Tue 4 Sep 2012
Evil and the It’s-Worth-It Thesis
All of the most plausible responses to the problem of evil –the problem that the reality of evil in the world causes for believers who hold that the greatest possible being (God) exists– reach the same point but then advance no further. Less convincing responses typically downplay the reality or severity of evil, or they downgrade God to something less than the greatest possible being. The most plausible responses do neither. Instead, they identify some good that can be realized and advanced thanks to the reality of bad things (reconciliation with God in friendship and familial love is one candidate), and then they maintain that the realization and advancement of this good is worth the reality of bad things in this world. Thus, the most plausible responses to the problem of evil come down to an it’s-worth-it claim. But is any good truly worth the variety and amount of evil that the human race and the rest of the natural world have caused and suffered over tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years? The most plausible responses never get around to manifesting the it’s-worth-it claim, and how one would go about doing so is not obvious.
The difficulty in showing it’s worth it is the incommensurability or irreducibility of many values. Community, life, health, knowledge, beauty, and many more are different like apples and oranges, and nobody has ever shown that this many units of one are worth that many units of the other. Similarly, nobody has ever shown that something like heavenly community in the future is worth the destruction of earthly goods now. But here are three approaches to making good on the it’s-worth- it claim.
First, one could maintain that God possesses not mere omnipotence (the ability to do everything that can be done) but super strength omnipotence (the ability to do what cannot be done). Accordingly, God can square the circle and specify precisely the square root of 2. So also, God can conquer the problem of the incommensurability of values and make the disvalues in the world truly worth the realization of some positive value. The difficulty with this approach is that it quickly turns our talk about God into gibberish. If God has super strength omnipotence, then he can also conquer every contradiction. Thus, the propositions “God exists” and “God does not exist” can be both true because God can bring about the truth of a contradiction. They also can both be false, and they also can both be true and false. Likewise, for “God is good” and “God is evil,” “God loves human persons” and “God does not give a damn about them,” and so forth.
Second, one could say that the incommensurability of values is a problem for us, but it is not an intrinsically insurmountable problem. Accordingly, God, the ultimate mega mind, can in some way that we cannot understand perform the calculus of values and show that the reality of evil is worth some good that will emerge. This approach to showing that it’s worth it, however, is unsatisfying because it leaves the mystery of understanding the it’s-worth-it claim where we found it: a mystery.
Finally, one could say that God is in the same boat as us with regard to the reality of evil. I cannot bring a child into this world without also guaranteeing that she or he will suffer, fail dismally as a moral agent, and ultimately die. I cannot pursue health in myself or others without drugs and treatments that cause all sorts of bad side effects. I cannot write this blog with risking confusing, angering, or demoralizing readers of it. So, just as I cannot bring about many goods without at the same time bringing about a host of evils, so also perhaps God cannot either. Moreover, the evils that I do bring about are worth it in the sense that they are worth it to me: I want to realize certain goods in this world (rather than do nothing) and do not intend, not even a little bit, the evils that I bring about as well. Similarly, perhaps one can say of God that whatever good He is trying to realize is worth it because He would rather do something than nothing and He does not intend the evils that come about in the course of pursuing that good. The difficulty with this approach is twofold, however. On the one hand, just as the defense of human actions by appeal to the distinction between intended goods and unintended evils often appears to be mere sniveling or shuffling, so also defending God by appeal to the same does not appear to preserve His perfect goodness. On the other hand, God appears to be as puny and weak as human agents who are stuck in a universe that disallows the bringing about of good without the bringing of evils as well.
In the end, the most plausible responses to the problem of evil hit the same sandbar that impedes further progress on the problem, and how to get off the sandbar is hard to figure out.