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Does God Intend Evils?: A Summary of a Paper by Mark Murphy

By David Baggett

Today begins a new series that will last for several months. Every other Monday, I’ll give a summary of one of the papers that was given at the October 2015 Inaugural Theistic Ethics Workshop at Wake Forest University—in an effort to give those who didn’t have a chance to attend an opportunity to get a flavor of what the conference was like and where some of the current discussions in theistic ethics stand.

The first paper I will summarize is Mark Murphy’s “Does God Intend Evils?” Murphy teaches at Georgetown and is a terrific philosopher, who’s done some terrific work in theistic ethics, natural law, divine authority, and other areas. He also makes a delightful conversationalist over dinner. In this talk Murphy discussed three issues related to the question of whether God intends evils. First, while it is obvious that there are evils in creation, and that God bears some important positive causal relationship to the existence of those evils, is it nevertheless true, as some have claimed, that God does not intend these evils? Murphy responds positively: there is a straightforward, very far from trivial sense in which necessarily God does not intend evils.

Second, Murphy argues that there is at least an initially plausible argument from evil based on the fact that a being that qualifies as God does not intend evils: that we have good reason to think that some of the evils in this world, if God exists, had to have been intended by God.

Third, Murphy provides a sketch of a response to this formulation of the argument from evil: that it is an error to think of the evils of this world as intended; while God indeed makes use of various foreseen evils, these evils are not divinely intended.

God does not intend evils. By ‘evils’ Murphy has in mind something like what van Inwagen calls bad things. On this view, not all setbacks to human well-being need count as evils. For example, it’s coherent to think that if a setback to someone’s well-being is deserved as a result of his or her wrongdoing, it may not be a bad ting that he or she suffers, even if it is bad for him or her to suffer. Is it possible for God to intend evils? There have been some recent treatments of the question by natural law theorists arguing that God can’t intend evil, but these appeal in Murphy’s view to contentious readings of authoritative Catholic teachings and rely on rather inadequate arguments for that thesis. There are mixed views, like Leibniz’s, on which there are some kinds of evil that God can intend (physical evils) but there are some kinds that God cannot intend (moral evils). But Leibniz’s view seems to Murphy unstable: we should think either that God can’t intend either sort or that there are evils of both sorts that God can intend.

For Murphy a guiding principle here is that if God can’t intend evils, it’s because God has decisive reasons not to intend evils. God’s perfect freedom of choice and action entails that God does not necessarily refrain from doing something unless there are decisive reasons to refrain. God has a (requiring) reason not to intend evils; where a requiring reason to Φ is a reason that a reasonable, informed agent acts on in the absence of reasons to the contrary (in contrast with a merely justifying reason).

Murphy argues that necessarily God does not intend evil. The argument rests on an account of what it is to intend something: it is to take it as part of one’s plan of action, such that it is a success condition of one’s action. This is true whether what is intended is intended as an end or as a means. But God’s successful agency cannot be constituted by evil. This seems to be a mark against God’s complete perfection of agency, and seems contrary to the holiness that is ascribed to God. By contrast, what is brought about by God’s causal activity, if foreseen but not intended, does not constitute part of God’s plan of action. So nothing that Murphy says here, in itself, gives any reason to think that God does not  bring about foreseen evils, or foreseen evils of some type, or foreseen evils in some quantity, or in some distribution.

Again, Nagel, in The View from Nowhere, writes that “the essence of evil is that it should repel us. If something is evil, our actions should be guided, if they are guided at all, toward its elimination rather than toward its maintenance. That is what evil means. So when we aim at evil we are swimming against the normative current.”

On this basis we can construct this argument:

  1. An agent has (requiring) reasons for his (success in) action not to be constituted by evil and not to be constituted by evil himself.
  2. If an agent intends an evil, then both the (success in) action and the agent are constituted by evil.
  3. So, the agent has (requiring) reasons not to intend evils.

In the divine case, (1) God does not exhibit agency worse than God might exhibit; (2) God has decisive reasons not to exhibit agency worse than God might exhibit; (3) In the absence of countervailing considerations, God would be exhibiting agency worse than God might exhibit if God intended evils; (4) So, God has (requiring) reason not to intend evils.

Are these reasons decisive? Are there the relevant considerations to the contrary? Well, noncomparatively, God’s intending evil mars divine agency. It’s at odds with the holiness of God to intend evils, so the reasons are decisive. And comparatively, the only reasons that would be relevant are based in creaturely goods. It seems unlikely that these could provid the relevant justification.

A new argument from evil? Here is an argument from evil distinct from the standard sort:

  1. Necessarily, any being that qualifies as God does not intend evils
  2. This world contains evils such that, if there is a being that qualifies as God, then that being intended them
  3. There is no being that qualifies as God

As Murphy noted already, the fact that there are a lot of evils in this world is of itself no reason to think that God intended those evils. What we would need is some special reason for thinking that these evils, were there a God, had to be intended by God. Here is the sort of case that Murphy thinks some folks will find plausible: that we have reason to think that God, if God exists, intends the existence of rational creatures. One often reads, in treatments of various issues in philosophical theology, that God would want there to be free beings endowed with reason. While Murphy is dubious of such reasoning, one might think that the existence of such a divine intention is given, or confirmed, by special revelation. Suppose, then, we think that we have reason to believe that if there is a God, then the existence of rational animals was intended by God. But the way that rational animals came into existence was an evolutionary process that involved the dying young of countless creatures the dying young of which counts as ‘bad stuff.’ And so one might say: God intended the existence of rational animals, and the means that God employed to bring these rational animals into existence was the mechanism of natural selection, which involves lots of bad stuff. If God exists, then, God intended loads of evils as a means to th existence of rational creatures. So if a being that qualifies as God does not intend evils, whether as ends or as means, then there is no God.

The failure of even this limited argument from evil. Nevertheless, Murphy thinks that it is a mistake to think that a new argument from evil, based on God’s never intending evil, can really get going. The mistake here is in thinking that since the dying young of all these critters is in some sense a means to the coming into existence of rational animals, therefore it is intended by God. The ideas here are painstakingly worked out by Frances Kamm in her Doctrine of Triple Effect, but Murphy thinks that they are familiar and not dependent on Kamm’s distinctive take. The idea is that we can take some goal to be worthwhile, foresee that bringing it about will have some bad effects, and set ourselves to making use of those bad effects without intending them. What is intended is not the bad stuff, but the making use of it. (Murphy gives this example: “I may have a dangerous job, and anticipate my dying young as a result, and thus take out a life insurance policy that will care for my children when I die young. I do not intend my death thereby; I do make use of my death in order to care for my children.) This model can be plausibly applied to the divine case, even given the data of special revelation posited above. God may well value rational creatures, and all other species as well that arise through the processes of natural selection; God might well make use of the bad things that occur in the natural world in bringing about the existence of rational creatures, and other valuable creatures besides.

Murphy’s provisional response to arguments from evil based on divine intentions is this: If some evil appears to be such that if God exists, then God intended it, either (1) it is an evil, but it is not intended (instead it is allowed, made use of, etc.) by God, or (2) it is intended by God, but it is not an evil (instead, while it is (e.g.) bad for some creatures, it is not a bad thing that it occurs).


Image: “Deerfire high res edit” by John McColgan – Edited by Fir0002 – taken by John McColgan, employed as a fire behavior analyst at the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

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