Thursday, April 19, 2012

God, Good, and Consequentialism

A while ago, I responded to someone with leanings towards open theism on an incongruency in the way in which certain Christians judge creaturely choices to be good [or sinful] as compared to how they judge God's choices to be good. Here is the argument:

I think when we employ a greater good theodicy (GGT), we are getting into some dangerous territory. Like when we use the moral argument, we want to say that the realm of objective facts is just as real as the natural realm. Certain things we just know are wrong. But then when it comes to the problem of evil, we say that things are happening for the greater good, and we can’t know if something is wrong. So we want to say we epistemically know right when it comes to other creatures, but when something bad happens we say God did or allowed it for a greater good and we can’t realize what that greater good is. Do you see what I’m driving at?

The GGT also seems to suggest that evil is necessary to the plan of God, as well as it commits seems to commit God to consequentialism, where the ends justify the means in determining what is right. And plus, say when we are poor for instance, why seek to get a better education or a better job when maybe God wills for us to be poor so that some greater good can come out of it? Or why should we help the poor if God is really working this or the greater good? For these reasons I think the GGT is inadequate and can for some people even be very damaging emotionally. (link)

I've addressed this implicitly in a view posts but never have directly responded to it. Here, I note:
God's praiseworthiness is measured on the same grounds as is ours, viz. by whether or not God's actions are to the purpose of the maximal manifestation His glory.
That is, the “greater good” so often alluded to in these conversations is usually agreed to be God’s glory (Romans 11:36).There is a bit of a disanalogy, however, in comparing God's choices to our own, as the above person says, i.e. God is committed to consequentialism. This point is well-taken in one sense but a bit imprecise. For instance, while I think God plans all things – evil included – for His glory, I do not think God Himself commits evil in the process. I would bite the proverbial bullet and claim that evil is indeed necessary to the plan of God, but I don’t see a problem in admitting this unless it is argued that this implies God does evil. Ends don't justify means.

I think the matter hinges on what it means to sin or do good. I would say that to sin is, at root, to scorn God’s glory whereas to do good is, at root, to intend to manifest God’s glory, which implies knowledge of how to do so. We know how to do so because God tells it to us; that is, the way in which we can tell whether man or God does good is by judging the choices of each in relation to whether or not they intend to and do manifest God’s glory. How can we discern this?

On God’s side of matters, the answer is simple. He does good because all that He does, even His inclusion of creaturely evil into His plan, is for the purpose of the manifestation of His glory. Any answer to “why” God planned something is, ultimately, that such manifests His glory. How evil can function towards this end is a matter of debate but a distinct issue.

On our side of matters, God has revealed that we should do all to His glory. How do we do that? Obedience to God’s commandments in faith (1 Corinthians 10:23-33, cf. Romans 14:13-23). Disobedience to God’s law (sin; 1 John 3:4), then, must be the scorning of God’s glory. And this makes sense, since disobedience to God is equivalent to a rejection of God’s authority.

So to take the example, say, of not providing for the poor when it is within our ability to do so, the response would be this: our choices can simultaneously be a creaturely disregard for God’s glory which nevertheless has been planned by God such that His glory will be manifested (e.g. Genesis 50:20). Whatever will happen – good or evil – has been planned by God for His glory; God is good. We may not have comprehensive knowledge of God’s plan, but then again, we don’t need to in order to know that we are responsible for the way in which our choices relate to God’s glory. Or as I put it here:
The chief end of man is to glorify God by following His commandments (1 John 5:3). As a matter of fact, the chief end of God is to glorify Himself in all that He does (Romans 9:22-23, Ephesians 3:10)
Or here:
The question “is everything as it ought to be?” lacks specificity. “Ought” implies responsibility, and while it may be jumping the gun to talk about what responsibility presupposes, all Christians should at least agree that it presupposes one to whom one is responsible. Men are responsible to God. God is responsible to Himself (Hebrews 6:13). If the question, then, is “is sinful man as he ought to be with respect to the laws of His sovereign?” the answer is unequivocally “no.” On the other hand, if the question is “ought God to have effected this reality?” the answer is “yes,” as Mr. Bryson can contend – but not substantiate, since one can only know counter-factuals via divine revelation – that a counter-factual world would more greatly manifest God’s glory.
This last sentence refers to the primary difference between God's choices and ours, or more precisely, God's intentions and ours. What the person at the top of this post did not take into consideration is that while it is within God's capacity as omnipotent sovereign to fulfill His intentions, man's intentions can fail to be fulfilled. A precondition of God's failing to manifest His glory, then, would be that God didn't intend to manifest His glory [which isn't a problem since such a situation isn't possible]. This is why it is necessary to highlight the fact that everything God has decreed successfully manifests His glory and why determination of evil (while at the same time not committing evil) can seem like consequentialism.

However, when people talk about consequential ethics, it is usually with the understanding that one cannot determine [what is, from his perspective,] the future. This is fundamentally problematic because it means, among other things, that the moral status of a given action can fluxuate - it's indeterminate. This is not so in the case of a sovereign God who has ordained all things. Furthermore, consequentialism doesn't take into consideration one's intentions. But God doesn't accidentally manifest His glory. That's the teleological end of all things.

So is God a consequentialist? Only in the qualified sense that a condition for God's choices to be labelled good is that they must successfully be to the purpose of the manifestation of His glory. But God isn't a consequentialist in the significant sense that the success of God's intentions is absent, uncertain, or indeterminate.

Parenthetically, men ought not be consequentialists for the same reason. If God has told us how we may manifest His glory, so long as we intend to manifest God's glory by following His commands, we do manifest His glory.

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