God’s Permission of Suffering: A Response to Eleonore Stump

Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump objects to Peter van Inwagen’s proposed theodicy because under the terms of that theodicy God would inflict or permit some person, S, to undergo some instance of suffering, without their permission, and purely for the benefit of some other person or group of people, Y (call this “involuntary altruistic suffering”). This is an objection I’ve heard from the lips of a few philosophical atheists also.

What are we to make of it? Better still, how do we turn such an observation into an actual objection? Precisely what is wrong with God inflicting or permitting S to undergo involuntary altruistic suffering? (I am assuming here that it is possible for some person to suffer purely for the benefit of someone else. This might be disputed by some who hold that suffering always brings about – or at least has the potential for – benefit to the sufferer, either directly or indirectly. I’m also ignoring the suggestion that S is better off in a world where S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering than in some other possible world).

Stump’s objection is that God would be in breach of a moral principle like:

“It is wrong to allow something bad to happen to X – without X’s permission – In order to secure some benefit for others (and no benefit for X).”

As much as I respect Stump as a philosopher, this principle strikes me as clearly wrong, at least if we hold it as a universal principle. It is all too easy to think of counter-examples. Van Inwagen himself lists a few general types of case where such a moral principle wouldn’t hold, for example:

1. When the agent is in a position of lawful authority over X and the others in the question. For instance, if a citizen returns to his home country from a region where a killer disease has been rampant, aren’t the authorities perfectly entitled to keep him or her in quarantine before being free to mingle with fellow citizens?

2. When the good to be gained by the others is considerably greater than the evil suffered by X.

3. When there is no way to achieve the good for the others except by X suffering (or someone else equal to X).

Imagine I’m a train driver and I’ve just been informed that a man has been tied to the tracks by a psychopathic serial killer. There isn’t time to pull the breaks. I can either run over the man or I could re-direct the train onto an abandoned line that leads off a cliff, killing all the passengers on board. I choose to inflict pain and suffering on the man (and his friends and relatives), without their permission, and purely for the benefit of others. Have I acted wrongly? Clearly not, I should think.

Perhaps, you might protest, although this is a case where there is no explicit permission given, permission could be rationally implied or inferred. How so? Well, arguably whilst the man does not consent to die, he would almost certainly agree with the decision to end his life if he was making the decision as a neutral observer.

This raises a very interesting point. We might say that if the man could objectively weigh the big picture he would consent to the infliction of the suffering. In other words, if the man was to make the decision from behind a “veil of ignorance” – not knowing that the person tied to the tracks is himself – he would almost certainly choose the action the train driver chooses. But if this is so it seems to me that the objection to God acting in a way such that S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering is fatally undermined. It seems that there is little objection to God permitting or causing suffering to S for the good of Y if the suffering is taken on voluntarily, as in the case of Jesus Christ. Moreover, even if S is not in a position to choose to accept the suffering, God – being omniscient – knows that if S were in a position to make such a decision S would accept the suffering that comes his way. In this case too there doesn’t seem to be much that’s objectionable in causing or permitting S to suffer for the benefit of Y. But, what if S is able to make such a decision and would not choose to suffer? Well, again, God knows that such unwillingness is due to ignorance. If S knew all the facts of the situation – and perhaps if S had all the right affections – then S would accept the suffering. Again, I’m not sure there is an objection here. The point is that God sees the big picture, and weighs it perfectly objectively. So, arguably in inflicting suffering on S (or permitting such suffering) He is acting in a way S would agree with if S had the big picture God has.

So, if there is to be an objection that God violates some moral principle or other we require a coherent statement of the principle and a decent argument that it passes the “counter-example” test. I don’t think Stump has achieved that.

Stephen J. Graham


1 Comment

Filed under God, Morality, Problem of Evil

One response to “God’s Permission of Suffering: A Response to Eleonore Stump

  1. I wasn’t able to find any papers written either by Stump or Inwagen themselves, so this response is admittedly not as well-informed as I should like it to be. But isn’t there a difficulty in your train-driver analogy – and particularly a difficulty for you as a theist?

    After all, the train driver is a victim of circumstance. He goes off to work little knowing that before the day is out he will be caught on the horns of a hideous dilemma. This is hardly comparable to God. God chooses the whole set up. He foresees the result of every possible option and goes ahead anyway.

    Even if you try to get round this by saying that there is no logical alternative to creating just such a world (and I’d need a lot of convincing before I could agree with you on that one) the idea of God being trapped between two ghastly alternatives is one that doesn’t seem to me to quite “gel” with the theistic notion of God. But then again, I’m no theist, so maybe you’re quite ok with it.

    I would say that the situation Inwagen’s God is in, is more like the doctor who has the chance to save five lives if he distributes the vital organs of an itinerant who’s just arrived at his hospital amongst a group of needy patients. That’s a classic argument against utilitarianism (and it’s one of the arguments which persuaded me to abandon utilitarianism.)

    As most theists are hugely against utilitarianism themselves, it is odd to find that they often see God as acting on broadly utilitarian principles.

    The principle which Imwagen’s solution seems to me to breach is that of each person being an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end. I think that is a pretty sound principle. Like most moral principles, it is possible to find circumstances in which we would depart from it, because it conflicts with other, even more basic moral principles. Don’t you agree that the principle of each person being an end in themselves is fundamentally sound and that any claimed exceptions should be treated with considerable caution?

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