Friday, July 01, 2011


John Wilkins had a post up with this comic at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal on theodicy and the "omniscience,omnipotence,omnibenevolence" approach to it. It does do a good job, albeit I think unintentionally, of showing that this way of stating the problem of evil owes more to rhetorical parallelism than real substance.

As I've mentioned before the 'omnibenevolence' leg of the stool has no real existence prior to the nineteenth century; nobody attributes the term "omnibenevolence" to God prior to that. Indeed, even in the nineteenth century, the term 'omnibenevolence' is usually used in ways that are too weak to formulate any sort of problem of evil, since the term originally seems to have meant merely, 'wishing everyone well' with all the vagueness and flexibility that can have, and which is, in any case, hardly a distinctively divine attribute. The first Christian I've found using it in definitely something like the sense in which it is usually used is Robert Browning, who has Guido argue, in The Ring and the Book:

Let the law stand: the letter kills, what then?
The spirit saves as unmistakably.
Omniscience sees, Omnipotence could stop,
Omnibenevolence pardons, — it must be,
Frown law its fiercest, there’s a wink somewhere.

(I have found a few prior to Browning, like William Penn; but in each case the force of the term is either ambiguous or obscure.) But, of course, it's still functioning in a different way: Guido's point is that "there's a wink somewhere", the claim being that Christianity is just paganism on the sly -- a higher moral tone, yes, but it's all a mask to allow sin loopholes. That is, we don't have the problem of evil here; we just have an argument (not Browning's own) that Christian doctrine is a breeding ground for hypocrisy. It's really only in the twentieth century that one finds any Christians using the term in a positive context and in a way that suggests its use in the argument from evil; and these are clearly backformations. The real source of all this seems to be Hugh MacColl shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, who, while not really read today, seems to be the only source who was widely read enough and who actually uses the formulation for the argument from evil. (MacColl also is the first to respond to the problem by arguing that evil is necessary, in particular for the progress of the universe; which, of course, was the whole point of his putting the argument this way, since progress as an 'omnibenevolent' objective would have been a relatively easy sell, even if the necessity of evil for it wasn't.) Even the freethinkers don't use the term for the argument from evil much earlier than the 1890's.

In any case, even if this isn't so, as it's not a traditional term, and as the root word, 'benevolence', does not generally convey any particular necessity or specific duty, the question does arise as to why one would think that anyone is committed to holding that God is omnibenevolent, at least in any sense that would cause a problem with regard to theodicy. Indeed, it's not even clear what the term means; it could mean 'wanting good for people in everything' or 'wanting what is best for each and every person' or 'wanting what is best overall for everyone' or 'always acting with a view to another's good', or any number of other things. In order to make the argument from evil work it has to be strong enough to establish a duty or obligation; but 'benevolence', as I've said, is a weak word as it is used colloquially, so it's not helpful for extrapolating any meaning. Why then does it persist? Because of the rhetorical parallelism: it makes it sound more distinctively divine, and gives the illusion that it is structurally parallel either to omniscience or to omnipotence -- an illusion because it is never explicated in a way that would actually make it so. The argument from evil is really the claim that, given the existence of any evil, every good is in some key way useless or ineffective; the parallelism conveniently hides the fact that the crucial issue in the argument is not one's account of God but one's account of good. It wraps it all up in what looks like a tidy and memorable package. Never mind that it isn't actually tidy when you start asking critical questions; packages that are memorable have a power to endure, as cognitive science shows us, and memorizing formulaic labels is easier than remembering entire theories of the good or of good will, which is what actually has to be doing the work.

In any case, as I've also said before, the intelligent person, faced with a relative neologism like 'omnibenevolence', will ask for the underlying account of the term, and only move on the basis of the account, not the similarity of the word to other words.


  1. John Farrell2:47 PM

    Well said, as always. (Doesn't anything get you off balance?)  ;)

  2. John S. Wilkins9:05 PM

    However, you do have prior terms of art like "Providence" and "Plan" and a tradition of this being (or not) the best of all possible worlds. That the use of "omnibenevolence" is introduced in the 19th century (I remain unconvinced but can't be arsed check) doesn't undercut the point that the Euthyphro Dilemma basically relies upon omnibenevolence under some construal, as does the Epicurean dilemma.

  3. Leo Carton Mollica3:18 AM

    I don't really see how "Providence" or "Plan" in the end amount to omnibenevolence.  To say that one believes in Divine Providence is to say that one believes that God orders the cosmos, or that the world is subject to Divine government.  If that's what omnibenevolence is, then I'm not clear on how it makes the problem of evil intractable.

  4. James Chastek9:52 AM

    <span> "the Euthyphro Dilemma basically relies upon omnibenevolence under some construal, as does the Epicurean dilemma."</span>

    If this is right, then they also can fall by some construal of omnibenevolence too, which is part of what the post is claiming. Here are half a dozen things that would deserve to be called "omnibenevolence"or "infinite benevolence"

    1.) Being the source of any act of benevolence, actual or possible
    2.) Doing infinite good, that is, offering a good of unlimited value
    3.) Doing infinite good, that is, no good that can be done is left undone
    4.) Having a good of infinite worth proceed from ones will (in Trinitatian theory, the procession of the Third Person)
    5.) Giving a good which is required for any other good to exist or even be possible
    6.) To have a will that is essentially benevolent, by which all other wills are benevolent by participation.

    Only one one construal of "omnibenevolence" (3) does the omnibenevolence of God come into tension with the other two attributes. I don't see why, after we lay out all that the term can mean, that we can't just say "God is not omnibenevolent in the sense that the AFE understands omnibenevolence, but is still omnibenevolent".

  5. branemrys2:21 PM

    Leo's quite right. The problem with 'omnibenevolence' isn't that it's meaningless, but that it can mean so many very different things, and only a small subset of these are even remotely plausible candidates for an argument from evil; moreover, only a small subset of these even plausibly match any traditional religious view of God. And keep in mind that precisely what the argument from evil is supposed to be is an internal argument: all the parts of the argument have to actually, provably match up with the position criticized (in this case, monotheism of at least a common sort).

    In other words, the claim I'm making isn't that the argument from evil appeared in the nineteenth century; it's that the spread of the term has led to a standard form of error: namely, treating a single version of an argument as if it were 'the' argument from evil. Because 'omnibenevolence' hides what the argument actually is, it ends up being largely a rhetorical trick for making the argument from evil seem more unanswerable than it is by substituting a slippery term at precisely the point in the argument at which precision is required in order to know what is being argued. No one can answer an argument stated so vaguely, using terms that have no standard meaning, that no one can tell what precisely the argument is saying. But that's the wrong kind of unanswerability.

    And when we actually start cashing out the term into its underlying theory of good in any particular case, one finds regularly that either the argument is irrelevant to the kind of theism to which it is being opposed, or else there are already answers available, whose value needs to be examined in that particular context. But even if it were not, it's a line of argument that by its very nature requires a precision 'omnibenevolence' formulations don't  give. By all means give me updated versions of the Epicurean arguments against the Stoics or of Skeptical arguments against Neoplatonists; those at least had some solidity.

  6. Alfredo3:24 PM

    That the term is for the most part not found before the nineteenth-century is quite telling. In fact, if Google is at all accurate, it really only seems to have have hit it big within the last 50 years. The most interesting question is why in the world so many philosophers of religion still continue to hold to a version of God's "omnibenevolence" which generates this intractable form of the problem of evil. I suppose that, as you say, these philosophers simply accept an uncritical or unexamined view of what goodness is, and the version of God's goodness they embrace, which is something like human goodness writ large, is rather simplistic and easy to explicate and doesn't require much commitment to other philosophical ideas. It's actually not totally clear what they mean by human goodness either. Another reason might be because of an active rejection of classical theism (by classical I mean something like that of the ancients, scholastics, reformers, etc.) and all of its intricacies which allow for a more thorough picture where the problem of evil doesn't come into play. More metaphysical ideas of the good do not fit well into the type of theism that Swinburne, Plantinga, Craig, & co. adhere to. What do you think?

  7. branemrys4:27 PM

    It's a bit tricky to say. Analytic philosophy by its nature allows for so much stipulation that analytic philosophers can use the same terms, be quite precise in their meaning, and yet not really mean anything the same, and this makes it difficult to assess how things are as a whole. Traditions in a analytic philosophy tend to be quite short, anyway; the number of philosophers prior to  the twentieth century who actually held that knowledge was some form of justified true belief, are few indeed -- indeed, depending on how you understand the phrase, perhaps nonexistent. But it's regularly treated as if it had been the dominant position since the dawn of time. Things like this make me suspect that it's the conventions and expectations of contemporary philosophy that are the driver here, and the theological personalism (as it sometimes is called) is a result rather than a cause.

    So perhaps we could say it is really the reverse. Contemporary philosophy tends to encourage packaging things as easily isolated and stated centerpieces -- The Problem of Evil, Gettier Problems, Pascal's Wager,  The Problem of Other Minds, The Ontological Argument, The New Problem of Induction, etc. -- because these allow you to get very quickly (in journal articles, presentations and the like) to what is seen as the real philosophy,  which is the construction of concepts, definitions, and arguments and the attempt to persuade other people to use them, or at least regard them as interesting. There are a number of advantages to doing things this way, but this broader context puts some fairly severe constraints on what kind of natural theology (or any other robust philosophical field) you could have. In that sense, Swinburne, Plantinga, and Craig have the sort of theism they do because they are solidly analytic about their entire approach to theistic questions and problems, not vice versa.

  8. branemrys4:51 PM

    Exactly right: if we don't actually get the real underlying account, all the work is done by the positing of some (unknown) construal, which could be almost anything, that both (1) is what theists are committed to, at least, if they want to maintain certain traditional or common positions and (2) sets up some kind of conflict when combined with omniscience, omnipotence, and the existence of evil. Without the actual construal in hand, 'omnibenevolence' just ends up meaning, "Whatever it is that you have to posit to make the argument from evil a serious problem for theists." If some precise construal is given, then we can just ignore the term, or use it as mere shorthand for the sake of argument, and focus on the real argument. Unless it is shown that the theist is committed to the underlying account, the theist could deny it, or qualify it, or stipulate a new meaning for it without any modification of his theism, because it's essentially a nonce word.

    The more I think of it, the more I think that this modern presentation of the argument, if it had been intentional, would have been a stunningly cunning move. Because, after all, benevolence is a good thing, right, so (whatever it is) omnibenevolence must be an amazingly good thing, right? So are you really going to deny that your God is so amazingly good as to be omnibenevolent? If it were an intentional attempt to lay a purely verbal and rhetorical trap, it would be an almost perfect one: people often don't have the slightest clue what it actually means in a given context and will still feel awkward not accepting it outright as a characterization of God. It's as if people started formulating the argument from evil as the conflict between God's superawesomeness and the existence of evil. It's hard to deny that there's some sense in which someone might say God is superawesome if he doesn't allow evil to exist; and it's hard to deny that evil isn't an obvious sign of anything (whatever it might be) that we would likely call divine superawesomeness; and what theist worth his salt is going to feel comfortable denying outright that God is superawesome, whatever that might mean in a given context? Omnibenevolence is just like that, but more subtle; people would start getting suspicious about this vague superawesomeness, but omnibenevolence sounds like it must mean something definite.


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