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Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part I

May 13th, 2009 by Matt

This two-part series criticises the deontological argument from evil proposed by Micheal Tooley in The Knowledge of God, the print debate between him and Alvin Plantinga.1 My critique proceeds in four parts. Initially I will sketch Tooley’s distinction between a deontological and an axiological argument from evil and will argue that Tooley rejects the axiological version because it rests on “controversial ethical claims;”2 claims that are “likely to be rejected by many theists.”3 Then I will outline Tooley’s deontological version and focus on the moral assumptions upon which it is based and Plantinga’s criticism of these. This will conclude Part I of the series.

In my next post, Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part II, I will argue that Plantinga’s criticisms can be reformulated by appealing to a divine command theory of ethics and when they are it can be shown that Tooley’s argument relies on controversial moral assumptions that many theists do, in fact, reject. Finally I will look at two objections to this line of argument; the claim that, even on a divine command theory, God has obligations and Tooley’s critique of the divine command theory. I will argue both objections fail.

Deontological and Axiological Arguments from Evil
Tooley distinguishes axiological versions of the argument from evil from deontological versions. The former, “are formulated in terms of axiological concepts—specifically, in terms of the goodness or badness, the desirability or undesirability of states of affairs.”4 [Emphasis original] The latter, “uses concepts that focus upon the rightness and wrongness of actions, and upon the–rightmaking or wrongmaking–properties that determine whether an action is one that ought to be performed.”5

Tooley suggests that axiological versions are problematic. He takes as a paradigm the version proposed by William Rowe. Central to Rowe’s argument is the following conceptual claim about a perfectly good being.

(2) Any omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect person would prevent the existence of any state of affairs that is both (a) intrinsically bad, or undesirable, and (b) such that he could prevent its existence without either allowing an equal or greater evil, or preventing an equal or greater good.6

Rowe applies (2) to concrete evils in the world. He identifies various concrete evil states of affairs and contends that these concrete cases meet the criteria (a) and (b) specified in (2).

There are well rehearsed problems with Rowe’s attempt to do this.7 While Rowe can maintain that there are cases where we do not know of any greater good lost or greater evil prevented by the allowance of these evils, this is insufficient to show that the cases meet the specified criteria. His argument requires that we know that there are no greater goods lost or evils prevented known to an omniscient being. Tooley notes that the step from “we don’t know” to the claim that an “omniscient being does not know” is difficult to bridge and Rowe’s attempts to do so have been unsucessful.8

Tooley’s most important objection is to contest (2) itself. Tooley notes that (2) appears to rely on a,

common consquentialist claim … namely, the claim that an action is morally wrong if it fails to maximise the balance of good states of affairs over bad states of affairs. But the difficulty then is that “such a claim is, within ethical theory, deeply controversial, and likely to be rejected by many theists, and others.9

In response, Tooley develops and defends an argument from evil which does not rely on “controversial ethical claims,”10 one that focuses “upon the rightness and wrongness of actions.”

Tooley’s Deontological Argument
Tooley summarises his argument succinctly,

The basic idea involved in a deontological formulation of the argument from evil is then as follows. First, it is claimed that the world contains certain states of affairs such that any action of allowing any of those states of affairs to obtain would involve one or more known wrongmaking characteristics that would outweigh the sum total of known rightmaking characteristics that the action would have. If this is right, then any such action is prima facie wrong, relative to the total information that one presently has concerning the action’s rightmaking and wrongmaking characteristics. Secondly, the crucial question is then whether there is any sound inductive argument that will take one from the conclusion that such an action is prima facie wrong to the further conclusion that the action is probably wrong all things considered. If there is, one will then have an ‘inductively sound’ version of the evidential argument from evil.11 [Emphasis original

As Tooley notes the argument has two crucial steps. The first is the claim that an argument that allows a certain states of affairs to occur is prima facie wrong. The second is an inductive argument from the conclusion that such an action is prima facie wrong to the claim that it is ultra facie wrong; that is, wrong all things considered.

It is clear that Tooley considers the second step to be the ‘crucial question’ and he spends most of his article defending the inductive inference he draws. Tooley appears to think that the first step is fairly straight-forward and uncontroversial. His defence of it consists of a few paragraphs.

Tooley’s Argument for Step One
Tooley’s argument for the first step consists of three premises,

(12) The property of choosing not to prevent an event that will cause the death of more than 50,000 .ordinary people is a wrongmaking property of actions, and very serious one.

(13) The Lisbon earthquake killed approximately 60,000 ordinary people.

Therefore, from (12) and (13):

(14) Any action of choosing not to prevent the Lisbon earthquake has a very serious wrongmaking property.

Tooley then adds as an additional premise,

(15) No rightmaking properties that we know of are such that we are justified in believing both that an action of choosing not to prevent the Lisbon earthquake would have had those rightmaking properties, and that those properties are sufficiently serious to counterbalance the relevant wrongmaking property.12

Tooley believes that (12)-(15) are uncontroversial “(12) makes a moral claim, but one that does not seem at all problematic while statement (13) makes a historical claim for which there is, I believe, very good evidence.”13 Tooley appears to think that the only potentially controversial premise is (15) but that this would be denied only by philosophers who offer a theodicy.14 Tooley maintains that (15) is,

[V]ery reasonable, given the relevant facts about the world, together with the moral knowledge that we possess. For what rightmaking properties can one point to that one has good reason to believe would be present in the case of an action of allowing the Lisbon earthquake, and that would be sufficiently serious to counterbalance the wrongmaking property of allowing more than 50,000 to be killed.15

Tooley concludes that, in the absence of a defensible theodicy, there are compelling arguments for concluding that allowing the Lisbon earthquake to occur is prima facie wrong. This is not an insignificant conclusion. Many contemporary theists discuss the argument from evil by conceding that there are no defensible theodicies and then arguing that even in the absence of such a theodicy, belief in God is not rendered improbable by the existence of evil. If Tooley is correct, this line of argument is mistaken. The burden of proof is clearly on the theist to provide a theodicy; if he or she cannot then God’s action of permitting the Lisbon earthquake to occur is prima facie wrong. Moreover, if Tooley’s inductive arguments hold, the God’s actions will be ultra facie wrong.

Plantinga’s Response
Plantinga responds to Tooley’s argument by calling into question (15).

Christians and other theists believe that God exists and is a perfectly good being. If this is true, then any action that God has in fact performed has the property of having been performed by a perfectly good being. Furthermore, Christians and other theists believe that God performed the action of permitting the Lisbon earthquake. They therefore believe that the action of permitting the Lisbon earthquake has the property of having been performed by God, who is a perfectly good person. This is a rightmaking property that clearly outweighs and counterbalances any wrongmaking properties that action has.16

In this citation, Plantinga denies that only theists who offer a theodicy would contest [15]. Plantinga suggests that theists will typically believe that there is a right making property of which they know of; the property of being permitted by God. This property overrides all others and the action of allowing the Lisbon earthquake has this property. Hence, the Theist has good reasons for rejecting [15] even if he or she cannot offer an adequate theodicy.

Tooley’s response is to deny that being permitted by God is a right making property,

Suppose that God exists, and, thus permitted the Lisbon earthquake. One can ask “What property did the action of permitting the Lisbon earthquake have that made it morally permissible for God to permit it?” The response that it had the property of having been permitted by God, who is perfectly good, is not a satisfactory answer to that question: there must be some other property that made it permissible for God to permit the Lisbon earthquake. The property of having been permitted by God, while it entails that there must have been a rightmaking property, is not itself a rightmaking property.17 [Emphasis original]

The phrase “having been permitted by God” is ambiguous. In one sense it could refer to God allowing an event to occur; if he does not stop it occurring then God permits the Lisbon earthquake. In another sense, however, it can refer to God refraining from forbidding an action. God permits drinking alcohol, for example. If God refrains from issuing a command to abstain from drinking alcohol then it is clear, I think, that Plantinga means the former and Tooley seems18 correct in suggesting that in this sense it is clear that being permitted by God is not a right making property but this leaves an important question hanging; couldn’t Plantinga’s critique be reformulated in terms of the “second sense” of the phrase “having been permitted by God.”

In my next post, Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part II, I will propose a Plantingan reformulation and address some objections.

1 Michael Tooley “Does God Exist?” in The Knowledge of God eds Michael Tooley and Alvin Plantinga (Malden, M A: Blackwell Publishers, 2008) 70-147.
2 Tooley “Does God Exist?”105.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid, 106.
6 William Rowe “Evil and Theodicy” Philosophical Topics 16: 119-32. I am following Rowe’s enumeration.
7 Stephen John Wykstra “Rowe’s Noseeum Arguments from Evil;” Peter van Inwagen “The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence” and “Reflections on the Chapters by Draper, Russell, and Gale;” William P Alston “The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition” and “Some (Temporarily) Final Thoughts on Evidential Arguments from Evil;” Daniel Howard-Snyder “The Argument from Inscrutable Evil” in The Evidential Argument from Evil ed Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 1996). See also, Alvin Plantinga Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
8 Tooley “Does God Exist” 104.
9 Ibid, 105.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid, 116.
12 Ibid, 119; I am following Tooley’s enumeration.
13 Ibid, 122.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 Alvin Plantinga “Reply to Tooley’s Opening Statement” in The Knowledge of God eds Michael Tooley and Alvin Plantinga (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2008) 170-71.
17 Michael Tooley “Closing Statement and Reply to Plantinga’s Comments” in The Knowledge of God eds Michael Tooley and Alvin Plantinga (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2008) 238.
18 I say seems because Linda Zagzebski’s account of divine obligations would challenge this contention as I will argue in part IV.

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Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part II

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