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The Problems of Evil

The Problems of Evil

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Published by Michael Liccione
My take on the problem of evil
My take on the problem of evil

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Published by: Michael Liccione on Jul 13, 2010
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The Problems of Evil
Friday, October 22, 1999
The Problems of Evil
(This is a slightly revised version of a talk I gave to the faculty of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, 3/4/93. I welcome reactions that would help me correct it and expand it.)
 Reflective persons in general join atheistic philosophers in posing a familiar dilemma: if God is all-powerful,he could prevent or eliminate the evil in his creation; if God is perfectly good, he would want to do that; so, whence evil? That describes in a nutshell what philosophers and theologians call "the problem of evil." Among those charged with the care of souls, the most common response is that evil is not a problem to besolved in an intellectually satisfying way, but rather a mystery whose weight is to be borne in faith andtrust. That response is often dismissed as a copout--and not only by skeptics and waverers. Most of us canempathize with the anger of those whose sufferings bring home to them the truth in Jimmy Carter'spolitically costly reminder that "life is unfair." My main purpose in this paper is to trace the most importantstep one must take in order to see why the usual pastoral response, far from copping out, is in fact the only reasonable response.That step is to realize that there is no single problem one may uniquely designate as "the" problem of evil;hence my title. Once one realizes what the distinct problems of evil roughly are, one may then determine which is the one theists cannot solve. But I shall show that, if theism is true, then theists shouldn't befaulted for failing to solve it.The best way to begin outlining the different problems is to distinguish the two main sorts of solution:
defense
and
theodicy 
. A defense aims to show that there is no logical inconsistency among the following setof statements: (a) God created the world; (b) God is all-powerful and perfectly good; and (c) there is evil inthe world. Let's call that triad of statements 'E'. Each member of E is an essential tenet of classical theism, which is often criticized by process theists and other pagans on the ground that the members of E are jointly incompatible. If successful, a defense would show that they are jointly compatible, and I for one believe that a successful defense is possible. But theodicy is more ambitious than defense. As the term'setymology suggests, theodicy is meant to
 justify 
God's causing or permitting such evil as we find in the world. Accordingly, a successful theodicy would not merely show that the members of E are jointly 
compatible
; it would also explain why it makes good moral and metaphysical sense that they are all
true
.On the face of it, theodicy is attractive to any theistic thinker. For if success were possible, then there would in principle be a solution to the problem of evil that ought to satisfy any rational person, even if human blindness and perversity would in practice preclude its satisfying everyone. Apologeticalenthusiasm has led many Christian thinkers through the centuries to convince themselves that theresources for success are at hand. Some have even believed themselves to be deploying them. Like many people, however, I am unmoved by such theodicies. I don't know of any that do more than convince thealready convinced, and I find that many of them serve chiefly to generate further difficulties where nonehad existed. But that hardly suffices to discredit theodicy. Indeed, the question whether theistic thinkersshould embark on so ambitious an enterprise depends on how the problem of evil should be conceived.Some people seem to believe that adherence to any form of classical theism is positively irrational withoutsomeone's showing just
ho
the theistic scheme of things makes sense of evil. From their point of view,theists ought to produce a theodicy; for it would not be enough for the theist to show, by explicating thepertinent concepts, that the members of E are mutually compatible. It would not do simply to show in suchan abstract way that one can maintain each of those propositions without contradicting oneself; a propersolution would also show just how their joint truth would, or could, mollify those offended by theunfairness of life.Since I have no space here to evaluate any particular theodicy in detail, I shall content myself with arguingthat classical theism affords little reason to believe that theodicy is either possible or desirable. Thereasons for that show that it is wrong to insist that theists must regard the problem of evil as the sort of problem to which a successful theodicy would be the only solution. People who conceive the problem inthat way would thus be mistaken about what a mature and intelligent theistic faith would involve.I have two reasons for taking that line. The first is essentially scriptural. Consider the key 
locus canonicus
 of the problem of evil: the Book of Job. Its eponymous hero is depicted as a just man, blessed by andpleasing to God; but God decides to test his fidelity by giving Satan permission to visit a host of terrible andundeserved evils on him. After Job has lost his possessions, his children, his social status, and his health,
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so that he is utterly bereft and covered with incurable running sores, his friends visit him and try to helphim make sense of it all. Their initial tack is pedestrian: since God is just, Job must have done something, or be the sort of person, to deserve such suffering after all. Even poor Job has no trouble showing whatnonsense that is; he complains about the prosperity of the wicked and his own suffering as an innocent,inviting the Almighty to answer his suit. Job's friend Elihu then takes a slightly more enlightened tack: without harping on the theme that Job deserves his afflictions, Elihu insists that God "does not keep the wicked alive, but gives the afflicted their right"
(Job
36:5). Still, Elihu does not altogether abandon theconventional wisdom, saying of God's dealings with the righteous that "he does not withdraw his eyes fromthe righteous, but with kings upon the throne he sets them forever, and they are exalted. And if they are bound in fetters, and caught in the cords of affliction, then he declares to them their work and theirtransgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly" (36:7). God's answer to Job out of the whirlwind, whichdirectly follows Elihu's speech, can be summed up quite simply: you don't know what you're talking about."Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?" (38:4). How can a creature like you be wiseenough to know what is ultimately for the best? Job's response is to stop whining and to humble himself  before God, who rewards him by restoring his fortunes. And so the story ends.Some exegetes, I'm told, interpret the happy ending as a later addition by rabbis concerned to reinforcethe conventional wisdom that the just are rewarded even in this life. I like that interpretation not because Iknow it to be true, but because if it is true, then the original work would have been truer to life. As far as wecan tell, there is no statistically significant correlation between virtue and good fortune in this life. But themost important lesson of Job is that we necessarily lack the knowledge we would have to have in order toknow that it is wrong for God to preside over such a state of affairs. In order to put God in the dock andconvict him fairly, we would have to marshal all the relevant evidence; in order to do that in turn, we would have to occupy his vantage point, so that the entire scheme of things would be spread before us, andthe genuine alternatives to that scheme would be perfectly clear. If we didn't know it already, biblicaltheism teaches us to admit that such is impossible.Paradoxically, however, that admission rules out theodicy. The very vantage point we would need tooccupy in order to know that God is behaving badly is the one we would need to occupy in order to know  just how well he really is behaving. Classical theism is committed to the claim that God's omnipotence andperfection are compatible with the evil in his world; but the same tradition precludes saying precisely 
ho
 evil squares with God's omnipotence and perfection. If any Christian doubts that, they should remindthemselves what religion they profess. Christianity teaches that the only-begotten Son of God, the King of the Universe, gave us a chance to escape the thralldom of evil first by becoming a perfectly good man andthen, at his Father's behest, getting himself tortured and executed as a serious public nuisance. As St. Paultells us, that is absurdity to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews; the Greeks and Jews here are
figurae
for anyone disposed to reject a God who does not behave as we would in his place.My other reason for rejecting theodicy comes from natural theology. Let me illustrate it by contrast with apicture of evil drawn from the dogmatic theology of traditional Christianity.On the supposition that Christianity is true, we may say that the more troubling aspects of the humancondition are the consequences of an original sin that was freely committed. We are prone to doing evil because we inherit a corrupted will from our first parents, and we are subject to death and certain otherevils because the Fall disrupted the harmony that God intended to obtain both internally (between oursouls and bodies) and externally (between ourselves and Nature). The Easter liturgy tells us that originalsin was
felix culpa,
a happy fault, because it gave God the opportunity to redeem us from that situation.Now if God has indeed done so, we are each of us free to cooperate or not. And if one believes, as do I andmost of those present, that this is how things are, one may well say that things are thus basically good. Butone must admit that it is possible for an all-powerful, perfectly good God to have set things up otherwise. Inparticular, God could have so made rational creatures that they would always freely choose the good,inasmuch as the occasion for choosing wrongly would never have been allowed to arise. If Christianity istrue, such will be the situation of those who will have achieved eternal salvation on the Last Day. Why couldn't it always have been the situation of rational creatures? They might have enjoyed such liberty of spontaneity as would have enabled them to choose among a variety of morally acceptable alternatives,some of which would have been better than others; but they might not have enjoyed such liberty of indifference as would make it genuinely possible to pursue evil alternatives. For the scheme of things mightnot have left room for any such alternatives. If that had been the case, then original sin would never have been committed, and nobody would now suffer from its consequences. Would it not have been better forGod to set things up in that way? Well, we are in no position to answer that question either affirmatively or negatively. Just as we have no business condemning God for not making life easier and fairer than it is, so too we cannot know that life as itis is better than, or even as good as, it might have been otherwise. Theodicy requires knowledge that wenecessarily lack, and it is arrogance to pretend to such knowledge.That suggests two things. First, to fault classical theism for being unable to ground a theodicy is unfair, forit would be to fault theists for lacking a breadth and clarity of vision that nobody can attain in this life whether classical theism is true or not. Second, it seems that defense, rather than theodicy, is the only 
 
response to the problem of evil that is open to theists. And if the problem be conceived primarily as anintellectual one, that is true. But the problem so conceived is narrower than many people seem to think.People sometimes talk as though the presence of any evil at all in the world poses an objection to believingthe Creator to be all-powerful and perfectly good. St. Thomas Aquinas considers and rebuts such anobjection in the article from the
Summa Theologiae
where he purports to prove that God exists. Surely heis right to maintain that the omnipotence and goodness of God are manifest partly in the fact that out of evilhe can bring a greater good. To a much lesser extent, we do that sort of thing all the time: we learn frommistakes; we cure diseases; we find that some pleasures are all the greater for the pain that must precedethem; and most important, people sometimes become better through suffering. We are, if you like, morepowerful for all that: whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That is how God has arranged things.Such occasions often arise in the first place because of physical evils. We live in a material universe whoseorder entails a continuing cycle of production and destruction, growth and decay, birth and death. Inevery generation, there are those who believe that such a universe is necessarily a bad thing to exist, sincethe good of such a whole necessitates (sooner or later) bad things for each of the parts. Some even think of death as the greatest of evils, even though there is no reason to believe that immortality with the sort of life we now have would be any more desirable than possible. Belief that material existence is evil is one of themajor factors motivating Hinduism in some of its forms, Buddhism, forms of dualism such as Manichaeism,and Gnosticism. I cannot speak to the religious psychology of Indians and Orientals; but when anOccidental believes that the material universe is intrinsically evil, I cannot help suspecting an unconsciousresentment arising from their discovery as an infant that the world is not ordered for their uninterrupted benefit. Such a person needs therapy, or perhaps simply grace--not philosophical argument.I take more seriously the arguments of people inclined to blame God for the moral evil there is in the world, assuming that we can be and do nothing without God. For as I've already suggested, God could havecreated a world in which rational creatures always freely choose rightly--but He hasn't. Of course, if God were fully responsible for our all our actions, then we would have no business complaining that life isunfair: we would be mere natural objects, unfit for either reward or punishment. But assuming that some of our actions are rationally free, it would be equally wrong to say that God is as fully implicated in our evilfree actions as in our good ones. For that would entail that God bestows privations and defects even as he bestows being and perfection. That is impossible, since whatever is God can have no privations or defectsto bestow. Those come from the individual creature, who in the nature of the case cannot be absolutely perfect like God nor even (if it exists in space-time) be perfect relative to its kind. I have heard some peoplesay in reply that in that case, it would have been better if God had never created, or created us, at all. All Ican do with such people is shrug and invite them to join me in drinking a good bottle of wine. What really bothers most of us is not just any old evil, but the
disproportionate suffering of the innocent.
Itis indeed deeply troubling that humans who in no way deserve their sufferings--such as children who havenot reached the age of reason--are sometimes killed or brutalized rather than improved by their sufferings.Sometimes it is Nature herself that does this, as with plague, famine, accidents, and natural disasters; but itis especially galling when the killing or brutalization comes at the hands of people who ought to know  better. The most eloquent testimony to the anguish this can cause may be found in the words of thecharacter Ivan in Dostoievski's
The Brothers Karamazov 
, which I shall save time by recommending ratherthan quoting. What makes Ivan and those he represents so indignant is the conviction that
even if 
thedisproportionate suffering of the innocent could be rationalized as contributing to an incomparably greater good for all,that would be no justification whatever. Thus it is
intrinsically evil, irrespective of the big picture
, for an all-powerful being either to inflict or to permit such suffering.Most theodicies cannot even address Ivan, much less confute him. To deal with Ivan, we must confineourselves to defense rather than theodicy. But what is the defense?The Ivans of the world assume that there are certain moral norms that objectively bind not only allhumans but any rational agent whatsoever. Up to a point, that is true. We would, for example, have nomore reason to put faith in God if he broke his promises to us than we would to trust another human being who behaved that way. One of the reasons why it is said that God is perfectly good is that he can't do thingslike break promises. But the Ivans also seem to include the following among such norms: if one can preventor eliminate disproportionate suffering for the innocent without doing or allowing greater harm toourselves or to others, one ought to do so. And if that norm were intelligibly applicable to God, theproblem of evil would be so intractable as to resist even defense.The argument would go something like this. God, who is all-powerful, could have created a world in whichno such suffering took place, which would
a fortiori
have been a world in which precluding such suffering would not have allowed or brought about greater harm. But given both his omnipotence and thedisproportionate suffering of the innocent, it seems that God cannot be accounted perfectly good. Thethree propositions framing the problem of evil--i.e., the members of E--thus seem jointly incompatible if the proposition that there is evil in the world be narrowed to read: "The innocent sometimes sufferdisproportionately, which is evil."The difficulty with that argument is that there is no reason to believe that this world's innocents would be

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