3.2.9 The Problem of Evil: Is God Good?


The argument from evil begins with an assumption about God’s nature: if God exists, it assumes, then he is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful) and perfectly good. Omniscience, omnipotence, and perfect goodness are, according to the argument from evil, a part of the concept of God.

It is only if God is conceived of in this way that the existence of evil poses a threat to belief in God. For if God were not all-knowing then evil might exist due to God’s ignorance either or it or of how to prevent it, if God were not all-powerful then evil might exist due to God’s inability to prevent it, and if God were not perfectly good then evil might exist due to God’s willingness to permit it. A simple way to resist the argument from evil, then, is to deny that God possesses all of these attributes.

This response to the argument from evil is simple, but it is also, to most theists, deeply unattractive. That God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good is a pretty fundamental part of theism. For many, a theism saved at the expense of abandoning one of these divine attributes isn’t worth saving.

Not all have thought along these lines, however. Brian Davies, who is both a philosopher and a Christian (specifically, a Dominican friar), has argued that the argument from evil errs in its assumption that God is perfectly good. God is perfectly good, according to Davies, but not in the sense that gives rise to the problem of evil. If Davies is correct, then almost all discussion of the problem of evil rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s nature.

The argument from evil assumes that God is perfectly morally good. If God’s perfect goodness were of another kind than moral goodness, then it would be perfectly consistent with his allowing evil to occur.

There are many different types of goodness and perfection; what makes for a perfect wife is very different to what makes for a perfect racehorse, for example. When we describe something as good, what properties we are attributing to it will depend on what kind of thing it is. To describe something as good is to to say that it is a good example of a particular kind of thing, that it possesses those properties that things of that kind should possess. The conditions for goodness are thus relative to what kind of thing something is.

The conditions for being a good God, though, according to Davies, have nothing to do with moral goodness, because God is the wrong kind of thing to be described as morally good. Moral goodness is to do with fulfilling one’s duties, acting in the way that one ought to act. God, though, has all authority over Creation; he has no duties; there is no way that he ought to act. To describe God either as morally good or as morally bad is therefore a mistake, according to Davies; God is an amoral being. God’s perfection, then, does not imply moral goodness, and so does not entail that he will prevent evil from occurring.

Labels: , , , ,