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.