Morally Sufficient Reason?

I like the ‘Hidden God’ and the ‘Problem of Suffering’ as arguments against God. The arguments are very simple: God should not hide Himself from us as convincingly as He does and leave our salvation to the capricious luck of faith; suffering caused by the whims of natural powers should not exist. But in response to both of these arguments there is a floating sentence fragment: morally sufficient reason. I’m not sure the people who use it are thinking it through.

If I want to do something, and I can do it, but I don’t do it then I don’t really want to or I can’t really do it. For example, if I want to fly and I might convince myself I can. But the truth is I can’t really fly. I might convince myself I want to cause a certain person a serious injury, and I certainly am capable of that. But I haven’t, because I don’t really want to hurt someone. If there is “morally sufficient reason” to stop me doing something (like hurting someone) then I don’t really want to–at least, I do not want to do it as much as I want to realise whatever the “morally sufficient reason” is. But if I were omnipotent, any semblance of exclusivity between the things I want and the morally sufficient reason not to do it can be overcome.

If I want to kill someone but I don’t want to be a murderer then I am simply wrong about what it is I want. It doesn’t mean anything to say I want to kill someone but don’t want to be a murderer. My action comes as a package and if I don’t want it, I don’t want it. And when it comes to killing a person my want to not be a killer considerably outweighs my wish to kill. I simply do not want that package. I don’t really want to kill someone. The balancing act one plays when they weigh up how much they want and do not want each element of a package like this comes across as moral confusion. But the answer does come down one way or the other.

So when an apologist argues that God has morally sufficient reason to allow immense suffering to engulf a community, including the little children, in a barbaric indiscriminate blanket of pain and misery (like a drought leading to starvation, or a mudslide that wipes out a village, or a tsunami that ruins multiple civilisations and leaves millions of families desolate and grieving) those apologists are saying this: the God that loves those people, like He loves you, did not really want to protect them from that. God thinks something nice, and somehow worthwhile, might come from that.

There is a stranger question, though. If God is moral, why would be ever want to do something immoral? And if He never wants to do anything immoral, why does He ever have morally sufficient reason to not do something He wants to do?

It is less complicated and more obvious in the ‘Hidden God’ argument. He wants to save us and has made it so that our salvation rests on belief. He, therefore, wants us to believe. But some of us need evidence to believe. So God wants to give us convincing evidence. Without the evidence some of us won’t believe, and without belief there is no salvation for us, and God wants us to have salvation. Therefore He wants to give us the convincing evidence. If He doesn’t really want to give us evidence, He doesn’t really want us to be saved—and that is not a benevolent God. If your definition of a God is inflexible I just broke it. If it is flexible, can you please explain where this leaves your definition of God? Lacking in benevolence? Lacking in power? Lacking in morals? Lacking?

Omnipotence and desire do lead to attainment. Else you are lacking in one of those departments.

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28 thoughts on “Morally Sufficient Reason?”

  1. “If I want to do something, and I can do it, but I don’t do it then I don’t really want to or I can’t really do it.”

    This is an interesting thought. But I wonder if you have considered a third option. You might have another reason for not doing it. Take an example.

    I might be unemployed and really struggling for cash. I see a wallet on the ground with $300 in it. But I take it to the police station without keeping any of the money.

    Did I really want to take the money? Yes I did. Was I able to take the money? Yes I was.

    So why didn’t I take it? Because I believed that would be wrong! (Or perhaps because i was scared I might get found out.)

    So clearly there is a third option. How do you think your argument needs to change to address that third option?

    “He wants to save us and has made it so that our salvation rests on belief.”

    I wonder whether this is what all believers think? Christianity says salvation rests on God’s grace. Again, how does this change your argument, do you think?

    1. “My action comes as a package and if I don’t want it, I don’t want it.”
      I obviously shouldn’t have to quote my post at you to point out that I’ve addressed the issue, so clearly I have not made this point as well as I had hoped. (Given your own philosophy, you may find no distinction between what you want and what you can do… but for now I shall assume the distinction is clear.)

      Let me take your unemployed person as an example: they either don’t want to take the risk of getting caught, or they have a strong moral sense–these are a part of the package of the decision to either keep the money or not. So your example person doesn’t really want the money. The same money given in a different context, I’m sure your example person would take it. But that assumes a different package to the decision.

      Take, as a related example, a person who says “I would do anything for £1,000” and then someone says “you can go to the homeless shelter and mug all the homeless people in there. That will make you well over £1,000”, to which my money-desperate example says “no”. They were simply wrong about what they would do and how much they wanted £1,000.

      So the change to my argument is the acceptance that God does not want to save us. Instead, He has prioritised something over us. And given the Bible as my source (other religious books may vary on this point), the thing that has been prioritised over us is the need for us to worship God; how self-aggrandising.

      If I am right about God’s priorities (and, given the Bible, I am) then it is akin to a parent not giving a child food until the child has declared their love for their parent, even if the parent is abusive. (And this analogy skips the question of whether we have sufficient reason to believe in God, which I think we do not. As such, I am not able to believe).

  2. Hi, I think you have demonstrated what I said, but not fully answered it.

    I said “… a third option. You might have another reason for not doing it.”

    So in the hypothetical, the two options you put forward were:

    1. They didn’t want the money.
    2. They couldn’t take the money.

    But now you agree with me there is a third option:

    3. ” they don’t want to take the risk of getting caught”. Which is another reason.

    Take the parallel with God. The two options you originally put forward were:

    1. He doesn’t want to stop suffering.
    2. He is unable to stop suffering.

    In the same way there could be another option:

    3. He has some other reason.

    The parallel is there. So I’m suggesting that if you want your “proof” to work, you might have to show that there could not be another reason. I don’t see where you have done that.

    BTW, just to clarify, I think the argument from suffering is still a good one, I just think you have oversimplified it and thereby made it look stronger than it is. (On the other hand, I think the hiddenness argument is terribly weak and “proves” very little.)

    Best wishes.

    1. I don’t agree. I’m not accepting a third option.

      You’re trying to separate the money from the package. “I don’t want the money if it means stealing it” makes perfect sense as a sentence, and as an idea.

      In my above sentence, it’s not just “money” (which you are trying to argue that it is) but it is stolen money. I want money, but I do not want “stolen money”.

      “Helpful but stolen money”. I am poor and hungry, so the money is helpful, so I want it. But it belongs to someone else and I haven’t earned it or gotten their permission, therefore I do not want it. Those two things then balance out, and you either do or do not want _the entire package_.

      If God has a morally sufficient reason to not protect us from certain things then He doesn’t want to protect us from certain things. If He really wants to protect us from certain things, then He doesn’t have sufficient reason not to.

      Not pursuing something because its consequence outweighs its benefit is basically the definition of not wanting something. (Sometimes the pull of a thing can be so weak that just the effort of pursuit is a sufficient push; sometimes attaining a thing is objectionable and that is a push in itself).

  3. “Not pursuing something because its consequence outweighs its benefit is basically the definition of not wanting something.”

    Well it seems definitions is where we disagree. But let’s try another example.

    We can measure hunger by certain physiological responses. If a person is hungry they want food. But they may still choose not to take it for (say) ethical reasons.

    If you want to say they don’t really want the food in that case, even when their stomach is rumbling and all the other physiological responses are occurring, then I suggest you are using words in a different way than people normally do, and I would guess contrary to how a physiologist would use them.

    I would have thought a better response would be for you to improve your argument, but it doesn’t really worry me if (as I think the above example shows) most people would find the argument weaker than it could be.

    1. No. I am saying that hunger is not the same as wanting food. You must make that claim for your previous comment to work. But it’s patently untrue.

      Hunger is a physiological condition that often results in a want of food.

  4. “Hunger is a physiological condition that often results in a want of food.”

    That is all I need. I don’t need for hunger to always imply want of food. I simply need it to be so in at least one case. You have agreed that is so.

    So a person can, in some circumstances, want food but not choose to take it.

    1. No.
      You said that a hungry person wants food, and may still not get it they have to breach their own moral code to do it.
      I am saying that hunger is not the want to food. Anorexia is a case in point, but so are that that go on hunger strikes.
      Being hungry may increase the benefit of eating, but you cannot be said to “want to eat” until the benefits to eating outweighs the consequences.

  5. Hi, I must say I am finding this a little confusing. Before I go any further, can I please ask you to clarify.

    You say “If I want to do something, and I can do it, but I don’t do it then I don’t really want to or I can’t really do it.”

    I take it that you are arguing that whatever one chooses is what one wants – that if one doesn’t choose then one doesn’t want. You reject the idea that someone could want two things and may have to choose one want over another.

    Is that correct?

    Thanks.

  6. Hi, sorry to delay getting back to you, but I’ve been out of town for a few days. I really doubt we can go much further with this because so much of what you say seems inconsistent and contradictory to me.

    You have agreed with my summary of your position: “whatever one chooses is what one wants – that if one doesn’t choose then one doesn’t want. You reject the idea that someone could want two things and may have to choose one want over another.”

    And yet you said back in your post: “…. I do not want to do it as much as I want to realise whatever the “morally sufficient reason” is”, indicating in that case that you could want two things and have to choose between them.

    This is in direct contradiction to what you are saying now.

    The dictionary is also opposed to what you are saying. You say “hunger is not the same as wanting food”, and yet several dictionaries defined hunger as ”
    the desire for food”, and of course “desire” is defined as “wish, want or craving”.

    Likewise the dictionary defines “want” as “feel a need or desire for”, whereas it defines “choose” as “pick by preference”. A secondary meaning is “want”.

    I think you are confusing choose and want. They are clearly similar in meaning in some contexts, but not the same, and quite different in other contexts. Your argument seems to require this confusion, and I can’t really see we can get any further because of this, and because of the clear contradiction above.

    Thanks for your time.

    1. I maintain that anorexics and people that starve themselves out of protest clearly show that hunger is not the same as a “want for food”. Unless you claim that anorexics aren’t hungry…?
      Hunger is a physiological and psychological condition that is–in a healthy person–related to the need to consume food for proper physiological function. The definition I just found is “A feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food”.

      And to reiterate my point again, if I make a decision between two mutually exclusive options they are two separate packages. To take the food option, consider Tony Nicklinson.

      Tony Nicklinson is a man who pursued the right to euthanasia and lost. He was very handicapped (locked-in syndrome as a result of a stroke). He decided to kill himself by starving himself to death. He would have been very hungry.

      What does it mean to say that he wanted to eat, if he patently did not want to eat? It would have solved his hunger-discomfort, but it would have kept him alive and he didn’t want that.

      Now, back to God. God can either protect a person from a landslide or can permit it. These are mutually exclusive. It is meaningless to say that God wants both–they are the opposite of each other. If permitting the landslide to kill me will convert and save an entire family then God wants to permit that landslide and my death. By definition of wanting this, He wants to not save me.

    2. Trying to follow along here and I may have gotten lost somewhere, but I think we can be able to do something we choose not to. And we can do things we feel morally wrong because we feel we have no choice. We could go with endless analogies but I believe the underlying issue is that what is the definition of all powerful?

      Can we “what if” a way for all this pain, suffering and evil to be……acceptable to an all powerful , all loving god? Hypothetically…..yes.

      What if all of this is a dream within a dream….and we awaken to something more?
      Seems a bit of a cruel game for many of us, but yet…..would that change how we viewed it all in the end? It’s a possibility I suppose….

  7. I’m sorry, but your reply doesn’t ease my confusion about what you are saying. You said in your post: “…. I do not want to do it as much as I want to realise whatever the “morally sufficient reason” is”. Can I ask you 3 further questions please:

    1. What you are now saying appears to contradict this. Are you now saying that the statement in your post was wrong?

    2. If not, can you please explain how the two apparently contradictory statements can be reconciled?

    3. If it doesn’t reflect what you think, can you please tell me:

    (a) How you would change it to reflect your true views?
    (b) What difference this makes to your argument?

    Thanks.

    1. I’ll take your non-wallet stealer as an example: he wants money. Neither of us deny that. But he does not want money if it does with the edifice if being a thief. It is a case of ‘I want money, but I do not what _that_ money’.
      My point is that wanting to realise a ‘morally sufficient reason’ to not do something more than you want do something is an exclusionary process. If A comes with B I do not want A.

    1. If I haven’t answered your questions I’m sorry. Do you care to clarify your questions? Because I am sure I’ve answered…
      You cannot want a thing and want something else that excludes it. You want one option, not the other.

  8. I asked you 3 clarifying questions in my previous comment. Hopefully answering them will either explain your view better or show that it is inconsistent. Thanks.

    1. 1. No. Regardless of whether you like, what I posted is consistent with what I have since said in the comments. I have clarified that point several times for you now. If you have 2 options that are exclusive of each other then the choice is not ‘A or B’, it is ‘A thus not B’ or ‘B thus not A’. (This is what I mean when I say that options come as a complete package, you are considering superficial options that don’t entail the whole package… So far as I can see.) how can I want A (and thus not B) and simultaneously want B? My want of A has excluded my want of B.
      2. Given my answer to 1 this question is not applicable.
      3. Given my answer to 1 this question is not applicable

  9. Hi, I’m sorry, but I think it is time to give up this conversation.

    1. In your post you talk about balancing two different “wants” (“…. I do not want to do it as much as I want to realise whatever the “morally sufficient reason” is”). i.e. you want two different things.

    2. In your subsequent discussion you say we cannot want more than one thing, the thing we finally choose (you agreed with my summary of your view: “whatever one chooses is what one wants – that if one doesn’t choose then one doesn’t want. You reject the idea that someone could want two things and may have to choose one want over another.”).

    3. These two views are contradictory. If “wants” is defined so that we cannot have two wants (#2), then that has contradicted #1 where we have two wants.

    4. Yet you still say the two statements are consistent, without explaining how.

    I’m sorry, but I cannot see any way any discussion can continue when you hold contradictory views and cannot ex[plain them or even see that they are contradictory.

    Thank you for the discussion, and for the courtesy you have shown throughout. Best wishes.

    1. I’m afraid I don’t see the contradiction like you do — we must just understand my words differently. But thank you for your discussion.

  10. Do you mean you can’t see a contradiction between saying someone cannot want 2 things and saying someone can want 2 things?

    For that is what you have agreed to and said, as summarised in my #1 & #2 above.

    1. So, I’ve had a long conversation with my brother about this and I’d like to reiterate that we are only talking about mutually exclusive options. I would also like to invite you to read the post again, especially the paragraph about killing someone, which includes the sentence “I am simply wrong about what it is I want”.
      I’ll take the God example again (because that’s why I put the post up at all). Whatever God’s morally sufficient reason is, it can be expressed as ‘the benefit of not protecting us from suffering’. If He wants to realise the benefit of of protecting us from suffering, it is entirely meaningless to say He simultaneously wants to protect us from suffering; both options exclude each other, you want one and not the other.

      1. Look, I’m sorry, but I see no purpose in discussing all the other things you are saying while you are saying that (i) wanting two separate things is possible (what most people would mean by “want”) and (ii) wanting two separate things is impossible.

        I cannot see any way those assertions of yours can be anything other than illogical. Which means that we still don’t have a satisfactory definition of want, not of what you actually think.

        I’m sorry, but how can a discussion proceed on that basis? Best wishes.

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