Who Has the Basis for Morality?: Review and Critique of the Argument

The Opening Volley 

Having alluded to Maitzen’s argument, it is befitting that it should be stated as coherently and succinctly as possible. The argument consists of a primary argument accompanied by 9 sub-arguments/responses to specific theistic arguments that exist in theodical works. This section seeks to summarize the arguments and responses. 

For the argument to work, the god envisioned by Maitzen (1) must be aware of all human suffering, (2) knows how to prevent said suffering, (3) is able to prevent suffering, (4) can do anything that is not logically limited by knowledge or power (4) knows what suffering is necessary or unnecessary, and (5) won’t do anything morally imperfect.(17) To that end the reader is given a scenario where, “somewhere in the world, right now, a child is experiencing terrible suffering that the child doesn’t want and doesn’t deserve.” Maitzen’s god even though it posses 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.” In reiterating the circumstance, it is stated, “The suffering is intense, the child doesn’t deserve to undergo it, and the child doesn’t volunteer for it.” To that end, the conclusion is down that Maitzen’s god, “…exploits the child and thereby acts imperfectly.” 

Responses to Objections 

Maitzen anticipates certain theistic objections to his argument by stating, “My claim is that no supreme being could treat the child in the way I’ve described, whichever label we choose for that treatment.” This seems to be a concession to the above noted deficiency. There is also an admission that such a state is, “less than perfect”, but then there is a continued emotional appeal of, “whether you would dream of letting a child you love suffer abuse in order to secure either of those benefits.” 

The obvious problem with such an argument is that in order for the conclusion to be true, it must follow from the premises. Nothing has been demonstrated, aside from the assumption that awareness, knowledge, or ability obligates a “supreme being” to act. The simple awareness of a state says nothing about the moral aspect of it. The knowledge of how to alter a state says nothing about the moral scope of that knowledge. Nor does the ability to alter a state, either positively or negatively, indicate any responsibility to act. Even to attempt to apply such considerations to human beings, who have limited awareness, limited knowledge, and limited ability, is to beg the question in regard to such a burden to act. 

A Violation of Fair Use?

There is also the issue of “exploitation”, as well as answering the questions raised in this requires navigating a moral razor’s edge. Maitzen doesn’t define the term as he intends for it to be understood, so it must be assumed that he intends for the term to be understood in its most general definition. It’s this kind of definitional ambiguity that seems to plague his argumentation. Indeed there seems to be a shifting in the argumentation from a positive argument with testable premises to one of questions, especially with the accusation of “exploitation”. That’s not to suggest that there is some kind of a-morality attached to the term; rather that the term requires a metaphysical substrate from which such judgments could be made. 

Maitzen returns to the concept of his god, who isn’t, “subject to our limitations in knowledge or power, or indeed any real limitations in knowledge or power.“ However, he poses another question in which he supposes that god can face a “moral dilemma”. Such a god, he contends, could not engage in an immoral activity, to which he asserts, “God can’t possibly allow a child’s intense, undeserved and involuntary suffering unless the suffering is necessary…” 

There are a few points that have to be considered here, such as, upon what basis has one to assume that allowing suffering to occur is in fact immoral? Further, upon what basis can one assume that such is in fact “undeserved”? Considering these against an atheistic/materialistic framework such questions seem to  should have arisen.(18) However, returning to his response, if Maitzen’s god has “no real limitations upon his knowledge,” then it seems likely that there would be knowledge of such a dilemma, that of course assumes that Maitzen’s god has a desired outcome in mind, and the dilemma would not be whether or not to directly cause or indirectly allow suffering to occur, but which would derive the desired outcome. The fact that Maitzen provides the escape hatch for his god that would make suffering “necessary,” would seem to torpedo the entire objection and make the rest of the work unnecessary.

There is no rest though for his wearying argument.

An “Obligation” to Ease and Benefit?

Following Maitzen’s argument, there seem to be two factors that are operating to balance the equation of his god: an, as yet unsupported, obligation upon fellow humans to ease “unnecessary” and “undeserved” and “involuntary” suffering, as well as an obligation, also as yet unjustified, for there to be some positive benefit from the divine side of the ledger. These two points seem to be simply assumed, based upon a reading of Stump’s theodical writings.(19) The reader should note that Maitzen has, rather inexplicably, added an additional category in making his argument. This is a subtle further injection of emotion into his OM argument. 

Maitzen, like an invasive vine, continues to expand the scope of his appeal. According to his understanding of OM those in such a position of suffering are due, in fact there is an“ought” to receive some manner of compassion. In fact it is asserted that “[we] have a duty” to prevent suffering as much as we are able. Then comes this argument: “If God exists, then that suffering must be needed – somehow, even if we can’t see how – for the overall benefit of those very sufferers. In that case, what happens to the moral duty we thought we had to prevent their suffering? It disappears.”

Let us examine the premises, then we will see if the conclusion necessarily follows, or if there has been an end run around the problem. 

Swinging the Emotional Dead Cat

This point, a question of consent, that is the verb which means “to give assent or approval,” seems to be key to understanding this argument.(20) This is the reason that the adjective “involuntary” suddenly appears in the discussion, as if out of nowhere. It comes into view ex nihilo and charges the conversation with additional emotional energy. This is to create a scenario where Maitzen tells the story by beginning, “Imagine the worst possible situation that a person could be in where it wasn’t necessary or deserved or asked for,” as if the latter somehow proves the presupposition that one should only suffer if it’s (1) necessary, (2) deserved, or (3) permitted by the one suffering. Who then would consent? But who is determining whether such suffering is in fact necessary, or deserved, or whether or not consent is required? We shall return to this thought soon enough. 

Maitzen asks the question of his god whether or not such can “exploit” a human being. To this end, he creates a scenario that attempts to respond to Richard Swinburne’s argument that since God is the source and sustainer of life can do as he pleases provided that there is a net benefit that such is , “being of use is a good for the victim.”(21) I, of course have my own issues with such a formulation, but Maitzen’s response is, well, weak and not equally analogous.(22

The example given is that of making a clone. Maitzen imagines creating a clone of himself and raising it up with tender care until a fixed point in its life where he decided to end it at which time, “…I let someone abuse the child to death in order to show onlookers just how revolting child-abuse is and thereby deter them from ever abusing a child.” There are a few unanswered questions and hidden suppositions in said argument that, when considered actually demonstrate that it’s not a coherent analogy. 

A Net Benefit or a Total Wash?

Building off of the analogy, Maitzen’s imaginary “perfect being” could cause or allow an, “…experience [of] undeserved, involuntary suffering unless it’s necessary or optimal for the child’s overall good.” This simply begs the question of why does it have to be for the child’s “overall good”? Such an assumption, as previously demonstrated, undermines the assertion that such suffering is in fact “undeserved” as well as the fact that such must be voluntary. If such a being who is perfect exists, then part of that being’s knowledge entails what a creature needs to realize a benefit at some point. Maitzen has, of yet, to demonstrate that he has an epistemological basis to determine whether or not such suffering is necessary, deserved, or beneficial. However, if such a being exists that does have such knowledge, then it also would have the power to impose such with a definite moral authority as well as an obligation—if such a being could be so obliged—to bring it about. However, to assume that the one suffering is somehow owed by the fact of the suffering a benefit presents its own problems. This is something that Maitzen queues on. 

He gives us another analogy involving two people: Jack and Jill. Maitzen’s god causes Jack to suffer an illness so that Jill, a woman with whom Jack is infatuated, will be stirred with concern and send a get well card. Is such really a meaningful analogy? (23) It might help Jack’s feelings that Jill sent him a card if such were the case, but suppose another layer was added to the scenario and Jill was a barista at a coffee shop that Jack frequented and “the unrequited love” that Jack felt for her was merely lust, and Jill has no knowledge of Jack outside of such impersonal interactions at the shop. However, if such a situation did exist with enough familiarity between Jack and Jill did exist that she did behave in such a considerate manner and express concern, Maitzen concludes that this presents no net benefit for Jack in contrast to anything that he suffered. To wit, the response could be made, what if the benefit came at an exceedingly low point in such time and gave Jack a reason to suffer through in hope of expressing his love for Jill. Maitzen wants a direct cost-benefit analysis for suffering when such can only be truly seen from one perspective: the point of view of omniscience. 

The Double-Edged Sword of Belief

Maitzen goes back to his contention that the, “…truth of theism would undermine an obligation at the heart of ordinary morality: the obligation we have on at least some occasions to prevent undeserved, involuntary suffering…” Let’s remember that he’s assuming what he has yet to prove: that such an obligation to prevent such suffering exists, based upon the assertion, “…that it’s not the truth of theism that undermines this obligation so much as the belief that theism is true.” This “objection” that he formulates is clarified by stating that there exists no, “…obligation to prevent suffering only if we believe that suffering always benefits the sufferer, regardless of whether our belief is true.”

Such an objection presumes that the person making it has sufficient knowledge to draw such a conclusion. Of course, the only way that such a person could have sufficient knowledge is if they were omniscient and had the power to bring about such a situation. That would, in effect make such a person God. This conclusion returns us to the issue of upon which one could say whether or not such suffering was in fact unnecessary or undeserved as well as whether or not one would voluntarily accept such. Maitzen’s argumentation seems to spring from ignorance: he doesn’t know whether such is needed or deserved so he refuses to consent. In arguing from his own ignorance, he assumes that if such a being exists that has such knowledge, then there is no obligation on the person who believes in such a being to act, because that would be interfering with what has been established by that being to occur.(24)

Maitzen’s argument becomes suspect as he attempts to use a news story of a child who was torchered to death by his mother’s boyfriend for wetting his pants. (25) A key element left out of the story in Maitzen’s retelling of it is that, according to the report, the child’s mother did attempt to intervene and was beaten as well. What he attempts to appeal to is what in fact occurred: someone tried to intervene. The question is what was the motivation for that intervention and what accounts for it?(26)

An Assumption of Autonomy

Maitzen gives us an example of someone who refuses to accept a vaccination against a deadly and contagious disease on the basis of autonomy. He notes that such an objection fails for three reasons: (1) a lack of clarity in regard to actual benefit; (2) it assumes that there is an obligation to not violate a person’s autonomy; and (3) it assumes that there is an obligation to violate autonomy in certain situations. He then attempts to circumnavigate back to the example of the abused child by stating, “We have an especially strong moral obligation to prevent the torture of a child when we easily can but no obligation at all to prevent an unwilling child’s beneficial vaccination.” What’s interesting is that this rationale demonstrates that there is a hidden presupposition underlying the claim that an obligation exists to violate the autonomy of a person, the abuser in the former and the child in the latter, depending upon the situation. The burning question is, to what does such an obligation exist?

A Violation of Free Will?

Maitzen’s god, by his assumption, must be willing and able to violate a person’s will in order to prevent something from occurring. It is this apparent inaction on the part of his imagined god that allows children to suffer. His opposition to human freedom causes him to argue that, “…God’s allowing child-torture so as not to interfere with the torturer’s freedom is a clear case of exploiting the child for some other end.” Whatever this “end” is, Maitzen concludes it is “morally monstrous”. 

It should be noted that says nothing about what the abuser’s actions are, it is merely assumed. Of course, one is at an end to justify what, if anything could be argued is actually “morally monstrous” about abusing children? What is being assumed here?

A Worthwhile Payoff?

Maitzen continues checking off objections to his position, including one where, “God can justifiably let a child be tortured provided that God eventually sends the child to heaven, even if the child’s suffering is in no way necessary for attaining heaven.”(27) This point, I think, is rightfully stated as, “…it conflates compensation and justification…” This “compensation” assumes that there was really no reason behind the suffering experienced, but that it will provide a meaningful remuneration for something considered “unnecessary”, and will somehow grant some retroactive consent. And once again, a qualifier—that is the assertion that such was “unnecessary”—finds its way into the conversation. 

Just a Matter of Belief?

Maitzen, once again, reasserts his contention that theism undermines OM in that it undermines, “…the obligation we have on at least some occasions to prevent undeserved, involuntary suffering…” How is this accomplished? By “…the belief that theism is true,” in that, “…we lack an obligation to prevent suffering only if we believe that suffering always benefits the sufferer, regardless of whether our belief is true.” He continues, “Our ordinary moral obligation to prevent at least some kinds of suffering surely depends on the presumption that suffering is in fact often bad overall for the sufferer.” This statement alone should cause one to ponder just where such a presumption comes from, as well as the “obligation” that accompanies it? Isn’t this simply a matter of his belief?

Maitzen continues, “…we feel obligated to prevent suffering in other cases because we confidently presume that the suffering isn’t in the sufferer’s best interest, or is at least vanishingly unlikely to be.” This assumes some source of knowledge that he has not he has not presented by which one can make such an argument. 

Once again, the plucking of heart strings by Maitzen occurs as he revisits the child murdered for wetting his pants, pleading, “Had you been in a position to prevent that torture, easily and at no risk to yourself, ordinary morality would have regarded you as obligated to try.” Why does this issue of minimal risk keep appearing? What about if it would have been a maximum risk, even your own life? Moreover, what about the obligation to not do such to a child? Asserting that there is a moral obligation to intervene requires a justification for that claim. 


17. For the purpose of this argument I purposefully denote Maitzen’s god with a lower case “g”, as it does not represent the True and Living Triune God of Christianity (TLTGC, hereafter).

18. See footnote 16. I am not saying that Maitzen subscribes to such a view, but if he accepts a materialistic basis for origins then the question should necessarily arise.

19. Maitzen quotes from Eleanor Stump’s 1985 paper “The Problem of Evil” as well as her 1990 paper in his footnote number 3. As of this writing (10/2018) I do not have access to the 1990 work, however I do have access to the 1985 paper. Stump’s arguments are conditioned upon a number of unjustified assumptions (libertarian free will being one). Maitzen’s arguments seem to be focused upon these conditions. 

20. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/consent

21.  Swinburne, Richard. “Theodicy, our well-being, and God’s rights”. International Journal of  Philosophy of Religion, no. 38. 1995. pp. 75–91

22. There are a number of problems with such an argument, namely it assumes what it is attempting to prove: child abuse is immoral, that the clone of a human being possesses the same moral value and dignity of a normal human being, and that such a demonstration would actually prove the contention. 

23. Maitzen describes Jack as having an “unrequited love” for Jill, however he doesn’t expand upon the nature of the relationship between the two that such a state should exist. 

24. Maitzen’s argument equally applies to an evolutionary “survival of the fittest” argument. If one believes that only the fittest or strongest are fit to survive, there is no obligation to devote resources to the weakest among us. 

25. http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/04/15/michigan.child.torture/index.html

26. Most likely, there would be an evolutionary argument made: that the mother’s attempt to defend the child was merely an attempt to protect her genetic offspring to allow the child to reach maturity and continue spreading their particular genetic material. However, an argument could also be made from such a position that, given the likelihood of reproduction, she could have sacrificed that offspring and fled in self-interest to avoid her own unnecessary, underserved, and involuntary suffering. 

However, there is the question of a moral obligation to not impose unnecessary and undeserved suffering on another person that is presupposed in the argument that is not being addressed. 

27. emphasis original 


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