On the consequences of skeptical theism

Scott M Coley, Purdue University


Arguments from evil claim that the existence and prevalence of pain and suffering count as evidence against the existence of God. Some arguers from evil stake that claim on the following sort of argument. Where ‘E’ represents any inscrutable evil(s), e.g. the killing of an innocent, (1) If God exists then there is a good that morally justifies God in allowing E; (2) We don’t know of any good that would morally justify God in allowing E; (3) So there probably isn’t a good that would justify God in allowing E; (4) Therefore, God probably doesn’t exist. The theist, as such, will want to show that this argument doesn’t establish its conclusion. The skeptical theist attempts to do this by bringing skeptical concerns to bear on (any move like) the inductive inference from (2) to (3). The skeptical theist’s principal contention is that we shouldn’t think ourselves well enough acquainted with the sphere of possible goods, or the entailments that may obtain between that sphere and God’s permission of E, to be justified in drawing such an inference. The following attends to the moral-epistemological consequences of skeptical theism’s skeptical component (SC). CHAPTER 1 argues that SC is an undercutting defeater for any theodicical effort to explain why God might be morally justified in permitting E. In the course of that argument I lay out the internal logic of skeptical theism, setting the stage for the chapters to follow. CHAPTER 2 speaks to the imprecision of preceding attempts to demonstrate that SC implies moral skepticism. I narrow my focus to skepticism about whether any moral belief is epistemically justified (versus, e.g., skepticism about moral truth or grounds for moral action). I then circumscribe the range of moral theories that are broadly consistent with the moral commitments implicated in skeptical theism. These fall into three general camps: teleological (consequentialist, arêtaic); deontological; and threshold-deontological (according to which we have prima facie moral obligations that can be overridden by sufficiently weighty consequences). CHAPTER 3 addresses the skeptical theist’s prospects for claiming justified moral belief on any teleological moral theory. The argument of this chapter is novel in two aspects. Firstly, I grant that SC implies nothing beyond a sensible degree of doubt concerning our capacity to forecast the likely outcome of a given act. Secondly, my argument centers entirely on the skeptical theist’s axiological skepticism. So I argue that given SC, even if we assume that we have epistemic access to all morally relevant consequences of a given act and its alternatives, we still shouldn’t believe that we can discern its moral rightness. CHAPTER 4 brings this reasoning to bear on threshold deontology. Given SC, I argue, we have no reason for supposing that a given case is not one in which our prima facie moral obligations are overridden by some weighty consequential (dis)value of which we are totally ignorant. Finally, CHAPTER 5 argues that the skeptical theist must explain why, given a strict deontological moral outlook, God’s indelible moral duties might be so different from ours. (I consider agent- and victim-centered deontological theories and contractarian views.) Since the skeptical theist cannot do this (cf. Chapter One), she must either: confess ignorance of the moral principles that govern the moral rightness of our actions, which undermines justification for moral belief; or admit ignorance of God’s moral perfection, which undermines justification for theistic belief—i.e., the very thing that the skeptical theist sets out to defend.




Draper, Purdue University.

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