February 4, 2011

Malebranche and Robert Adams on Creating the Best

Leibniz famously argued that the actual world must be the best of all possible worlds (BPW). His argument, which he repeated in several places, went something like this:

  1. The actual world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good being.

  2. An omnipotent being can actualize any possible world.

  3. A perfectly good being always chooses the best outcome from among its choices.

  4. Therefore,
  5. The actual world is the BPW.

Most people have found the conclusion of this argument incredible, and sought ways to escape it. The logical problem of evil is essentially an argument to the effect that the only premise that can be plausibly rejected is (1). Free will defenders often instead target premise (2). However, premise (3) is also open to question. In fact, many of Leibniz's arguments (e.g. the opening sections of the Discourse on Metaphysics) seem to be directed against Malebranche's 1680 Treatise on Nature and Grace, in which the denial of (3) was defended. (3) is also famously denied in Robert Adams' 1972 "Must God Create the Best?"

(3) is amoral proposition, and so its evaluation will depend on one's moral theory. (There is one way of denying (3) that is independent of one's moral theory, and that is to deny that there is a unique best possible world; for purposes of this post let's set that (epistemic) possibility aside.) The only moral theory on which (3) cannot possibly be denied is pure consequentialism. However, there are two major rivals to consequentialism: deontologism, and virtue ethics. (Mixed theories are also sometimes advocated.) So there are two main possibilities for the denial of (3): either the creation of the BPW would violate some deontological constraint, or the creation of the BPW would demonstrate a less than perfectly virtuous character. (I assume that a being who is perfectly good, at least if it is also perfectly rational, would at least allow goodness of outcomes to play a tie-breaking role, and so would create the BPW unless there was a moral reason not to.)

Malebranche takes the first option. He frequently speaks of "the perfection of God's ways." How would God's ways be imperfect if he created the BPW? According to Malebranche, it seems, the BPW is irregular - it has a lot of miracles. Personally, I think regularity is much more plausibly construed as a good-making feature of worlds than as a good-making feature of God's creative activity, so to my mind Malebranche's suggestion is a non-starter. Might there be some other deontological constraint that could stand in here? Well, perhaps we could use a modified free will defense: contrary to the usual free will defense, we allow that God could actualize the BPW, but claim that he could do this only by engaging in some morally objectionable meddling with the freedom of creatures.

Adams is, of course, well known for his work on virtue ethics, and, as might be expected, takes the second option. According to Adams, a being who created the BPW would not be displaying the virtue of grace. This virtue is displayed by treating people better than they deserve. But the beings in the BPW deserve to exist, and deserve to be treated as well as possible. We, on the other hand, do not deserve to exist, since we are not part of the BPW. So God acts graciously toward us by creating us at all, and also by treating us as well as he does. A nice feature of Adams's view is that it is easy to see how, on this view, it can be maintained that no one has a just complaint against God: the inhabitants of the BPW don't exist, and therefore can't have been wronged (even though, in some sense, they deserve to exist); we wouldn't exist in the BPW, and so can't very well complain about God's not creating it, since that would amount to complaining about our own existence.

[cross-posted at The Prosblogion]

Posted by Kenny at February 4, 2011 3:36 PM
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