Moderate Deontology and the Problem of Evil

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[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

I've often heard the charge that theists have a harder time responding to the problem of evil if they hold to a deontological ethical view. Deontology recognizes duties that can't easily be overridden by consequences the way consequentialism allows. Consequentialists say the right thing to do is to do whatever leads to the best consequences. If God does this, then God can do things that lead to bad consequences as long as the good consequences that also happen are better enough to outweigh the bad. So it's easier to deal with the problem of evil if all it takes to justify God's allowance of evil is that it leads to a slightly better outcome overall, even if it's worse with respect to the evil itself. Deontologists, on the other hand, might just say that the duty not to harm or not even to allow harm can't so easily be outweighed by the overall good. Some things are just wrong, and God shouldn't therefore do them. Allowing very great evils seems to be a pretty good candidate for that category of action. It's thus harder to respond to the problem of evil with a deontological view than it is with a consequentialist view.

I used to be a little disturbed at this problem, wondering whether a "higher goods" type of defense that I favor requires a consequentialist view, a view I'm not otherwise attracted to. But it's occurred to me recently that the problem assumes a kind of deontology that I don't agree with. It assumes the absolutism of Immanuel Kant's deontology, not a more moderated kind of deontology such as that of W.D. Ross, which I favor. On Ross's view, we have prima facie duties, none of which are absolute the way duties for Kant are. Duties can often conflict for Ross, and when they conflict only one will turn out to be an actual duty, whichever one is morally more important. In a case of lying to save a life, the life is more important than the normal duty not to lie, but in a case of lying to protect your reputation it's still going to be wrong to lie, even if the consequences are better from lying. So this is not consequentialism, but it's not absolutism either.

Now apply this to the problem of evil. There will be potential cases when God would not do something wrong, because even though the consequences are better it would be wrong to do it. But it leaves open that some goods are so important that God might allow pretty serious harm in order to achieve them. This means that the moderate deontologist can have consequence-based responses to the problem of evil that an absolutist deontologist can't have. This may have been all I was worried about losing by adopting a deontological ethical view, even if consequentialists might have yet more to say to defend a divinity from being immoral for allowing evil.

I should add one footnote. Some deontological views don't recognize any moral value in consequences at all. Kant's own view in fact treats consequences as morally irrelevant, at least in cases where I have a duty not to do something. (He accepts a duty of benevolence and duties to ourselves, both of which are influenced by consequences, but these aren't absolutist duties, and absolutist duties like the prohibition on lying or suicide will always outweigh the consequence-based duties.) If consequences are irrelevant, and there are certain things God ought to do no matter the consequences, then the theist may actually be on even better footing than consequentialism would provide. After all, the problem only arises because it is claimed that God, on the traditional theistic conception, would be immoral for allowing all this evil in the world. But if consequences are morally irrelevant, the problem never arises. So I wonder if the absolutist deontologist might have some defense. I think such a defense would need to list what duties God has that, in carrying them out, would lead to all this morally irrelevant evil. Since I find the idea of morally irrelevant evil to be nonsense, I don't favor this. But it does seem to be a kind of absolutist deontological view that at least has theoretical space to avoid the problem raised about deontology and the problem of evil.


Good post, and I think your balance of consequence based Deontology definitively hits well. Could you perhaps post on that specific subject some more? I find it really interesting, and though I have mostly settled on semi-virtue ethics, I used to struggle alot with the idea of Deontology and consequencialism, and they idea you are presenting here I think finds that perfect balance.

I've actually written about it lots of times before, usually as applied to different issues. I'll put some links at the bottom of this comment.

I wouldn't see virtue ethics as contrary to this. This issue is about what makes actions right or wrong. Virtue ethics is about what sort of character is best to have. If virtue ethics is the proper foundation, then what it means to be a good person is the basis for what it means for acts to be right and wrong, but you still have to say something about right and wrong acts. It's just not the foundation of ethics. Similarly, if act-based ethics is right, then these issues are foundational, and what it means to be a good person is dependent on which acts we should and shouldn't do. Finally, there's space for views (and this hasn't been well-explored, as far as I know) that take neither good acts nor good virtues to be the basis of the other but independent questions, or perhaps both based on some third foundation.

So there's no reason to see this sort of view as mutually exclusive from a strongly virtue-emphasizing view. It's just that most virtue ethics people have a pretty jaundiced notion of rightness and wrongness of actions. You don't need that to have character as a significant component of your ethical theory.

Previous posts discussing this sort of view:
Ethics of Torture
The Morality of Slavery series
Moderate Deontology: Voting for Giuliani
Moderate Deontology: Against Ron Paul
Torture: Some Moral Issues
Torture: Some Linguistic Issues

I take a view like the last one: I think that it is simply a moral good for God to create beings with meaningful freedom, and the consequences of such a creation are not relevant to the moral goodness of God's act.

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