Monday, March 15, 2010

Maitzen on Skeptical Theism and Moral Obligation (Part 1)

Stephen Maitzen is a professor at Acadia University (interviewed here). He has some interesting things to say about how theism undermines morality. I thought I'd cover his arguments over the next few blog posts.

I'm going to begin by killing the following two birds (articles) with the one stone:
"Skeptical Theism and Moral Obligation" (2009) 65 International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 93-103
"Skeptical Theism and God's Commands" (2007) 46 Sophia 235-241
Both articles make roughly the same claim: skeptical theism damages ordinary moral reasoning. To understand that argument we are going to have to do two things: (i) understand what skeptical theism is and why it is invoked; and (ii) explain how skeptical theism might be thought to undermine moral reasoning. Part 1 will cover the first topic; Part 2 will cover the second.

At the outset, let me say something of major importance. For some silly reason, US English and Real English (the "Queen's" English) often use different spellings, e.g. "mustache" vs. "moustache", "maneuver" vs. "manoeuvre", and "skeptical" vs. "sceptical". Since "Skeptical Theism" names a philosophical position, I am going to reluctantly accept the inelegance of the American spelling for the remainder of this series.

Let me say something else of lesser importance. I am going to use this post to introduce a new system of argument mapping. It's not my invention or anything -- it is widely used in logic textbooks -- but it's the first time I've used it on this blog. I'll explain it at the end.

1. The Problem of Gratuitous Evil
I begin by outlining the dialectical context in which skeptical theism is invoked. Many people will be familiar with the problem of evil. It is a classic atheistic argument which highlights the incompatibility of the existence of a good god with the existence of evil. The problem comes in two versions: (i) logical and (ii) evidential. Let's ignore the logical version for now.

The evidential version accepts that God's existence may be compatible with some forms of evil. But this is only true if the evil produces some greater good. The problem is that there exist instances of gratuitous evil. That is, evil that does not produce any greater good. That type of evil makes the existence of God highly unlikely.

Maitzen uses the following example of gratuitous evil to ground his discussion of skeptical theism:
In 1982 Charles Rothenberg lost a child-custody dispute with his ex-wife. As revenge, he kidnapped his six year-old son David, doused him in kerosene while he slept, and set him on fire. David was left with third-degree burns covering 90% of his body and despite numerous surgeries remains terribly disfigured.
David Rothenberg's misery seems to exemplify the problem of gratuitous evil. Other examples could be added to show that the volume of gratuitous suffering is also problematic.

In any event, the evidential argument can be given the following formal statement:
  • (1) God is perfectly good.
  • (2) A perfectly good being would not allow evil to exist, unless it produced some greater good.
  • (3) There are instances of gratuitous evil (e.g. the David Rothenberg case).
  • (4) Therefore, it is unlikely that God exists.
Let's move on to consider typical responses to this argument.

2. Standard Theodicies and Responses
Theists usually respond to the problem of evil by constructing theodicies. These are frameworks that provide plausible moral reasons for God to allow evil to exist. 

Here are some examples, all trying to provide a moral reason for allowing David Rothenberg to suffer in the manner described above:
  • (5) Rothenberg deserved to be punished (retributivist rationale).
  • (6) God's intervention would have undermined the good of libertarian free will.
  • (7) The severe burning aided soul-making, both David's and his family's.
  • (8) The suffering brought (short-term) attention to the problem of child abuse.
The problem with each of these theodicies is that they can all be defeated by equally plausible countervailing moral reasons.
  • (9) Six year-old children such as David do not deserve to be punished (children are not full moral agents).
  • (10) God has a moral duty to treat people as ends in themselves, not as means to an end (this defeats 6, 7, and 8).
The debate could quickly escalate from here with each side offering different sets of moral reasons for and against the suffering. The proponent of the evidential argument is most likely to argue that the sheer volume of incidents similar to David Rothenberg's make theodical arguments sound increasingly desperate.

It is at this point that the skeptical theists enter the fray.

3. Skeptical Theism
Skeptical theism is premised on the following elementary idea: humans have limited epistemic access to the realm of value. This means that all our moral intuitions and moral arguments are incomplete, fallible and defeasible.

This seems to be an acceptable idea. Anyone who is familiar with the history of moral thought will see how intuitions are changed, difficult cases (dilemmas) are identified, and principles are reconsidered. We are not very good at determining the consequences (positive or negative) of our actions; we often make serious mistakes. 

For the skeptical theist our incomplete, fallible and defeasible knowledge of the realm of value must be contrasted with God's perfect knowledge of that realm. Given this contrast, it is not unlikely that God has moral reasons for allowing evil to which we simply do not have epistemic access.

Michael Bergmann, a defender of skeptical theism, says it rests on the following, circumlocutory, premises:
  • (11) We have no good reason for thinking that the possible goods we know of represent the entire domain of possible goods.
  • (12) We have no good reasons for thinking that the possible evils we know of represent the entire domain of possible evils.
  • (13) We have no good reasons for thinking that the entailment relations we know of between possible goods and permissible evils represent all such entailment relations.
These premises, if accepted, would mean that any attempt to infer the non-existence of God from the existence of evil is doomed to failure. Why? Because we can never know whether something is truly gratuitously evil.

The problem with skeptical theism is that it is too successful. A number of authors (Oppy, Almeida and Maitzen) argue that it forces you to accept a type of moral nihilism. That argument will be developed in Part 2.

4. Mapping the Argument
Okay, so I want to map the argument to this point. To do this, I am going to use the standard form of argument mapping (found, for example, in these books) with a couple of variations of my own for aesthetic purposes.

In the map below:
  • Every premise and conclusion listed above (from 1-13) is represented by a number in a circle
  • The supporting link between a premise and a conclusion is illustrated by a clean arrow
  • Premises that do not support a conclusion are illustrated by an arrow with a line through it.
  • Premises that are linked together (i.e. premises that must be considered jointly if they are to attack or support a conclusion) have a plus symbol between them.
  • Premises that are not linked together (i.e. premises that are sufficient on their own to attack or support a conclusion) do not have a plus symbol between them.
The major deviation from standard argument mapping is that I sometimes put a line beneath a set of unlinked premises and draw one arrow from this set to a single conclusion. Technically, I should have an arrow going from each independent premise to the conclusion it supports or attacks. However, I find this to be unwieldy when dealing with an argument of any considerable size: you end up with arrows all over the place.

Hopefully this will be comprehensible to all.


  1. John D,

    Many thanks for your very careful attention to my articles on skeptical theism, a topic I didn't get a chance to discuss in my interview with Luke on CPBD, to which you generously linked. (There's only so much you can talk about in one interview.) If the free will theodicy is the most popular answer to the evidential problem of evil among ordinary theists, skeptical theism may be the most popular answer among theistic philosophers. I'm glad to see it receiving more critical attention. I've been asked to contribute to a planned anthology on skeptical theism, and I'll need to grapple with recent work by skeptical theists who've responded to their critics. So your analysis and commentary have got me thinking about this stuff at just the right time.


    Steve Maitzen

  2. Thanks Steve. If you feel I've distorted your views at any point then feel free to point that out.

    I look forward to the next salvo in the skeptical theist-moral skepticism debate.

    Just to let you know, I'll probably go through your article on ordinary morality and atheism at some point as well. Might have a few more comments there since I have a specialist interest in free will and the workings of the criminal law.

  3. John,

    Your analysis of my stuff on skeptical theism is generous and thorough. I'll let you know if I come up with another salvo. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on "Ordinary Morality Implies Atheism"; thanks for your interest in it. I just sent off a brief reply to a critic's brief critique, both of which are supposed to appear in the May issue of EJPR. Thanks again for your comments. --Steve

  4. John, what software do you use to map arguments?