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The Problem of Evil

September 14, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

If this blog lacks anything, it’s discussion of religion. So in that vein, let’s talk about the problem of evil. As a side note, l rarely say anything original and this is not one of those occasions. Check out Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.

A thorny quesion in religious ethics seems to be how morals are related to God. One position is that God is the source of morality. That means he could change what’s moral and what isn’t. It’s fun to play reductio ad absurdum with that, but I think it’s the most coherent position. If you’re going to say God can’t change what’s good and bad, he just enforces it, you’re in the position of explaining how something exists that God didn’t create. Which means rethinking the whole creator god thing, which most mainstream religious believers aren’t going to do, I imagine. There’s another position, held by presuppositionalists, that says morals come from the “character” of God and so are neither independent of him nor directly from his will. How exactly that works is beyond me.

In any case, I think those are the major positions, to the extent that these things are thought through. I’m interested in the God creating morals by divine fiat idea. I think it’s interesting because it contradicts the best argument against the problem of evil: free will. Free will, in such an argument, is held to be a higher good such that it outweighs the suffering caused by the evil in the world. The problem is that if God is the arbiter of what’s good, he can just make free will a bad thing. Then he could eliminate evil and the world would be morally peachy.

And of course, the other arguments against religious counter-arguments to the problem of evil still stand. If God is using such suffering for a greater good, why can’t he just achieve that greater good through sheer force of will. He’s omnipotent, after all. Another counter-argument is that we humans wouldn’t know what was good and what was bad if there was no bad. I think God could give us memories of evil and that would be sufficient (it works for heaven, after all).

Finally, something completely unrelated to that argument. I don’t really understand the idea that with God there’s some point to life and without one there isn’t. Was there a reason for God to create us? I haven’t ever seen one. Apparently, he just thought it was neat. Or he needed things to love and worship him. Which is rather narcissistic; I don’t write programs to tell me how great I am. It seems like we’re just rats in a maze. Apparently there’s a big reward for choosing the right path, but it seems rather contrived.

Categories: Religion
  1. Colby N.
    September 15, 2006 at 8:07 am

    Seems people don’t like to get intro religious arguments with you Jeff, but I will take a stab at it here.

    Two issues:
    1) Imagine that you had some children, and you were doing soem things and making some decisions for their best interest: not letting them stay out until 2 a.m., making them eat their vegetables, getting them to do some exercise, making them do homework, etc. In their eyes, you would be forcing evil (not really evil, but the same idea) upon them. You could say you love them and are doing it for a greater cause, and perhaps you could modify how you did this, but you, as the authority figure, know what needs to happen. Some lessons are hard learned and no one would learn them if they did not hve to endure hardships along the way. KIds who are not challenged, punished, taught wind up as spoiled whiny brats who suffer for the “good” they were surrounded with as a youth.

    2) Why is everything religiously compared by assuming good is standard, and evil is realtive to it? People who argue against the religious explanations for evil always look at good as an absolute; something that would exist if there were no god or no religion. You paint the picture that religious explanations for evil and god make it look like god could just ‘fix’ the whole mess and we could live happily ever after: “The problem is that if God is the arbiter of what’s good, he can just make free will a bad thing. Then he could eliminate evil and the world would be morally peachy”. Your whole premise here, and the premise of most athiests, is that there can’t be a god because he lets us suffer and endur evil. Well, the suffering and evil is all in our eyes; perhaps god doesn’t actually permit evil, we permit our suffering.

  2. September 15, 2006 at 5:53 pm

    Seems people don’t like to get intro religious arguments with you Jeff, but I will take a stab at it here.

    As much as I’d like to believe it has something to do with me (my awesome powers of logic and reason!), people who read this site tend to be either religious skeptics themselves or much more interested in politics.

    Issue 1: That’s the argument I alluded to here:

    If God is using such suffering for a greater good, why can’t he just achieve that greater good through sheer force of will. He’s omnipotent, after all.

    If God is omnipotent then he can achieve the goals you used as an example without the hardships. If you as a parent could allow your kid to do whatever she wanted without any negative consequences (including negative personality traits), wouldn’t you? What reason would you have for not doing so? I agree that in this world, short term discomfort can be used for long term benefits. That’s because we’re restricted by the world around us. God has no such limitations.

    Further, we’re talking about evil here. That typically means pretty bad things like murder, rape, etc. You’re arguing that the ends can justify the means. Even in cases where that’s arguably ok (say, choosing the death of one over many), it’s clearly better to achieve the ends without the poor means (e.g. saving everyone).

    Issue 2:

    People who argue against the religious explanations for evil always look at good as an absolute; something that would exist if there were no god or no religion.

    What anyone believes about the state of morality without a god is irrelevant to my arguments.

    You paint the picture that religious explanations for evil and god make it look like god could just ‘fix’ the whole mess and we could live happily ever after: “The problem is that if God is the arbiter of what’s good, he can just make free will a bad thing. Then he could eliminate evil and the world would be morally peachy”. Your whole premise here, and the premise of most athiests, is that there can’t be a god because he lets us suffer and endur evil.

    Actually, I’m arguing that one of the attributes of the concept of god (omnipotence) allows him to do eliminate evil without any negative consequences. I think this conflicts with another typical attribute, omnibenevolence. No atheist argues that God can’t exist because there’s evil; the argument is that the existence of evil means God can’t be all-good. This means God as typically concieved by Christians (the focus of most atheists in this country) can’t exist. I fully concede that if you want to say God isn’t omnibenevolent the problem of evil goes away. No one wants to say that (except deists), though.

    Well, the suffering and evil is all in our eyes; perhaps god doesn’t actually permit evil, we permit our suffering.

    That distinction is incoherent. If God is able to prevent evil, by not doing so he is permitting it. That’s sort of the definition of the word. And if we assume another typical attribute of God, that he’s the creator of existence, he not only is permitting evil, he created the situation where evil occurs. So he has caused evil as well.

  3. September 17, 2006 at 10:37 am

    I think that if you add up all of the events of the world, putting them under one column for good, the other for evil, they would probably balance out. There is no ‘problem’ with evil, so far as I can see. There are people put on a planet with not enough resources to go around who try to survive at the expense of those around them. That’s the way animals behave, and we don’t make evil/good judgments when a lion kills a gazelle. So too should we not do that with human behavior. This God guy is odd, if he were to exist – he says 1) survive, and 2) don’t kill each other. Right.

  4. Colby N.
    September 18, 2006 at 10:12 pm

    “If God is able to prevent evil, by not doing so he is permitting it. That’s sort of the definition of the word. And if we assume another typical attribute of God, that he’s the creator of existence, he not only is permitting evil, he created the situation where evil occurs. So he has caused evil as well.”

    Now I think you are just dodging my point. Your argument still makes the implication that our labels of evil and good are based on something univeral; that they are the same labels God himself would use. Straight up question: Is it possible that what we label as “evil” is not inherently evil, but that we make it evil by allowing ourselves to suffer from it, rather than to learn?

    If that does work, then this whole nonsense about God ‘allowing’ evil is out the window because it is clearly possible that God is not producing, authorizing, or allowing evil.

    If it does not work, I would like you to explain how you can be so sure that the evil we experience is a purposeful, evil design of God’s.

  5. September 18, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    Now I think you are just dodging my point. Your argument still makes the implication that our labels of evil and good are based on something univeral; that they are the same labels God himself would use. Straight up question: Is it possible that what we label as “evil” is not inherently evil, but that we make it evil by allowing ourselves to suffer from it, rather than to learn?

    It’s possible, but it’s special pleading. You have to make the argument that God should be exempt from our moral standards (or moral standards he’s given us, if you prefer).

    You’re also welcome to argue that rape is only evil because the victim allowed it to be painful to him or her, which is implication of your what if at the end there.

    If that does work, then this whole nonsense about God ‘allowing’ evil is out the window because it is clearly possible that God is not producing, authorizing, or allowing evil.

    This is actually a rather extreme position. It’s essentially saying that acts we think are evil are only evil because we allow them to cause suffering. We deserve it, basically. I’d like to know how to avoid the suffering of physical injury. I’d also like to know how we’re to expect a child to do this as well.

    If it does not work, I would like you to explain how you can be so sure that the evil we experience is a purposeful, evil design of God’s.

    I already explained my reasoning above. God can stop evil, but he doesn’t. By virtue of being omnipotent he isn’t constrained by negative consequences. By virtue of being a creator, he created the situation leading to some evil. I don’t see how that’s all good or perfect in any possible sense. It sounds more like a mob boss.

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