Monday, June 15, 2015

Crisp on God's essential benevolence

Oliver Crisp writes:

. . . it need not be the case that an essentially benevolent being always acts in a benevolent way. God could be essentially benevolent without being benevolent to all God's creatures, and this seems to be a view that at least some Augustinians have espoused.

Naturally, this Augustinian counterclaim makes its own assumption, that essential benevolence need not be exemplified in every act of an essentially benevolent being. Is this plausible? If a particular being is essentially good, then does it not follow from this that all the acts of that being will be good? It does not. All that follows from this is that the acts of an essentially benevolent being will not be morally bad. For instance, it might that God permits a certain evil to occur that a greater good state of affairs might be brought about that could not otherwise be brought about without the actualization of the prior evil action. Thus, an essentially good God could allow evil for some greater good that would not be actualized without the presence of some prior evil, as in the case of the atonement. Moreover, it appears to be the case that there are some actions an essentially benevolent agent does that are morally indifferent, such as creating Smith with dark rather than red hair.

So, if it is the case that an essentially benevolent being has the property of essential benevolence but not that this being must therefore only ever act benevolently toward other moral agents, then God may be essentially benevolent but not benevolent to all human agents. For it might be . . . that in damning a particular number of reprobate, God brings about an objectively greater good that could not be actualized without the damnation of this number. As we have already seen, traditional Augustinians might claim that such greater good is the glory of God, brought about by the display of God's justice and holiness in the punishment of sin (Deviant Calvinism, pp. 109-10).

I think that this is mistaken.

In the first place, we must be clear about what goodness and benevolence are. Crisp's comments elsewhere seem to connect goodness and benevolence with keeping one's duties, for example when he says that it would not be contrary to God's benevolence not to save anyone who has sinned, since salvation is an act of grace and thus cannot be obliged (Deviant Calvinism, p. 147). But this is not what goodness and benevolence are; they have nothing to do with keeping duties per se. Rather, they are dispositions to act for the benefit of the other, especially so when she is undeserving.

Consider the way the term is used in these scriptural passages, in many of which it is connected to mercy and compassion:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6).

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord. Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way (Ps 25.7-8).

... in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy (Ps 68.10).

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me (Ps 69.16).

For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you (Ps 86.5).

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations (Ps 100.5; cf. 106,1, 107.1, 118.1, 136.1).

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
  slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
  and his compassion is over all that he has made (Ps 145.8-9).

To my mind it is clear enough that goodness and benevolence per se have nothing to do with keeping duties. Perhaps there are duties to be benevolent in some circumstances, but benevolence and goodness themselves go beyond duty. They are dispositions to act for the benefit of the other person, and especially so when the other person is undeserving. Thus you are not particularly good if only give each person what they deserve; but you are good and recognized as such if you go beyond the call of duty in order to act for another person's benefit -- e.g., housing strangers without a place to stay, selling your property to help the poor, etc.

Now if a person is essentially good, if it is a part of that very person's existence to be good, then it only makes sense that this should inform in some way or other everything that the person does.

Consider the analogous case of an essentially malevolent agent. Such a person would be malevolent in everything she does, ultimately if not proximately; her goal in life would be to act malevolently, and she would construct her very identity around her malevolence. She might do good to another, sure, but not for its own sake; rather, she does good for the sake of later doing an even greater harm. It would be contrary to her essential malevolence ever to act for the ultimate good of another person.

So also mutatis mutandis in the case of God.  If he is essentially good, then this goodness will inform everything he does. He may harm a person for the moment, but only for the sake of realizing a greater good through the harm. Ultimately, however, everything he does is for the sake of the good of the other person, because it is a part of his very existence to be good and to do good. In the same way that essential malevolence rules out acting for another's ultimate good, so also essential benevolence rules out acting for another's ultimate harm.

I judge it obvious enough that damning a person for eternity for whatever reason is acting for another's ultimate harm.