“There have been about 106 billion human lives in this unlikely universe, of which about 7 billion are going on now, about 5.8 percent. Of these, 80% live in abject poverty, with an even larger proportion of those who lived in the past, leading even more miserable lives, subject to the worst kinds of pains, fears, and misfortunes.” –Professor David Banach, Philosophy Blog, “Do You Feel Lucky?” 17 January 10
A classic problem in the history of philosophy in the Christian West has been the problem of evil, which arises because the existence of evil that we and others experience is seen to be incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. There would be no philosophical problem of evil, that is to say, if the existence of a perfect creator God had not been accepted. In any exposition of this problem, therefore, the existence of such a God must be taken as a given. The non-existence of such a God could be proposed as a solution to the problem of evil, as a conclusion of the discussion, but this cannot be a starting point for posing the problem. By the same token, the existence of evil in the world, based on our experience of it, must be taken as a given in posing the problem, otherwise the problem itself disappears. The evil we experience, of course, is something we think should not exist, but again, to show somehow that it does not really exist is not to pose the problem but rather to attempt to solve it. In order to acknowledge the existence of experienced evil, and to know that it should not exist, however, we must employ some concept of the good that we have experienced in this world, the good, presumably, that we think there should be more of. So it is essential in discussing the problem of evil that we acknowledge the existence of experienced good, and not just the alleged transcendent goodness of God, or God’s omnibenevolence.
In posing the problem of evil we naturally make use of these three concepts: the concept of experienced evil; the concept of an infinitely perfect God; and the concept of experienced good. One can “solve” the problem of evil by denying the existence of such a God (as is done in atheism and in theories of God’s imperfection), or by denying the existence of evil (as is done by privation theories of evil). But it seems to be an odd fact about the logic of this problem that nothing is gained towards its solution by denying the existence of experienced good, as distinct from God’s omnibenevolence. Even if we deny God’s goodness in order to solve the problem, that is, we are left with the goods of our experience which we cannot deny, and which actually become hard to acknowledge if we adopt some of the standard solutions to the problem of evil.
Suppose I wonder why people get sick and die in pain if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. It surely seems incompatible with God’s alleged perfection that God’s children be allowed to suffer and perish this way. To solve the difficulty, several options are open to me. 1) I may simply conclude that God either does not exist, or somehow cannot prevent, or does not know about, or does not care about this situation. 2) I may make the greater effort and try to explain how sickness, suffering and death are not irredeemably evil, either because they are privations of the good for which God is not culpable, or because they are indispensable to greater goods in the end (in the afterlife, say), or because they are outweighed by the goods of this life. Most philosophical solutions to the problem of evil fall under one or the other of these two headings. We rarely, if ever, see anything like this third option: 3) the good that we experience in life is unreal or illusory, like a fleeting privation of evil, and so the incompatibility between God’s transcendent perfection and the experience of evil disappears. This would be like saying that sickness, suffering, and death are simply what human existence consists in, and so God’s perfection escapes unscathed. God created us to suffer, and that’s an end of the matter. There was nothing good about this life in the first place. I cannot think of a single philosopher who has seriously proposed this as a solution to the problem of evil, though something like this view can be found in certain Sicilian writers of fiction.
It is common when claiming that the evil in this world outweighs (or defeats) the good, to hold that the good is insignificant by comparison with the evil. Yet it is not clear to me that this is actually true. As the 19th century philosopher, Franz Brentano, pointed out, the evils we are familiar with are in fact ontologically dependent on something good. For instance, there would be no death without life, but life is good. There would be no pain without some type of consciousness, but consciousness is good. There would be no ignorance or error without some kind of thought, but thought is good. There would be no love or hate without some kind of fairly complicated mental life, which itself is a good thing. And so on. Brentano held that some goods are “indefeasible,” that is, no evil can outweigh or defeat them, and he included on this list life, consciousness, thought, knowledge, and what he called correct love and hate (allowing for the fact that we should hate evil and love the good). We do not need to follow Brentano all the way to his conclusion, however, in order to see some reason for hesitation concerning the claim that the good in this world is insignificant by comparison with the evil. In other words, although Brentano was interested in producing a complete theodicy, a full solution to the traditional problem of evil, it is not necessary that we consider the problem solved. What is necessary, though, in my opinion, is that we acknowledge that there is a sense in which “the problem of good” can become just as intractable as the problem of evil.
The problem of good arises when we accept certain kinds of solutions to the problem of evil. For instance, when we say there is no creator God and affirm that our existence in this world is purely accidental or the result of blind forces, then to be consistent we have to hold also that those things we value—life, consciousness, knowledge, love—are valuable only sometimes or only to us but not inherently or intrinsically so. Perhaps knowledge promotes our survival or our pleasure, for instance, which is a good to us, but which cannot be considered good in itself or intrinsically valuable in any objective sense. This is not what we mean, though, when we say that those who live, are conscious, know, or love are good in themselves. We do not mean merely that they are good as means, or that they have value as a merely human invention, like underwear; we mean that they are good as such or as ends, i.e., intrinsically good. But it seems incompatible with the concept of an intrinsic good that its goodness be merely instrumental or subjective, just good for us, since intrinsic goods are inherently such that their very existence is objectively and correctly to be preferred to their non-existence regardless of our viewpoint.
On the other hand, if we say that evil is merely a privation of the good, and God is responsible only for the good, while this “solves” the problem of evil, it leaves us with a fresh version of the problem of good, namely, the arbitrariness of holding that experienced evil is not a positive reality. Why not hold that experienced good is not a positive reality, since both evil and good are equally real parts of our lived experience? Yet not only do we find it difficult to hold that evil is unreal, we also find it difficult to hold that good is unreal, not only because we are far too attached to it for that (both when faced with its absence and when graced by its presence), but more importantly because the reality of evil and injustice depends on the good being objectively real. For example, if I decry the pain and suffering of untold numbers of humans and other animals, I implicitly acknowledge their underlying goodness as intrinsically valuable beings who ought to exist (at least at some time) and ought not to suffer (at least not for no good reason). In Brentano’s terms, I correctly hate their suffering precisely because their existence is correctly to be preferred to their non-existence in an absolute sense, which is to say, because they are intrinsically good. Or to take another kind of example, if I love and value a person—a parent, spouse, child, or friend—part of this experience is gratitude for the person’s very existence; but such gratitude involves awareness of the existence of an undeniable, intrinsic good—this person—whom, in Brentano’s terms, I correctly love. Either way, the problem of good appears to be just as difficult as the problem of evil, when it arises as a consequence of trying to solve the problem of evil. In sum, it appears that I can hold, for instance, either that human life has objective, intrinsic value or that human life is valuable only to humans (and possibly to their predators), but not both.
There may be no adequate philosophical solution to the problem of evil. It may be that the problem of evil remains intractable on the traditional theistic view, but at the same time the problem of good remains intractable on what has become the standard atheistic view. In any event, it pays to recognize the inconsistency in our intuitions about these matters, regardless which side we lean towards: as theists, we are prone to discount the evil in the world and focus mainly on the good, but as atheists we are prone to the reverse—discounting the good.