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The Soul-Making Theodicy:
A Response to Dore

2. Our Obligation to Minimize Suffering

2.2 Dore's Deontological Escape

Dore [1970: 122], in the light of these problems, considers himself forced to adopt two deontological obligations:

  1. to relieve suffering that would evoke virtuous responses, and
  2. not to cause suffering that would evoke virtuous responses.

To the objection that there is no difference between human beings and God that would account for the former having these anti-utilitarian obligations and not the latter, Dore offers the reply that unlike human beings, who do not have the power to affect other than an infinitesimal change in the total number of suffering-cum-virtuous responses in the world, God does have this power, and so if God were to have such obligations, they would be vastly anti-utilitarian.

Book cover: Philosophy of Religion by Louis P. Pojman

This reply, it seems to me, is wholly unconvincing. Not only is the moral distinction that Dore draws between God and human beings ad hoc, and so difficult to mount independent considerations in its favour, but also highly counterintuitive. We do not normally think that a moral agent's capacity to cause or relieve a vast amount of suffering that evokes virtuous responses diminishes or extinguishes his obligation to minimize the amount of suffering-cum-virtuous responses in the world.

Consider a possible scenario in which a certain biologist is able to manufacture a highly teratogenic substance which, if released into the atmosphere, will cause universal debilitating genetic malformations in countless future generations of human offspring, without affecting the rate of increase in world population. Considering the whole of human history, the release of such a substance would have a considerable impact on the total number of suffering-cum-virtuous responses. Dore's theory commits the 'soul-making' theodicist to the view that the biologist in this example does not have the vastly anti-utilitarian obligation to refrain from releasing the substance into the atmosphere. Also, such a theodicist is committed to the view that any biologist who discovers a safe method of neutralizing the teratogenic gas after its release into the atmosphere does not have the vastly anti-utilitarian obligation to reduce the immense number of suffering-cum-virtuous responses by releasing the neutralizing agent. Not only do we consider the first act and the second omission not morally allowable, we consider such an act and such an omission utterly morally abhorrent. And we consider their vileness to be in direct proportion to the amount of suffering-cum-virtuous responses brought about or not prevented.

Dore could reply here that, even so, the capacities of the biologists in my example to affect the number of suffering-cum-virtuous responses in the world are not as great as God's capacity, and so the anti-utilitarian deontological obligations still apply to these biologists. My answer to this is that it is true that the capacities of the biologists are not as great as God's, but this does not affect my point that we normally consider that the greater a moral agent's capacity, the greater is the stringency of his obligations to relieve, and not to cause, suffering that evokes virtuous responses, So, it seems, in the limit, a being with an infinite capacity has infinitely strong anti-utilitarian obligations. The capacity of a moral agent, then, is morally relevant to the obligations that he has, but the relevance is opposite to what Dore suggests.

What I have said here highlights another problem with Dore's suggestion, and that is that his normative theory contains a fundamental dissonance. We would expect that if a morally perfect being has a utilitarian obligation, then that obligation is morally paradigmatic, and so should be consistently applicable to all other moral agents, ceteris paribus. However, Dore has not supplied us with a morally relevant reason for not applying his utilitarianism across the board.

Things are worse still when Dore considers the objection that we do not have any anti-utilitarian obligations. His reply [1970: 123] is that 'it is far from certain' that 'utilitarianism, taken as a general theory of the nature of our moral obligations, is true'. However, this answer is self-defeating for Dore, for the objections that can be urged against the view that we have utilitarian obligations with respect to suffering-cum-virtuous responses apply equally to all moral agents, and so cast doubt also on the view that God has such utilitarian obligations. The central problem for Dore here is that this latter view is at the heart of the 'soul-making' theodicy.

Copyright © 2015

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