my view God has no moral duties to fulfill. Moral duties arise in response to imperatives issued by God. Since God does not issue commands to Himself, God has no moral duties. Rather God’s acts must simply be consistent with His perfectly good nature. So consequentialism cannot apply to God, having as He does no moral duties. His actions, such as permitting some evils in view of overriding goods, must simply be consistent with His being all-loving, punishing evil, etc.

Your derisive crack about “the morally nihilistic divine command theory” suggests that you will find the above solution unpalatable. But divine command theory is not morally nihilistic, since it grounds objective moral values in God as the paradigm and source of moral goodness. God’s having no moral duties does not imply that He can do just anything; rather His actions must be consistent with His own nature.

Moreover, don’t think that because God permits some evil act in light of an overriding good, that act is no longer evil. The human act is still evil despite the great goods which may come out of it. That is to say, consequentialism is false and remains false. Remember: God isn't the one doing the evil act. So, e.g., the crucifixion of Jesus is still wrong even if God allowed it in light of the great good that comes out of it. Those who crucified Jesus did something horribly wrong, despite the great consequences of his death.

Even given the (false) assumption that God has moral duties to fulfill, the relevant question is the moral status of God's permitting the crucifixion. Notice that its good consequences aren't sufficient to justify just any act on God's part, e.g., violating the free will of the human agents involved by causing them to crucify Jesus. So God is not a consequentialist; the outweighing good must be consistent with certain moral principles (or, as I prefer, God's character). Steve Wykstra, a philosopher who has done a good deal of work on the problem of evil, points out that the requirement of some outweighing good for God’s permission of some instance of suffering or evil 

provides a rationale only for a necessary condition for His allowing some instance of suffering: He allows it ONLY IF doing so strongly serves some ulterior good purpose. It doesn't mean He allows it WHENEVER (if) it brings about a greater good. There may well be other constraints of a deontological sort. . . . The consequentialism to be most wary of, I think, would make ‘achieve a greater good’ both a necessary and sufficient condition for permitting some when-considered-by-itself evil.[1]

Clearly, I do not hold that the good consequences serve to justify God’s doing or permitting just anything, since I have affirmed that it must be consistent with His character (or certain deontological principles).

Remember that deontologists don’t just ignore the consequences of one’s actions. They will consider the outcomes of actions when determining if a certain moral principle applies. For example, consider a doctor who is treating a patient suffering from advanced cervical cancer.[2] This doctor may hold to the moral principle that a doctor should not inflict unnecessary suffering on a patient. Suppose he determines that the patient’s cancer is so advanced that round after round of chemotherapy and surgery would be ultimately unavailing and would result in months of unremitting suffering for his patient. In such a case he may decide that it would be wrong to prescribe such a course of treatment for the patient. I think you can see that consideration of consequences can be relevant factually to deciding which moral principle is applicable in a situation.

So taking into account the consequences of permitting some instance of suffering or evil doesn’t make one a consequentialist. The same applies to God. He must have some overriding good in mind in permitting suffering and evil in the world, but He is not a consequentialist, not only because He has no moral duties to be determined, but also because the overriding good must be supplemented by other conditions, perhaps of a deontological nature, in order to suffice for His permission of suffering.

 

  • [1]

    1Personal communication.

     

  • [2]

    2 Thanks to my colleague J. P. Moreland for the inspiration for this illustration!

- William Lane Craig