Responding to the Evil God Challenge

by Max Andrews

Stephen Law has been setting forth his case for the evil God challenge.  It has been a recent topic of discussion in the blogosphere and there have been several articles written about it.  The argument is formulated in a way that mirrors the moral argument for the existence of God.  If objective morality is true then this morality is grounded in God.  Law argues that if objective evil is true then it is grounded in an evil God. (That’s the basic outline of the argument but please see more here).  I haven’t read much of anyone’s responses to the challenge so I apologize if I’m repeating someone.  I’ve been hesitant to participate in this discussion because I hoped it would pass over but here are my thoughts.

The reason why I waited so long to chime in on this discussion was because I didn’t think the argument was a very good argument.  I have two primary contentions for why this is an incoherent argument.  My first is that the argument requires there to be a genuine ontology for evil and my second follows Thomas Aquinas in that everyone always acts according to what they believe is right.

Does Evil Have a Genuine Ontology?

The early church father Augustine considered evil to be the absence of the good just like darkness is the absence of light.  Under this view the good has a genuine ontology.  There are certain metaphysical components to goodness that begs for their grounding, hence the moral argument.  If evil is a negation of the good, or a privation of the good, then there is no need for an ontological grounding or source since it bears no metaphysical components as a negation of the good.  This need not be special pleading since this is analogous to light.  Light has particular properties where the absence of a photon needs no explanation since their isn’t anything to have any properties predicated to.  An appeal to supersymmetry does not suffice since the analogy works as the absence of something or the negation of existence [of the particle].  Thus, the negation or absence of good is evil.  This, of course, does not exclude room for amorality.  A rock is amoral since it bears no moral properties.  Since a rock is not good it does not mean it is then evil.  An agent is the only source or bearer of morality and thus any negation of good action (thought, deed, etc.) by an agent is then evil.

Everyone Acts According to What They Believe is Right

Thomas argued that everyone always does what they believe is right.  This has obvious knee-jerk reactions but let’s seriously consider this.  No one does something because they know it’s wrong.  They may know something is wrong and still do it but they have an overriding belief that they are doing the wrong for the right reason.  For instance, I know it’s wrong to speed 30mph over the speed limit but my violation of this rule is for a greater good or it’s the right thing to do since I’m taking a gunshot victim to the hospital.  Or, I willingly plagiarise or cheat on a test because I believe it’s the right thing to do in order for me to get a good grade.  The Third Reich and Hitler believed that the massive murdering of the Jews and homosexuals was the right thing to do.  The principle stands with whether the action is actually right or wrong but the motivation for any action is always believed to be right.

If this principle is true, how does this look with the evil God?  If this God acts in any way then he would have to always act in an evil way (assuming he can never act in a good way since he would have to be the ontic grounding of all evil).  We would have to assume that the evil God believes it to be the right thing to act in an evil way.  Consider the converse, that the evil God believes it is wrong to act in an evil way.  The latter seems to be incoherent for why would the evil God act in a way he knew was wrong?  The former seems to be right in the sense that the evil God considers it to be good or right to act in an evil way.  But how is this not equally incoherent since it seems to be an actualization of a contradiction?  If the evil God believes acting in evil ways is the right thing for him to do then this evil God has a radical ontology–Occamism at best.  But if this evil God is an Occamist God then what’s to say this same being cannot ground good in himself?  The problem is that any type of actualization of a contradiction and Occamism is incoherent.

EDIT:  I’ve developed this point in more detail in this post: Thomistic Ethics and the Evil God Challenge.

Final Thoughts

I’ve mulled these two principles over and if true I don’t see any coherent reason to believe the evil God challenge is a defeater for the moral argument or the existence of the Anselmian understanding of God.  These stand independent of any ontological argument for an Anselmian God since these principles violate the concept of the evil God (even though the principles are consistent with the Anselmian notion of God).  These principles, of course, have only been briefly outlined and I hope to have more development or discussion of the material when it’s critiqued.  So, please critique my thoughts.


28 Responses to “Responding to the Evil God Challenge”

  1. I think your argument that what everyone does is done because they think it is right is extremely wrong. pleasing yes. but not right. why would someone brutally rape another person? for their own personal satisfaction. it is not about the greater good. it is about their pleasure. when you go over the speed limit, you either do not think its wrong, or you are not wanting to be responsible for your tardiness if you need to be somewhere at a certain time or because you are impatient. i would argue it is not a sin to cheat or plagiarize on a test necessarily. I regards to Hitler, if you look in the Bible you will see there are explicit commands to kill blasphemers and homosexuals through due course of law. maybe Hitler usurped governmental authority, but he was intending to keep these biblical mandates so his primary error was the way he killed them (that being outside of governmental authority).

    when a husband beats up his wife, its not because he wants the best for her. its because he wants whats best for himself. i think maybe you should rethink your concept. murdering someone out of a jealous rage is done for selfishness and not for greater goods.

    i would say Law’s premise is unfounded in that the argument is not that goodness is grounded in God, but objective morality is grounded in God. in other words, both good and evil is ground in God. an evil God however having only evil grounded in it is not an opposite of the God who has both good and evil grounded in Him.

    i would also say everything that is in existence is either moral or immoral. anythng that is amoral is simply under the category of moral. for example: if you have a certain musical preference: this music preference is morally good in my belief. when you like evil music however then that is immoral music.

    • The principle still applies in the rape situation. The rapist rapes because it’s right for him to get pleasure. I’ve edited a few of your statements because I don’t want them on the blog here but I don’t think your example is a defeater. Also, I never claimed existence is either moral or immoral, I made the point about amorality too. Additionally, the right thing is categorically inclusive of all the reasons you gave (pleasure, self-enhancing, etc.)

  2. Mi Max ~ It isn’t anything like an ironclad logical case, but the general form of my response is this – the character of the real Creator is revealed in the life of the one person he endorsed by resurrection. It is an appeal to the least ambiguous manifestation of divine will on record.

  3. I would argue that Law’s Evil God hypothesis, as I understand it, still stands. Since he is positing an exact opposite, you would also have to reverse good and evil. In other words, evil exists as the maximum suffering and good is simply the absence of evil. The logic still stands, and the problem of good still suggests the non-existence of an evil god. This implies that the problem of evil (though I mislike that word, and usually use ‘suffering’ in its place) suggests the non-existence of a good god.

    • Thanks, A Jolly Nerd? lol
      However, positing that good is the absence of evil doesn’t solve the problem in light of Thomas’ principle of acting according to what is right. Even if we posit Law’s converse here I don’t see how it gets around it. Any suggestions? I think it’s just displacement.

    • That is the problem see … I’m not talking about abstractions subject to reversal. I’m referring to historical data which is in fact NOT reversed. The resurrection of Jesus is a historical singularity of cosmic significance which settles the matter of God’s character. There is no historical alter-Jesus, an evil Jesus who the evil god raised from the dead to vindicate his life of perfect evilness. Even if abstract arguments seem to hold each other in check, this single fact of history settles the matter. It is the historical facts that leads us to the contingent truth.

      • I regard Christ as the true God and Savior of former sinners. but in regards to your argument, i do not see how the resurrection of christ proves in anyway that Christ is God. anymore than Elisha’s dead body raising to life another prove him to be God or Lazarus to be God. resurrecting is not indicative of deity.

        • 2 Anayahu/Andrew ~ You are missing the point. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates one of two possibilities – (1) Jesus is God, with power to raise himself, or (2) God who has the power to raise Jesus, has endorsed the life and teaching ministry of Jesus. I am arguing that the 2nd case is true. Further, if God raised Christ, then it is much more probable that God is a good God, and not and evil one. God’s endorsement of Jesus is a clear indicator of God’s character. It is not a philosophical argument as much as a historical and empirical one.

      • Interesting response to/refutation of the evil god argument. However, how do you think this refutation fairs with those who reject the arguments key point, namely that Jesus rose from the dead? It seems to me that if one rejects the resurrection, one needn’t accept your argument as factually grounded, and therefore it would hold no weight. It works for a person who accepts the resurrection, but the proponent of the evil god argument doesn’t seem to be that type of person.

  4. Fiar enough my apologies regarding personal information. I will remember that policy of yours.

    I guess my question is do you think every individual does something for selfish pleasure because they think its right that they get pleasure? i think maybe you are conflating “right” with “good”. if you were to restate your claim as Everyone Acts According to What They Believe is Good

    Thomas argued that everyone always does what they believe is good. then i would agree 100% . maybe you were using “right” in the sense of “good” and if so my apologies for misunderstanding.

  5. i know you weren’t making the claim that everything was either moral or immoral but arguing for amoral, but i was attempting to rebut that with my belief that everything is either moral or immoral =)

  6. I’m not really sure I agree with “Everyone Acts According to What They Believe is Right”. Perhaps I misunderstand but it seems that people do repeatedly act in ways that they know are wrong and have feelings of guilt about.
    Perhaps the “Believe is Right” part is the issue. People have various motivations that lead them to make the choices they do but I dont think that is the same as them “Believing” that what they are doing is right.
    I know for myself I have acted in ways that I knew to be wrong. I think all honest people could say the same.

    • It accounts for guilt and actually doing what actually is wrong. For whatever motivation and reason for doing something, even though you know it’s wrong, you believe it’s the right course of action for the moment. If you choose to do evil knowing it’s evil you have an overriding reason for why you did it and why you believed it was right in the moment, whether that be for the pleasure or whatever.

      • Well it seems like there is a huge semantic gulf that we are trying to talk across.
        As far as I can see it just confuses the issue to say that everyone one does what they think is right. It makes it difficult to talk about issues like people rationalizing their actions and eventually deceiving themselves into truly “Believing” that what they are doing is the right thing where as once upon a time they knew what they were doing was wrong.

        • Well, just apply it to the evil God then. Does the evil God believe it is the right thing for him to do–to act evil? Does he believe it is the wrong thing for him to act evil? If neither, if his action is amoral, then how exactly can he be the basis for evil?

  7. Hi Max, interesting thoughts here.

  8. Sorry I pressed enter too quickly! This is my comment-
    Hi Max, interesting thoughts here.
    I guess I don’t think this is the best response to make to Law’s argument because it requires such a controversial view of moral motivation, which even opponents of Law’s view are not likely to accept (as you can see from this comment section).
    Obviously there’s a whole lot of academic literature on the topic which means that comments like this one can only really scratch the surface.
    One potential problem for this view is that it seems to undermine moral responsibility to a certain extent…we’d be indicting people on the basis of simple ignorance on what the morally right thing to do was. They honestly and genuinely thought they were doing the right thing, but they just happened to be wrong about that.
    Does it really make sense to hold these people, such as rapists, as morally evil and depraved when they just weren’t aware that it wasn’t the right thing to do?
    A further thought is to question whether this is true of your personal experience…I know that it’s not true of mine! I look at the times even today when I’ve disobeyed God and that was not because I genuinely thought the other things I did were of more value, but because I was stubborn and lazy. Ah, the remnants of the flesh!
    I knowingly disobey God and deserve his wrath for my moral crimes, but I praise and thank him that he has mercy on me, a sinner, uniting me with Christ for adoption as his son.
    Blessings (and keep up the blogging!), Michael

    • Perhaps I haven’t explicated my point. It’s in key sync with Thomistic ethics. The rapist may knowingly rape and know that rape is wrong but he does it believing it’s the right thing for him to do in the moment. Whatever the reason is, and it may be misguided, but everyone always does what they believe is the right thing to do. Think of a time you knowingly did something wrong, you probably had a justifying reason for it believing it was right (it was right to give you that pleasure, that sense of gratification, that greater good, whatever it may be). This principle does not need to identify what the reasons are but just that every action has a motivation. So, let’s ask the question to the evil God. Does the evil God have a motivation for acting? Let’s assume he does (the denial has even more deleterious problems). What are the motivations for the evil God to act? Does he believe his actions are the right thing for him to do? Or, does the evil God believe his actions are wrong? Surely, he would have to believe it is right for him to act in an evil way; but how does that not create an incoherence? It makes sense with a good God. The good God believes acting morally good is a right and good course of action. Does the evil God believe acting morally evil is the wrong or bad thing to do or is it the right and good thing to do? Either way I don’t think it works, assuming that every action has a motivation. Did this help explicate my point? Thoughts?

      • Max,

        It seems to me you are equivocating good and right. If doing evil is your goal, acting in an evil manner, committing an evil act, is the “right” choice, though not a good one. If evil god is trying to act in a way that promotes evil, he is not being contradictory by acting in an evil manner. It would be the right action because it elicits the desired result. I think this is where you are equivocating good and right. You seem to be saying that because evil god thinks he is doing the right thing when committing an evil action that this is a contradiction because he is supposed to be opposite of good god who should be doing the wrong thing. First, they are not opposite in every way, so why must they be in this one, and second I do not think right must equal good, so just because he does the right thing to elicit an evil action does not mean doing the right thing always equals doing what you believe to be good.

        Also, i disagree that we always believe our action is right or justified, regardless of how wrong we are acting. We are depraved enough to do the wrong thing with an evil motivation or desire. I think you are Naieve if you think we must think achieving our pleasure is right in order to be do it. We can know that seeking our own pleasure in the wrong way is wrong, and still succumb to the temptation or desire to satiate that pleasure. Sometimes gratifying the desires of the flesh is just easier than doing what we know is right and resisting, and we can know that it is wrong, yet still do it.

        These are just my thoughts. I enjoy the blog, so keep it up

        In Christ,
        Derek J. Brent

        • Did you read my follow up post? I discuss that issue you raised. I am using right and good synonymously. I don’t see how that affects my argument or Thomas’ ethic at all.

        • Harsh words too. Naive? You are not understanding the Thomistic ethic. Go read the other post. A bit foolish to call me naive when you didn’t read it all and judging by your response you didn’t understand it if you did read it because Thomas is not saying that.

  9. Max, doing evil for a greater good makes a lot of sense. People rape because they feel pleasure, but it also had to do with power over the victim, and power is considered a “good”. People speed sometimes because it feels “powerful” and “adventurous” to be moving in such high speed, or it helps to relieve the stress of being late, and both examples are considered “good”. But these “goods” are basically selfish ways of perceiving good. A greater good is truly something that benefits us as a community, not us as individuals. Therefore, I think that doing something that is commonly perceived as evil (like spending too much on food) is truly good when it is done with the intention of manifesting a greater good for the community (spending too much on food to feed the hungry).

  10. Yes I think the Thomas’ ethic is the issue. It seems like you/he is equivocating “right” with rational decision making.

    It seems that Law’s (although I heard R.Gale use it years ago) argument does seem to have exact symmetry with good being the absence of evil.

    That is symmetry unless we can show that “good” requires an obligation (or internal consistency) for the perfectly good entity to ensure that good prevails but “evil” does not require an obligation for the perfectly evil entity to ensure evil prevails (or any obligation to do anything for that matter).

    Perhaps this was your point with Thomas’ ethic.

    Aside from that the “Evil God” doesn’t’ worry me at all really (at least not as any sort of existential crisis). Plato intuitively sensed “the good” not “the evil” and so do all of us. That requires some explanation on the part of Law. (perhaps he has, I haven’t been following it)

  11. The comparison of good vs. evil to light vs. dark is a common one, but I don’t think you can use it as an analogy to throw out the possibility of an ontology of evil. If the absence of all photons is “dark”, and the presence of any photons is “light”, then there can be many variations of “lightness” but only one true “dark” – zero photons. Once all light is absent and genuine darkness is achieved, there can be no further darkening of the space. Darkness is zero and all positive numbers are light. There can be no “darker than dark” in this setting.

    However good and evil have both absolute and internally relative properties. Something can be absolutely good, yet something else can be more or less good. Likewise, there can be absolutely evil, and yet something else even more evil. In this setting we have both the negative and the positive ranges to deal with.

    To equate light/dark with good/evil would require all evil to be absolutely good, just less good.

    Now this may play into your second point, which I see you have expanded upon in a second post, so I’ll continue my comments there. :)

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