In, my article “Tooley Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil”, I argued that Tooley’s specifically deontological version of the argument from evil fails. To summarise very briefly, Tooley’s version of the argument assumes that God has moral obligations. However, according to a fairly mainstream theistic position on the relationship between God and morality, the wrongness of an action consists in its being forbidden by God. Given that God does not issue commands to himself, it follows that he has no obligations. Tooley’s argument, therefore, contrary to his own protestation, relies on controversial substantive moral assumptions, which many theists reject.
In this post I want to respond to two objections to this line of argument. The first contends my position is contradictory or incoherent; one cannot coherently deny that God is subject to the commands he issues to human beings. The second contends my argument makes God a cosmic hypocrite. Human morality consists of God saying to us, “do as I say not as I do”.
Let us look first at the accusation of incoherence. Central to theism is the notion that God is essentially good. In my paper I set this out in terms of God possessing certain character traits: God is loving, just, impartial, omniscient, and so on. God’s possession of these traits, however, limits the kind of commands one can coherently attribute to God. Specifically, his commands must express these traits in some sense, or in the very least not contradict them. To say God is just, for example, and impartial and loving but then attribute to him commands that are unjust, hateful and partial would be incoherent.
So far so good, here is the alleged problem. If God’s commands express (or are consistent with) his essential character, then how can it be consistent with his character to not act in accord with those same commands? If God commands us to refrain from performing some action then it would be a contradiction of his character if he himself does not refrain from that action.
This objection contains a false premise. It assumes that if one person’s commands to another person reflects certain character traits then consistency with those character traits means the first person must, themselves, follow that command. This is false. Consider an example. A loving parent sets their 9 year old daughter a bedtime of 8:30 pm. This parent’s command reflects their loving character, it does not follow, however, that being loving requires that the parent herself must go to bed at 8:30 pm. Or consider an experienced surgeon. Out of concern for his patients he prohibits inexperienced junior surgeons from performing certain operations without supervision. This does not mean his concern leads him to refrain from doing this surgery himself.
This also provides an answer to the second objection that human morality consists of God saying “do as I say, not as I do”. While the sarcastic slogan may have an effective use in certain contexts to show up a person’s hypocrisy, the idea that you cannot legitimately counsel or command another to not do something that you, yourself, do is false. Parents tell children to go to bed at 9:00 pm without themselves being morally required to go to bed at 9:00 pm. Governments prohibit private citizens from punishing people for crimes yet that does not entail governments cannot punish crime. Stunt-men warn those who watch their stunts to “not try this at home”. Husbands object to other men attempting to make love to their wives, it does not follow they themselves do not make love to their wives, and so on. The point is that in many contexts the difference between people’s knowledge, character, abilities, relationship, and authority mean it is perfectly appropriate for one to tell the other to do something that she herself would not do.
It does not follow, therefore, from the fact that a God commands us to refrain from a certain action, that that God himself could never do that action.