The Problem of Goodness and Hume's Hypothesis of Indifference.

David Hume offered us four choices about the moral nature of "the first causes of the universe." Either they are 1) perfectly good, 2) perfectly evil, 3) they are opposites and have both goodness and malice, or 4) they have neither goodness nor malice. Paul Draper calls the last choice the Hypothesis of Indifference, or HI.

Hume (through Philo) argues for HI in these words: "Mixed phenomena can never prove the two former unmixed principles. And the uniformity and steadiness of general laws seem to oppose the third. The fourth, therefore, seems by far more probable." [Dialogues, part XI].

When it comes to the opposite claims that "the first causes of the universe" are either, 1) perfectly good or 2) perfectly evil, it seems implausible to accept either of these extremes given the fact that we see both goodness and suffering in our world. This is what Hume calls "mixed phenomena," in that we see both goodness and malice in our world.

Those who argue that these causes are "perfectly good" have to explain why there is so much evil in this world, known as the problem of evil. Those who argue that these causes are "perfectly evil" have to explain why there is so much goodness in this world, known as the problem of goodness.

Let's consider the problem of goodness for Hume's second choice, placed in the context of a Supreme Being.

Why is there goodness, we might ask, in a world created by a malicious being? The answers provided would be the same ones that theists who believe in a perfectly good God use to explain the problem of evil, such as: 1) Goodness is the result of truly free actions. 2) Goodness is necessary for evil to exist. 3) Rather than this world being a place for “soul making,” it is designed for “soul breaking.” 4) Any good in the world will produce greater evils. 4) We may not know why this malicious Supreme Being allows goodness, but he knows what he’s doing.

But since the same arguments produce two opposite and contradictory conclusions, both conclusions are implausible…they cancel each other out.

To see this argued in greater depth, Stephen Law, the editor of Think, the Royal Institute of Philosophy Journal, has a dialogue called The God of Eth, which I recommend. He defends his argument from a further objection here, but I highly recommend you read his response to Richard Swinburne's objections here.

8 comments:

Michael Ejercito said...

The first cause of the universe defines morality.

Christopher M. Jourdain said...

Michael: "The first cause of the universe defines morality"

The words "malicious" and "benevolent" are amoral terms. The argument is not a moral argument. Most theists define God as benevolent. Nonbelievers then ask the question "How do you know that a benevolent being exists given the phenomena we observe?" It either entails complete benevolence, complete malevolence, a mixture, or indifference. Saying God defines the morality is not a relevant response because the question still remains as to whether the phenomena observed is consistent or to be expected from a benevolent being.

David B. Ellis said...


The first cause of the universe defines morality.



Elaborate and clarify please.


To see this argued in greater depth, the editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Journal, Stephen Law, has a dialogue called The God of Eth, which I recommend.


Thanks for the link. I was unaware of Stephen Law or his very interesting blog.

Michael Ejercito said...

Most theists define God as benevolent.
They are wrong. God certainly is not benevolent.

exapologist said...

I think Hume's point is right on the money. I remember how hard it was to resist it. But if the question is whether, looking at various large-scale hypotheses about the mixture of good and bad in the world, the Hypothesis of Indifference is by far the most natural interpretation of the data. As Hume puts it in Part XI of the Dialogues:

"Look round the universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious too the spectator! The whole presents nothinng but the idea of a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children."

Christopher M. Jourdain said...

Michael: "They are wrong. God certainly is not benevolent."

What does the statement "God is love" mean then?

David B. Ellis said...


The first cause of the universe defines morality.



Again, this statement is open to inunumerable interpretations. We can hardly analyze the claim if you don't make clear what you mean.

The most likely intent of the comment seems to me to be that what is or is not moral is determined by God (though why his being the first cause is relevent is far from clear).

Was that your intent? If so an actual argument supporting the claim would be appreciated.

If not, then, again, please clarify and elaborate.

David B. Ellis said...


They are wrong. God certainly is not benevolent.


OK. Then, in your particular God-concept, what is God:

Malevolent

indifferent

or something else (and if so, what?)