Thursday, August 22, 2013

Maring on Evil and God's Authority (Part One)



Since I’m on a bit of a roll with respect to the problem of evil, I thought it couldn’t hurt to do another series of posts about it. This time round I’ll be looking at Luke Maring’s article “A New Problem of Evil: Authority and the Duty of Interference”.

Maring’s article presents us with an interesting fusion between the literature on the problem of evil and the literature on the political concept of authority. In essence, he argues that God, as traditionally conceived, has authority over us. Because of this he owes us a “duty of interference”. This duty requires him to take steps to prevent, protect us from, and/or (possibly) compensate us for certain forms of harm. But since we do suffer these forms of harm, and nothing is done to prevent, protect, or compensate, it follows that God does not (or is at least very unlikely to) exist.

As such, Maring’s article exemplifies the trend to which I pointed in previous posts. This is the trend among some philosophers of religion to disambiguate evil into more precise or refined categories so as to strengthen the problem of evil. To be honest though, Maring’s article only “sorta” exemplifies this trend. I say this because, although he focuses on particular forms of evil that God is specially obligated to prevent, the nature of God’s authority is such that this probably includes all varieties of evil. So it’s really not fair to say that there is any disambiguation of evil into more precise sub-categories; rather, content is added to our concept of God and this content is shown to heighten the problem of evil.

Over the next couple of posts I want to give a quick precis of Maring’s argument, adding some occasional critical commentary of my own in the process. In the remainder of this post, I will do two things. First, I will give Maring’s “New Problem of Evil” a more detailed outline. And second, I will discuss the concept of authority that he uses to motivate his argument.


1. The Argument from Divine Authority
One of the slightly annoying things about Maring’s article is that, although he purports to offer us a “new problem of evil”, he never actually bothers to specify the premises of his argument. Or, to be more generous, he does so in an oblique and opaque manner. One really has to read between the lines to get a sense of the overall structure. (Admittedly, this something that annoys me about virtually every article I read).

To correct for this, I’ve decided to reconstruct what I think his argument might be. I need to be very clear at the outset that, with the significant exception of the premises talking about the nature of authority, I’m not sure if Maring would endorse this reconstruction. I merely think it makes sense of what he says. The reconstruction is presented as a straightforward incompatibility proof of the non-existence of God. Obviously, it could be easily reformulated as a probabilistic/evidentialist argument against the existence of God. Indeed, I will tend to interpret it that way later in this series.

Bearing those interpretive caveats in mind, here’s what I take the argument to be:

The Argument from Divine Authority
(1) If God exists, he claims/has authority over all of us. 
(2) For any X, if X claims/has authority over us, X has a duty to prevent, protect or (possibly) compensate its subjects for harm to their well-being that occurs within X’s jurisdiction. 
(3) Therefore, if God exists he has a duty to prevent, protect or (possibly) compensate us for harm to our well-being. 
(4) If God had a duty to do something, he would fulfill that duty provided it was not logically/metaphysically impossible to do so (because of his omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence). 
(5) We frequently suffer harm to our well-being without being protected from/compensated for it. 
(6) Therefore, God does not exist.

I’m under no illusions about the formal quality of this argument. There is some slippage between the premises and the conclusions, but on the whole I think this could be resolved. I won’t dwell on it anyway.

Maring’s main goal is to defend premise (2) and to block the attempts to deny the inference from (1) and (2) to (3). Consequently, most of our attention will be on those aspects of the argument. Still, a few general comments about the argument are in order at the outset.

First, Maring does offer some defence of premise (1). He points to certain biblical passages, as well as orthodox beliefs about the nature of God, that seem to confirm that God claims/has authority over us. After all, God as traditionally conceived, directs us to do things, creates new obligations, and claims the right to punish us if we fail to live up to those obligations. All these things are indicative of a claim to authority. This will make more sense when we outline the concept of authority, below. For what it’s worth, I think Maring is right about this.

Premise (2) is obviously the key motivating principle for the argument. One thing I want to highlight here is that it is somewhat imprecise about how the duty is to be fulfilled. As we’ll see below, Maring refers to it, generally, as the duty of “interference”. But, of course, one can “interfere” with something in many different ways. Which of them count as satisfying the demands of the duty? I’ve suggested three possibilities in my formulation of the premise: one can prevent the harm, protect those who suffer from it, or compensate them in some way. The first two of these (prevent/protect) probably add up to the same thing. The third of them (compensation) is offered with caution. Later on in the discussion it will become clear that Maring doesn’t rate the compensation option too highly. But I’ve included it since some will appeal to it, and since doing so emphasises the “imperfect” nature of the duty.

Premise (4) seems solid enough, so I won’t say too much about it. That leaves premise (5), which is obviously the key factual claim. We’ll discuss that in more depth in part two.


2. Authority and the Duty of Interference
As far as I am aware, Maring’s PhD was in political philosophy, specifically in the concept of authority. So it’s no great surprise that his novel contribution to the debate about God and evil rests heavily on the importation of that concept from political philosophy into the theological arena. Indeed, it’s no great surprise that not only does he import that concept into the theological arena, he also imports his own version of that concept.

For Maring, anything that is to be properly called an authority must satisfy four conditions:

Conditions of Authority: For any X, in order for X to be an authority, X must:
(a) Have the power to create new obligations via content-independent directives; 
(b) Have the right to exercise the power to create new obligations; 
(c) Have the right to back up its newly-created obligations with the use of force (if needs be); and 
(d) Fulfil the duty of interference.

Conditions (a)-(c) represent the orthodox normative account of authority; condition (d) is Maring’s twist on things. He feels that the orthodox accounts over-emphasise the privileges of authority and say relatively little about the accompanying responsibilities. That’s where his twist comes into play.

Let’s go through the orthodox account first. I covered certain aspects of this before when I discussed Joseph Raz’s famous argument from authority. I think conditions (b) and (c) of this account are relatively intuitive. It is condition (a) that tends to be controversial. In brief, the feeling is that in order for something to be an authority — e.g. an authoritative government — it can’t just have the power to tell us to do what we already have an obligation to do; it must have the power create new obligations for us. Many philosophers cash this out in terms of the content-independence thesis. In other words, they hold that it is in the nature of authority that it can turn something into an obligation irrespective of its content. I tend to think that this is wrong, at least in its extreme form. The logical space of normative actions is made up of at least three kinds of action: (i) permissible actions, (ii) impermissible actions, and (iii) obligatory actions. My feeling is that authorities can indeed convert permissible actions into obligatory ones, but that they cannot convert impermissible actions into obligatory ones. So the content-independence thesis is only true in a restricted sense. I don’t think this affects Maring’s argument, but I thought I should mention it anyway.

That brings us to Maring’s twist on the orthodox account. As he puts it, authorities fulfill a kind of social role, and social roles generally bring with them powers, privileges, rights and responsibilities. He thus thinks it odd that orthodox accounts of authority tend to focus on the powers, privileges and rights; we need to balance this with some account of the duties of authority too. Consider some analogies. If I am a doctor, or a lawyer, or a parent, I have a set of rights and privileges: I am entitled to prescribe drugs, to represent others in a court of law, to make decisions on behalf of my children. But I also have a correlative set of duties and responsibilities: I must prescribe safe and effective drugs; I must diligently and zealously protect the interests of my client; I must not neglect or harm my children. Why wouldn’t it be the same for an authority?

Before I go any further, I should note that Maring may not be entirely fair to the so-called orthodox accounts of authority. I am, as with all things, a mere dilettante in this area, but it seems to me that “orthodox” accounts of authority frequently address the responsibilities and duties of authority. The preoccupation with the conditions of legitimacy for authoritative government, for instance, seems entirely bound up with the notion that legitimate authorities can only exercise their powers if they do or forbear from doing certain things. What is that if not a concern with the responsibilities of authority?This observation doesn’t affect the truth of what Maring has to say, merely its claim to fairly represent the orthodox account.

Moving on, Maring thinks that the positive duties of authorities are spelled out by the following:

Duty of Interference: If an instance of harm is (a) within an authority’s jurisdiction; and (b) seriously imperils the well-being of the governed, the authority owes it to its subjects to intervene.

This is a personal, directed duty. That is to say: the authority owes it personally to the people who are affected by its decisions, not impersonally. The authority would wrong us if it did not live up to the duty, and we have a correlative right against the authority in respect of the duty.

The duty is imperfect in nature: it is left open as to which actions will count towards its satisfaction. Adding some specification to the duty gives us the basis for premise (2) of the argument from divine authority.


3. Is there really a duty of interference?
Although the duty of interference is an attractive one, there are arguments to made against it. In first place, one can argue that the duty is not one that is uniquely possessed by authorities. On the contrary, everyone has such a duty, provided the political jargon is dropped (i.e. the phrases in relation to “jurisdiction” and the “governed”). If I know somebody is being harmed, and it is within my power to do something about it, surely I am obligated to interfere?

Maring’s response is that this objections doesn’t track our intuitions and attitudes toward authorities who fail to discharge the duty. Consider the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. Clearly, it is a good thing that people found about about this, and interfered with the operation of the Church in an effort to prevent it. But would we say that people failed to live up to some duty if they did not find out and interfere? Maybe; but I’m not entirely comfortable with that claim. I don’t think that lay citizens failed in some moral duty by not doing more to prevent abuse, even if they could have if they were so minded. I do, however, think that the Church failed to live up to some moral duty in not doing more, and in actively suppressing the problem. Arguably, this is because the church, qua authority, has a special obligation to intefere to protect those whom it governs.

This leads to a second response. Perhaps it is true that certain types of authority owe a duty of interference but this is only because one of the legitimacy conditions for such authorities is that they protect their subjects’ well-being. For example, one could plausibly argue that government’s derive their authority, at least in part, from the fact that they protect their citizens’ well-being. Hence, it is not surprising that they owe a duty of interference. But this may not be true for all authorities. They may derive their legitimacy from different conditions and hence have different duties (or maybe even none at all).

This doesn’t seem like an interesting objection to me — not least because it assumes some odd dichotomy between legitimacy conditions and obligations — but it does prompt Maring to make a more interesting argument in favour of the duty of interference. The argument works as follows:


  • (7) All authorities stand in need of justification.
  • (8) A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for justification is that a subject would rationally consent to the authority if given the opportunity.
  • (9) No one would rationally consent to an authority unless the authority owed the duty of interference.
  • (10) Therefore, all authorities owe the duty of interference.


Premise (7) seems relatively uncontroversial. It would stand to reason that authorities need to be justified. Premise (8) derives from classic debates in relation to the social contract and political authority. In adopting it, Maring agrees with critics of Rawls (and similar theorists) that hypothetical consent is not a sufficient condition for authority. In other words, he grants that the mere fact that someone would consent to an authority is not enough to grant that authority its powers. However, he does think that hypothetical consent is a necessary condition for authority. In other words, no authority could be granted its powers unless people would consent to it. I think this is plausible.

Premise (9) is the tricky one. What reason do we have for thinking that people couldn’t rationally consent to an authority that didn’t owe a duty of interference? Maring makes the following argument. First, he claims that it is in the nature of authorities to restrict the normative space within which our lives operate. To put it more succinctly, authorities coerce us into doing or forbearing from doing things that we would otherwise have the power to do. Thus, when we become subject to an authority we give up some of our freedom and autonomy. Maring claims that no one would do this unless the authority also had a duty to protect them from harm to their well-being. Again, I think this is plausible, but I’m not sure that the argument is all that strong. It seems to me like Maring is merely restating and re-emphasising the point. I’d be willing to grant it to him, but, then again, I’m biased in favour of his argument.


4. Interim Conclusion
To sum up, Maring is trying to present a new problem of evil, one based on the notion that God, qua authority, has a special obligation to prevent certain kinds of harm. We’ve looked at the basic structure of the problem in this post, and we’ve gone into some of the detail about the account of authority that underlies it. The next day we’ll see whether the theist is able to respond to it.

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