Nate is a philosopher in our midst who comments regularly on the blog. He just wrote a comment in “A Martian’s perspective on the problem of evil” which I’d like to interact with in a couple days. The comment is quite long and elegantly stated. And since threaded comments don’t always get the attention they deserve, I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting it here. So when I get around to responding in a few days I can refer back to this article (and any further discussion that flows from it).
And so, without further ado, Nate’s comment (printed in red):
I know you’re busy, so I understand that you haven’t had the time to write that post addressing my objection from a few days ago. But it again arises in this context.
Remember that I advanced the following restriction on what a utilitarian God can do, which seems prima facie true, and which you seemed to assent to (at least by mentioning theologians/philosophers who defend it):
Nate’s Principle (NP): God would never permit a being to suffer to bring about a greater good G, unless G satisfies the following conditions: (a) G directly benefits the person who suffers (this is consistent with G’s having other positive benefits for other people), (b) G *outweighs* the evil of permitting suffering, and (c) necessarily, God could not achieve G without permitting the suffering: G must be such that there is no way to realize it without first allowing the being to suffer.
The intuitive justification for (a) is that by violating this, God would be using his creations *purely* as a means to an end, and not as intrinsically deserving of his love and mercy qua their moral status as persons. Instead, such a God treats people as tools to achieve his goals. Another way of putting this is that there is a deontological constraint on God’s utilitarian providence. I take (b) to be trivial, as it is just what the greater goods theodicy proposes. Finally (c) follows from God’s ontological perfection (or, if you prefer, the combination of his omnipotence and omnibenevolence) — as a utility-maximizer (subject to constraint b) it would (trivially) be preferable to bring about G if it were metaphysically possible to do so by permitting less or no suffering than He actually permits.
(I am not saying that NP is a principle we must always respect, especially if you accept a utilitarian ethic. As *limited* beings, perhaps it is moral to sometimes use people as means to maximize the amount of good. If you would pull the lever in the trolley problem, then you think this is at least sometimes moral — you are literally using a human being as a roadblock, as a physical object, to save five people. Since everyone has intrinsic moral worth, however, and our means are limited — i.e., we can *only* stop the trolley by pulling the lever — this might be the best thing for *humans* to do. But never for God).
So, instead of the camping analogy, what about a divine trolley problem? What if God allows not a little child, but an adult human (call him “John”) to die a slow an agonizing death from some horrible disease or injury. On whatever soteriology you accept, let’s say John is not saved. This (plausibly, I think) assumes that universalism is false, so either annihilation or damnation to hell awaits death. As in my previous example, suppose five of John’ loved ones enter into a saving and meaning-giving relationship with God *directly* due to the existential crisis following the death of John — perhaps the meaning that their faith gives them rescues them from their despair, or whatever.
In this scenario, it’s at least possible that the sufferer (a) did not benefit from his pain and agony (both physical and emotional) while he suffers, but rather was very much harmed overall on the whole, and (b) because he is not saved, the person either does not benefit at all in the after life (since he is annihilated) or suffers *eternally.* God would be using John as a mere end.
Now like I said previously, I have in fact heard Christians offer this theodicy, and they are not careful to say things like “in the end, John benefits from the suffering, too.” They would, I think, admit that God does use some of his creatures as mere ends (perhaps this is more palatable on a Calvinist theology — but don’t even get me started on Calvinism!).
Even if you think this is abhorrent, certainly its metaphysically possible, right? And doesn’t it seem at least somewhat likely that at least *once* in the history of humankind, such a thing has happened? I suppose you could call this an atheist’s “defense” of the problem of evil, not an anti-theodicy…