A Contract Theodicy

A theodicy is a justification of the ways of God to man. Most frequently, the term is used in discussions of the problem of evil. Succinctly stated this problem goes like this:

    1. God is all powerful
    2. God is Good
    3. Evil things happen
    4. God can and should prevent these evil things (from 1 & 2)

I don’t want to get into all of the intricacies of this debate. Generally speaking, Mormons “solve” the problem by in effect denying (1), claiming that there are metaphysical as opposed to merely logical limitations on God’s power. It strikes me, however, that there is another possible Mormon theodicy: An argument from consent.

In the grand council before the creation of the world, so we are told, two plans were presented, and we all made the choice to follow God and the plan of his son. As a result, we consented to come to earth, knowing that we faced a risk of evil and suffering. Perhaps we can justify the ways of God by arguing that we alienated any claim we might have against him by accepting the possibility of mortality.

There are – as you might have guessed – a number of objections that could be made to this argument. First, one might object to the notion that moral entitlements are alienable. Right is right, wrong is wrong, and we cannot by our act of consent change these facts. Perhaps. However, it seems to me that at least in part the concept of forgiveness can be understood as the alienation of an entitlement. When a person wrongs you, so the argument would go, you become entitled to some justice from that person. When we forgive a person we give up that entitlement. Now, I freely acknowledge that there are lots of other ways of understanding forgiveness. Most of them look at it subjectively. We forgive in order to avoid negative psychological effects or perhaps because holding a grudge deforms our character in some way. All well and good. I don’t see, however, that such subjective understandings of forgiveness require that we jettison a more objective notion of forgiveness as alienation of entitlement. If this understanding of forgiveness is correct, then we can think of our pre-mortal consent as being an alienation of entitlement like forgiveness.

A second objection is to claim that even if the notion of consensual alienation of entitlements is not per se in valid, the pre-mortal council did not constitute the proper conditions for a valid alienation. Thus, one might object that we couldn’t dicker with God, suggesting our own terms for the deal. You might claim that we were threatened into consenting – the alternative was to be cast out of heaven with Satan and his angles – so our consent wasn’t meaningful, etc.

These arguments, it seems to me, have some real traction. However, I am not sure that they are sufficient to throw the contractual theodicy out of court completely. First, it seems that the concerns about dickering, the inability to offer terms, etc. are a bit confused. We generally take those things as important because they are evidence that consent was meaningfully voluntary. However, consent can be meaningfully voluntary without those things. On the other hand, the harsh consequences of rejecting God’s position seem like more powerful argument.

At this point, I would argue for a kind of theoretical pluralism in our approach to the problem of evil. Even if a contractual theodicy standing alone is insufficient to “solve” the problem, it may make other approaches more compelling. (Even if in the end we conclude that those approaches are not themselves a sufficient answer – the addition of the contractual theodicy may make them less insufficient.) Thus, one might adopt the finitist position – there are certain kinds of evils that God cannot eliminate – in conjunction with the notion of consent. On this view, we become like climbers trapped on a ledge over a huge abyss. God throws us a rope and says, “This is the only rope that I have the ability to throw to you, and it may break. The choice is yours.” Even though this may not be a “real” choice because our options are reduced to certain death or accepting the risk, it seems that so long as God is not responsible for the shoddy condition of the rope that any claim we might have against him should the rope break is less weighty than would be a claim in the absence of our consent.

So what is the point of this little intellectual game. Not much really. It is fun. However, if something vaguely resembling this argument works, then we will have done a number of interesting and potentially useful things. First, we will have show that Mormon theology may have more to offer us on this problem than we had previously assumed. Second, we will have shown that the historical nature of Mormon theism is intellectually useful and interesting, since it allows us to make historical arguments (ie arguments based on the actual occurrence of some past event, rather than arguments made on the basis of ahistorical premises). Third, the structure of this argument – with its emphasis on consent, alienable entitlements, and voluntariness – is fundamentally liberal, and may provide a theological counter to communitarian thinkers like Russell and Adam who insist that Mormonism should be understood in purely corporate, communitarian terms rather than individualistic, contractual ones.

40 comments for “A Contract Theodicy

  1. April 30, 2004 at 6:02 pm

    I would disagree that Mormons deny (1). Saying God doesn’t stop us from being evil doesn’t imply He can’t–only that He has chosen not to for whatever reason (free agency, opposition in all things, have to know evil before you can know good, so on…)

    I’ve found most people who say that God should stop person X from doing action Y only apply it to people other than themselves–they would complain bitterly if God ‘stopped’ them from doing action Z even though other people would consider Z just as wrong as Y. If you take away some of man’s free agency where would you draw the line? Saying you are free to choose…as long as it’s one of the ‘acceptable’ choices means…well, you’re not free to choose. That’s Henry Ford style free-agency: “You can have any color car you want…as long as it’s black!”

  2. April 30, 2004 at 6:05 pm

    Not to nitpick, but I believe there was only one plan, as set forth in Abr. 3.

    What Jehovah and Lucifer did was volunteer to be the saviour within that plan (see verse 27). Lucifer further added that if he was the saviour he would “guarantee” the exaltation of all. As a reward for this accomplishment he wanted the honour of God’s position (see Moses 4:1).

  3. lyle
    April 30, 2004 at 6:16 pm

    So, to try and set out a “contractual” timeline to avoid future nitpicks (although I think Kim’s clarification is more valuable than a nitpick; perhaps this is all an elite/common distinction per the other thread?)

    1. God made an offer
    2. Jesus volunteered for the role of Savior
    3. Lucifer also volunteered, but…did so in a way that is analagous to a counter-offer.
    4. God rejected the counter-offer & accepted the offer of Jesus.
    5. Lucifer rebelled.
    6. The offerees (all of the spirit children of God) either accepted or rejected God’s initial offer. The acceptees sided with God. The rejectees wanted to accept Lucifer’s counter-offer…which was never valid because God never accepted it.
    7. Lucifer lost & was cast out.

  4. April 30, 2004 at 6:17 pm

    Kim: Based on the Book of Moses, I think that many Mormons believe that Satan presented his own plan in which there would be no freedom, risk, etc. James E. Talmadge, for example, talks this way in Jesus the Christ.

  5. David King Landrith
    April 30, 2004 at 6:31 pm

    It seems that the bottom line of your analysis is that the world is bad because any state of affairs in which the world is better would actually be worse; i.e., Liebniz’s notion: “This is the best of all possible worlds.”

  6. April 30, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    Nate, I think a variation of (1) is required for there to be the potential for a contractual relationship. However that is fairly debatable so I won’t push it too much. I know many would disagree with me.

    In addition though, it seems to beg the question of why God gave the contract he did. Why wasn’t a better contract provided? If a better contract was *possible* then God is evil for not providing it. So I think it appears to solve the problem by merely brushing it under the rug.

    We are left with a variation of Leibniz’ best possible world only transformed into the best possible contract. But that then raises all the traditional arguments by atheists against this being the best possible contract *unless* God is limited.

  7. April 30, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    No David it is not. Liebnitz never argued that we in anyway consented to the current state of affiars.

  8. April 30, 2004 at 6:46 pm

    Clark: One of the odd things about the consent argument is that it divorces the question of our personal moral entitlements from the abstract question of God’s goodness. I suppose that it comes down to two issues:

    1. If God could offer a better contract, are we still in a position to question him given that we HAVE accepted the contract that he did offer?

    2. If God was incapable of offering a better contract is the world still a more morally defensible place because we consented to it rather than simply having it imposed upon us?

    Giving an affirmative answer to (1) is difficult. On the other hand, it seems like an affirmativ answer to (2) is both correct, and different from simply changing the word “world” to the word “contract.”

  9. April 30, 2004 at 6:46 pm

    To add to Nate’s comments, Leibniz didn’t have truly free agents. Rather his monads acting in accord to pre-established harmony.

    While I’m glad you offered lots of caveats in your post Nate, I’m not sure this really resolves the reason for the question of the problem of evil. This is less the notion of evil in the abstract than the question of “why *these* evils?” I think the Mormon answer that it is necessary to our growth, thereby limiting God who can’t progress us in any other way. That, to me, is a very powerful answer. That’s not to downplay to place of contract in establishing a joint responsibility. But I don’t think that really ends up being significant to the problem of evil, merely the problem of responsibility.

  10. Jared
    April 30, 2004 at 6:50 pm

    Nate: interesting idea. 2 questions:

    1. Does your theory presuppose that God is indeed omnipotent, or is omnipotence actually irrelevant under a contract theodicy? It seems to me that omnipotence is still an issue because the contractual model assumes that God will not breach the contract. I guess my real question is whether under a contractual model God is actually bound by some metaphysical contract law? He does after all say in the D&C that he is bound when we do what He says. It thus seems that for your theodicy to work you still have to deny number 1. Again, I don’t if you really care about omnipotence or not, but you did say in your post that you were trying to present an alternative to denying omnipotence.

    2. What about the notion of mistake (of fact not law) as it relates to consent? As you know, unilateral mistake does not render a contract voidable except where the mistake is due to the fault of the other party or the other party knows or has reason to know there is a mistake. I’m wondering if you think that the mismatch of knowledge between God and premortal spirits makes voidable consent inevitable. Could someone have given “informed consent” to be born to live in abject poverty somewhere in the third world with no chance to learn the good news of Christ without knowing at all what that would be like? As you are all aware, we do not generally allow minors to consent to sexual intercourse with adults. “Statutory rape” is usually a strict liability crime, with virtually no exceptions. We also generally don’t allow minors to enter into contracts. Why? Because we believe that minors lack either the knowledge or wisdom to give consent. I think this is arguably analagous to a consent to suffer given to an omniscient being by an unexperienced premortal spirit.

  11. David King Landrith
    April 30, 2004 at 6:56 pm

    You’re right that Liebnitz never discussed consent, but only because his argument was more abstract than that. It still seems to me that you’re arguing essentially the same thing. Allow me to restate what seems to me to be the basic structure:

    The world is awful (sodomy, violence, blasphemy, people who don’t do their home teaching, etc.) because any state of affairs in which the world is better (no sodomy, no violence, no blasphemy, no people who don’t do their home teaching, etc.) would actually be worse (no free agency).

    I think your appeal to consent presupposes free agency, and therefore I’d have to say that it’s circular.

    On a side note, didn’t Abraham dicker with God?

  12. David King Landrith
    April 30, 2004 at 7:00 pm

    Clark: I agree that I don’t see any similarity between Nate’s view and monadism. However, I think that Liebnitz’s “Best of all possible worlds” point of view can be considered quite apart from monadism.

  13. April 30, 2004 at 7:04 pm

    But Nate, surely we can question God if he provided an evil contract. After all, the question of evil is about the responsibility for God’s actions. While we may indeed be stuck with our decision that doesn’t mean we can’t analyze the issue of whether God is actually good.

  14. April 30, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    David, I’d have to break out my Leibniz to see the relationship. But certainly we can conceive of the idea independent. And in that I think I followed you, merely changing it to the best of all possible contracts. Which, it seems, it demonstrably is not unless God is limited.

    Regarding the appeal to agency, I agree that Nate’s approach presupposes that and the tradition responses to the problem of evil. Mormons, however, have the additional issue that our existence isn’t dependent upon God the way it is for most Christians. I think that inherently limits God as a logical fashion. So I don’t see why we wish to avoid a limited God.

    The real issue for evil though is less freely chosen evil than natural evils (IMO). i.e. why these bodies, why these instinct, why this planet.

  15. Gary Cooper
    April 30, 2004 at 7:20 pm

    Here’s an issue to bring up here, and I’ve got to leave so I’ll have to go online later to see your comments, but here goes. Most of the early Brethren, and certainly many LDS today believe that our world is not unique; that Heavenly Father has created other “earths”, with spirit children just like us, who are saved also by Atonement (either Christ’s atonement, or somebody else’s atonement, early church leaders speculated either way). Under this scenario, the “contract” God offered is the one He *had* to offer, because that’s how *all* worlds are saved. Christ was stepping forward as the Firstborn, as was His right, to fulfill the eternal plan, the only plan. Satan would have been acting as a usurper—but let’s go a step beyond that: is Satan unique? That is to say, perhaps on every world, when Man falls and their is agency, but on no other world has evil been *organized*. Is it possible that Satan’s uniqueness is the reason God tells Enoch in the Book of Moses that His children here are the worst of all his children?

    Let’s lay this out, then. The Father explains to all of us how the Divine Plan works, how with agency we will make mistakes that turn us away from God, but He will send Jesus to atone, so by faith, repentence, endurance, etc., we can be exalted. Then a new development—a spirit (and not just any spirit, but one with real brains and authority) rebels in the first estate. God can see what this will mean for us, but under the Law of Agency, which is co-eternal with Himself, He has to permit Satan agency (at least in the first estate), too. Satan rebels, is thrown down, and takes billions of spirits with him. This is a new and unique development (John A. Widstoe said is was a unique challenge for the Father), which will mean we will have it *worse* than anybody else ever had it before. Still, God knows the Atonement can overcome this, and reassures us, but warns us that things will be very bad, but to trust Him.

    Now this might explain some issues. God *is* limited by eternal laws that either preceded His own godhood or are at the very least co-sternal with Him, and on which He depends to be God. Everything worked fine on other worlds, but Satan’s very existence makes our situation uniquely bad. The Atonement still works here, but with Satan able to direct evil generation after generation, with billions of demons at his command, the results of evil will be a thousand times worse. In effect, God is saying, “Look, it’s not my fault Satan rebelled—he had agency too, and I could not just destroy him. If this means you will suffer more, it also makes your victory greater.”

    Wow! So much specualtion here, but I hope it can be seen how this ties in with the subject of the original post. I’ll be very interested to see the responses later this evening.

  16. April 30, 2004 at 7:21 pm

    David: You are correct that the argument presupposes free agency, but I don’t think that it takes agency as either a maximand of the contract or a justification for it. Rather, the claim is that consent (which is obviously logically dependent on the idea of freedom but also not logically identical with it) provides a partial justification for the current state of affairs. The argument would be circular were it to assume that our consent both gave rise to and justified our free agency. This is not, however, the claim that I think I am making.

  17. Scott
    April 30, 2004 at 7:37 pm


    The example of contracts with minors is useful. (As a minor correction, though, in most jurisdictions minors can contract, but their contracts are voidable.) So is the question of capacity. Without having a physical body and without knowing right from wrong, it’s hard to imagine we could appreciate all relevant facts in order to make a rational decision.

    There are also possible claims of contrariness to public policy or illegality. We can’t contract for the sale of a baby, to have our next-door neighbor killed, for a party to be indemnified for his own gross negligence or willful misconduct, for usurious interest, et al. If modern American contract law is our model, then there would be serious problems with the contract we entered into with God.

    The hammer of law is not the best tool for a lot of conceptual tasks. Sometimes it’s merely inefficient. Other times it destroys the project.


  18. Nate Oman
    April 30, 2004 at 8:00 pm

    I love contract law as much as the next guy. (Truth be known, I probably love it more than the next guy.) However, while it is a useful way of thinking about a lot of problems, I think that importing too many doctrinal categories into this discussion is confusing.

    For example, I am not claiming that there is an “enforceable agreement” only an entitlement of some kind that can be consensually alienated.

    The issue of capacity is, I think, valid. The question is how much must one be able to understand in order to meaningfully consent. The answer — I would point out — cannot be perfectly, otherwise it would be impossible to alienate any entitlement growing from future risk.

  19. Ben Huff
    April 30, 2004 at 8:15 pm

    “I would argue for a kind of theoretical pluralism in our approach to the problem of evil”

    — I’m totally with you there.

  20. Ben Huff
    April 30, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    “I would argue for a kind of theoretical pluralism in our approach to the problem of evil”

    — I’m totally with you there.

  21. Ben Huff
    April 30, 2004 at 8:27 pm

    Okay, Kaimi, I get different performance when I use the “Comments” link and then post than when I use the “Continue” link and then post. The first method generates a pop-up window and then no apparent response at all to clicking “Post” in Safari, nothing like the clear signs of responsiveness of the second method. I wonder if the same is true in other browsers. Feel free to delete both this comment and the duplicate above once you’ve read them.

  22. April 30, 2004 at 8:36 pm

    Ben & Kaimi, they hardly work at all in Mozilla/Firefox. BTW – sorry I didn’t return your call last night. My wife was on the phone until after 11 when I was at the gym. I’ll call you this weekend.

  23. David King Landrith
    April 30, 2004 at 8:37 pm

    Nate: I think your circle goes like this: If you have free agency, it’s because you consented; if you consented, it’s because you have free agency.

    Moreover, if free agency existed before we consented the plan of salvation, then all of the evils that accompany free agency supposedly existed before the plan of salvation. Therefore, they exist independently of our consent at the grand council. Unless God made an offer to either eliminate these evil or shield us from it, our consent never enters the picture.

  24. Ben Huff
    April 30, 2004 at 8:53 pm

    For this comment, I assume finitism is combined with the contract theodicy and consider whether consent helps . . .

    I am trying to get clear on just what the consent adds to the story about the rope. As far as making God’s action more justified in some objective sense, I think it doesn’t really help. Suppose I’m lying on a ledge, unconscious, with my climbing partner. Or perhaps I’m paralyzed with fear, and don’t meaningfully consent. Someone lowers a rope, my climbing partner hooks me to it, and I am hoisted part-way up, but then the rope breaks. If the rope was the only way for me to get off the ledge, I think the person who lowered it is just as free from guilt as if I were conscious and had been warned. I even think this would be true if I *opposed* the decision, if it truly is the only option. And we should remember that opposing it, if it’s really the only option, must be either irrational or due to ignorance or something similar.

    I also think that if God knows there is a better way, but still uses the unreliable one, then our consent does nothing to help, objectively speaking.

    So I don’t think the consent helps in any objective sense.

    But I think the consent makes a huge difference if what’s at stake in the problem of evil is not whether God is objectively justified, but whether we individual humans accept and trust his goodness and power. And our acceptance and trust in his goodness and power is key to salvation. So in that sense the consent issue really helps.

    The problem is that our present consent is what is needed for salvation to come about, not our past consent! Telling me I agreed before may have some persuasive force for securing present consent, or just helping me imagine consenting, and thus making it easier for me to consent now. But that doesn’t seem to be your aim. Where does that put us?

  25. April 30, 2004 at 11:33 pm

    “…I think that many Mormons believe that Satan presented his own plan…”

    No argument from me there.

    It should be noted, however, that because many member believe a certain thing does not make that thing true. If there was one thing I learned on my mission in Utah, it was that very principle. ;-)

  26. May 1, 2004 at 10:06 am


    I admire how you put this. Of course, we’ve been through this before, and my objections haven’t really changed. I think the idea that forgiveness might be like the abandonment of a merited claim to be strange, not to mention disturbing. As for “consent”–for it to do the work you suggest that it can do, wouldn’t one have to believe that we had some sort of real input into the contract? (You fiddle with this point somewhat, but admit that it remains at problematic, to say the least.) I can go along with you insofar as the spirit of “theoretical pluralism” goes. But there remains one (in my view huge) obstacle.

    You begin your list of possible objections to a contract theodicy by allowing that moral entitlements may not be alienable. By so doing, you leap over the largest (and, I think, most dubious) assumption of all: that “entitlements” exist in the divine realm. For my part, I do not understand how it is that I can have a claim on God; that I am in possession of anything which demands His respect or compensation; that I have any “holding” which is independent of His willing and which is therefoe available for purposes of moral calculation. True, our (non-canonical, I should note) theology teaches us that we are, in some fashion or another, co-eternal with God, which would imply that we have some sort of standing separate from Him. But even if that’s so, I don’t see why it follows that such a standing would empower me to expect anything from God. Such an expectation of respect/calculation seems to assume at least a relevant identity between agents; from what I can tell, however, the identity between God and myself, especially in my presumably premortal quasi-unembodied state, would be so minimal as to have practically no traction whatsoever. I suppose I’m entitled to my existence–though, given what our (equally non-canonical) theology has to say about the nature and ultimate destiny of Lucifer and the sons of perdition, perhaps in the long-run no one is truly entitled to even that.

    I realize that many are comfortable with the language of “entitlement” even in situations of radical dissimilarity: e.g., children having a “claim” on their parents. In an ordinary sense, I’m willing to use that language myself. But in terms of providing a theological analogue, my response would be twofold: 1) that the gap between God and His children is radically greater than the gap between me and my children, and 2) that–as I’m sure you’re aware–the importation of contractual rights-based language into family relations, with its attendant undermining of the language of positive role-based obligations and duties, has hardly been an unambiguous gain in the family realm.

  27. May 1, 2004 at 6:31 pm

    Well, what if evil and sin and the harm they cause wasn’t significant in any eternal sense?

    I’ve used this analogy before, but I hit my thumb with a hammer in third or fourth grade. I thought the pain would last forever and had serious questions about what kind of world would allow me to experience such a terrible thing.

    I’m not sure that there is any suffering in this life that has significant duration from the viewpoint of eternal beings who dwell outside of time.

    I do know that during my weight lifting workouts, twice a week, I experience more pain than I did with the hammer and I don’t think of it as meaningful.

    I suspect that in a thousand years I’ll have a perspective on this life’s ills that is as removed as the one I have now is from when I was a kid.

    I know teens who whine as if they were to die over two degrees difference in air conditioning temperatures. Is God therefore unjust?

  28. May 1, 2004 at 9:25 pm

    I am affraid that I don’t have time to write much in response, especially to Russell and Ben, who do me the honor of offering some good criticisms. I would, however, pose one question for Russell:

    It seems that by arguing that we are not entitled to ANYTHING from God that you are side stepping the entire problem of evil in a way I find disturbingly Calvinist. (Too long in Mississippi and Arkansas, perhaps? ;->) Does your view allow us to affirm that there are any evils at all? How is it possible to keep from slipping into simple fatalism?

    I have been thinking about Ben’s comments today, and I will try to post something later…

  29. May 1, 2004 at 10:37 pm

    I don’t know that it is relevant to the discussion between Russell and Nate, but though I am reluctant to agree that we have claim on God, I am not reluctant to say that he has an obligation to us. My argument for the latter looks like this:

    To speak of the righteousness of God is to speak not only of the fact that God has made it possible for us to fulfil our covenantal obligations. It is also to speak of the fulfillment of his divine obligation.

    Such an idea is bothersome to many. Traditionally, many Christians have been loathe to ascribe obligation to God. In fact, one of Paul’s major points is that we cannot obligate God by our obedience, because to do so would be to leave our positions as slaves. It would be to make God a debtor to us. (See especially Romans 4.) However, Jews have not been afraid to see the Divine as obligated to humans. Old Testament prophets called on God to fulfil his obligation to his people. In fact, in verse seventeen [of Romans 1] Paul quotes from Habukkuk 2:4, where the Lord replies to such a remonstration. [. . .] In Habakkuk 1, the prophet, Habakkuk, remonstrates the Lord for not fulfilling his covenantal obligation to protect Israel from her enemies. The tradition of the righteous person who remonstrates with the Divine is an important element in Judaism. And such remonstration is not alien to our own religious tradition and experience. (See Doctrine and Covenants 121:1-6.)

    However, for the Divine not to be obligated by our obedience does not mean he is not obligated to us at all, obligated by his word, by his covenant, for example. That is how I understand what the Lord means when he says that he is bound when we do what he says (D&C 82:10). For one thing, any reasonable notion of covenant implies an obligation without which there can be no meaningful covenant. For another, there is the obligation of the Creator to his creatures, the obligation of parent to child, an obligation equally unearned by the creature or child but nevertheless very real.

    One could argue, in fact, that the notion of grace (for now “loving kindness”) implies not only the absence of earned reward, but also the notion of moral obligation on the part of the one who offers grace. Without the moral obligation of parent to child and the obligation that comes with being a covenantor, any gift given by God would be merely arbitrary. It would not be a demonstration of his justice and righteousness, of his love. If to love someone is to be obligated to that person (though not necessarily by that person) and God loves us, then he is, in a very real sense, obligated to—but not by—us.

    Sorry for the long quotation. It is from _Romans 1: Notes and Reflection_, page 63.

  30. May 1, 2004 at 11:19 pm

    “Does your view allow us to affirm that there are any evils at all? How is it possible to keep from slipping into simple fatalism?”

    I’m not sure how these follow from my claim. I mean, maybe they do, but I don’t see it. Let us say I believe in a God who loves me, but does not, strictly speaking, “owe me” anything. (Which basically is what I do believe, at least a good portion of the time.) In such a state of affairs, I don’t see how I could believe that my “consent” (if we want to call it that) to God’s plan could possibly serve to justify my condition under that plan; since I’ve no standing apart from that which God gives me, I’ve no property or expectation (no “entitlement”) as an individual that I could agree to alienate in exchange for what God offers. What He offers is what I take, because He’s God.

    How has that undermined the concept of evil, or turned all possible theodicies to fatalism? Can’t I still identify how my and others’ choices lead to ends contrary to God’s commands, and desire it to be otherwise? Can’t I still wonder what portion of all the seemingly random suffering in the world was positively willed by God, and what He merely allowed to happen because of (as you put it) metaphysical and/or logical restrictions He places on Himself, for whatever reason? Couldn’t I still mourn for the evil I and others suffer, even if I recognize I have no “purchase” on it? Can’t I still cry out like Job? (The story of Job is actually fairly on point here: he suffered, was told by his friends that he must have deserved his suffering, cried out to God demanding that he be justified, and then he and his friends were all condemned by God, his friends for trying to explain God’s ways, and him for expecting justification. Job agrees with the condemnation, and repents. The morale of the story clearly isn’t “don’t worry about evil”; rather, it is “well, that approach certainly doesn’t work.”)

    I suppose you could say it’s still just “fatalism,” but if so, it’s a fatalism which, so far as I can tell, is nonetheless capable of identifying evil, and struggling with it, and over it.

  31. May 1, 2004 at 11:20 pm

    Jim, thanks for the quotation. There are aspects of your reading of Romans 1 that I’ve struggled with, but this isn’t one of them. I fully agree with what you say, and I don’t think it contradicts anything I posted earlier. Following Nate’s contractual model, I argued against the existence of an “entitlement” or “claim” or “standing” on our part; I don’t think I ever criticized (and if I did I was wrong) the idea that positive obligations TOWARDS us exist on the part of God. But, to summarize what you put so well, that obligation arises out of covenantal condition, not an agreement between agents who share some sort of mutual interest. God’s love for us binds Him to us–so while we can’t claim, so far as I can tell, to merit any response from Him in regards to the evil of this world, He will respond with grace to our complaints about the world nonetheless, because His love obligates Him to do so.

    I suppose (to drag my response to Richard’s “Grand Alliance” post in here) that we might disagree as to whether God should be understood to have been put into a “dependent” relationship with His children by His perfect love for us. If I understood your response to my comment correctly, you would say yes: God gains from the fulfillment of His obligations. I’m not sure I can go there. But that’s a different discussion anyway.

  32. Ben Huff
    May 1, 2004 at 11:26 pm

    Nate, this is sort of a meta-remark. The relevance of contract and consent I think is very tricky. Obviously consent is very important for some parts of God’s plan to work out, and I’m sure consent is also an important part of what makes many other actions right or wrong. But the importance of consent I think is very different when you’re dealing with parties all of whom have imperfect knowledge, than when God is in the picture, who has perfect knowledge. I honestly think in many cases among mortals consent comes in as a sort of mask for some other process whereby one might try to determine whether the course of action is right. In a way it is an appeal to a “reasonable man” standard — the action is apparently reasonable, and a reasonable effort has been made to assure it is reasonable, if all concerned consent to it. But such a fudge factor for ascertaining rightness is irrelevant to evaluating God’s action, since he presumably knows well enough that our agreeing with him doesn’t add any credibility to his opinion or suggestion.

    If one can separate out the ethical role from the epistemological-ethical role of consent, and then analyze, one may get some really interesting results! This might make an interesting article for _Faith and Philosophy_ (or _Element_, of course)

  33. May 2, 2004 at 11:40 am

    Ben, I agree that what you propose would make an interesting article. However, I strongly doubt it would be a persuasive one; if “consent” is to have any “contractual” aspect to it whatsoever, at least as traditionally understood, then the ethical force of said consent is entirely tied up in a certain epistemological condition. (See Sandel’s criticism of Rawls on this point; Rawls’s standard of “reasonableness” was entirely a function of his epistemological assumptions.) To separate the ethical from the epistemological aspects of consent would either make consent meaningless in contractual sense, or would require a new (more covenant-like) definition of “contract.”

  34. May 2, 2004 at 10:32 pm

    Russell: Three points. First, I think that your comments about rights-based conceptions of the family, etc. are a bit overdrawn. I am not talking about the wholesale importation of liberal vocabularies, ie rights talk, etc. You will notice that I was careful not to use the “r” word at all, focusing instead on the idea of entitlement. I am not sure that this is as pernicious as you seem to suggest. Surely it makes sense to say that children are entitled to love, support, protection, etc. from their children.

    Second, I think that the arguments made by Blake that you invoke re the nature of intelligences may rest on a confusion. The problem is that the scriptures use the term “intelligence” and “intelligences” in equivicol ways. Thus it does not seem to mean the same thing in section 88 that it means in section 93 that it means in the Book of Abraham and KFD. Blake seems to argue that the Section 88 and Section 93 give him license to dismiss the understanding in Abr., KFD, BY, and B.H. Roberts as simply a mistake. Perhaps Blake is right, but it is far from obvious and given the weight of tradition in favor of the KFD, BY, B.H. Roberts reading, such a reading is hardly illegitimate.

    Third, Perhaps most fundamentally we have differing views on the question of self-ownership. I take it that the affirmation of the eternity of intelligences and the denial of the ex nihilio creation of the soul by Mormon theology entails some eternal notion of self-ownership. I take it that you deny this basic proposition.

    BTW, I think that you are simply wrong about the importance of being able to influence the terms of a contract. It seems to me that the important question is whether or not consent is meaningful. The ability to exert significant influence on terms may be a sufficient condition for such meaningful consent, but sufficiency is not necessity. Rather, it seems to me that the key inquiry is whether or not there is some meaningful ability to refuse consent.

  35. May 2, 2004 at 10:34 pm

    Ben: You have persuaded me that the rope analogy is not especially useful. What I am trying to get at are cases where consent matters. It seems to me that we have a number of different possibilities:

    1. Consent can make some course of conduct morally obligatory which is otherwise morally indifferent, as in a promise. (Note: I think that consent and promise are two different categories, and I think we have to be careful about confusing the two. The philosophy of contract law suggests that great confusion can result when we get too hung up on the idea of promises.)
    2. Consent can justify the alienation of an entitlement where alienation would otherwise not be justifiable. The obvious example is the alienation of a piece of property, but this category is much larger and may subsume all others.
    3. Consent can justify an otherwise risky and questionable course of conduct.

    It seems to me that your analysis essentially denies the possibility of (3): we either make promises or doing something else in which consent creates moral obligations out of whole cloth, or we are justified and consent adds nothing. Perhaps you are correct, however…

    It seems that there are some cases where we care about consent, even though the course of conduct may be otherwise justifiable. Perhaps an obvious example is intrusive medical care. Normally, I take it, we think that you need a person’s consent before your put them on the operating table and slice them open, even though the slicing may be for their benefit. Furthermore, we care about consent even though we do not condemn the surgeon for operating when the patient can’t consent, e.g. at the scene on an accident where the patient is unconscious. Likewise, we care about consent even in those cases where we force people to undergo treatment, precisely because we justify those cases by claiming that the person lacks the capacity to make meaningful choices.

    My sense is that mortality is somewhat like this. It is a very difficult and risky proposition, and the fact that we consented to it forms part of the justification for it.

  36. May 2, 2004 at 11:30 pm

    Ben: I fully agree with you that the meaning and role of consent is very difficult to work out. I agree with you that consent is often used as some sort of an epistemic marker for reasonableness as in Rawls and other social contract theorists. (A related issue is the role that consent plays as an epistemic marker in welfare economics.) However, when consent serves only as an epistemic marker, I think that you fall into problems of circularity rather rapidly.

    Take the example of Nozick’s theory of distributive justice. He purports to reject “patterned” theories of distributive justice in favor of a historical approach that looks only to whether property was legitimately acquired and voluntarily transfered. The problem is that the concept of “voluntariness” is not as primative as Nozick suggests (a point that Nozick implicitly acknowledges in his essay on coercion.) I would argue that what counts as meaningfully voluntary consent cannot be specified independent of some background notion of rights, because without those background rights you cannot differentiate between offers and threats, coercion and consent. So if we try to use Nozick’s theory as a way of getting around the problem of specifying some substantive distribution of rights by simply looking at “consent” we are thrown rather rapidly back toward the problem we are trying to escape. On the other hand, if you view Nozick’s theory not as an epistemic endeavor, but rather as a form of justification than it makes more sense, even though it no longer provides you with a way of escaping the problem of specifying some “patterned” notion of distributive justice. (Note: I use Nozick as an example, not because I am defending some pure version of Nozick.)

    Furthermore, I suspect that consent serves a justificatory function more often than you suggest.

    That said, I don’t know how to make sense of these things within our theology. It seems like something worth discussing and thinking about, however, given the ubiquity of the concept of consent in our scriptures, theology, and ordinances.

    BTW, I would love to hear what Russell means when in contrasts contract with “more covenant-like” understandings…

    No more now. I am going to go hang out with my wife.

  37. May 3, 2004 at 9:41 am

    Nate, some random points:

    “I think that your comments about rights-based conceptions of the family, etc. are a bit overdrawn….Surely it makes sense to say that children are entitled to love, support, protection, etc. from their children.”

    You’re right that it was wrong of me to associate the “entitlement perspective” with a full-blown rights-based one, in particular in regards to the family; clearly, you can think about what children are “entitled to” without going overboard into the kooky world of children’s rights activism. That said, my only point was to take preventative action against a possible analogy; even if one takes seriously the (I still would contend minimal) degree to which it is helpful or legitimate to think about parent-child relationships in terms of “claims” which children make on their parents, I strongly doubt such relationships provide any significant guidance insofar as our relationship with God is concerned.

    “I think that the arguments made by Blake that you invoke re the nature of intelligences may rest on a confusion….Perhaps Blake is right, but it is far from obvious and given the weight of tradition in favor of the KFD, BY, B.H. Roberts reading, such a reading is hardly illegitimate.”

    Wow, you remember that discussion a lot better than I. I’m going to have to go back and poke around in the LDS-Phil archives. I didn’t have Blake Ostler’s specific contentions in mind when I wrote what I did (indeed, I don’t remember what those contentions were), but insofar as I can reconstruct them from your comments, I would have to agree with Blake at least insofar as saying that I don’t see Mormon teachings about the premortal creation (what little there is, anyway) as necessarily entailing an eternally uncreated original separability between that which is fully God and that which is fully you and me, thus allowing us to conceive of God and ourselves as distinct agents whose interests may be said (perhaps for theodicial purposes) to have coincided contractually. Of course plenty of people, including at least one prophet, have believed otherwise.

    “I take it that the affirmation of the eternity of intelligences and the denial of the ex nihilio creation of the soul by Mormon theology entails some eternal notion of self-ownership. I take it that you deny this basic proposition.”

    That’s a pretty broad claim, given that “self-ownership” can mean a variety of things. I did suggest in my original comment that I thought it was possible that we “own” some self-conscious existence (though maybe not even that). But what the hell, I’ll bite: yes, insofar as the term is understood in most modern philosophy, I deny that we are the final possessors of our own selves.

    “I think that you are simply wrong about the importance of being able to influence the terms of a contract….[I]t seems to me that the key inquiry is whether or not there is some meaningful ability to refuse consent.”

    That’s a good point. Of course, the two are tangled to a degree (a contract that can be meaningfully refused is one that will presumably be shaped in light of such a possibility, and vice versa), but I can see how my insistence on any contractual theory having to be a fundamentally discursive one is a bit of a (though not a total) straw man.

    “I would love to hear what Russell means when [he] contrasts contract with “more covenant-like” understandings.”

    Didn’t we talk about this one on LDS-Phil as well? (And Jim participated, as I recall.) My rough distinction would be that a contract posits certain acts or conditions as obligatory because of the coincidence of interest or willing between the contracting parties, whereas a covenant makes the same acts or conditions obligatory solely because of the nature or will of (one of) the coventanters. A contract implies at least some equality between the contractors (one can contribute to, or least say no to, what the another offers); a covenant is an act of condescension, an extension of oneself. I would say, for example, that God will fulfill His promises to the house of Israel not because He and they agreed that He would, but because God loves Israel, and therefore is the sort of God who fulfills promises to the house of Israel.

  38. Jack
    August 7, 2004 at 4:54 am

    Modern poetry?

  39. Jack
    August 7, 2004 at 1:09 pm

    Last night someone infiltrated the blog lines with a bunch of goofy stuff. It since has been removed. Hence, my comment about poetry.

  40. October 10, 2005 at 9:03 am

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