Friday, October 03, 2008

Greater Good (Problem of Evil #1)

Welcome back to my series analyzing the problem of evil (See the opening post). The first Theodicy is: "The Greater Good".

According to this Theodicy, God is not evil because the suffering and injustice in the world serve some greater good. A dentist who has to pull a patient's infected tooth causes pain and suffering, but since this is done for the greater good, it is not an evil act. Similarly, God causes the pain and suffering in the world but these serve some greater good and so it doesn't count as evil.

One problem with this Theodicy is that it actually doesn't resolve the paradox. It denies the fourth claim that evil exists by making what appears to be evil into a means to the end of some greater good. Evil is transformed into an instrumental good.

But even ignoring this problem, this Theodicy doesn't pass the Holocaust Test. What greater good could justify the horrors of the Holocaust? This further undermines the claim that God is all-good. Even assuming that the Holocaust serves some divine purpose, that purpose must be evil if the only way to achieve it was through the Holocaust. An end that is only reachable by a means that is unjust is itself unjust.

Does such a general principle mean that the dentist is evil? This indicates a lack of clarity in this discussion. Are suffering, pain, and injustice equivalent? Injustice is irredeemable. An injustice cannot be justified by the outcomes achieved by it. It remains an injustice regardless of the outcome. Pain and suffering, on the other hand, are not like this. A pain can be justified by the outcome: as the dentist analogy shows. Notice how one's evaluation of the dentist changes if he causes more pain than necessary, has no reason for removing the tooth, does little to reduce the pain of his patient, or performs the operation without the consent of the patient. So long as the pain is serving an accepted purpose it is not deemed wrong. The pain becomes a type of injustice when it is forced upon an innocent party or where the goal of the pain is some injustice.

The Holocaust brought about the pain, suffering, and death of millions of innocent individuals. It is not, therefore, analogous to the dentist's drill. It is an injustice of cosmic proportions; and as such, it is deeply offensive or greatly confused to characterize it as an instrumental good to some divine purpose or greater good.

This Theodicy does not resolve the paradox. It moves the question of God's goodness from the current evil to the unknowable divine purpose to which this current evil is supposed to be a means. Since we are not privy to divine purposes or the greater goods the evils are supposed to serve, we are not in a position to judge the merit of these ends or goods. But, that means we are not in a position to judge God's goodness either. Thus the problem of evil remains.

28 comments:

onlyne said...

1.Its not just the holocast.Its war in general.2.Is the universe evil? Whether the universe is just cant be settled without raising questions about post death and pre birth.Which brings us to: Will rationality suffice ?Faith?

Shawn said...

While within war there are many horrors and so often both these horrors and the war itself are not necessary, sometimes war is necessary. To protect one's freedom against tyranny or usurpation, one might need to take up arms. So I wouldn't say that all war is evil. There are some that are justified.

onlyne said...

As a non theist (as you described your position)since their are no absolutes ,good and evil are relative and subjective and one is rudderless at sea(as the brave existentialists would assert)----to believe so is also an act of belief-----a choice which offers meagre hope?Okay, so there are good wars,justified killings---but what is death,what lies beyond?Are these questions important and is it possible to live meaningfully without an answer?

Shawn said...

That's a non-sequitur. It doesn't follow that since there is no God, there are no absolutes and good is subjective. One's rudder is reality.

Death is the end; life's meaning does not come from death; but from life and the values one seeks and achieves.

David said...

I would say as a defense for the theist position would be the false definition of good that many would inflict on the theist. In that good is defined by the standard of law and human "common sense" Something else I would modify would be the attributes you gave concerning God and Evil. I would add one more. Selfish for a All powerful being would not a bad thing for itself; however, many of the positions for the mortal beings such as ourselves might appear evil to us as it concerns humankind and a large portion of our lives.
1. God is all-good
2. God is all-powerful
3. God is all-knowing
4. God is Selfish
4. Evil Exists

The Dancing Architect said...

"Evil" is a matter of perspective. Pulling a tooth is different under anaesthesia because the pain is removed. Pain is a signal the body and mind agree upon as "not normal". In a meditative state, the signal of pain can also be turned off, thus the stimulus is no longer "pain", nor "evil" but just another sensation.
Sorry for all of the quotes, looks rather goofy from here!

Patrick Stephens said...

But, that means we are not in a position to judge God's goodness either. Thus the problem of evil remains.

It's my understanding that the concept of good in this usage means, "What God does." As mere mortals, we're never in a position to judge God's actions. We accept on faith that God is good. If we fail to understand His actions, that's our failing--not his.

There's only a "Problem of Evil" if you presuppose that it is possible for man to make accurate, independent moral judgments.

Which, of course, would be evidence of the sin of pride.

Shawn said...

Hey Pat. Ah, the age-old Euthophro dilemma. Is it good because God does it, or does God do it because it's good. In the former, good is subjective, open to the whims of a God that, by choosing it, could make the most "evil" actions good. Moreover, God is not moral because what ever he chooses is the good. For morality to exist, there must be the possibility to choose either the good or the bad. The latter, good is objective again, but God is thus limited but an external standard of goodness.

Shawn said...

Hi David. Regarding your first point, that God's goodness is falsely defined if it is tied to human conceptions of the good, that is a common move. However, it raises the following problem. When the theist proposes that God is All-Good; he either means good in human terms or in divine terms. If it is human terms, we seem to run aground in the problem of evil. If we move to the divine term, then what is the basis for the assertion that God is all-good? We don't understand divine good--that's beyond human conception. So we don't know what it means to say that God is All-Good(divine).

The attribution of selfishness to God is an interesting twist. I don't think it does any work though here in the problem of evil: either for resolving it or making it harding to resolve.

Shawn said...

Hi Dancing Architect. Well, that may work for a toothache or other bodily pains. (though it's probably not wise to "shut them off"; without treating the underlying problem). And even if one can meditate his way through Auschwitz and remove his personal awareness of suffering, that doesn't make the Holocaust any less evil.

The Dancing Architect said...

Well, let's say someone meditates their way through Auschwitz and removes the pain. Would their death be felt personally as an end to suffering or a natural transition. If they feel no pain and can regard their lives as being free from evil, does it make the situation evil because it is perceived as that from another perspective, from someone say living comfy in the USA?

Shawn said...

Here's your error. Morality is objective. Evil or injustice is not a matter of how one might feel or from what perspective one views it. It is evil because it destroyed an innocent person's life.

Brandon said...

There's one small problem with everyone's arguements in that while everyone tries to find an answer to the question of evil no one searches for the question of good. If God exists then that's it. God simply is. God is not evil nor is God good. Without good there is no evil and vice versa. So if you assume God to be good then you must also assume there is evil but God is supposed to be all encompassing is God not? Therefore the conclusion that every evil injustice this world has faced and every good act we have seen has been neither. It all just is. Was Hitler evil for the holocaust? I would think not. Hitler was Hitler. If you were him you would have done the same thing because you would have been him. Plain and simple. The universe has no "evil" atoms as it also has no "good" atoms. People make decisions and the view of whether that decision was good or evil comes only from the consequence of that decision and whose side we choose to take. If that evil decision brought good to the man who made it who is to say it was not a good decision?

Shawn said...

Hi Brandon. I'm afraid you're not really making sense in your rambling comments. Morality is objective. Good and evil are evaluations of the actions, choices, and policies that one adopts. They are good to the extent that such actions, etc, are constitutive of the life of a rational being.

We appear to agree on this: the universe as such is not evil nor good; it just is. Individuals face choices though, and those choices can be evaluated by their relationship to the rational life. So Hitler was, of course, evil.

The Dancing Architect said...

I believe morality hinges betwixt subjective and objective, if such a thing can be. Does morality only apply to human behavior? Is it evil to kill an animal for food? Obviously the animal's life has been destroyed along with its family life. Are we thus evil for supporting such acts? To me evil is subjective because it is not a force. It is not a disease caught from kissing. It is only held in the mind of the observer or collectively as a society or culture. It is objective because we suffer and have deemed the term "evil" to express what must be at the root cause of said behavior.
An alien hovering above observing may not see the evil of war but a system going through a restructuring process, there would be no evil inherent in their observation. Evil is a phenomenon of having a physical form that is temporary.

emergencyphilosopher said...

1.By saying that evil exists you are acknowledging the efficient cause of Good.

2. By acknowledging that one must posit absolute laws of morality whereby good and evil are not conventional, relative, or corresponding to human reason

3. By acknowledging universal laws of morality you accept the first cause of Good which one might call God depending on your religious persuasion.

As I have argued on my blog, I believe if the atheist accepts the problem of evil they actually ridicule their own position.

Patrick Stephens said...

"For morality to exist, there must be the possibility to choose either the good or the bad."

Sure, that's true of us. But why must it necessarily be true of God?

As I understand the ecumenical argument, it runs like this: God is capable of any action, but God chooses only to do good. If we misunderstand God's actions, that's our problem. God is capable of performing evil, but doesn't. by definition, everything God does is good because He chose to do it.

Our moral sense should be concerned primarily with discerning God's will, and submitting ourselves to His judgment, whatever that judgment may be.

The Book of Job engages in just this kind of examination, and it is only Job, by submitting himself completely, who earns God's rewards.

But the Book of Job also features Satan, so it's kind on Manichean too....

Of course it's all ultimately unintelligible, but that's the point. If the arguments for God or God's goodness were rational and convincing, there would be no need for faith or spiritual intermediaries. Pass the collection plate!

Shawn said...

EmergencyPhilosopher: I think you're seriously confused.

Your point 1 is just flat wrong. Evil is not the cause of good; it is the destruction of good. (I'll actually be discussing this point in a later post in the series: it's the Theodicy I call the Grendel Theodicy after John Gardner's Grendel)

The objectivity of good doesn't require God, first causes, or the rejection of reason. And I don't wish, as part of this series, to get into a debate of those points.

The problem of evil is not a problem for the atheist. The atheist rejects the claim that God exists. This resolves the paradox that is the problem of evil.

Shawn said...

Hey Pat...don't steal the climax of this series (the Job Theodicy)!!

Brandon said...

Shawn imagine a world in which Hitler succeeded and commanded the world. Would the Holocaust then have been an act of evil or a revolutionary act of good? So how can you say one action is good or evil when it is only judged as such by those morals and values we hold. If however those morals had been different, we would perceive that action as something completely different. I know I tend to ramble because I don't have all the right words like something being objective or subjective but did that make sense this time?

Kad said...

Shawn, I like your speculation on the problem of evil... If you consider suffering comes with greater good then it is not evil per se.

I would like to ask, Does God Suffer? If He does, then, suffering must be good otherwise, it is a contradiction to His nature.

We know that suffering is akin to peoples nature. How would you explain our personal sufferings? Evil? Or simply a path to an ultimate good?

Shawn said...

Hi Kad. Right, if suffering is in the service of a greater good, it becomes instrumentally good itself. And that's the rub. The suffering in the Holocaust or an outbreak of smallpox become instrumentally good on this Theodicy, but this is absurd. So we either don't know what good is (and so we can't attribute it to God) or we do, and God is not good.

As for God's suffering, that's another Theodicy I hope to discuss later.

Shawn said...

Brandon: You are confusing how people at a particular time might characterize an action with the objective moral account.

Mass murder is a moral evil. That some society at some point claimed it was the right thing to do does not cast doubt on the objectivity of the moral judgment. It casts doubt on the sanity of that society.

J. W. Gray said...

Two points. One, if God is omnipotent, then this isn't just a problem of evil. It's a problem of, "Why not make things better?" Two, we have to establish that evil does exist, or that what we believe is evil has been correctly identified. Heraclitus might argue that our idea of good and evil compared to God's is like an ant's understanding of algebra. To make this intelligible, it might have to be, "Yes, there can be a holocaust or the universe will no longer exist!" Or, we could use the more common answer (free will is so awesome and we are the ones who do evil things).

http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/

Shawn said...

J.W: I plan (eventually!) to post on the free will theodicy.

Another Theodicy is, of course, to deny that evil exists. But that's not one I'm interested in here. I'm interested in theodicy that attempt to maintain the four apparently incompatible propositions of the problem of evil (see the initial post).

As to the idea that our understand is very different than God's, I don't think that solves anything. It is essentially a denial of the reality of evil. What we see as evil is really good on God's understanding. But then what kind of notion of 'good' is this? And what sense does attributing goodness to God make if we don't understand good and evil?

Kai Levi said...

It seems possible that the greater good served by the holocaust is (1) that everyone living on this planet may not have ever lived if a holocaust had not happened, and (2) that we as a human collective may have learned a valuable lesson from the holocaust and other atrocities that will help us humans more quickly develop a world ethos; a philosophy that cruelty towards one another must have its limits if we are going to evolve as a species.

Shawn said...

Hi Kai Levi. I don't see how (1) is a reasonable claim at all. (2) can't be right because it didn't work; and moreover, seems a rather cruel and unnecessary way to teach such a lesson.

Justin said...

Kai Levi. I agree with Shawn that I don't see 1 as a reasonable claim. However, to say that 2 is incorrect because it hasn't occurred is not accurate. It only didn't work if you expect results to be immediate and all encompassing. If we look at it from an evolutionary perspective, not of body but of mind and spirit, then certainly gains have been made. If we accept that their are universal truths and that mankind slowly becomes aware of them, sometimes through tragic acts of cruelty, then we can see how disasters like the holocaust might lead to a higher moral consciousness.

If we look at it from a more fatalist perspective, then it does not seem to fit. If God enacts evil in order to lead to good, then God differentiates between the two. It is God in fact who taught us what the two were. The question of why God would allow an event like the holocaust is almost irrelevant when you take into account that God already knows the final destination, he created it! If God knows the beginning, middle and end then having to have tragedy occur to teach mankind doesn't make sense. He could just do it by divine decree without evil.