The Connection between Soul-Making Theodicy and the Subjectivist Ethics of David Hume

The problem of evil has been a long-running problem for perfect Gods for millennia, and with disasters upon tragedies upon disasters even just over the past century, it is a problem that demands an answer. Soul-making theodicy is one common answer that has arisen to explain evil’s existence, however there’s a vagueness to this answer: in what sense are we supposed to be developing “soul”? To answer this I argue that what we are trying to develop is a Christian form of love which we can find support in through a Humean Subjectivism lense.

To begin, the problem of evil has been recognized as a problem for religions that hold God to be omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient since the days of ancient Greece and potentially further back. It is most succinctly put by, or at least attributed to Epicurus who is quoted as saying “if God is able to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent? Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent? Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” As the quote shows, and as it is often used to argue, a believer in such a God must either explain why evil exists or abandon one of the three omnis.

This of course leads to a multitude of different explanations by believers, although there are three which are easily the most prevalent. One of the most fundamental of these three is Leibniz’s best of all possible world’s theodicy. Under this theodicy, the reason for which God created a world in which evil exists is that it is through that evil that allows God created an even higher good. In discussing this he gives the example that “a general of an army will prefer a great victory with a slight wound to a condition without wound and without victory.” The trouble however is that he leaves a hole in explaining just what this higher good of which we are supposed to achieve is.

The second of the three is the free will theodicy which is supposed to go back to Augustine of Hippo. Under this theodicy, the reason for the existence of evil is due to Mankind's abuse of free will and, however terrible the actions can be when free will is abused, it is a great enough end in itself that the evil that happens under it is justified. This fills in the blank of what the higher good is that evil is supposed to allow for, but it only explains moral evils such as murder or theft but not natural evils such as earthquakes or hurricanes. Also, it doesn’t seem that free will is really an end, for even though freedom may be something greatly esteemed today if someone were to ask “what good is freedom?” it wouldn’t feel as strange a question as someone asking “what good is pleasure?”, nor would it feel as self-explanatory to answer the former “it’s freedom” than to answer the latter “it’s pleasure.”

This leads us to the third common type of theodicy which is the Soul-Making Theodicy. The Soul-Making Theodicy is a theodicy based on the ideas of St. Irenaeus and developed by John Hick. Under the Soul-Making theodicy, the existence of evil is so that people can through adversity become more morally righteous people. This is why the Soul-Making Theodicy is also sometimes called the Virtue Theodicy. Under such a theodicy we can explain the existence of both moral evil and natural evil, for in the former case if people were forced to do good we could not call them virtuous and so they must be capable of doing wrong, and in the latter case natural evils exist for if we lived in a garden of Eden esque world we would rarely ever encounter moral evils and would rarely if ever deal with the complex and difficult moral issues which we encounter today leaving any real moral development minimal. As noted in the introduction, however, there is a kind of vagueness in just what is being developed.

Now at this point one may say that it’s not at all vague for good is merely following God and it is the faith we must develop. This too would have problems, however, for faith doesn’t make much sense as something God would want us to develop. To see why imagine a situation between a parent and their child. Now of course as the child grows up the parent will be telling them what to do and what not to do, and the parent will hope that the child does as told, but even if the child follows what their parent says to the letter there is something more than the parent will likely hope for. This being that the child will recognize what to do on their own. Under a Soul-Making theodicy such a relationship makes sense for just as the parent would want their child to do what is right without being told, God would want people to do what is right without needing to be told. Secondly, there’s an issue stemming from the Euthyphro dilemma. The Euthyphro dilemma is a problem that asks the question “is an act good as it is what God does or does God do an act because it is good?”. Essentially it’s a question of whether God merely declares things as good or recognizes them as such. Now intuitively most people go for the second choice for even if some feel that good in some sense is derived from God, we usually feel that when it comes to things like murder or conversely charity there is something within the acts themselves that make the former bad and the latter good. This means we must understand good as something outside of just what’s in the Bible, and have something within people that necessarily drives people to do good. This is the vagueness within Soul-Making theodicy.

It should be noted though that this isn’t to say that all scripture can be forgotten going forward. To do such would be to throw out all theodicies as one of the primary features of theodicy is consistency with scripture. This is merely to say that there needs to be a moral theory working from the outside of the Bible which connects with scripture and of course, fills in the theodicy.

From this, an entire group of moral theories we can see a problem with is consequentialist theories. This is mainly a metaethical issue that comes down to the fact that if good is entirely in the consequences and has no connection to the content of a person then it makes no sense for God to create beings to develop any sort of traits for their own sake. It would only make sense if somehow the beings created could surpass God when it comes to the proliferation of this consequence. However, looking at our own world, it’s hard to see how beings such as us, who are finite and heavily flawed, could ever surpass an infinitely perfect being at anything but committing evil which would obviously only be the case, as it would be a contradiction for a perfect being to do such. This means we need to turn to theories that, even if they have a focus on consequences, must also have a focus on the traits and characteristics of people.

One thing that may help us to determine the moral theory we’re looking for is to consider the virtues held up by Christianity, and I think the most important of these for us to look at is the Christian view of love also known as agape. It is commonly described as a sort of selfless love or altruism. It’s a pervasive concept when it comes to Christianity and even God himself. In the New Testament, it is even stated that “God is love,” when it comes to Jesus one of the main aspects that people tend to think of is how loving he was towards everyone, and it shows up in one of the most often repeated phrases in Christianity “Love thy neighbor.” But beyond this grounding in Christian theology, it also would seem to work well under a Soul-Making theodicy for love does seem to have inherent value in itself intuitively.

This isn’t the only interpretation, however, as it is argued by some that the love of God is different than what we consider it. To these people, it is what some have called creative love. What this means is that God is loving only insofar as he does right by others, but he in no way feels sorrow or joy for others. As John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin point out in their paper, “God is creative-response love”, this idea seems to stretch back to ancient Greece and the “value judgment that absoluteness or independence is unqualifiedly good, and that dependence or relativity in any sense derogates from perfection.” This thereby stood in tension with the idea of God as loving in our sense of the term and lead to the idea of an impassable creative love. As the two-point out in their paper, however, the idea of perfection, especially when it comes to morals, usually does include some amount of relativity. They use the example of a parent whose child is very sick and how we wouldn’t consider the parents perfect if they reacted to the child's sickness with perfect serenity. This applies to God, for just as we wouldn't consider the parents perfect for being indifferent to their child’s suffering we wouldn’t see God as perfect for being indifferent to the suffering of others.

But there is another objection to love which must be dealt with, and that comes from Immanueal Kant. In Kant’s critique of practical reason, Kant uses the idea that the only thing that is good in itself is a good will and, from that idea, he derives an ethical theory in which the determining factor of ethics is the motivation which determines one’s actions. To Kant, the only ethical motivation is to act out of a sense of duty. This Kant supports for he wholly sees ethics as a matter of being obedient to reason. This can be found clearly in the critique of practical reason when Kant states, “We stand under a discipline of reason, and in all our maxims must not forget our subjection to it, nor withdraw anything there from.” Going further in the same paragraph, he continues arguing that to actively desire to do what is right for any reason besides a respect for the moral law is egoism as one is putting themselves above the moral law.

The problem with this is a matter of intuition for as we think of moral exemplars, whether it be people like Jesus, or Ghandi, or Martin Luther King Jr, one of the primary things people recognize of each is how they genuinely seemed to want to help people, and to have cared deeply about alleviating the pain of those they aimed to help. If we were to imagine that any of those mentioned were to adopt a seeming indifference and only had the motivation they were obligated to, then even though we would still likely find them admirable they would seem diminished in the same way as a God who treated their creations with indifference would seem less than perfect. But using Kant’s ideas further we can find support for our conception of love, for in arguing the value of the sense of duty in itself he talks of it analogically as “shining like a jewel” even when “completely powerless to carry out its aims,” and while this too may still remain admirable to a degree, in comparison with an altruistic and caring form of love it seems clearly dwarfed. Should this intuition of mine hold, the love of agape becomes a likely explanation for just what we’re supposed to be developing while alive. Although we still require an ethical theory on which to ground it.

My answer to this will seem unclear at first, but with this creative-response view of love in mind I feel the moral theory this most points to is Hume’s ethical subjectivism. Hume’s subjectivism, running in between the egoists such as Hobbes and the realists such as Locke in his own time, bases the good around the experience of perceiving the consequences of an act or trait on people and their reactions. This, due to a similarity between the causes of the passions, human anatomy, and an ever vivid impression of ourselves1, causes us to have an impression as though it were us feeling the consequences of said act or trait. From this we derive a sense of approval or disapproval for said act or trait. This, though, is largely only if we are perceiving others from a disinterested perspective, as any interest will likely distort our sense of approval or disapproval, and the same goes for differences between the people being perceived and the person perceiving them, for the more similarities between the perceived and the perceiver the stronger the impression the latter will receive. Both of these issues stem from egoism for as Hume puts it “No man loves anyone as much as himself.” This is why Hume speaks of the good as that which we would approve or disprove of from an uninterested or common perspective.

Two things should be recognized with this. The first is that in this ethical theory we do find a place for love, in the way that our impression of ourselves and thereby our love for ourselves is projected onto other people when we feel those impressions. Although one could raise an objection at this point that with Hume’s view that our ability to project said love is reduced by differences and with the line of loving none more than ourselves, and thereby question if this theory allows for a selfless love that agape is often characterized as, going further into Hume’s philosophy,specifically when it comes to what the nature of the self is.

In his treatise on human nature, Hume sets up an epistemological system in which all our perceptions are either a matter of impressions or ideas. The former are a matter of feeling. They are those things which through sense strike us vividly and lively. Meanwhile, the latter is clearly that of thought or notions abstracted from impressions. Both of the two categories can yield knowledge however with the ideas in themselves leading to knowledge of the relations of ideas or logical consistency between ideas in other words, while the former can tell us of matters of fact. For us to know a matter of fact though we must be able to point to the impression from which the fact was derived. With this system in place, he begins to wander through concepts which are largely assumed to be true. Of these concepts, the one we are most interested in is that of the self. As Hume sees it, the self can be found in no impression. The self is only a matter of custom, for through memory, the contiguity of experiences, and the smoothing of imagination one is compelled to believe in a continuous self. Without any singular impression of such a continuous self, though, we have no evidence on which to base the idea. To Hume, this leaves us as an ever shifting and changing bundle of impressions.

With this in mind we find a path out of Hume’s egoism, for even if one has a love hindered by differences and trends towards egoism one can work at emptying one’s view of the self through reflection and, in that reflection, attempt to see through the haze that imagination has placed over memory. As one removes the haze, it results in one broadening the scope through which one may project themselves onto others, as one will be more apt to understanding the reactions of others for they will have a wider range of perspectives and corresponding impressions from the memories of holding such perspectives. To do so to a great extent, let alone to the fullest extent, would likely result in one recognizing the impermanence of one’s own characteristics and in that find a more fundamental understanding of the human experience, further reducing what hindrance differences caused previously to be minimal. With this problem out of the way we can see how Hume’s theory of the self and ethical theory flows well with the idea of agape.

Such an ethical system, as it is based on sympathetic love, explains the existence of both moral and natural evil. For in the latter case natural evil, it goes to reveal the vulnerability or fragility of ourselves and others, and through this revealing one can recognize the similarities between ourselves and others. Lacking such natural evils one could easily trend towards egoism instead of away from it, for even in a world with natural evils such as ours, due to our tendency to attribute success to our own actions, with continued successes one could come to believe oneself independent and distinct from those around them, and in a world with only moral evil would likely find others to be more of a negative presence than positive. Natural evil, however, can destroy such hubris, and by that destruction, one is pushed to recognize their dependence on others and through that find greater sympathy for others. Meanwhile, the former can be explained by the way in which through sympathy one can find both a reward for doing right by others solely for its own sake and negative consequences both in the initial consequences and the guilt carried for doing otherwise.

In conclusion, John Hick’s response to the problem of evil may have provided the bulk of the answer to the problem, however the fine details of just what could we be developing to justify the cruelty in the world were left wanting. As I have argued in this paper we can find a connection between Soul-Making Theodicy and the subjectivist ethics of David Hume through the Christian idea of agape. 

24 May 2022
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