Hud Hudson’s book Fallenness and Flourishing is an engaging and creative attempt to diagnose one of the most important problems that human beings face—the failure to flourish—and offer a path forward. According to Hudson, the essential foundational component missing in most theories of wellbeing is cultivation of the virtue of obedience.

In this short essay, I engage with two different parts of the book: first, I examine a discussion early on (pp. 32–43) of theodicy and its impact on the pessimistic worldview that Hudson advocates. Next, I raise several questions about Hudson’s proposal that obedience is the key to unlocking happiness and well-being. Specifically, I ask whether the empirical data supports his thesis: that is, are those who have cultivated obedience in fact happier? And if they are not, I wonder how Hudson would incorporate this fact into his overall picture.

book cover

OUP, 2021

I should say from the outset that this is a rich book packed with illuminating thoughts which are evidently the product of years of reflection by a careful and thoughtful mind. There is much to be gained from reading the book in its entirety. I especially appreciated the way the insights are often paired with or drawn from literary examples, a methodology I find fruitful especially when philosophers explore topics such as those considered here. That said, as my role is to provide critical thoughts on the work, my comments here are unrepresentative of the virtues of the manuscript.

Hudson is a pessimist. He thinks all of us should be pessimists. We struggle, but fail to achieve well-being. But Hudson thinks that Christians can “temper” pessimism with some limited optimism. In the context of discussing Christian reasons for tempering pessimism, Hudson discusses a theodicy for the problem of evil offered by Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga suggests that the value of Incarnation-and-Atonement can explain why God allows evil. Plantinga’s theodicy involves a premise about value, which Hudson formulates as follows:

The Strong Value Assumption: Each possible world that contains Incarnation-and-Atonement is better than every possible world that lacks Incarnation-and-Atonement (p. 34).

Hudson argues that the support for this assumption is subject to skeptical theism worries, and that without it Plantinga’s theodicy is “in trouble.” Let’s walk through the line of thought more slowly.

In the course of unpacking his argument, Plantinga offers the following as part of his reasoning for accepting the strong value assumption. It is worth reproducing the relevant passage here:

It is hard to imagine what God could do that is in fact comparable to Incarnation-and-Atonement; but perhaps this is just a limitation of our imagination. But since this is so hard to imagine, I propose that we ignore those possible worlds, if there are any, in which God does not arrange for Incarnation-and-Atonement, but does something else of comparable excellence.Alvin Plantinga, “‘Supralapsarianism,’ or ‘O Felix Culpa,’” in Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil, edited by Peter van Inwagen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 10.

It is this reasoning that Hudson believes opens the theodicy to a ‘decisive’ objection. I agree that the advice here sounds dubious. Ignoring alternatives is not generally a respectable strategy. But I find Hudson’s discussion confusing for a few reasons.

Roughly, Hudson thinks Plantinga’s theodicy depends on two steps: first, that we aren’t aware of anything comparable in value to Atonement-and-Incarnation; and second, what Hudson calls the “suppressed premise”: that “if there were any such thing, we would be aware of it” (p. 40).I wish to register disagreement with some of Hudson’s remarks concerning skeptical theism—namely, that it is ‘immensely plausible’ and ‘a satisfactory block’ to the problem of evil. See Matthew A. Benton, John Hawthorne, and Yoaav Isaacs, “Evil and Evidence,” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion 7 (2016): 1–31. It is the suppressed premise that Hudson claims is the problem—we cannot know the strong value assumption by way of this premise (and he doubts we can know it any other way).

Two points are worth stressing in this connection: first, Plantinga is clear that he does not think that the theodicy requires the strong value assumption; in fact, he insists that the argument can be advanced on weaker assumption(s). So it’s a little odd that Hudson makes so much of it. Second, it is unclear what the cost is with respect to Hudson’s aim of tempering pessimism. Here is Plantinga: “I am inclined to accept the strong value assumption, but I don’t need anything quite as powerful as all that for my argument. I can hold something weaker.” He goes on, providing several weaker versions:

But my argument doesn’t require even the moderate value assumption. All it really requires is that among the worlds of great value, there be some that include incarnation and atonement. . . . Indeed, we can go further: given that all of the possible worlds including creatures are worlds sufficiently good for God to actualize them, all that is really required, for my argument, is that incarnation and atonement be possible, i.e., that there be possible worlds that include them.Plantinga, “‘Supralapsarianism,’ or ‘O Felix Culpa,’” 11.

And this assumption is not susceptible to skeptical theist worries.

In light of these explicit statements by Plantinga, it’s not clear why Hudson directs so much attention to the strong value assumption. Even if Hudson is right and the strong value assumption can’t be known or used as a premise in reasoning, Plantinga is prepared to use a weaker premise. Does this result in a weaker epistemic stance towards the proposed theodicy? Perhaps. Whether this is problematic may depend on how one envisions the aim of a theodicy. Plantinga says “a theodicy is an attempt to explain why God permits evil.” He calls the proposed theodicy “successful,” but this is specifically in comparison to theodicies which he describes as “tepid, shallow, and ultimately frivolous.” Plantinga, “‘Supralapsarianism,’ or ‘O Felix Culpa,’” 12. It seems that, in Plantinga’s view, having even a plausible theodicy is a significant achievement.

A further question concerns what the possession of a successful theodicy contributes in terms of producing optimism (or, in terms of tempering pessimism). Hudson notes that hope for the afterlife is one reason Christians have that tempers pessimism. I agree this is a reason for optimism, but wonder: what does possession of a theodicy add in terms of tempering pessimism? It’s not entirely clear; and without understanding what it adds, it’s hard to appreciate the force of Hudson’s objection.

A thought experiment may help. Imagine two agents who are equally confident that God exists and that there is an afterlife. One takes herself to know Plantinga’s theodicy, the other thinks the theodicy is only possibly true (but she is fully confident that God has some reason for allowing suffering—she just doesn’t know what it is). Should there be a significant difference in the level of optimism of these two agents? According to Hudson, the consequence of his objection to Plantinga’s theodicy is that the “reason for optimism about our pessimistic worldview has been demoted to something in which even the committed Christian might, at best, place her hope, not her confidence” (p. 42). I’m not convinced the line of thought Hudson advances results in a significant demotion of optimism.

Moving on, let’s consider the line of thought at the heart of the manuscript. Hudson suggests that “the battle for self-achieved happiness is decidedly not going well” (p. ix). If the virtue of obedience is the missing ingredient for flourishing, shouldn’t we expect the lives of those who are cultivating the virtue of obedience to be decidedly going well? There are (at least) several options here, none of which have particularly welcome implications for Hudson’s overall picture.

The first option is that no one has succeeded in developing the virtue of obedience. This would result in two consequences: (a) Hudson’s theory is not testable; and (b) the usefulness of the thesis of the book for achieving well-being is severely limited—at least, unless combined with some reason to think readers of the book will have better odds of cultivating the virtue than those who have tried in the past.

A second option is that some have cultivated the virtue of obedience and are flourishing. If this is the case, one wonders why Hudson did not include appeal to this evidence to bolster his case that this virtue is indeed the key to puzzle of wellbeing. (Note too that even supposing those who have cultivated obedience report being happy, their self-reports won’t count for much, in light of the skepticism Hudson casts on self-reports of happiness in chapter 3.)

A third option is that some have attained the virtue of obedience and are nevertheless unhappy and failing to flourish. This would then require an explanation if Hudson’s theory is correct. But in any case, the absence of a discussion of the relevant evidence is noteworthy. Christians who are already committed to something in the ballpark of Hudson’s thesis—that is, to something along the lines of ‘our happiness is found in God’ will likely be inclined to agree with Hudson’s picture. But it would be more compelling to have some empirical data—something parallel to the kind of evidence appealed to early on in the book in support of the philosophy of pessimism.

It is unclear to what extent Hudson thinks we can expect to flourish on this earth even if we manage to cultivate the virtue of obedience.

I wish to raise one final worry. The proposal at the end of the book strikes me as underdeveloped. It is not exactly argued for so much as explored. Hudson says that he has “tried to describe a response to this predicament that seems promising to me” (p. 196). Hudson’s core thesis is that obedience plays a ‘priming’ role with respect to flourishing. He relies heavily on a story—The Story of Nodland—as he advances his picture of obedience as a priming condition of flourishing. The story is a powerful illustration of how Hudson envisions the role of the virtue of obedience. But I worry that the rhetorical power of the story may outstrip the actual support given for the thesis. The story helps us see how it might be that there is something like priming that is missing in our theories of wellbeing. Perhaps there is a component which, if added, would not show the theories currently available entirely empty, but would instead enhance them. All this strikes a chord with readers (at least it does with me). But there isn’t anything in the story to convince us that obedience is the priming mechanism. So I worry that, in this case, the narrative is not appropriated suited for the work Hudson would like it to do.

I’ll close by returning to a (sort of pessimistic) worry gestured at earlier. Suppose we grant that cultivating the virtue of obedience is a metaphorical ‘primer’ for the paint colors of well-being to display themselves more vividly. If it seems to us that in those who—to the best of our knowledge—have cultivated the virtue of obedience, the colors still don’t show all that vividly, what should we think? Are those who cultivate obedience only flourishing slightly more by comparison with those who lack obedience? It is unclear to what extent Hudson thinks we can expect to flourish on this earth even if we manage to cultivate the virtue of obedience. But it’s difficult to judge the thesis of the book—that obedience is the key to flourishing—without a better appreciation of what Hudson thinks about the prospects of the obedient flourishing now.