Thomistic Ethics and the Evil God Challenge

by Max Andrews

I finally weighed in with my thoughts concerning the evil God challenge set forth by Stephen Law.  My original post argued for two primary principles: 1) evil is the negation of good and requires no ontological grounding and 2) that everyone always acts according to what they believe is good.  (1) Certainly may appear as a mere assertion and it may be reversed and hence the problem of good.  I won’t be defending (1) in this post but I would like to explicate (2) more because I believe it is much stronger and (1) follows from (2) logically later on.

Thomas’ meta-ethic was that being and goodness are the same in reference but differ only in sense.  He follows Aristotle in making the connection between goodness and desirability.   “The formula of the good consists in this, that something is desirable, and so the Philosopher says that the good is what all desire.”[1]  Although all things desire goodness, not all things capable of pursuing goodness with understanding understand what really is good; it is possible for creatures with intellect and will to desire an apparent good as a real one.[2]

Something is desire in two ways, either because it is good or because it appears good.  Of these, the first is what is good, for an apparent good does not move by itself but insofar as it has some appearance of good; but the good moves by itself.[3]

Desirability is an essential aspect of goodness.  The perfection of anything is goodness and perfection is attained in actuality, “As regards nature the good of anything is its actuality and perfection.”[4]  Again, following Aristotle, goodness appears in the notion of that which desire culminates:

The end is that in which the desire of the thing acting or moving rests… But this is part of the formula of the good, that it fulfills desire, for the good is what all desire.  And so every action and every motion is for the sake of the good.[5]

Everything acts in accordance with a goal of actualization and perfection.  “Since anything desires its own perfection, a thing desires as its ultimate end that which it desires as the good perfecting and completing of itself.”[6]  Thus each thing aims above all at being as complete, whole, and free from defect as it can be.  The state of its being complete and whole, however, just is that thing’s being fully actual, whether or not the desirer recognizes it as such. Therefore, full actualization is equivalent to final goodness, aimed at or desired by every thing.  Speaking of human beings, Aquinas remarks:

Necessarily, everything which a human being desires, he desires for the sake of the ultimate end… whatever a human being desires he desires under the aspect of the good.  And if the good is not desired as the perfect good, which is the ultimate end, it must be desired as instrumental to the perfect good.[7]


Every action and every motion is apparently ordered in some way to being, either that being might be conserved in the species or the individual, or that it might be newly acquired.  For what being is is the good.  And so everything desires to be.  Therefore, every action and every motion is for the sake of the good.[8]

Following Augustine, Aquinas says,

Everything is said to be good insofar as it is perfect, for in this way it is desirable… But a thing is said to be perfect if it lacks nothing in accordance with the more of its perfection.  New everything is what it is by means of its form; and there are certain things presupposed by the form and other things that necessarily follow from the form.  Consequently, for something to be perfect and good, it must have a form, as well as those things that precede and follow from the form… Now the form is what is meant by species because everything is constituted in its species by means of its form… But an inclination to an end, either an action or something of this sort, follow from the form, because everything insofar as it is in actuality acts and aims at that which is appropriate for it in accordance with its form.[9]

So, how does this look with the evil God.  Law wants to exclude any ontological arguments, which is to divide essential aspects of what it is to mean “God” but let’s put that aside for the sake of argument (that alone, I believe, is a defeater for the evil God hypothesis).  Let’s assume that evil God acts within reality.  If Thomas is at all correct it seems that the evil God hypothesis is incoherent.  Well, God would have to be pure actuality, which is equivalent to good, and thus ontologically rules or evil God.  But, Law doesn’t like that so let’s keep going.  If every action is oriented to a final end (goal) then every action must be oriented to accomplishing that end, which is a good thing.  (I’m using right and good in the moral sense.  I’m not using right as a means of correctness.)  If evil God acts then it is good for him to act in accordance with his desired end.  Either it is wrong or amoral to act towards an end or he has no end or purpose in his action.  Or, evil God must not act in any way (not even potentially, as a deistic concept, for he would still have the ability to act but chooses to refrain).  It’s difficult to see how evil God could then be a person.

If it is good for evil God to act towards an end then how is this not incoherent?  Evil God cannot have the ability to do good otherwise his ontology is quite incoherent and should be dismissed.  If it is wrong for evil God to act towards an end (in sync with evilness and nature) then it’s quite difficult to substantiate why evil God acts in an evil way knowing it is the wrong (bad) thing for him to do.  If evil God has any end desire then (say, maximum evil in reality) is it right or wrong for him to attempt to achieve that end?

The evil God challenge, when examined on its ontological aspects, is quite incoherent.  A good God is completely coherent for it is good for good God to act towards his end, which is, say, maximum good.

[1] Summa Theologica 1a.5.1; Summa Contra Gentiles I37; Aristotle, Nichmachean Ethics I 1, 1094a1-3.

[2] Eleanore Stump, Aquinas (New York: Routledge, 2003), 62.

[3] SCG 1.37.

[4] Ibid., Stump, 62-63.

[5] SCG III.3.

[6] ST IaIIae.1.5.

[7] ST 1aIIae.1.6.; Stump, 63.

[8] SCG III.3.

[9] ST Ia.5.5.


17 Responses to “Thomistic Ethics and the Evil God Challenge”

  1. Surely people don’t always do what they think is good? People act against their own morals, their own goals and their own best interests.

    “I knew it was wrong/stupid/illogical, but I couldn’t stop myself”, people say.

  2. Hmmm I’m guessing a crude analogy might be that of heat and cold. Cold is just the privation heat. So cold would be evil. I still not sure I quite believe it as it seems that inaction is equal to absolute zero. Evil seems to be capabile of purpose not just the absence of good action.

  3. Right so I’ve been reading and I’m ready to recant. I’ll extend my silly idea of heat and cold to say that acts of evil are similar to “loosing heat” or becoming cooler.

    If this meta-ethic is right then Law’s evil God just wont work.

  4. “If evil God has any end desire then (say, maximum evil in reality) is it right or wrong for him to attempt to achieve that end?”

    If we posit a hypothetical God who creates sentient beings purely for him to torture for his own pleasure, I would call such a being evil. Arguments for such a being NOT being evil are either ignoring the generally accepted definition of the word or are engaging in sophistry.

    “acts of evil are similar to “loosing heat” or becoming cooler.”

    This is like saying rotting flesh doesn’t stink, it is just the absence of something sweet smelling. We give the name evil to acts of deliberate harm, or for selfishness, or acts that our culture has decided are anti-social or bad for the group. The concept is an emerging concept of sentient, social beings. It strikes me as mumbo jumbo to define it as an ‘absence or opposite of good’. One might as well call good the absence of evil.

    “Evil God cannot have the ability to do good otherwise his ontology is quite incoherent and should be dismissed.”

    A murderer who treats his wife well is still evil.

    ”  If it is wrong for evil God to act towards an end (in sync with evilness and nature) then it’s quite difficult to substantiate why evil God acts in an evil way knowing it is the wrong (bad) thing for him to do.”

    As I already pointed out, people act in ways they themselves believe are wrong all the time. Why not a God? Or a God might admit he was selfish and sadistic, but just not care, figuring ‘who’s going to stop me?’

    This is all similar sounding to Nixon’s “If the President does it, it isn’t illegal”.

  5. Andrew what do you care anyways? hence Evil doesn’t exist under atheism. Your whole description of “evil” is *Subjective* therefore your argument against God is worthless.

    Subjective opinions about morality are meaningless against an ontological circumstance of morality

    Atheism = Philosophically consistent with Nihilism

    1. The Universe doesn’t care if you live or die

    2. Realize the difference between “cognitive” meaning, and “objective” meaning. There is no “objective” meaning to life if there is no God. If there is, please explain

    Awaiting your emotional response…..

    • “There is no “objective” meaning to life if there IS a God”

      See what I did there, Mr self-confessed layman? You need to try a bit harder. Positing a God doesn’t add any extra meaning, value or morality that wasn’t already there.

      Also what’s the difference between a meaning and an objective meaning?

    • “Your whole description of “evil” is *Subjective* therefore your argument against God is worthless.”

      And your description is subjective too – subject to a God’s existence, whose own morals are no less arbitrary – therefore your own argument is worthless.

      And I’ve made no arguments against any Gods. Please pay attention.

  6. If there is an Evil god, then this god is capable of being a deceiver, which entails that our OWN reality is subject to a deception.

    • “If there is an Evil god, then this god is capable of being a deceiver, which entails that our OWN reality is subject to a deception.”

      So how would you ever know this isn’t the reality you’re in? Any evidence for a benevolent God could just be a deceptive evil God.

  7. Theology 101 for Andrew Ryan:

    “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless”

    – Bertrand Russell

    If intrinsic value does not exist from the outset, its emergence from non-valuable processes is difficult to explain. It doesn’t matter how many non-personal and non-valuable components we happen to stack up: from valuelessness, valuelessness comes. – Paul Copan

    How do “rights” or “values” emerge from valueless matter? Matter has properties (Shape, mass, color, texture, and so on), but moral value isn’t one of them.

    If God doesn’t exist, human dignity, worth, and moral duty must have emerged from valueless processes. In fact, and in contrast, from valuelessness, valuelessness comes.

    A Solely materialistic universe might produce in us feelings and beliefs of obligation – like the protection of our children or the survival of our species – but that’s a different matter from actually having such obligations we OUGHT to carry out.

    Goodness is bound up with personhood, and without the existence of a personal God (who created all other persons), no moral values would exist, period. Without this personal God, the source of all personhood, why think that moral values should appear on the scene? Moral values and personhood are intertwined.

    Philosophically consistent atheists are nihilists. The point I would make is not that they are depressing comments that these atheists make, but that they are consistent pieces of thinking based on atheistic premises – so congratulations to these thinkers first off for being honest at least in the verbal sense. However the fact that none of them can manage to live this philosophy they espouse. Not because it was “depressing” but because it is just completely self-evident that life is full of meaning and purpose and right and wrong and that is the philosophical and existential problem for philosophically adept atheism.

    Camus contended one must rebel against the logical conclusion on an existential and practical basis so he was the most honest that it was impossible. It would mean that one could only accept personal concerns for matters but no longer be able to argue for any rightness or wrongness about any significant matters due to the fact that one could not account for values or meaning beyond one’s only subjective account.

    Here are some *honest* Non-Theist who saw the absurd implications of non-theism:

    “Morality is herd instinct in the invidual”

    “I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.”

    – Fredrick Nietzche

    “We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I pointed out for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me…pure practical reason, even with good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.

    – Kai Nielson

    “Being is without reason, without cause, and without necessity”

    – Jean-Paul Sarte

    In a meaningless atheistic world you are not here for any reason and are not here to secure any goals but you can invent a bed time story, pretend you have a reason or goal for your accidental existence, pretend your every choice is not equally arbitrary, valueless and are not an accidental conglomerations of pointless matter in a random world.

    All atheist values and choices wind up being arbitrary (=contingent solely on ones discretion ).
    So, given our accidental and arbitrary existence, to continue in purposeful resolve, as if there was actually some rationale for preferring one course of action to another, is to take another atheistic leap of faith.

    Andrew when are you going to realize you are nothing more than rebel of nihilism?

    • Your post was one part ‘My life is meaningless without a God, therefore I assume everyone else’s lives must be lacking in meaning too’ to one part ‘here’s a bunch of quotes from nihilists’.

      I could reply with a bunch of quotes from Christians explaining how the bible means slavery is moral, to ‘prove’ you’re just a dishonest pro-slaver.

      Not once do you bother explaining why positing a God creates morality or meaning or make values any less contingent (clue: if something is contingent on a deity’s existence, it is still contingent).

      Come back with some arguments, post under an actual name, and I might take you seriously.

    • “but you can invent a bed time story, pretend you have a reason or goal for your accidental existence”

      Irony overload! Projection much?

    • “So, given our accidental and arbitrary existence”

      Nothing accidental or arbitrary about my existence mate, you’ll need to take that up with your parents.

      If I value something, by definition it has value. If your feelings for your loved ones are contingent on a deity then I’m sorry for them and sorry for you.

    • ” but that’s a different matter from actually having such obligations we OUGHT to carry out.”

      How do you get this ought you’re after by positing a God. To quote you, feelings of obligation perhaps, but no ought…

  8. At the risk of abandoning Max my analogy of hot and cold with good and evil was merely an effort for me to make sense of Thomistic Ethics as just that an analogy.
    If you have some references to a refutation of Thomistic Ethics then I for one would be glad to read them.

  9. Regarding point [2], this definition suggests that the substitution of apparent good over genuine good is a function of applied misunderstanding, something we “creatures of intellect and will” are extremely proficient at. However the property of omniscience precludes the possibility of misunderstanding, allowing genuine good to always be perceived. Regardless of Thomas’ philosophy’s applicability to us, it is not an observation that can be applied to anything with omniscience.

    As for desire being the basis of good, a desire can only exist until it is fulfilled. The property of omnipotence precludes the possibility of desire, as any desire can be immediately and completely fulfilled. To delay desire fulfillment would be to postpone the desire itself, not prolong it. So even if this relationship were to be established, it could not be applied in this instance.

    For that which is omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good, absolute good must be known, and if desired, becomes so.

    For that which is omniscient, omnipotent, and all-evil, absolute evil must be known, and if desired, becomes so.

    For either to settle for apparent good or apparent evil instead of the absolute possibility, or to delay or deny the instigation of said good or evil, there must be limitations upon the stated properties. And as these properties are absolute in nature, any dissolution would mean their elimination.


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