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The Nonconsequentialist Argument from Evil


Stringent non-consequentialist constraints on permitting horrendous evils pose a formidable challenge to the project of theodicy by limiting the ways in which it is permissible for God to do or allow evil for the sake of bringing about a greater good. I formulate a general and potent argument against all greater-good theodicies (which includes most theodicies) from the existence of robust side constraints on permitting evil. Then I contend that the argument fails. I begin by distinguishing between side constraints on doing evil and side constraints on allowing evil, and then I draw on the work of David Lewis and Fiona Woollard to argue that, because of the unique ways that God is related to the world, it is plausible that God can both create and sustain our universe, despite all of its evils, without violating any of these constraints.

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  1. The term “side constraint” is Nozick’s (1974: 28ff). Side constraints also go by the names “agent-relative restrictions” and “agent-centered restrictions.”

  2. Including Gellman (1992, (2017); McNaughton, (1995, (2002); Dougherty, (2008); Mooney (2017); Sterba (2019a, b).

  3. I use “horrors” and “horrendous evils” in the technical sense introduced by Adams (1999a).

  4. I borrow the term “moral horror” from Robert Adams (1999b, ch. 4).

  5. This thought seems to be at the heart of the dialogue in which Dostoevsky’s character Ivan recounts The Dostoevsky Case and a series of similar evils (Dostoevsky, 2009: 308).

  6. For a narratival defense of this view, see Howard-Snyder (2019).

  7. And some philosophers endorse side constraints on permitting evil without claiming that these constraints threaten theism or familiar theodicies, e.g., Stump (2010: 378ff & 392ff). Adams (1999a, b) argues that giving each of us a life that is good on the whole and defeating any horrendous evils within it is a constraint on divine goodness. One might think (though Adams does not) that this constraint also limits what it is permissible for God to do. In that case, it would be a side constraint on permitting horrendous evils.

  8. Thanks to Zach McCarty for this suggestion.

  9. Mooney (2017: n. 6) attributes this point to a referee.

  10. Reitan (2014) makes a somewhat more general version of this point.

  11. A point made by Sterba (2019a, b). However, Stump’s (2010) theodicy claims that suffering is sometimes the best way for God to ward off what Stump takes to be the worst condition for a human being, namely, “willed loneliness” - roughly, the condition of being voluntarily alienated from all other people. And Bergmann (2009 & 2012), drawing on his preferred brand of skeptical theism, seems to think that God’s preventing any given horrendous evil that has occurred might, for all we know, entail an unknown worse evil.

  12. Versions of this view are defended by, e.g., Adams (1999a) and McCann, (2012). Cf. Murphy (2021: ch. 5).

  13. Other attempts to show that the theodicist can respect side constraints on permitting evil include McKenzie (1984), Swinburne (1995 & 1998: ch. 12), and Vitale (2020).

  14. See Ross (1930).

  15. For example, does it matter whether an agent can predict sensitive causal chains? By Lewis’s lights, “If a [causal] chain is insensitive enough that you can predict it, then it is insensitive enough that you can kill by it” (ibid.: 187). This seems right in some cases, but suppose God gives me a detailed vision of what will happen if I introduce my two friends in The Sally Case: I see that they will go on to have a child named Sally, who will live for an ordinary span of time and then die of natural causes in her old age. Even with this knowledge, if I choose to introduce my friends, I do not thereby kill Sally. My intuitions about The Creation Button Case and the Cosmic Fat Man Case are similar. Lewis’s account leaves us with no explanation of why predictability matters in some cases and not others.

  16. Thanks to Dustin Crummett for this point.

  17. A referee suggests that the reason the continuing operation of the laws is a non-substantial fact is that we have no control over them, and if that is so, then they are substantial for God, who does have control over them. But this suggestion does not explain why it seems (to me, anyway) that I am merely allowing rather than doing evil in the Conservation Button Case, for in that case I do have control over whether the laws of nature continue to operate, since I could stop holding down the conservation button.

  18. However, after laying out some examples of agents causing evil via an improperly mediated causal connection, Woollard also observes that “Many people would … hesitate to say that I have done harm” in those cases (Woollard, 2015: 17).

  19. Some philosophers, such as Singer (1972), Kagan (1989), and Unger (1996), think that our positive duties are much more demanding than Woollard and others contend. Although these arguments should be taken seriously, in this essay I am simply going to set them aside. After all, I am only aiming here to sketch a plausible hypothesis, not to show that the hypothesis in question is true.

  20. For our bodies to belong to us is not for them to be owned by us. Woollard explains that belonging involves certain first-order entitlements over an object, while owning involves both the first-order entitlements and second-order entitlements to sell, give away, etc., the first-order entitlements. So an apartment only belongs to, and is not owned by, a renter, and a person’s body only belongs to, and is not owned by, that person.

  21. My proposal is also indebted to, though distinct from, the main thrust of Rea (2018: ch. 5), and comments he made in the Q&A following the Gifford Lecture that chapter is based on. In that same lecture, Rea noted the similarity of his view to Murphy (2017). My view is likewise similar in certain ways to Murphy’s. But the specific rationale that I suggest for the limitations on God’s positive duties, modeled on Woollard’s view about our positive duties, is original.

  22. In the words of the psalmist, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

  23. Cf. Swinburne’s (1995 & 1998: ch. 12) discussion of the rights of caregivers with application to the problem of evil.

  24. This rough characterization of a miracle is based on McGrew & McGrew (2009).

  25. Cf. Darwall’s comments (1977: 46) on degrees of significance or weight involved in recognition respect.

  26. A view defended, e.g., by Leftow (2012).

  27. A referee wonders if our bodies, as part of the world, can belong to both us and God. It’s plausible that they can. Many things belong to more than one individual. In fact, (keeping in mind that belonging to x is not the same as being owned by x), it might be the case that a child’s body belongs both to the child and to her parents.

  28. Thanks to a reader for this way of framing the objection.

  29. Indeed, as a referee notes, divine supererogation remains an underexplored issue at present. The referee also raises a worry about the greater-good response: since proponents of the non-consequentialist argument from evil think it is sometimes impermissible to bring about greater goods, they might also deny that it is morally better to do so even in (some?) cases where it is permissible. Fair enough. But everyone, including proponents of the non-consequentialist argument from evil, should allow that there are cases where it is morally better to bring about a greater good at the cost of evil - e.g., Swinburne’s (1995 & 1999: ch. 12) examples of caretakers who justifiably impose hardships on those in their care. So the strategy I have suggested here is not out of the question.

  30. My thanks to Dustin Crummett, Dan Dake, David Turon, participants in Kevin Vallier’s workshop for younger scholars, and the audience at the 2021 Virginia Commonwealth University philosophy of religion workshop for comments on this paper or an ancestor of this paper.


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Mooney, J. The Nonconsequentialist Argument from Evil. Philos Stud (2022).

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  • Problem of evil
  • Theodicy
  • Consequentialism
  • Side constraints
  • Doing and allowing