Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Stephen Maitzen: Atheism and the Basis of Morality


Prof. Stephen Maitzen wrote an interesting article titled Atheism and the Basis of Morality in which he turns one of the traditional apologetic arguments on its ear.  He argues that the existence of theism's perfect God logically precludes the existence of certain basic moral obligations on our part, such as the obligation to prevent or relieve the suffering by a child when we easily can.  Specifically, he argues that we have that obligation only if no perfect being is allowing the child's suffering to occur, and hence only if no perfect being exists.

The argument goes like this.  According to theism, there exists a supreme being, God, possessing perfect knowledge, power, and goodness.  Having perfect knowledge, he knows whenever a child is suffering, knows how to prevent that suffering, and knows if the suffering is the best way of achieving the child's overall well being.  Having perfect power, God can prevent the child’s suffering.  Having perfect goodness, God can’t do anything morally imperfect.

With these implications in mind, consider what is unfortunately a gross understatement: somewhere in the world, right now, a child is experiencing terrible suffering that the child doesn’t want and doesn’t deserve.  Now suppose  that God, although having the knowledge and power to prevent it, lets the aforementioned child experience terrible suffering not because the child will ultimately benefit from it but for some other reason, or perhaps for no reason at all.  The suffering is intense, the child doesn’t deserve to undergo it, and the child doesn’t volunteer for it (as someone might volunteer for the pain of donating bone marrow).  In allowing the suffering, God exploits the child and thereby acts imperfectly.

Maitzen goes on to explain how exploitation is never right for a perfect being and also deals with various apologetic responses, such as compensation as justification.

The interesting argument is this:  if the suffering is needed, or optimal, for the child’s overall benefit, then how can we morally prevent a child's suffering? If we never have a moral obligation to prevent suffering by children—a consequence implied by the core doctrine of theism—then which moral obligations do we have?  

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