Thursday, September 30, 2010

Principles of Distributive Justice

As part of one of my current projects, I am trying to get an overview of all the different principles of distributive justice. This post is simply an addition to my own personal notes on the topic. However, I share it here since it may be of interest to some readers. I am working off this article.

The Distributive Problem
Before looking at the different principles of distributive justice, it is necessary to understand why we need these principles in the first place. As I understand it, the need stems from the basic cooperative bargains at the heart of social intercourse. A cooperative bargain arises whenever there is some set of resources, services, opportunities (etc.) that is only obtainable when people work together.

Take a simple example. Suppose you and I really like chocolate cake. It would be great if we could each make our own chocolate cakes for our personal consumption. However, this is not possible since we do not independently have access to all the necessary ingredients: I have access to the eggs and the flour, and you have access to the cocoa and the sugar. If we want the chocolate cake, we will have to work together.

A lot of social interactions have the same structure as this simple example: there is some gain to be made from working together that would not be made by working independently. And it is from these mutually-beneficial interactions that the need for principles of distribution arises.

Consider once more the chocolate cake. After we have made it, who is entitled to what proportion of the finished product? Should we each get half? Or should our share depend on the value of our original contribution? Is the contribution of cocoa somehow more important than the contribution of flour? Principles of distribution should help us to answer these questions.

More generally, the principles of distribution should do two things:

  • They must tell us what to do with the cooperative surplus. That is: the surplus that motivates the bargain in the first place must be shared among the parties to the bargain.
  • They must tell us what to do with the cooperative burden. That is: no surplus will be realised without some effort being expended by the parties to the bargain, so it is essential to know how much effort each party is expected to expend.

Most discussions of distributive justice focus on surpluses instead of burdens. That makes a certain amount of sense since there would really be no point in talking about distributive justice if there was no surplus to be distributed. However, I think it is worth bearing in mind the existence of burdens as well.

Now we are in a position to look at the various principles of distributive justice. In each case I will describe the principle and look at some of its shortcomings.

1. Strict Egalitarianism
The first, and perhaps most obvious, principle of distribution is that of strict egalitarianism. This calls for all parties to get an equal share of the surplus (and the burden). In modern societies, this might mean equal rights, incomes, access to social services, and so on.

There are two major difficulties with strict egalitarianism and other theories of distributive justice that are based on some preferred pattern of distribution:

  • The Measurement (Index) Problem: We can only know that people are getting an equal share if there is some way of measuring the value of the relevant surplus. While money may be a useful measure in some cases, it is likely to useless in other cases (e.g. measuring the value of a legal right). Similarly, if people value resources in different ways over different time periods, it may always be in their interest to exchange their existing entitlements with others.
  • The Time Frame Problem: Over what time period must the preferred pattern of distribution be achieved? Is it just a starting point from which people are free to deviate? Or must it be sustained indefinitely?

There are some specific moral criticisms of strict egalitarianism as well. Chief among them would be its tendency to limit freedom, to be insensitive to what people deserve, to fail to achieve the best outcomes for all people and to fail to give best effect to the principle of equal respect. These criticisms will come up again and again.

2. The Difference Principle
This is associated with the work of John Rawls. He argued that a general social distribution is just provided two conditions are met:

  • (i) Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties (e.g. speech, conscience, religion etc.)
  • (ii) Any social inequalities such as differences in income, are (a) attached to positions and offices that are open to all under conditions of equal opportunity, and (b) are such that they "raise the floor" (i.e. the position of the least well-off) as much as is possible.

Condition (ii)(b) is the Difference Principle.

The primary criticisms of Rawls are as follows:

  • By concentrating on the absolute position of the least well-off, Rawls is inattentive to the injustices arising from the relative positions of the least well-off compared to the most well-off. If the upper echelons of a society are significantly better off than the lower echelons, it may be possible for them to exclude the less well-off from all important public jobs and political offices. This would be an important injustice overlooked by Rawls's theory.
  • It does not maximise outcomes (utilitarian objection).
  • It involves unacceptable infringements on personal liberty: people are constrained in what they can do with their own resources (libertarian objection).
  • It is not sensitive to people's contributions to the social surplus (contribution-sensitivity), nor to their natural endowments (endowment-sensitivity).

3. Resource-based Principles
The third set of principles maintain that equal initial access to resources is the most just distribution. In practice, this means that people are initially granted equal resources to do with as they please. According to Dworkin's metaphor, we are to imagine everyone is given equal purchasing power in a massive auction for all possible social goods. They can choose to spend as they see fit.

Resource-based theorists aim to be sensitive to peoples' ambitions, contributions and endowments. For example, if people suffer from some natural (as opposed to developed) handicap or talent, this will need to be compensated or rectified so that they can start from the same position as others.

Utilitarian and libertarian objections apply to this set of principles. Also, it is not clear how any actual accounting for differences in natural talents or handicaps can be done. Particularly since the dividing line between what is natural and what is developed is unclear.

4. Welfare-based Principles
Welfare-based principles of distribution are utilitarian in form. They are focused on maximising the overall amount of some agreed-upon unit (or units) of welfare. These could range from the subjective preferences of individual actors, to objective measures of welfare such as lifespan, access to education, healthcare, income etc.

Welfare-based principles do not focus on the actual pattern of distribution (e.g. equal shares for everybody) but on the net welfare-outcomes associated with patterns of distribution.

All the standard criticisms of utilitarianism apply. The main problems, especially when it comes to distributional issues, are:

  • It is insensitive to the differences between people: if the goal is overall maximisation, then it is possible that a massively unequal society (e.g. with one rich overlord and 99 starving servants) could be more "just" than a society in which the welfare is spread around more evenly.
  • Preference-maximisation can give equal weight to preferences that seem wrong e.g. the preferences of racists, homophobes and misogynists.
  • Because it cannot automatically rule out particular patterns of distribution, it would rely on highly accurate empirical information about the aggregate of utility in society. Often, such empirical data is absent or impossible to obtain.

5. Desert-based Principles
Desert-based principles try to ensure that distributions are sensitive to the effort or contributions that people make to the social surplus. The idea is that some people deserve certain shares or outcomes because of their previous actions. So distributions should be proportionate to contributions.

The main problems with desert-based principles are:

  • The failure to find a good measure of contribution: is it the economic output they produce? the costs they incur? the "effort" they expend?
  • Oftentimes, people's ability to contribute is a function of pre-existing inequalities. For instance, those who are better off can contribute more because they have more resources or they have a better education. So a desert-based system may simply perpetuate injustices and inequalities.

6. Libertarian Principles
The classic (Nozickian) libertarian position is that any distribution of resources is acceptable provided it conforms with three principles of liberty: legitimate acquisition, legitimate transfer and rectification.

According to the principle of legitimate acquisition, one naturally owns oneself and by proxy one acquires legitimate ownership over those (previously unowned) features of the natural world with which one mixes one's labour. Once one owns something, one is entitled to freely transfer it to another, whereby they legitimately acquire what is transferred.

Any distribution of resources that is arrived at following legitimate acquisition or transfer is just. However, current distributions may be the product of previously illegitimate acquisitions and transfers. In those cases, some rectification is needed owned.

The major problems with libertarian principles are:

  • The practical impossibility of rectification and the consequent potential to perpetuate historical injustices.
  • The questionable theory of property ownership that accompanies it. Many would argue that property rights are only possible within a legal and political framework and that this framework requires the cooperation of others. Thus, it is not true to say that you "naturally" acquire ownership simply by mixing your labour with the natural world.

7. Critical Theories
There is a whole suite of theories -- feminist, postmodern, Marxist, race-based -- that criticise traditional theories of justice for their tendency to ignore, silence or suppress certain groups. I don't think any of these theories advance their own principles of justice, they simply tend to argue for expansion or abandonment of existing principles.

C'est tout.

Episode 9 - Divine Evil

Episode 9 of the podcast is available for download here. In this episode I discuss the article "Divine Evil" by David Lewis (and Philip Kitcher) which appeared in the collection Philosophers Without Gods.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Some relevant links:

Stanford Encyclopedia entries on David Lewis, and David Lewis's Metaphysics

Neil Sinhababu's paper on Possible Girls

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 7) - Theological and Evidential Skepticism

This post is part of my series The End of Skeptical Theism?. For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through an article by Mark Piper entitled "Why Theists Cannot Accept Skeptical Theism". As with all entries in this series, this discussion of Rowe's evidential problem of evil is the primary reference point.

Piper's goal is to present a cumulative-case argument against skeptical theism. In the previous entry, we saw how Piper supported his claim that ST leads to unwelcome skepticism about the nature of goodness and God's relation to it. In this entry, we will consider Piper's case for the following two claims:
  • (P2) ST threatens a good deal of theological knowledge;
  • (P3) ST undermines any inference from supposedly good events or states of affairs to the existence of a good God.

1. Theological Skepticism
What skeptical theists want, more than anything in the world, is to create a distinction between the claims we make about the mundane world in which we live and the super-mundane realm in which God operates. Only by creating such a distinction can they undermine the key inference in Rowe's argument from evil.

But to create this distinction is, as we have been exploring, to create a sword with several theologically unwelcome edges. In particular, it seems to undermine any claims we would like to make about the nature of God. This would force many theists to reconsider their theological commitments.

If we are told that God is the kind of being who would send his son to atone for our sins, we can surely respond in a manner that echoes William Alston's brand of ST. So for example, we can say that we don't have access to all the relevant data about divine intentions; that God's ultimate plan of salvation possesses more complexity than we can handle; and that we simply do not know what schemes of atonement are metaphysically possible or necessary.

It would also, perhaps fittingly, affect Alston's ability to support his own argument from religious experience.

Alston tries to fend off this general theological skepticism by claiming that his skeptical principles only apply to negative existential claims about the super-mundane (theistic) realm. This is because Rowe's argument relies on a negative existential claim, i.e. that there is (probably) no greater good justifying observed evils.

But if you look back over Alston's list of skeptical principles, it is clear that they apply equally well to positive existential claims such as those made about the resurrection. Indeed, Piper notes that Alston never makes the argument for the limitation of skepticism to negative existential claims, he merely asserts it.

2. Evidential Skepticism
The final link in Piper's chain of argumentation is to point out the unwelcome implications of ST for typical evidential arguments for God's existence. We encountered this problem when looking at Bergmann's form of skeptical theism.

As noted by Bergmann himself, when ST is fully imbibed, we lose the ability make inferences from apparently good events or states of affairs to the existence of a good God. Piper notes that this is particularly troubling for those who take the existence of Satan seriously. After all, if we cannot know that an apparently evil state of affairs is not a necessary precursor to some ultimate good, then it is equally true that we cannot know that an apparently good state of affairs is not a necessary precursor to some ultimate evil.

The same problem applies to the historical claims of the major religions. As mentioned above, one of the central pillars of Christian belief is the belief that God became incarnate in Yeshua of Nazareth and was sacrificed for our sins. This self-sacrifice is thought to be the kind of thing we would expect from a good God. But how can we know that, if we are not allowed to make claims about what is ultimately good or bad?

That concludes Piper's initial case against ST. He goes on to consider how proponents of ST might respond to his critique. That will be covered in the next post.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 6) - Goodness and a Good God

This post is part of my series The End of Skeptical Theism?. For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through an article by Mark Piper entitled "Why Theists Cannot Accept Skeptical Theism". As with all posts in this series, this discussion of William Rowe's evidential problem of evil provides some essential background.

In the previous entry, I briefly sketched Piper's cumulative-case argument against skeptical theism. His basic idea is that those theists who accept ST lose their epistemic licence to certain key components of the religious worldview. Three specific examples are given:

  • (P1) ST makes confident knowledge of our own conception of moral goodness, and confident knowledge of God's actual moral will, highly questionable and perhaps even impossible;
  • (P2) ST threatens a great deal of theological knowledge;
  • (P3) The epistemic limitation principles contained in ST can be consistently used in reverse, i.e. to rule off limits any attribution of good events to the will of a good God.

In this entry will consider Piper's case for P1.

1. The Problem with Goodness
In their attempt to refute the evidential problem of evil, skeptical theists argue that our cognitive limitations are such that we do not know whether there is some greater good that necessitates the existence of putative gratuitous evil. To put this more pithily, albeit esoterically, we can say that ST mandates skepticism about the possible orders and modalities of goodness and their relations to evil.

But in practice what does this skeptical thesis actually entail? Piper identifies three possibilities.

  • (a) No Access to Higher Goods: It may be that there are two levels in which goodness exists: one, the mundane level, in which we live out our everyday lives; and another, the transcendental level, in which God plots, plans and acts. And it may be that we know nothing about goods in the transcendental level but know plenty about goods in the mundane level.
  • (b) Misunderstanding of Hierarchical Relationships: It may be that we do not understand the proper hierarchical relationships between the different goods. Indeed, human history supplies examples of how we occasionally need to revise the hierarchical relationships that we think we have. Christians, for instance, often believe that although the law of the Old Testament has some importance, it was superseded by the values espoused by Jesus in the New Testament.
  • (c) Misidentification of Goods: It may be that some things that we think to be good are not actually good in relation to some unknown goods. A potential example of this comes from our experience with racism. For a long time, it was thought that racial purity was morally commendable. This is no longer thought to be the case as it is eroded by respect for human dignity. 

Skeptical theists would prefer if (a) were the only thing entailed by ST, but clearly (b) and (c) are also entailed by the central claims of ST. After all, they are both concerned with the orders and modalities of goodness.

It is equally clear that a theist cannot endorse (b) and (c) and remain a theist. Why? Because theists must be able to claim that certain hierarchical relations exist between goods, e.g. that piety is a greater good than pleasure. Likewise, they must be able to claim that certain goods definitely exist and will not be wiped out by unknown goods, e.g. that charity and the alleviation of suffering are goods.

2. The Problem with God
There is a further difficulty associated with skepticism about the orders and modalities of goodness, namely: we cannot be certain about God's relation to goodness. Indeed, on the central claims of ST, the following are possible:
  • (i) God's relation to goodness, for reasons beyond our ken, necessitates his active enjoyment of our suffering.
  • (ii) God's relation to goodness, for reasons beyond our ken, necessitates his complete indifference to our welfare.
A theist will no doubt balk at these suggestions. For example, a central component of a Christian worldview is a belief that God does care for us and that he will help us to achieve salvation. But if the theist endorses ST, they cannot rule out the possibilities in (i) and (ii).

That concludes Piper's case in favour of P1. In the next entry, we will look at his case in favour of P2 and P3.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Episode 8 - The Foundations of Religious Liberty

Episode 8 of the podcast is available for download here. In this episode I take a look at Brian Leiter's article "The Foundations of Religious Liberty: Toleration or Respect".

This diagram represents the spectrum of moral attitudes that I discuss in the episode.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Episode 7 - A Simple Argument Against Design

Sorry things have been a little quiet over the past week and they will probably remain so for the next week. To make up for it, here is a podcast I recorded. It covers Dan Moller's article "A Simple Argument against Design".

Here are links to some of the other papers I mention during the podcast:

Dougherty and Poston "User's Guide to Design Arguments" -- This paper details the tension between fine-tuning arguments and arguments from biological design. To put it succinctly, a fine-tuning argument only works if the probability of life given the observed cosmological parameters is high; contrariwise, a biological design argument only works if the probability of life given the observed cosmological parameters is low.

McGrew, McGrew and Vestrup "Probabilities and the Fine-Tuning Argument: A Skeptical View" -- This paper covers the normalisability problem and its relevance to the FTA.

Note: The sound quality is bad for the first couple of seconds of this but, fortunately, it improves thereafter.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 5) - Wykstra and Alston

This post is part of my series The End of Skeptical Theism? For an index, see here.

In this entry, I will begin my summary of the arguments contained in the following paper:
The paper presents a cumulative-case argument against skeptical theism. Specifically, Piper argues that skeptical theism gives rise to three unwelcome types of skepticism. Again, as with all entries in this series, this post on Rowe's evidential problem of evil is an essential reference point.

Three things are up for discussion today. First, I will look at Stephen Wykstra's case for skeptical theism. Second, I will look at William Alston's case for the same thing. Finally, I will sketch Piper's cumulative-case argument.

1. Wykstra's CORNEA
One of the nice things about Piper's paper (nice alliteration there) is that it complements the Hasker paper I previously covered. Whereas Hasker focused his attention on Michael Bergmann's version of skeptical theism, Piper focuses his attention on Wysktra and Alston's versions. Thus, by covering both papers we get a decent overview of the varieties of skeptical theism that are out there.

Before getting to Wykstra's position, a quick recap is in order. As you no doubt recall, Rowe's argument rests on an inference from apparent cases of gratuitous evil to actual cases of gratuitous evil. That is, it takes an instance of evil or suffering that seems, to us, not to be logically necessary for the existence of some greater good and infers that it is highly unlikely that a logically necessary greater good exists. Skeptical theism (ST) responds by saying we have no grounds for making that inference.

Wykstra was, as far as I know, the first person to run the ST-objection and he based it on something he called the COndition of Reasonable Epistemic Access (CORNEA). The idea behind CORNEA is that Rowe's inference from "X seems to be the case" to "X actually is the case" is only permissible when X has "reasonable seeability".

For example, it is reasonable for me to say that there are no dogs in my room because a dog is the kind of thing I would expect to see if it were in the room. By way of contrast, it is less reasonable for me to say that there are no bacteria on my desk just because I can't see them since bacteria are not visible to the naked eye.

Applying this to problem of evil, Wykstra employs the parent-child analogy. An infant child is unlikely to understand (to "see") the greater good that motivates his parents in allowing him to suffer a painful injection for the purpose of vaccination. And we are like infant children when compared to the creator of the universe.

This would seem to undermine the inference in Rowe's argument.

William Alston

2. Alston on Multiple Dimensions of Cognitive Limitation
William Alston's version of skeptical theism makes reference to six different dimensions of cognitive limitation. Combined, these would also undermine the inference in Rowe's argument. They are as follows (they seem slightly repetitious to me):

  • (i) Lack of Data: we know very little regarding such matters as the remote past and future, the afterlife, the ultimate structure of reality etc...
  • (ii) Complexity of subject matter: It is difficult for the human mind to hold together large complexes of fact.
  • (iii) Difficulties with Metaphysical Possibility and Necessity: It is difficult to say what is metaphysically possible given the essential nature of things (something that is also obscure) and this difficult is amplified is we deal with total possible worlds or total systems of natural order.
  • (iv) Ignorance of Possibilities: We don't know whether or not there are possibilities beyond the ones we have thought of.
  • (v) Ignorance of full range of values: We are in a very poor position to know whether there exist unknown goods that would justify God in allowing apparently gratuitous evil if we don;t know the extent to which there are modes of value beyond those of which we are aware.
  • (vi) Limits to our capacity to make well-considered value judgments: We face tremendous difficulties when making comparative evaluations of large complex wholes.

One thing worth noting about these six dimensions is that, with the exception of (v) and (vi), they do not directly concern cognition limitations with respect to moral value. I think that is significant since ST needs its skepticism to be narrowly confined and yet Alston's reasons for skepticism are broad ranging.

Anyway, Alston thinks that the many dimensions to our cognitive limitations help to undermine Rowe's argument for two main reasons. First, Rowe needs to show that there are no beyond-our-ken goods which negate his crucial inference. Second, Rowe also needs to show that every theodicy fails. Neither of these seem likely given our cognitive limitations about the nature of moral value and possible worlds.

3. Piper's Argument
Piper is willing to grant Alston and Wykstra their success in defeating Rowe's argument, but he is going to turn the tables on them by arguing that skeptical theism ultimately undermines theism. The idea is that by endorsing ST, religious believers lose their epistemic license to certain core doctrinal commitments.

Specifically, Piper thinks that ST has three unwelcome consequences:

  • (P1) ST makes confident knowledge of the correctness of our own conception of goodness, and confident knowledge of God's actual moral will, at a minimum highly questionable and at the most virtually impossible.
  • (P2) ST threatens a great deal of theological knowledge.
  • (P3) The epistemic limitations at the heart of ST can be consistently used in reverse. That is to say, they can be used to deny that apparently good events are evidence of the work of a good God.

Piper believes that his argument applies to both expanded and restricted forms of theism. The terminology might be unfamiliar but it is taken from an article by William Rowe. Rowe defines God in the standard tri-omni fashion. He then suggests that restricted forms of theism are only committed to the existence of a tri-omni being, whereas expanded forms are committed to specific doctrinal extensions, e.g. the Christian God.

In the next part we will take a look at Piper's argument in favour of P1.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 4) - The Incoherence of ST

This post is part of my series The End of Skeptical Theism? For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through William Hasker's paper "All too Skeptical Theism", which is a critique of Michael Bergmann's brand of skeptical theism. As with all entries in this series, this post on the evidential problem of evil serves as an essential reference point.

We have previously discussed Bergmann's four skeptical theses (ST1-ST4) and seen how they give rise to a fairly extreme form of moral skepticism. In this post, we will wrap up the discussion of Hasker's paper by looking at a potential contradiction or blindspot in Bergmann's thinking.

1. How is moral Reasoning Possible?
The question is a straightforward one: how, given Bergmann's skeptical theses, is it possible to engage in any species of moral reasoning that results in the issuance of a moral judgment? Bergmann thinks he can answer this question; Hasker thinks the answer contradicts his advocacy of skeptical theism.

Bergmann begins by noting that skeptical theism is largely a doctrine about moral consequences. It states that just because something appears to be a prima facie evil, does not imply that it is not logically connected to some morally superior set of consequences. Bergmann goes on to note that moral reasoning need not be strictly consequentialist in form: we could have duties that constrain our actions irrespective of their consequences. Nevertheless, he accepts that consideration of consequences is an important part of moral decision-making.

This leads him to make the following proposal:
What is relevant are the likely consequences we have some reason to be confident about after a reasonable amount of time and effort aimed at identifying the expected results of our behaviour. If after such consideration, a particular action seems clearly too maximise the good (or minimise the bad) among the consequences we're able to identify [and no consequence-independent duties apply] ... then that action is the morally appropriate one for us to perform.

2. Hasker's Response
Hasker thinks that Bergmann's proposal is certainly admirable, but that it can't be consistently espoused by a skeptical theist who is cut from the Bergmannian cloth.

Recall from the previous entry how ST1-ST4 demand that we be completely unable to assign any degree of probability to something which is alleged to be an all-things-considered good or evil. For example, they would imply that we have no way of knowing whether the murder and rape of a five-year-old girl is an all-things-considered evil. It's not just that we think there is a high probability of an outweighing good, it is that such probabilities are inscrutable. Bergmann needs this extreme variety of skepticism if he is going to undercut the evidential problem of evil.

But then it becomes truly perplexing as to why Bergmann thinks we should consider the foreseeable consequences of our actions when making moral decisions. On his own theory, there is no reason to think that the apparent goodness or badness of those consequences bears any relation to the actual goodness or badness of the action and its consequences. This relationship is, by his own lights, completely unknowable.

For Hasker, this reveals the crucial incoherence in Bergmann's position: he gives central role, in his moral decision-making, to a procedure that is morally insignificant. Ultimately, any actions chosen by the skeptical theist amount to little more than an arbitrary preference.

They are like John Cleese's black knight in Monty Python's the Holy Grail: still trying to fight the fight despite the fact that they've lost the means to do so.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 3) - Extreme Moral Skepticism

This post is part of my series The End of Skeptical Theism? For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through William Hasker's article "All too Skeptical Theism?" which is a critique of Michael Bergmann's preferred brand of skeptical theism. As with all the entries in this series, it is worth referring back to this post on the evidential problem of evil to get a feel for what is a stake in this debate.

In the previous entry, we looked at Bergmann's four skeptical theses (ST1-ST4). Combined, they help Bergmann to undercut the crucial inference in the evidential problem of evil, but they do so at a price. We have already looked at two initial worries. In this entry we will focus on the moral skepticism that is engendered by Bergmann's theses.

1. Farewell to the Design Argument
To say that skeptical theism seriously undermines our moral judgment is nothing new. I have even covered such arguments in the past. However, Hasker takes a strong line on this issue that begins by pointing out an interesting concession made by Bergmann.

Bergmann notes that his skeptical theses (ST1-ST4) crucially undermine any arguments for the existence of God that are based on the identification of an all-things-considered good. He says:*
If the order one sees in the natural world or the joy one witnesses in people's lives is identified as reason to think that there is a good being who is the cause of such things, one is failing to take into account the lessons of ST1-ST4. Given our cognitive limitations, we simply don't know what evils may be entailed by those good things and this prevents us from being able to conclude that they are all-things-considered goods that an omnibenevolent being would bring about.
It is worth pausing to reflect on how sweeping this kind of value skepticism really is. Consider, if one accepts Bergmann's ST1-ST4:

  • One cannot accept any design-based argument for the existence of God, be it in terms of biological design or cosmological fine-tuning. Both of those arguments are based on the idea that there are certain states of affairs (e.g. the existence of conscious, rational beings) that are good and that God would wish to realise.
  • One cannot accept some types of experience-based arguments that are based on inferring God's goodness from one's experience of nature.
  • One must withhold judgment about whether a state of affairs that is a prima facie good/evil is an actual good/evil.

This, Hasker suggests, is a truly extreme variety of moral skepticism.

You can ask: is the skeptical theist really committed to such an extreme position? Hasker argues that they are and that this can be seen when we consider Bergmann's response to a criticism that was first made by Richard Swinburne.

2. Swinburne's Criticism
Swinburne asks us to imagine a case of prima facie gratuitous evil such as the previously-given example of a five-year old girl who was raped and killed by her mother's boyfriend. He takes it that when presented with such an example we would assign a high subjective probability to it being an actual gratuitous evil. This would make the evidential problem of evil a genuine doxastic threat.

Then, along comes a skeptical theist waving around ST1-ST4 and telling us not to be so quick with our talk of doxastic threats. After all:

  • (1) We may fail to recognise the existence of some good state of affairs that is made possible, or some evil that is averted, because this instance of evil is not prevented.
  • (2) We may fail to grasp the logical connection between this particular evil and some good that is made possible, or some evil that is averted, as a result of its not being prevented.
  • (3) We may fail to evaluate properly the moral significance of this evil state of affairs, or of the good that is made possible, or of the evil that is averted, by its not being prevented.

These would reduce our subjective probability assignment and reduce the doxastic threat posed by the evidential problem of evil.

That's fine, but Swinburne points out that ST1-ST4 could easily be employed to make the opposite argument. As follows:

  • (4) We may fail to recognise the existence of some additional evil state of affairs that is made possible, or some good that is prevented, by this instance of evil.
  • (5) We may fail to grasp the logical connection between this particular evil and some additional evil that is made possible, or some good that is prevented, as a result of its not being prevented.
  • (6) We may fail to evaluate properly the moral significance of this evil state of affairs, or of the further evil that is made possible, or the good that is prevented, by its not being prevented.

These would cause us to increase our subjective probability assignment, thus making the evidential problem even more of a problem.

3. Bergmann's Response
Bergmann responds by pointing out that Swinburne has misunderstood the skeptical argument. It is not that skeptical theism causes us to lower our probability assignments when confronted with prima facie evils; it is that skeptical theism entirely discredits any such probability assignments.

Hasker thinks this is right insofar as it goes. If Bergmann wants to undermine the evidential problem of evil, then he really does need to entirely discredit any assessments we would be inclined to make about prima facie evils.

To see this, imagine that ST1-ST4 only caused us to lower the probability that we assign to a prima facie evil by 80% (0.8) and to increase our confidence in the existence of some logically necessary outweighing good by the correlative amount. This would not be sufficient to undermine the evidential problem for there are vastly many instances of prima facie evil and, given enough of them, the probability that each and every one is outweighed by some greater good becomes vanishingly small.

This argument underscores the importance of two things. First, it shows how, when discussing the evidential problem, it is important not to get bogged down by one or two specific examples (e.g. E1 and E2) and to remember the vastly many instances of prima facie evil that do arise (E1...En).

Second, it shows that Bergmann's brand of skeptical theism is probably the best bet if one wishes to undermine the evidential problem of evil. But this forces us to accept that Bergmann has provided an undercutting defeater for any belief that we may have about something being an all-things-considered good or evil.

So this really is an extreme form of moral skepticism.

That's it for this post. In the next part we will consider whether Bergmann's skepticism is ultimately incoherent.

* From Bergmann, M. "Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil" in Thomas and Rea (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2009) p. 389

Monday, September 6, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 2) - Bergmann's Skeptical Theses

This post is part of my series The End of Skeptical Theism? For an index, see here.

In this post I will begin to work my way through the following article:
Hasker's article is a critique of the brand of skeptical theism endorsed by Michael Bergmann. It is worth bearing in mind that although there are other varieties of skeptical theism, Hasker offers an interesting observation in the middle of his article as to why Bergmann's variety is, paradoxically, the most acceptable.

As with all the entries in this series, I recommend reading this post on the evidential problem of evil first since most of the discussion and debate revolves around this problem.

Google images tells me that this is Michael Bergmann

1. Bergmann's Skeptical Theses
As with all skeptical theists, Bergmann objects to the inference from apparently gratuitous evil to actual gratuitous evil in Rowe's evidential problem of evil. Bergmann does so on the seemingly reasonable supposition that God, if he existed, would have a mind that is far greater than our minds, and so it wouldn't be surprising if he had reasons for permitting evil and suffering that we weren't able to think of.

This leads him to formulate four skeptical theses about our knowledge of moral value, goods and evils, and their relationships to one another:

  • (ST1) We have no good reason for thinking that the possible goods we know of are representative of the possible goods there are.
  • (ST2) We have no good reason for thinking that the possible evils we know of are representative of the possible evils there are.
  • (ST3) We have no good reason for thinking that the entailment relations we know of between possible goods and the permission of possible evils are representative of the entailment relations there are between possible goods and the permission of possible evils.
  • (ST4) We have no good reason for thinking that the total moral value or disvalue we perceive in certain complex states of affairs accurately reflects the total moral value or disvalue they really have.

ST1-ST3 constitute the core of the skeptical theist's case; ST4 is simply an additional consideration that supports the lesson of ST3.

Taken together, ST1-ST3 completely undercut Rowe's evidential problem of evil: they prevent us from drawing any conclusions about whether God has reasons for allowing great suffering, even if those conclusions are only defeasible or probabilistic in form.

Hasker thinks that Bergmann's theses have several unacceptable consequences. In the remainder of this entry we will look at two initial worries.

2. Good and Evil to Whom?
ST1-ST3 tell us that the goods, evils and entailment relations with which we are familiar are not representative of all possible goods, evils and entailment relations. Bergmann himself says that this means representative relative to "the property of figuring in a (potentially) God-justifying reason for permitting the inscrutable evils we see around us". In other words, Bergmann is arguing that the goods and evils that concern us in our mundane lives need not be representative of the goods and evils that concern God when he is crafting his divine plan.

A question arises: for whom are the goods and evils identified in ST1 & ST2 supposed to be a benefit or harm? If it is to God and, say, his angels, then it might be plausible to say that we know nothing of them. But if the benefit or harm is supposed to accrue to human beings then it would seem highly implausible to suggest that we know nothing about them.

Consider, even if we accept a typical religious claim that mystical or spiritual union with (or appreciation of) God is the ultimate good, it would seem odd to suggest this is something which is completely unknown in all of human history. True, it may be rarely or imperfectly achieved in human life, but surely it is something that many Christians feel they have some inkling of. 

By suggesting our experiences of good and evil need not be representative, Bergmann seems to be undermining the contents of the religious worldview it is his purpose to defend.

3. Anti-Induction
The other initial worry with ST1-ST3 is their strongly anti-inductive character. The ability to make inductive generalisations is essential to human life, without it we could not function. It's certainly true that inductive generalisations can be false and that we must learn to be more discriminating and careful when doing so. But ST1-ST3 go further than just urging caution: they actively forbid any such generalisations.

To be fair, the ST-prohibition is designed to only cover generalisations about moral value. Bergmann himself argues that generalisations can be acceptable whenever we can make a fairly complete survey of the reference class in question, (the example of "there are no blue crows in Indiana" is given). It's just that we can't make a complete survey in the case of moral value.

Hasker argues that this is unacceptable: we must be able to confer some degree of warrant on generalisations even when a complete survey is unavailable. Take the generalisation "men are mortal". We have not surveyed the entire reference class of men who have or will come into being, so we don't know for sure if this is true, but we can surely assign a proportional degree of warrant to the claim.

Hidden in a footnote, Hasker offers the following humorous application of Bergmannian skepticism (I've altered it a bit):
  • The early Christians reasoned that Jesus's resurrection from the dead demonstrated that God was with him and approved of his mission and message.
  • (STvi) We have no reason for thinking that the natural causal processes we know of are representative of the natural causal processes there are (since we haven't surveyed the entire reference class).
  • So we cannot infer that the resurrection has any theological significance.
Surely a reductio, no?

That's it for now. In the next post we will take a look at some further problems with Bergmann's skeptical theism.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 1) - Rowe's Evidential Argument

This post is part of my series The End of Skeptical Theism?. For an index and introduction, see here.

The primary reference point for all discussions of skeptical theism is the evidential problem of evil. I've discussed this before, but I want to do so in more detail now because it is essential to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the argument before assessing skeptical theism. After all, skeptical theism was originally introduced to cope with the evidential problem of evil.

Three things will be discussed in the remainder of this post. First, I will look at two versions of the evidential problem, both from William Rowe. Second, I will point out the great strength of Rowe's argument, namely that it sets the bar exceptionally high for any potential theodicy. And third, I will point out the aspect of the argument that is challenged by skeptical theists.

Although this post is reasonably detailed, it is obviously not an exhaustive treatment of the topic. For that, I would highly recommend this article by Nick Trakakis.

A Dead Fawn, E1 of Rowe's 1988 argument

1. Two Versions of Rowe's Argument
Probably the most famous presentation of the evidential problem of evil comes from William Rowe's 1979 article. Rowe focuses on evil in the form of intense human and animal suffering, and then gives us the following argument:

  • (1) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (Call this the "Factual" or "Evidential" premise)
  • (2) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse (Call this the "Theological" premise).
  • (3) Therefore, (probably) there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

The argument is evidential, as opposed to logical, in that it does not pin all its hopes on the logical incompatibility of God and any amount of evil (however slight). Instead, its hopes are pinned on the volume, intensity and apparent pointlessness of the evil we observe.

In 1988, Rowe presented a slightly different version of the argument which went as follows:

  • (P) No good we know of justifies an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being in permitting E1 and E2.
  • (Q) No good at all justifies an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being in permitting E1 and E2.
  • (not-G) There (probably) is no omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being.

In this case E1 stands for the suffering and death of a fawn trapped in a forest fire; and E2 is an actual case involving the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl. Rowe focuses on these because they are striking instances of both moral and natural evil.

I think a truly effective presentation of the argument will have many examples to draw upon (E1....En) and won't get bogged down in just two instances of evil. Hasker emphasises this point in his criticism of skeptical theism, which we'll get to in due course.

Anyway, the two versions of the argument are mapped out below.

As you can see they are slightly different in terms of their logical structure. These differences are important when trying to work out the strengths and weaknesses of the argument.

2. Setting the Bar High
The great strength of the argument is obvious when you consider the theological premise in the 1979 version. Effectively, this premise states that suffering (or evil more generally) is only permissible if outweighed or defeated by some greater good. But given the type of being God is supposed to be, this can only be the case when the following condition is met:

  • The existence of the original evil was logically necessary for the greater good to obtain. The "logically necessary"-condition is warranted because God is an omnipotent being who has the power to do everything that it is logically possible to do.

This would seem to rule out any argument suggesting that the evil is defeated by the mere fact that it caused or brought about some good consequences. This is because presumably, given his omnipotence and the fact that he can exert his power in a basic manner, God could (logically) have achieved those consequences without the intervening evil.

It is only right to point out that this has an obvious corollary: a good state of affairs is not necessarily defeated just because it has evil consequences. Those consequences might have been logically necessary for bringing about the good.

As can be seen, the theological premise sets the bar exceptionally high for defeating the evidential argument. The theist has four options when responding.

  1. They can try to identify the logically necessary greater good that God is trying to bring about. This involves the construction of a theodicy. 
  2. They can concede the force of the argument but argue that since its conclusion is probabilistic (it is "evidential" after all) there are other considerations that tip the balance in favour of the existence of God. 
  3. They could argue that their understanding of God does not commit them to accepting the tri-omni properties suggested by Rowe. 
  4. They can take the skeptical theist route. This route switches the focus from the theological premise to the factual or evidential premise, and to the questionable inference that seems to underlie Rowe's argument.

3. The Questionable Inference
The questionable inference is clearly identified in the diagram depicting the 1988 version of Rowe's argument. It is also implicitly propping-up premise 1 of the 1979 version. The problem is that Rowe jumps from observed instances of intense suffering, for which we cannot locate a logically necessary reason, to the fact that no such reason exists. 

This inference -- from potentially gratuitous evil to actually gratuitous evil -- can be supported by something I am going to call "the principle of warranted induction". According to this principle, we are warranted (within our epistemic rights) when we make generalisations from our own understanding and experiences. This principle is obviously not absolute since all inductive generalisations are open to defeat. Nonetheless, accepting it as a defeasible rule seems reasonable and allows us to make the following argument in support of P1 from the 1979 argument:

  • (i) There is an enormous variety and profusion of intense human and animal suffering in the world.
  • (ii) Much of this suffering seems logically unrelated to any outweighing greater good. In other words, we can't see why it is logically necessary for some greater good.
  • (iii) If it seems to be case, it probably is the case (Principle of warranted induction).
  • (iv) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

(iv) is identical to P1 from 1979.

The essence of skeptical theism is the rejection of this argument. Its proponents maintain that we are not warranted in making the generalisation from what appears to be the case to what actually is the case. 

Ideally, they want this skepticism to only affect our ability to make moral judgments about God. They do not want it to expand into their day-to-day moral judgments, their understanding of the natural world, their reading of scripture and their knowledge of their own religious experiences. Critics argue that their skepticism cannot be confined in this manner.

We'll see why the critics think this in the remainder of the series.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Index)

I've always admired the story of Doubting Thomas. Scepticism is a good thing, isn't it?

Skeptical theism, as many of you will know, is a highly influential and popular response to the problem of evil (and, perhaps, to some other problems with theistic belief). Essentially, it maintains that because God is "wholly other" we should not expect to understand why he created the universe as it is or why, if he intervenes in human history, he intervenes in the way in which he does.

A more precise conceptualisation of skeptical theism is difficult since its proponents vary in their characterisation of both the extent of, and the reasons for, the skepticism.

Criticisms of skeptical theism tend to argue that the skepticism being endorsed has an unwelcome tendency to spread, like a cancer, into other parts of our epistemic infrastructure. I have already covered some of these criticisms. For example, Steve Maitzen's argument that skeptical theism undermines our moral obligations and Erik Wielenberg's argument that it undercuts our knowledge of scripture.

Over the course of September, I will be looking at three more articles criticising skeptical theism. The first, by William Hasker, is a particularly sharp criticism of Michael Bergmann's brand of skeptical theism. The second, by Mark Piper, presents a cumulative-case argument against several varieties of skeptical theism. And the third, which is actually an amalgam of two articles, will look at the implications of skeptical theism for Alvin Plantinga's religious epistemology. I will provide details on the source material in the individual entries.

Collectively, I think these articles present some pretty compelling reasons for rejecting skeptical theism.

This post will serve as an index for the series.


1. Introduction

2. "All too Skeptical Theism" by William Hasker

3. "Why Theists Cannot Accept Skeptical Theism" by Mark Piper

4. Skeptical Theism and Warranted Christian Belief

5. Conclusion