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Seventh in a series of essays on the
donated by Contributing Editor
An alternative view of Feser's
discusson of "Is God Good?" in his book
"Five Proofs of the Existence of God"
Feser tries to counter the problem with Theodicy 1 by arguing that God is good.
However, he gets off to a bad start by misusing (or a sloppy use of) the word "good" in the two examples he gives.
In the dictionary definition of good the words used to define the term are : admirable, desirable,
proper, as it ought to be, real, genuine, satisfying, etc.
The first example Feser gives is that if you are sitting on a bumpy bus, trying to draw a triangle and you manage to draw what looks like a triangle we will “naturally describe” the triangle as a “good triangle”. This is a misuse or sloppy use of the word good. A more appropriate use of the word would be to say the person did a good job in drawing the triangle. The job was good but goodness isn’t a property of triangles. They either are or aren’t an object with three sides. The sides can be wavy, curved, it doesn’t matter, just as long as there are three sides.
I admit people are often sloppy in their use of words. BUT a philosopher that is trying to prove his points can’t afford to be sloppy.
The second example given is to say that a healthy tree is a good tree and an unhealthy tree by extension is therefore a bad tree. Again this is misusing the words good and bad. Using the words good and bad this way is the same as saying a person that is healthy and whole is a good person and a person that is unhealthy and missing a limb is bad. People would and should object to using the words good and bad this way.
He tries to explain that good and bad “has to do with a thing’s success or failure in living up to the standard inherent in the kind of thing it is.” Are we going to say a person is bad because they are unhealthy and that prevents them from “living up to the standard inherent” in being a person?
How can he continue to claim God is good when God causes bad things and Evil to happen?
Remember in previous arguments he claims that God is the cause of everything. Isn’t God -- by
allowing Evil and bad things in the world -- NOT living up to “the standard inherent in the kind of thing it is.” -- i.e. something good? If that is, can God be regarded as good?
Next he tries to draw a distinction between moral goodness and badness. “Moral goodness and badness enter the picture with creatures capable of freely choosing to act in a way that either facilitates or frustrates the actualization of the potentials which, given their nature or essence, they need to realize in order to flourish.” (The italics in the sentence are his.)
He goes on to say “ Human beings are rational animals and for that reason capable of such free action.”
Wait a minute! He just argued that God is the cause of everything so how can anything “freely choose to act”, how can humans as rational animals be “free to act”?
He goes on to say “Goodness is a kind of actuality, and badness a kind of unrealized potentiality.” He states that “to be good is to be actual in someway, whereas to be bad is to fail
to actualize some potential.” Because goodness is the presence of some quality, while badness
is the absence of some quality.
I think people should question this definition of badness especially in light of far too many recent events. In some cases, there is specific intent to cause harm. Badness isn’t a lack of good, in these cases, there is intent to be bad. The prime examples are terrorists attacks and the recent mass shootings where it is obvious that great time and energy and money are put into planning and carrying out the attack. A major problem with his arguments is he fails to acknowledge what is actually happening in the world around him. He is arguing for a philosophical/theological position that is at odds with reality.
All this still leads to the problem that any action can’t occur apart from God, it is God that fails to actualize his goodness when bad things happen.
NOTE I didn’t say his potential for goodness.
I just said his goodness.
All this still proves to me that God isn’t good because to stop evil from happening he would have to actualize his potential and he has no potential to actualize!
Another way to consider the issue of good and bad is that in some cases goodness or badness are not assigned to an object but only to the effect that object has on other things. So where does the good and the bad lie? An example is a Thunderstorm that brings lightning, sometimes hail
and life giving rain. Is the storm good or bad? Or do these terms apply only to the effects the storm has on something else. For the person whose house is hit and damaged by lightning or hail the effects of the storm are bad. For the farmer who just planted seed the added moisture has a good effect.
By this understanding, God wouldn’t need to be good or bad, because it is the effect his/her action has on other things that are seen as being good or bad. This would solve the problem of Theodicy, to realize that goodness or badness are not necessary qualities for a diety. Humans call an action good or bad based on the effect the action has on them. Something isn’t good just because God does it. If this were the case we’d have to say all the bad things that happen and Evil are actually good because God is the cause of them.
Is God the creator of all things or is he not the creator of all things? In the earlier part of chapter 5 he stated:
“It follows that anything that exists or could exist other than God depends at every instant on God for its existence.”
If this is the case, he continues:
“the operation or activity of
anything at any moment also depends on God. ... How could it act at any instant apart from
How can God be the cause of all operations or activity if he has no potential to actuate the potential in other things? Doesn’t actuating potential in something (bring about a change in something) require God to bring about a change in himself (activate his potential)? Such as lift his little finger, or stimulate his thoughts to push a storm out of the way, to light the fuse that set off the Big Bang, to interfere in the affairs of man, or cause the existence of all things?
I have come full circle and am back at Feser’s first argument:
- On page 19 he says “change is the actualization of a potential.”
- And on page 186 he says “God is purely actual, with no potentiality.”
So how can God be the cause of anything? How can God that Feser is arguing for exist when the arguments for his existence contradict each other?
I reached the end of Feser’s book, and discovered he addressed this issue of Theodicy in two more places. I think he must realize that this one issue is the one that undermines all his arguments, but he isn’t willing or able or ready to concede defeat.
On Page 299 He states that it isn’t the scope of this book to provide a theodicy. “And it is unnecessary for the present purpose, which is merely to provide a defense of theism against the objection
A “defense of theism” tries to prove that God’s existence is logically possible. A theodicy tries to make the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God consistent with the
existence of evil and a framework that shows God’s existence is also plausible.
Proving that the existence of God is logically possible, inspite of the existence of evil, still doesn’t solve the problems that the existence of evil raises, the contradictions raised by the claims
made about God’s characteristics.
Logical arguments can be constructed in such ways that the basic logic holds. However, they can still fail if any of the premises that they are based on are faulty or there are contradictions between different parts of the arguments. The latter is a big problem with Feser’s arguments.
Feser states on Page 294:
“The appeal to the ‘problem of evil’ is, of course, one of the classic objections to theism.”
“Contemporary philosophers of religion commonly distinguish between two aspects of the problem. First, is the existence of suffering and other kinds of evil logically consistent with the existence of God? Second, if it is consistent, what is the reason why God allows suffering and other kinds of evil to exist?”
Feser claims to answer this question is to put forward a theodicy. To answer the first question is simply to defend theism. I don’t think one can honestly separate the two.
There is a problem with the expression of the argument this way. I understand that the argument is more correctly stated that the problem of Theodicy arises over the claims that God is good, omniscient, omnipotent, intelligent, all powerful, perfect in every way and intervenes in the
affairs of the world.
The existence of suffering and other kinds of evil are logically consistent with the Deists'
conception of God as one that doesn’t intervene in the affairs of the world. There is therefore no reason to demand a reason for why God allows suffering and other kinds of evil to exist.
There is a third problem with his statement: suffering is not the same as Evil though he equates the two.
On page 295 he gives the example: “If a child finds it extremely unpleasant to do his homework, a parent could easily remedy this unpleasantness by telling the child that he needn’t bother doing it. But a good parent will not do so, because to eliminate the unpleasantness of doing homework would also be to prevent the child from learning and to lead him to disobey the reasonable instructions of his teacher. And it is good for a child to learn and to obey his teacher’s reasonable instructions.” This is a “greater good” argument.
It is unpleasant for me to change the litter in my cat's litter box. BUT to claim that causes
suffering trivializes the very concept of suffering just as Feser’s above example trivializes the concept.
He follows with the standard arguments that I have already pointed out fail because a God with the characteristics/qualities Feser ascribes to God would have the intelligence, the compassion, the wisdom to find ways to teach some recalcitrant schmuck the life lessons he/she needs to learn without starving children to death, or blowing them or their parents to bits in civil wars. The failure of Feser to grasp the distinction between unpleasantness, and true suffering and evil is the most serious flaw with his arguments.
There is no way for him to get around the problem of Theodicy that Theism creates with claims that God is omniscient, omnipotent, intelligent, all good and perfect in every way other than to accept his God doesn’t exist.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
- Theocicy is the discussion of how an all-good and all-powerful, and omniscient God can coexist with evil.
Edward Feser, "Five Proofs of the Existence of God," Ignatius Press (2017). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store Available in the U.S.: in Kindle format for $11.78, and in Paperback for $14.22.
Originally posted: 2018-JUN-04
Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys