Sunday, June 14, 2020

Argument from Evil as an Internal Critique

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Introduction



Even if certain atheists reject moral objectivism, can such atheists still use the argument from evil as an internal critique of theism?

A Problem for Atheists Who Reject Moral Objectivism



As I wrote about in my article Rosenberg’s Argument from Evil Folly, there’s a big problem for the atheist in using the argument from evil if the atheist in question believes objective morality does not exist. People can have different ideas of what sorts of things are morally good. Suppose for example a theist has a standard of goodness such that it’s good that God permits the evil we see for certain reasons that are morally sufficient on this standard of goodness. Some atheists might say that if God adopted their standard of goodness, God would not permit the evil we see. But without an objective moral standard, there’s no objective fact of the matter about which standard of goodness God would adopt if he existed, and thus there’d be no objective fact of the matter whether God would permit evil if he existed, in which case the argument from evil would collapse under its own weight.

A Solution?



Another idea is to use the argument from evil as an internal critique. For example, couldn’t the atheist at least criticize the theist for having an inconsistency in the theist’s conception of goodness with respect to a perfectly good God allowing evil? That depends on the theist, but it’s relatively trivial to construct a view of goodness that is consistent with a perfectly good God allowing evil in the world. Suppose for example a hypothetical theist says that it is morally good for us humans to try to fight against evil (refraining from doing morally wrong actions, advancing medical technology, learning to share our food with the hungry, etc.) with the limited abilities that we have, with the obstacles we face etc. and that this is better than God making the evils any less bad, such that if God adopted this standard of goodness God would allow the evil we see (on this view, it’s good that God permits evil in the way that he does, but it’s not necessarily good that we humans permit evil; in a sense God and humans would have different responsibilities). Maybe this view of the hypothetical theist is wrong, but it’s not self-contradictory, and so there would be no inconsistency in this hypothetical theist’s conception of goodness with respect to a perfectly good God allowing evil.

There is another way an atheist who isn’t a moral objectivist could supply an internal critique. God is not only perfectly morally good, he is also all-loving. In the June 2020 debate on Capturing Christianity between Cosmic Skeptic and Inspiring Philosophy, Cosmic Skeptic said this at around 1:48:23:
Let’s not talk about good and evil because if they’re not objective maybe it’s unhelpful. But if you think that God is all-loving as a separate point then the question just reformulates itself. It’s not just a question about what’s loving and what’s not. It’s like we know facts about the universe. We know that children get cancer and we have to be committed to the view that that is loving; that it is loving to allow a child to get cancer. It’s the same problem as saying you have to accept that it is good or at least not evil for a child to get cancer. It would just be framed differently. Whatever the person believes, as you say Cameron that’s probably the best way to answer it, with any argument I ever make on any debate that I do, on any video I make, it’s always an argument of consistency—pretty much, most of the time. And that’s what I’m looking for here; is just consistency.[1]
Does it follow that if a loving God permits cancer, that it is loving to allow a child to get cancer? No. For starters, let’s ask this question: why assume that a loving God would not permit suffering? Presumably it’s because that if you love someone you value their well-being. It’s reasonable that loving someone implies valuing that person’s well-being, but the problem is that a morally good God might value other things as well, things that “interfere” with valuing one’s well-being.

To give an example of how valuing someone’s well-being can conflict with another value, suppose a loving and just judge is tasked with sentencing a man who has committed a heinous crime. The judge loves everyone including the man she is sentencing, so she values the man’s well-being, but on the other hand she also values punishing those who commit heinous crimes. So, the judge gives the man a long prison sentence to pay for his crime, even though she loves the man (by virtue of loving everyone) and values his well-being, and even though a lengthy prison sentence would decrease the man’s well-being.

Obviously the child Cosmic Skeptic has in mind hasn’t done anything wrong to deserve cancer, so the loving and just judge doesn’t work as analogy, but it does work to illustrate this point: values can conflict, including valuing someone’s well-being. If God is not just all-loving but also morally good, God could conceivably have other values that supersede the immediate well-being of humans. Imagine a hypothetical theist who believes God is all-loving but also believes that God is morally good, and that God adopts a standard of goodness such that it is good that God permits the observed suffering we see even though he loves us all, and that (at least in part) because God is all-loving our suffering in the mortal realm is finite and a pleasant everlasting life is available to every human who freely chooses God. This hypothetical theist grants it is not loving to permit suffering, but believes it is good that God permits the finite suffering we observe; God has values that supersede the immediate well-being of certain individuals. Again, maybe this view of the hypothetical theist is wrong, but it’s not self-contradictory, and so there would be no inconsistency in this hypothetical theist’s conception of goodness with respect to a perfectly good and all-loving God allowing evil.

Conclusion



The problem of evil fails as an internal critique not just against a morally good God but an all-loving and morally good God, at least tout court. It’s reasonable that an all-loving God would value our well-being. However, a theist could believe that while God values our well-being because he is perfectly loving, this is only one of the things that God values, and that other values could outweigh our immediate well-being such that an all-loving God who is also perfectly morally good would permit the evil we see.

I said that the problem of evil fails as an internal critique against an all-loving and morally good God tout court, but the problem of evil could succeed as an internal critique if the theist really did adopt a standard of moral goodness in which it is not good that God permits the evil we see. So in a way whether the argument from evil works as an internal critique depends on the theist. My objection is that the internal critique is not inherently successful; the theist could easily adopt a standard of moral goodness that evades the problem. Alternatively, the theist could say that while she knows some moral values (“moral values” in this case being “stuff that’s morally good”), she doesn’t necessarily know all the values, much less all values in conjunction with the appropriate weights for each value, such that for all she knows God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evil we see even if those reasons are beyond her ken (there are even more complications for whether to permit evil beyond knowing all the values and their appropriate weights, but for purposes of this blog article I’m mostly focusing on this).



[1] I’ve lightly edited the quote to remove some filler words such as “um” and “right” for better flow.

2 comments:

  1. Some good stuff on the problem of evil. Do you have any work on divine hiddenness?

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    Replies
    1. Not specifically, but really it's basically a version of the argument from evil: some bad X that an allegedly perfectly good and all-loving God wouldn't allow (in this case X is God not being obvious to everyone).

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