Sunday, January 04, 2009

Problem of Evil: Soul-Making

(#4 in the Problem of Evil Series)

The soul-making theodicy rests on the idea that God allows evil to exist because the existence of evil is a necessary condition for individuals to develop or complete their moral souls.

We need to learn what morality is about and we need to develop the proper virtues. We cannot learn these in a vacuum nor do we know morality a priori. The suffering of others is, the theodicy argues, essential for individuals to learn these lessons about morality and virtue. Without the opportunities offered by suffering and evil, individuals would not have the chance to develop or demonstrate moral virtues, like compassion or courage.

The theodicy can be summarized as follows:
  • A world of moral individuals is a good thing.
  • Individuals have to learn how to be moral.
  • Suffering and evil are necessary in order to learn how to be moral.
  • God desires to create a world of moral individuals.
  • God must therefore allow suffering and evil in order to bring about the good of a world of moral individuals.

There are a number of problems with this theodicy.

The main problem comes in the third proposition above: that suffering and evil are necessary in order to learn how to be moral. Surely this is not true of all moral virtues or concepts. The virtue of independence is not developed as a response to suffering: it’s developed out of a need for relying on one’s own judgment and action. One might also consider the amount of non-human suffering that exists and what connection this serves for the development of moral character.

Also, there is plenty of suffering and evil that does not seem to teach us any unique lessons. Showing compassion can be praiseworthy; but surely we can learn this without two-year olds dying from cancer or tornados ripping through towns every summer. And just what did we learn from the Holocaust that we didn’t know already? We didn’t know that mass murder was evil and needed the Nazi’s reign of terror to learn this?

One might argue, well supported by the evidence of post-Holocaust genocides, that mankind has not taken this lesson to heart. But this also undermines the theodicy. God’s goal, ex hypothesis, is to create moral individuals and he allows evil to allow us to learn the moral lessons we are supposed to learn. But if this is not working, then shouldn’t the tactics change? And so wouldn’t God’s failing to change tactics be a kind of moral failure? If a parent decides to beat his children to teach them how to behave properly, and comes to see that this doesn’t work, but continues to beat his children, then we would conclude that the parent is engaging in evil. And, moreover, even if the tactic did work, we still should not tolerate this in the parent. There are more humane ways to teach children how to behave properly.

So, suffering and evil are not necessary conditions for moral development. We can learn morality without being subjected to evil. Moreover, intentionally subjecting one to evil in order to teach them a lesson seems monstrous. There are other ways to teach the lesson and such lessons often don’t work any way.

Another important problem with this theodicy is that it makes a fetish out of suffering. If morality depends on the existence of suffering, then if there was no suffering, we would have to create suffering just to have morality. This strikes me as perverse. Suffering should not be a moral primary; it is secondary to the primary concern of morality: learning how to best live one’s life.

This also leads to a new paradox. The idea here is that morality needs suffering to develop virtues like compassion. But if there was no suffering in the world, would we need the virtue of compassion? It seems like the virtues that are most likely to be pointed to as being developed in response to evils are the virtues that are only needed because there are evils in the world. This undermines the theodicy because if God didn’t allow the evil in the first place, we wouldn’t need those virtues and so we would have no need to learn them by experiencing evil.

One common response to this is that these virtues are needed for the next world, for heaven, or for some deeper relationship with God. A problem with this move is that this is wholly arbitrary speculation. How can anyone know this? One could just as easily argue that one cannot get into heaven without being able to play badminton. And even one could know this, it doesn’t justify the evil. Consider again the parent who beats his children to teach them to behave. The fact that his goal is a good thing doesn’t justify his means. One should wonder about the justice of God if he creates the world in such a way that the only way to get to his kingdom is to have to learn virtues that rely on experiencing evil.

30 comments:

Patrick Stephens said...

"Sorry you're daughter has cancer, Jim. But her suffering is necessary for my moral health."

Isn't this also known as the "God is a complete jerk-wad" theodicy?

Brandon Baranowski said...

I enjoyed reading your post. I think you have a sound mind of reasoning and hopefully with out stepping on anyone's toes, I'd like to offer a few of my ideas. I confess I haven't read the other parts of your series of debates. However I see an inevitable flaw in assuming that there is indeed a God or Heaven for that matter. Although I am not clearing stating that you are right or wrong in this assumption, I am pointing out that in the grand scheme of debate, all aspects must be debated. I now will assume that even to you the existence of God has a major affect on your view of "evil." The other area of debate that you seem to leave to assumption is that of "good." Does good actually exist? And in order for it to exist must there be evil? I view good and evil as an ideal or state of being. Like being happy, sad, bored, hungry, etc. Inherently "good" people can do bad things. Just like "bad" or "evil" people can do good or righteous deeds. A parent may beat their child and the next day build a house for a bum. Or the Nazi that was told to incinerate a room of Jews could be the only source of income for his entire family in a German economic depression. Taking this point even further. In war both "sides" are fighting for a just and worthy cause. To them they are the good guys, and their enemies the bad guys. So in this sense, good and evil are also subjective. Breaking free from the yin-yang controversy you seem to be tumbling around in your head, perhaps you could try considering the existence of morality in itself instead of trying to justify your God's moral design? Just an idea, thanks for the post.

Shawn said...

Brandon: I'm a nontheist, so obviously, the best argument against the paradox is that there is no god or supernatural. However, these blogs are exercises in hypothetical reasoning. If one accepts the traditional Western notion of God, then .... One doesn't have to accept the antecedent to learn anything or discuss anything in the consequent.

As I have written in previous responses: I do not accept the view that morality, good and evil, are subjective. Indeed, I don't think such a view even makes sense.

Joel said...

Hi Shawn,

I've glanced through the other Theodicy posts but may have missed where you addressed this, so feel free to boot my question. :)

You are talking about the problem of evil and God's justice, but is there the possibility that here in the west we make an error by linking discussion of the experience of suffering with theodicy? You more than adequately dealt with the argument of the greater good and a higher morality, and (I hope) that's not what I'm getting at. But could it be that the reason why the issues of theodicy are unanswerable is because we link the problem of evil with the questions of pain and suffering? Isn't this sort of a preconventional moral approach? Is it possible to talk about good and evil seperately from the questions raised by suffering?

N. Strange said...

Great post! However, it seems that points 3 and 4 have a problem.. that is:

3. Suffering/Evil is necessary to learn morality
4. God want to create moral individuals

If God is omnipotent, and #4 is true, then God has the power to make #3 false and teach individuals morality without evil/suffering. If God is omnipotent, then #3 is true only if God wills it to be so.

Brandon Baranowski said...

After reading your comment I went back and read your previous parts. I understand the hypothetical thinking involved behind assuming your four "mottoes" behind your exercise. However, you explain the subjective view of what is considered good to whom and I feel that this could go the same for evil. Trying to leave the humane out of the theory, whose to say that massacring millions of people is evil. The world hasn't come to an end because of it, and the human race hasn't suffered. Bear with me here, I am not condoning genocide by any means here. People die everyday, death is as much apart of life as being born. I think that the defining of death as "evil" has to do with man's own struggle with his personal mortality. And, assuming there is a God, (and kind of on the same track as I see Patrick coming from) perhaps death is merely a transition to the next place in space, and that place could be better than the one we're currently experiencing, such as Heaven. People die every day, and I feel that impersonating abstract objects is once again a leap of faith. Is cancer evil? Some people would surely label it so. From a non-humane or even scientific perspective, cancer is merely a catalyst in an already inevitable occurrence. Whether I die tomorrow from cancer or a car crash, I still died. Sure you could label both catalysts as evil. Perhaps the argument is that living in general is good and the act of death itself is evil, but I don't think that is how most religions view it. In fact, most religions promote the "transcendence" as a necessary and righteous path in an unending direction. I can't justify the Nazi movement in World War II, perhaps it was pure evil, or maybe it was population control in a survival of the fittest world, but I would personally lean towards a more "evolution" based stand point on the subject (and I am not an evolutionist in the true sense). Also, as you stated before, who are we to tell God what God ought to do. God did declare that humanity would be tested. The Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians, so that kind of supports your "bigger picture" theorem. Either way, I still disagree with a yin-yang, good requires evil, ideology.

Once again, thank you for your time.

daniel said...

I think you actually misunderstand the soul making theodicy. God does not need evil to teach us morality. However, evil does heighten our sense of morality and it does give us instance to understand and practice some virtues that could not be practiced/understood in a world without evil. For instance, Justice, forgiveness, etc.

Another thing that is important to note is that most christian philosophers understand that one can not depend on a single theodicy to explain evil. The soul-making theodicy alone is not enough to account for evil, but when combined with freewill theodicies a more accurate picture of why God might allow evil to exist can be formed.

schwarz.mark said...

Great post. Your reasoning was the exact internal discourse that directed me toward the abandonment of traditional dualism and God-concept. The best logical explanation is that there is no omnipotent God, but rather we exist in a purely economic environment where we have three dispositions to choose from: dependence, independence or interdependence (Covey, 1989). There is no available utopia; suffering is endemic to what we understand "life" to be. And our only control is the way we choose to interact with each other and ourselves. By working together we can reduce suffering, but never eliminate it. After all, many people "choose" suffering by refusing to accept responsibility for their ability to address it.

Horizon06 said...

It's nice to know I'm not the only one who wonders about these things. I don't necessarily agree with the supposition you're making, or for that matter the theodicy that you bring up. In particular, the idea that God has some master plan and has brought about suffering in the world so that this plan can be carried out, seems a bit of a stretch. For one, this would completely discount the idea of free will, because if God is causing (or allowing) people to suffer in order to bring about a world of moral people, then he is also placing them in a position where they are predisposed towards a certain idea, and in my opinion, that would be nothing more than divine brain washing (in a literal sense).

Now if we're debating why bad things happen to good people, which is what I'm gathering is the basic theodicy of your blog/post, then I would suggest that things just happen. Placing a moral value on an action doesn't change the effect of the action. For instance if a man is stoned for adultery, one side may feel that this was a moral action, the other that it was immoral, but in fact the action is still the same, the man is stoned. If we go one step further, the true problem is that there was a moral judgment based on the premise of adultery in the first place, rather than an examination of whether the act of adultery caused anyone harm (other than perhaps some hurt feelings about infidelity.) I would surmise that the real reason why morality exists is to prevent people from doing things that society doesn't want it to do. To go one step further we can take masturbation as an example. Most psychologists would state that in moderation, masturbation is a healthy action, however some religions would consider it immoral, even though it's not harming anyone. Why would it be considered harmful? Well maybe it's so society can place limits on sex? If one controls who has sex and when, then one would have a good deal of control over the population in general.

I would suggest that the better discussion is why one would benefit from teaching that suffering and evil are necessary, rather than if God allows or causes suffering for a particular reason.

Daniel said...

When I think of pain and suffering, like your example of the two year olds with cancer, I always think of the movie Fight Club. The two year old dying of cancer helps us learn that we are not masters of our destiny, but that we are masters of the time we are here and what we are given to work with. The two year old will not feel unworthy or attempt to do what will kill him/her, but will attempt to survive. An adult can suffer from emotional pain and veer away from the obvious, driving himself to self destruction, while ignoring (conciously) the signals that point him/her towards different behavior.
The quality of your life is proportional to the quality of the states of mind that you frequent. So a materialisticly poor person can be rich in spiritual food, meaning that his beliefs drive him/her to be thankful for the life he/she has, making his/her experience valuable. Like in the bible, the stories of those who's life are filled with disaster and trouble, yet they continue to believe in God's love, these stories serve to demonstrate that there is always rewards to those who believe.
My view on your explanation of the holocaust paradox goes like this:

Feeding your family is good, and murdering Jews is wrong. Just because you murdered someone to be able to get food, does not mean that feeding your family is wrong. Murder is wrong, feeding you family is right.(depending on what you feed them ;) )
More importantly, if your family knows you have murdered to feed them, while feeding them continues to be good, your example of murdering for physical food is bad spiritual food for your family. I can see where you can do more damage this way. Spiritual food is much more important than physical food.
Great Blog, I will keep coming back.

Anonymous said...

It is true that good and evil are relative in a sense? Hypothetically Take Hitler as an example, if he believed that what he was doing was for the greater good of the human or Aryan race then we can agree it wasn't done for just the pure reason of being evil. I am not saying that evil is only relative for Hitler caused many evils. But if Hitler believed he was doing good then can he be bad? If one believes they are doing good then how can they be considered evil as a person? This poses the question that if one is not specifically intending to do evil are they as person as a soul, evil? If you even look at situations that derive evil from people trying to get personal gains you can still not consider that the absolute form of evil. Since a person does something just for personal gains not carry about the consequences it shows there its self that they are not doing it just purely to be evil or to cause suffering there is some sort of motive. That shows that people can be bad people only thinking of them selves can do evil things but not be evil people who only do things just to cause suffering and evil without any gains. So in that since evil at is purest does not exists within people but in the world through peoples miss guided actions. there is also the notion that god allows people free will therefore people will create evil because they are free to do as they want and since people can misinterpret evil to be good evil will exist since people feel the need to survive they can but themselves first therefore evil will exists since people do not always relate actions with consequences evil will exists. if god did not allow free will then we would not be us we would be merely characters in video game controlled by god. It is true love god seeks from people and we cannot give that if we're not truly people or just replication of what god wants us to be. How can we give love if were forced to. God allows evil because we do so that he can also allow love(being the highest form of good) so that the ying outweighs the yang

Shawn said...

Hi Joel, I don't think we can separate the discussion of good and evil from pleasure and suffering. They are not synonymous, but are connected.

Shawn said...

Hi N. Strange: Exactly!

Shawn said...

Hi Brandon. You wrote: "Trying to leave the humane out of the theory, whose to say that massacring millions of people is evil. The world hasn't come to an end because of it, and the human race hasn't suffered."

I have to disagree. There is a Talmud saying that goes something like, he who has saved one life, is considered as if he has saved the world. For the millions who who murdered, their worlds came to end. And moreover, the work and contributions of those millions (and the work and contributions of their children) are lost forever. Maybe there was another Einstein or Newton or Aristotle. Maybe someone who would have been a good friend. The human race is much worse off.

Death is a part of life; and it is essential to maturity to come to grips with and accept one's mortality. Morality and values depend on life; they are defined by the pursuit of and celebration of life. So death is the opposite: it is the end of values. So it's always a tragedy.

Shawn said...

Hi Daniel, Yes, I would think that it would be necessary and acceptable to answer the problem of evil with more than one theodicy.

I don't think I've misunderstood the soul-making theodicy; you're just posing it in a different way. The idea is still the same.

Shawn said...

Hi Daniel. I'm afraid you've lost me with your feeding your family example. I think you are right; the recognition and acceptance of the fact the world is not always fair and just is important to taking responsibility for the parts of one's life that are under one's control. But that's not really the question. The question for the problem of evil is, is it a necessary condition of the universe that to teach such a lesson two years will have to suffer. That strikes me as widely implausible; and that's why I reject this theodicy.

Shawn said...

Anonymous. There are a lot of things I disagree with in your comment. But let me focus on one. The fact that Hitler (or anyone) takes themselves to be acting rightly doesn't absolve them if they are in fact acting wrongly. It might, depending on the context, mitigate one's judgment of the person, but not in the context of Hitler. One cannot be good and think that acting in a way to bring about the death of millions is the right thing to do. That's just what it means to be evil: to be so colossally wrong on something like this.

Torq said...

Shawn: Very interesting posts! I patiently await your discussion of Free-Will. It is under this heading which my own understanding of the difficult question of the existence of evil ultimately falls.

kristy said...

it is most certainly possible to know morals a priori.

Brainfreeze said...

I find you to be among only a few atheists/nontheists on the internet who have something close to good reasoning. Many like to posit irrational arguments like subjectivity and other arguments one would make when high. But there are some flaws in your argument I would like to address.

First, your example of a virtue learned without evil is confusing. Is there a virtue of independence? You said it was a need to rely on ones own judgment. But in a world without evil, would judgments matter? There would be no good or evil action to decide between, which is in the nature of judgment.

Also, your argument about God being the bad parent is flawed. In the nature of God, as the most supreme being, he would be omniscient and omnipresent. Therefore, he would be able to foresee the best action to take and have the power to take that action, simply because he is God. God wouldn't see a mistake in his actions and then correct himself, like that bad parent, because he has unlimited foresight and would have performed the best action (once again, simply because he is God). And even if that action wasn't the best action, why would God correct himself? God saw every consequence of his action, and then he did it. There would be no need of correction, because he was presented with no new information.

Many people want to find an answer against or in favor of God with a simple soundbite or a single idea. I'm glad you're not one of those people and you are willing to travel the laborious road of making many separate philosophical arguments and exercising reason.

Shawn said...

Kristy: Great! Thanks for clearing that up.

Shawn said...

Brainfreeze:
*Obviously I think there is a virtue of independence. I'm not going to try to defend that claim here (space/time reasons). My claim is that suffering/evil are not necessary to learn how to be moral: that is, that one can learn virtue and right action without suffering evil. The need to rely on one's own judgment and action is important -- certainly in part to avoid suffering and harm -- but also to achieve one's goals. WE not only choose between good and evil; we have to choose between two goods: should I pursue medicine or research? The virtue of independence is essential for such moral and practical decisions.

In answer to your second point, this tends to bleed into the theodicy that evil really is just an illusion since God always knows what is best and so what we experience that we call evil is really the best means to divine ends (which are by definition of omnibenevolence good ends).

I've tried to answer that theodicy elsewhere (POE #1). But my response here is that if this is the case, then humans are incapable of actually knowing what goodness (or evil) is. A divine purpose that requires the murder of nearly 2 million children is really just an instrumental good and not the terrifying evil we claim it is?

CoMpLic8Ed said...

Good post!
i Have many things to pick at, but over all,it was sound and within reason.

it is a very subjective issue to fully discuss.

Fran├žois G. said...

Hi Shawn,

First: I really appreciate this blog and have lots of different thinking because of: thanks.

I'd like to go a bit deeper than Brainfreeze about this theodicy. As he said, it's difficult to imagine God making mistakes no? So, because He is all-knowing and all-powerful, He obviously created Human perfectly in the way He wanted us to be. Why bother to create something and then, pass the rest of the time trying to change it. That doesn't make any sense to me. So I think you could have pointed out that this theodicy break one of the four claims (all-knowing or all-powerful).

Also, I would have like to talk about Evil and Good. I'm surprise you reject totally the idea that Evil and Good does not exist at all as many philosophers thought about it. It seems a lot of people see Cancer and Tsunami as Evil, fact that surprise me. And you seem to think that killing a person is Evil too. History proved that religion killed without an hesitation tons of times and was seen as Good! How our vision is better? Would you consider that a male lion, killing little lions of another group is Evil? But when we apply this example to human: it is obviously. So now we are back on the main problematic: what Good and Evil really mean. And it seems to me that thinking Good and Evil is only a subjective point of view is not that stupid and shouldn't be discarded so easily.

Finally I would like to react about the "death is always a tragedy".
It sounds really out of philosophy, but maybe I misunderstand you. I really cannot see ANY link between death and Evil. Christianity does it for sure, but look at others religions: death and Evil are most of the time separate (and Evil may not even exist).

Tony said...

Wow, Its been very interesting to see how many views people have about evil, but one thing I have to find clarification with is, the idea of whether morality is subjective? how can one deny its subjective nature when there are thing such as crimes of passion, revenge and so on which, to the individual performing them, seem totally moral, regardless of thier consequences...

I was just wondering though.
Otherwise, Beautiful reasoning people, I cant stop reading all the responses.

John said...

Is it safe to say one of the blessing of suffering is that it allow us to make creative choise and over come it in an innovative way. Thus making our character to be moulded. But when we make bad choice and respond badly to what we face, we fail in certain way.Of course we can't say this same thing for all kinds of suffering natural and man-made, but it is true for most of the day to day challenges we face. But this thesis fail to grasp any general principle which as a philosopher you might desire.

Shawn said...

@Tony: That one sees their action as good or right is not sufficient to show that it is actually right (unless one is already committed independently to Subjectivism).

Shawn said...

@John: I think you are right: often failure and suffering can teach us important lessons. The point, however, is that we don't normally think it is okay to intentional put someone through a lot of pain and suffering just to teach them lesson.

John Addison said...

Hi Shawn,

I am new to your blog. Thanks for you post, I found it well-reasoned.

Hi Brainfreeze,

Your comments intrigued me, so here's my reply to your argument:

"Also, your argument about God being the bad parent is flawed. In the nature of God, as the most supreme being, he would be omniscient and omnipresent. Therefore, he would be able to foresee the best action to take and have the power to take that action, simply because he is God. God wouldn't see a mistake in his actions and then correct himself, like that bad parent, because he has unlimited foresight and would have performed the best action (once again, simply because he is God). And even if that action wasn't the best action, why would God correct himself? God saw every consequence of his action, and then he did it. There would be no need of correction, because he was presented with no new information."


Such assumptions make a circular argument for God. If one is to question the Theodicy of Evil, one’s purpose is to judge through observation whether it right to assume for a benevolent god, and eventually perhaps an omniscient and omnipotent deity. If you begin with those assumptions, there is no need to reason any further as every argument against such a deity is moot. As such, it is an unfalsifiable assertion (tautological) and one could easily prove the Theodicy of Evil with such powerful assumptions. But the grounds upon these assumptions could entirely be fictitious, imagined, or utterly impossible, and this is what we are trying to uncover.

But let’s suppose we agree with these additional assumptions (presupposing that it is possible to be omniscient or omnipotent and then assuming that God is such a being). As you have reasoned: “God saw every consequence of his action, and then he did it.” It follows then that every “happening” in the world, past, present, and future is an action of God. We can exclude non-action on the part of God because his omnipotence and omniscience guarantees that every “happening” is according to his will. If you like to think by contradiction, the other reasoning is that if it were to happen against his will, then either God was not omniscient or not omnipotent—a contradiction of our hypotheses. In such a scenario, individual wills of humans would merely be an illusion, as there is no possibility of independent action without the inclusion also of God’s will. For instance, if I were to kick a ball at this moment, this action is in agreement with God’s will, which implies that he wanted me to kick a ball, and due to his omnipotent and omniscient nature, there is no way I could avoid kicking a ball. Likewise, if I were to not a kick a ball at this moment, this would also be in accordance with God’s will, and by his omnipotent and omniscient nature I could not defy his will either. Thus, do I have a will, and if I do, does it even matter? This argument dealt solely with actions and such, but really the idea is that every aspect is a part of a God’s will—emotions, thoughts, etc.—which excludes the possibility of independent thought and freedom. If you believe you have a will, which I assume most of us do, then we have arrived at a contradiction. Thus, I conclude that one cannot logically believe in the existence of free will in conjunction with an omnipotent and omniscient god.

Thus, you could use these assumptions to prove the Theodicy of Evil if in addition you disregard the existence of free will.

MichaelGorby said...

John, I really found solidity in your reasoning. I love reading points that express my own opinions in a clearer and more articulate way than I could have written myself.

I recently had a conversation on this topic with my father, who is a member of an organized religion. He made the following point and I was hoping to hear your thoughts:

He believes in the conflicting ideas of human beings having the freedom of choice, while also maintaining that all which happens is in line with God's divine plan.
His explanation is that the ultimate end result will be what God has planned, but the path which gets us there is in our own hands.

I have my own responses to that, but was hoping to hear yours as well.