There are some philosophical problems so old that one wonders whether anything new can be said about them. Indeed, despite the many philosophers still beavering away at them, one wonders if anything new has been said about them for centuries. Usually with such problems, what seems a new argument or position is really an old one which has been given a quick shower, shave, and a new suit, and shoved back into the cocktail party. In other words, we are presented with the same old leftovers, covered over in new-fangled terminology that, when analyzed, turns out to mean the same as the old terminology.
Foremost among these hoary philosophical conundrums is the so-called “problem of evil”. The problem of evil is really only a problem if you are a theist. For those of us who have no substantive theological commitments, it poses no problem at all, and may even make us scratch our heads in wonder at the intellectual capital wasted on it. As a philosophical issue, it stands out in a couple of other respects.
First, despite the fact that real knock-down arguments in philosophy are rarer than unicorns, the anti-theist side of the debate on evil has presented a remarkable number of them. Second, the theist side has produced a remarkable number of really bad arguments, arguments so bad in fact, that one must sometimes question the arguer’s intellectual honesty. And third, the theist side has too often produced arguments that, besides being bad, are infuriating in their glibness and callousness.
The Problem Stated
In its briefest form, the problem of evil can be stated quite simply. It stems from the logical incompatibility of the following three propositions:
1. God is omnipotent.
2. God is morally perfect, or perfectly good.
3. Evil exists in the world.
There are more complicated forms of the problem. We could, for example, add a proposition to the effect that God is omniscient, but the problem would basically remain the same, and omniscience can easily be collapsed into the notion of God’s omnipotence.
As I’ve already said, the problem really represents a challenge to theists. If you don’t believe in God, or at least in the Judeo-Christian God, then you simply deny propositions 1 and 2 and the whole problem vanishes. So, assuming we’re theists, how might we respond to this challenge?
Traditionally, this has been done in a couple of ways. In his 1955 paper “Evil and Omnipotence”, the philosopher J. L. Mackie noted that a common strategy was to redefine “omnipotence” or “morally perfect” in such a way as to make propositions 1 and 2 compatible with proposition 3. Unfortunately, notes Mackie, typically this move has involved surreptitiously watering down the notion of an omnipotent and morally perfect God, which means, in essence, jettisoning proposition 1 or 2 or both. I say “surreptitiously” because theistic philosophers who make this move typically do so while employing every trick of a Jesuitical casuistry to deny that this is what they’re doing.
There is a recent example of this in Peter van Inwagen’s book The Problem of Evil (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), based on his 2003 Gifford Lectures. I have twice read the book over, and yet for the life of me I cannot figure out how he can claim to have provided any solution to the problem, or indeed how his arguments are any different from scores of previous attempts. Van Inwagen proposes two possible solutions.
The first solution deals with the problem of human evil. This evil, he says, is of a kind that is the result of human free will. Now, free will is itself another example of a hoary old philosophical problem that has yet to be solved. However, for present peace I’ll gladly grant van Inwagen the existence of such free will. Unfortunately, his argument relies on a God who either (i) lacks the power to control the free but evil choices of His human creatures (in which case He is not omnipotent), or (ii) He can but chooses not to prevent such evil choices (in which case we must question His benevolence or moral rectitude).
Van Inwagen’s second solution addresses natural evils, evils that aren’t the result of human choices. After all, there was pain and suffering among animals long before humans existed, so not all evil can be pinned on us. This kind of evil, van Inwagen says, was necessary in the greater scheme of things, for a world without such evils would be what he calls “massively irregular”, requiring constant violation of natural laws by God in order to prevent them. And such massive irregularity is itself a kind of imperfection or “evil”, though presumably of a higher order. It takes little thought to realize that this is a covert denial of proposition 1, that God is omnipotent, for if He was omnipotent, then shouldn’t we expect Him to be able to create a world that was both devoid of natural evil and not massively irregular?
Van Inwagen’s “solutions” are at worst merely foolish. But there is another theistic approach to the problem of evil that is too often so facile as to be morally offensive. This approach, instead of the “bait-and-switch” method of redefining propositions 1 and 2, takes the more swashbuckling route of denying proposition 3. In effect, philosophers who take this approach deny that evil — in the mundane sense of “bad things” — exists. Despite its seeming implausibility, this has historically been the most common approach to the problem.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways this may be done. We may either claim that “Evil is really good in disguise,” or else we may claim that “There are no such things as objective good or evil at all.” I will not discuss this latter claim here. For one thing, it is not a popular move among theists, for obvious reasons (and note that it still effectively involves a denial of proposition 2). For another, it leads us into a problem far greater than the problem of evil, one that poses serious difficulties for theists and non-theists alike. We could call this the “problem of good”, and I will make it the subject of a future posting.
In its most traditional form, the “evil is good in disguise” strategy has been famously adopted by such illustrious names as Leibniz and Pope, and has been viciously (if heavy-handedly) mocked by Voltaire in Candide. The technical name for this approach is theodicy.
Candide was written in the shadow of the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (illustrated above), an event which elicited much speculation on the problem of evil. Another less well-known work of the period is Soame Jenyns’ A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil (1757). When I say that theodicy has a tendency to be facile and morally offensive, I have Jenyns’ work foremost in my mind.
For Jenyns, the universe as a whole is perfectly good. Because any seeming particular evils are necessary components of this universal good, in reality they are not real evils at all. Were you born into grinding poverty? Are you living from hand to mouth in a miserable indigence? Well, Jenyns can explain to you how Providence was actually kind to you: “Ignorance, or the want of knowledge and literature, the appointed lot of all born to poverty, and the drudgeries of life, is the only opiate capable of infusing that insensibility which can enable them to endure the miseries of the one and the fatigues of the other. It is a cordial administered by the gracious hand of Providence; of which they ought never to be deprived by an ill-judged and improper education.” In other words, God has kindly made the poor ignorant so that their coarser, less refined souls may better bear their poverty. To educate them would only increase their misery. So you see, everything happens for the greatest good. That something might be done to alleviate your poverty is no part of Jenyns’ theodicy.
In a brilliant review, Samuel Johnson savagely — and quite rightly — tore Jenyns’ Enquiry apart: “Where has this enquirer added to the little knowledge that we had before? He has told us of the benefits of Evil, which no man feels, and relations between distant parts of the universe, which he cannot himself conceive.”
Who are philosophers trying to convince when they discuss the problem of evil? Usually they seem to be addressing themselves to their fellow philosophers. Van Inwagen claimed that an ideal argument for or against the problem of evil ought to address an audience of ideally impartial lay agnostics. And yet the very book in which he writes this is obviously aimed at no such audience; it is aimed squarely at other professional philosophers. Perhaps their arguments would make better sense if philosophers came down from the clouds and addressed those who actually suffer great evils, those who have a need for whatever comfort they can peddle. We could call this “pastoral philosophy”.
There are different orders of evil. For a stubbed toe or a career disappointment a theodicy could conceivably offer some solace, but not for, say, the untimely death of a loved one. How would you like it if I told you that your grief is not real, but is rather necessary to a greater good that you don’t get to share in? It is as if I were to mug you and then console you by telling you that the money you fork over will be spent on a great party to which you are not invited.
Such an “explanation” is no comfort at all. How could it be? I would rather a philosopher said to me something like, “Yes, you suffer, and yes, your suffering is the result of a real evil, and it is time, rather than any abstract argument I can offer, which will lessen your pain.”