some issues in the problem of evil

religious believers are frequently presented with a conundrum, called the problem of evil. the usual way to phrase it relies upon considering the following four premises, and then asserting that they are mutually inconsistent:
  1. God is omnipotent.
  2. God is omniscient.
  3. God is moral in a way which takes account of human beings.
  4. the depth and extent of undeserved bad things happening to humans has been as great as the typical religious believer thinks.
(by typical religious believer is meant the usual mainline theological positions of judaism, christianity, or islam.)

if successful, the attempt to show a contradiction would then force any religious believer to abandon one of the premises above, or to admit that religious faith of the typical (jewish/christian/islamic) sort is inconsistent with the canons of reason. some religious believers have in fact disavowed one of these premises; for example Harold Kushner has abandoned (1) and Mary Baker Eddy (4).

the attempt to show a contradiction reasons from (3) that God would stop the evil in (4) if he knew about it and were able. but from (1) and (2) we know that God does know about the evil and is able to stop it. and yet, (4) asserts that the evil does in fact exist. hence, a contradiction.

the critic, it should be clear, needs a middle premise, along these lines:

  1. a morally perfect agent would stop the evil in (4) if possible.
but this premise is not self-evidently true. one might easily ask why? we need a clearer premise. suppose the critic advances:
  1. a moral person will use all available means to stop moral evils from occurring.

with such a premise, it is clear that the critic can make his argument. but this premise is easily challenged on the grounds that some moral evils are relatively unimportant; perhaps a moral agent is not obligated to stop such trivial inconveniences. but a weaker middle premise is available to the critic:

  1. some of the evil in (4) should be stopped by any moral agent who is able.

in support of this premise, the critic will note evils such as the burning of infants, with great pain, in accidental home fires. (the rather polemically tinged argument of B.C. Johnson in God and the problem of evil, in the atheist debater's handbook discusses this example.)

in further support of (b) the critic asks us what would you say about a person who permitted the death of a child in great suffering, when the death could have been stopped? Clearly, it is claimed, no moral person would permit this. and so, it is argued, (3) and (b) require that God would not either. so here we have the beginnings of a fairly strong argument. if (b) were to be solidly established, then the believer would be caught in a contradiction.

this argument appears unassailable. but in response, a reflective religious believer will usually attempt to provide a defense, which takes the form of explaining some reason why (b) might turn out to be false. this usually takes the form of some sort of greater good that is achieved by permitting the evil in (4)—then failing to stop it would not be a violation of (3).

so, for example, the irenaean theodicy (as related by William J. Abraham in an introduction to the philosophy of religion) argues that the evil in the world is essential to providing for the moral growth and goodness of persons. thus, the moral harm in (4) is outweighed by the benefit done through the nurturing of morally good humans. or, one might argue that bad things are due to the manifest ill will of free persons, and that apparently natural evils are due to a supernatural agent also with free will (the devil). this response would claim that the moral benefit of truly free agents outweighs the moral harm in (4). or, perhaps a less disciplined thinker will suppose that God permits death in order to protect the food supply. this would claim that the existence of people requires food, whose supply requires limited population, and that the existence of people outweighs the moral evil of death.

to be sure, the responses i mentioned above are not unassailable. the critic will say to Irenaeus show me exactly how this evil is necessary to the good of moral development—could not moral development be possible with just a little less evil? to the free-will defense, the critic will ask detailed questions about the relation of free will to premises (1) and (2). (this is the central line of Richard M. Gale's discussion of the free will defense in on the nature and existence of god [cambridge u. press; 1991].) but without needing the detailed analytic discussions of free will, the critic can also ask whether slightly less free will might not still be very good, thus permitting God to prevent some of the greater moral harms. and, to the rather weak population defense, the critic will point to (1) and note that God could create food at will, or end the human need for food.

this makes for fascinating discussion. but does it really get to the point? i suspect not. if the goal is the development of a positive theodicy, then discussion along these lines is certainly necessary. consider however that all of these responses argued that (b) is false. the critic replied by suggesting that the proposed denial of (b) doesn't hold up in the case under consideration. but a quite direct answer to the critic's deductive argument is that the believer has no need to answer an incomplete argument.

the original argument of the critic was a straightforward deductive argument, alleging a simple inconsistency in premises (1) through (4). now it turns out that the necessary middle premise (b) might admit of exceptions. but to say that (b) admits of exceptions is to say (b) is false. it is not necessary for the believer to identify some unassailable exception—if the critic admits the mere possibility of an exception, then (b) is not self-evidently true.

(for example, the mere fact that Gale deems it necessary to deal with the free will defense in great detail indicates that he believes it might be possible for (b) to be false. why discuss an irrelevant argument at great length? clearly Gale thinks that if the free will defense held up, it would contradict (b). since he goes into the subject in such detail, (b) clearly depends on the details, and thus cannot be said to be incontrovertible.)

the critic must be able to present a version of (m) which is truly incontestable. but it is unclear how this is to be done. until the necessary deductive argument has been completed, the religious believer has nothing to answer.

keep in mind here the overall strategy of the critic. he was trying to show that (1) through (4) involve a manifest contradiction. It will not do to merely proclaim contradiction! and then insist that the believer demonstrate that no contradiction exists. rather, the believer may always insist that the critic has not elucidated the expected contradiction, because a premise is being used which is not self-evidently true.

the critic is required here to present a form of (m) which is manifestly clear and also generates the necessary contradiction. how could this be done? it would seem to depend in great detail on developing a consistent moral philosophy on self-evident grounds. for example, if one accepts the utilitarian thesis of Bentham, then one has an easily elucidated moral system which might help with the present question. but here the critic would be forced to assert that no possible good could outweigh the evil which we see; it is unclear how this would happen. (Bentham would say that God is not morally bound to ensure the best possible cosmos, but only one which is good—in which the moral goods outweigh the moral evils.) the believer here gets to attack the critic with the critic's own moral system.

there are other moral systems. but it is for the critic to present one and explain the version of (m) which obtains in that moral system. and the believer still cannot be accused of irrationality until the critic is done presenting the moral system, one which entails some version of (m) and which the believer cannot assail.

perhaps a comment on the burden of proof concept is apposite here. the phrase comes from the law courts, where a decision must be reached in each case. at law, what do you do with uncertain cases, where there is no clear answer? the courts, forced to come to an answer nonetheless have decided that in each case, one party has the burden of proof—and so in a tie the other party is declared the winner.

but in the present discussion, there is no obligation to come to a judgement. one may simply say that the problem is unsettled. i contend that this is manifestly the case. if the critic wishes to accuse the believer of inconsistency (and use the words as more than just a stick to beat with), he must present the incontestable argument. otherwise, the believer is not acting irrationally—we have granted for the sake of the discussion that consistent beliefs may rationally be held on faith alone.

the concept of burden of proof has no place in philosophy. i am not claiming that the critic has the burden of proof. i am claiming that to be irrational (in the way under consideration here) is to be faced with an incontrovertible contradiction in one's beliefs, and to hold to them nonetheless. if the first of these has not happened, then no irrationality exists.

the critic has a difficult journey ahead. to prove propositions inconsistent, particularly ones involving areas as contested as moral philosophy, is an amazingly hard job. my concern here is to resist the effort to declare the journey completed and force the believer to show where the critic has gone astray. the critic must actually present a single incontestible argument before the believer must pay attention to the claims of irrationality.

things i wrote for my b.a.