Thanksgiving evening, the post-prandial conversation was very good. Christian Marty K. raised the question of what one would say were one to meet God after death and God asked, "What did you do with your life?"
Atheist Peter L. shot back, "What did you do with your life, God?"
In my judgment, and it is not just mine, the fact of evil is the main stumbling block to theistic belief. While none of the arguments from evil are compelling, some of them render atheism rationally acceptable. This has long been my view. Atheism and theism are both rationally acceptable and intellectually respectable, though of course they cannot both be true.
This puts me at odds with the Pauline passage at Romans 1: 18-20. I'll summarize it. Men are godless and wicked and suppress the truth. What may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. Human beings have no excuse for their unbelief. "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made . . . ."
Paul's claim here is that the existence and nature of God are evident from creation and that unbelief is a result of a willful turning away from the manifest truth. There is no excuse for unbelief because it is a plain fact that the natural world is divine handiwork. Now I am a theist and I am sympathetic to Christianity. But although I have one foot in Jerusalem, the other is planted firmly in Athens (philosophy, the autonomy of reason). And so I must point out that to characterize the natural world as 'made' or 'created' begs the question in favor of theism. As begging the question, the Pauline claim about the evidentness of the world's being created offers no support for theism. It is an analytic proposition that there is no creation without a creator. So if the heavens and the earth are a creation, then it follows straightaway that a creator exists.
But is the world a divine creation? This is the question, and the answer is not obvious. That the natural world is a divine artifact is not evident to the senses, or to the heart, or to reason. Of course, one can argue for the existence of God from the existence and order of the natural world. I have done it myself. But those who reject theistic arguments, and construct anti-theistic arguments, have their reasons too, and it cannot fairly be said that what animates the best of them is a stubborn and prideful refusal to submit to a truth that is evident. It is not evident to the senses that the natural world is a divine artifact.
I may be moved to marvel at "the starry skies above me" (Kant). But seeing is not seeing as. If you see the starry skies as divine handiwork, then this is an interpretation from within a theistic framework. But the datum seen can just as easily be given a nontheistic interpretation.
At the end of the day you must decide which of these interpretations to accept. You will not find some plain fact that will decide it for you. There is no fact you can point to, or argument you can give, that definitively rules out theism or rules it in.
If the atheism of some has its origin in pride, stubborness and a willful refusal to recognize any power or authority beyond oneself, or beyond the human, as may well be the case with such luminaries as Russell and Sartre, it does not follow that the atheism of all has this origin.
By the way, here we have the makings of an argument for hell. If someone, post-mortem, in the divine presence, and now fully cognizant of the ultimate metaphysical 'lay of the land,' were to persist in a pride Luciferian, and refuse to acknowledge and worship the ultimate Source of truth, goodness, beauty, and reality, a Source itself ultimately true, good, beautiful, and real, then the only fitting place for someone who freely chose to assert his miserable ego in defiance of its Source would be hell. It would be deeply unjust and unreasonable to permit such a person the visio beata.
A reader requests some help in a debate he is having with some atheists re: the problem of evil. My advice: don't debate atheists. Read their arguments and consider them carefully. Then think the problem through for yourself in as intellectually honest and existentially serious a manner as you can. Then decide whether to accept and practice a religion. Debate with atheists is like debate with leftists: it is unlikely to be fruitful.
But the following way of looking at the matter of God and evil may be of some help to my reader. In this entry I distinguish generic theism from specific theisms and then I claim that (i) the logical complexion and tractability of the problem of evil depends on the type of theism adopted, and that (ii) for something close to an orthodox -- miniscule 'o'-- Christian theism the problem of evil is more tractable than for generic theism.
Suppose we define a 'generic theist' as one who affirms the existence of a bodiless person, a pure spirit, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and who in addition is perfectly free, the creator and sustainer of the universe, and the ground of moral obligation. This generic theism is common to the mainstream of the three Abrahamic religions. Most theists, however, are not 'generic' but adopt a specific form of theism. Christians, for example, add to the divine attributes listed above the attribute of being triune and others besides. Christianity also includes doctrines about the human being and his ultimate destiny in an afterlife. The (philosophical) anthropology and eudaimonology of Christianity is just as important to it as its theology. Generic theism is thus an abstraction from the concrete specific theisms that people accept and live. And let's be clear that while doctrine is essential to religion, pace Wittgenstein, or perhaps pace only certain epigoni of Wittgenstein, no religion is exhausted by its doctrine. Each concrete religion is a way of life and a form of life. Each concrete religion seeks an orthodoxy and an orthopraxy.
Now the point I want to make is that, just as we ought to distinguish between generic theism and specific theisms, we ought to distinguish between the generic problem of evil and specific problems of evil. The generic problem of evil is the problem faced by the generic theist of reconciling belief in a God possessing the standard omni-attributes with the existence of evil in the kinds and amounts encountered in the actual world. A specific problem of evil, on the other hand, is the problem a specific type of theist has in reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil.
We need to examine whether the problem a theist of a specific stripe has in reconciling God and evil is easier to solve or perhaps harder to solve than the problem a generic theist has.
To see what I am driving at, imagine a version of theism — call it version A — that affirms God, immortal souls, and the eventual blissful communion of all souls with God. On this version of theism there is purgatory, but no hell defined as a state of everlasting separation from communion with God. Thus on this version of theism there is post-mortem evil, the pain of purgatory, but this purgatorial evil is instrumental for the achieving of a higher good and is to that extent redeemed by this higher good.
Now compare this theism-A with a theism-B which affirms God but denies post-mortem existence whether in the form of immortal souls or in the form of resurrected (ensouled) bodies. On this alternative the God of the generic theist (defined above) exists, but for human beings this life is all there is: at death a human being ceases to exist utterly. Now does it not seem that the theist-B faces a much tougher problem than the theist-A when it comes to reconciling a good God with the fact of evil? So it seems to me.
For the theist-B, the horrendous evils of this life are not compensated for by any life to come. One suffers pointlessly, meaninglessly. But for the theist-A, the transient evils of this short life are as nothing compared to the endless bliss of the soul's communion with God and with other purified souls. Thus gratuitous evil for the theist-A is a vanishing quantity. To appreciate this, you must understand that for the theist-A, God is Being itself in its full plenitude while this world, though real, is entirely derivative and entirely dependent, at each instant, on the divine Reality for its existence, nature, and intelligibility. The supreme Reality is like the sun outside of Plato's Cave; this world is the cave, its furnishings, and its benighted troglodytes.
[By the way, right here is a chief reason for the pointlessness of discussions with atheists. The typical atheist is a naturalist/materialist/physicalist for whom this physical world is the ens reallissimum. One cannot have a fruitful discussion with someone whose sense of reality and value is entirely different from one's own. Analogy with the political: if you have a traditional notion of justice you won't get far with someone who thinks of justice as 'social justice.' But I digress.]
Most atheists share the very strong intuition that the probability of this world's containing the amount of evil it does is much greater on the hypothesis that God does not exist than it is on the hypothesis that God exists:
Prob(E/~G) >> Prob(E/G).
They take this as evidence that there is no God. For if there were a God possessing the standard omni-attributes, why would there be the amounts of evil that we actually encounter? But to properly evaluate this inequality, how can one leave out the rest of what most theists believe? The amount and kinds of evil in this world enter the calculation, no doubt. But the absence of gratuitous evil, and the presence of unending bliss in the next world, are also relevant if the question concerns reconciling God and evil within theism-A.
Here is an analogy. Some of us had rotten childhoods but are enjoying very good adulthoods. Suppose Sam is such a person, now age 60. Up to age 23 Sam's life was on balance not worth living; after age 23 it became worth living. Suppose Sam claims that his life is overall rotten due to his lousy first 23 years. You would point out to him that his judgment is ridiculous and unjust. The quality of one's life overall depends on the whole of it, not just on part of it. There is also the consideration that there is a surplus of value due to the life's going from bad to good, rather than in the other direction (bonum progressionis.) Similarly, a just evaluation of the value of life in this world cannot be based solely on what goes on in this world, but must also take into consideration what goes on in the next.
To sum up:
1. Real live theists are not generic theists, but theists of some particular stripe or other. Generic theism is an abstraction. Real live theists hold specific doctrines that are embodied in specific practices. Among these doctrines will be a theory of the nature of man, his ultimate destiny, his final felicity, and his relation to God. Although the question of the existence of God is logically distinct from the question of the nature of man, in a specific theism such as Christianity, the theology and the anthropology are mutually influencing so much so that if there is no God, then there is no Man either. (If what distinguishes man from other animals is imago dei, then no God, no Man.)
2. The problem of evil, if it is to be a genuine existential conundrum bearing on how one lives one's life and not a mere logic puzzle, is the problem of reconciling the existence of the God of a particular religion with the fact of evil as evil is understood from within this particular religion.
3. A theism that affirms God, post-mortem existence, and the eventual unending blissful communion of all souls (or resurrected persons) with God does not face the same problem of evil as a version of theism which denies post-mortem existence. The problem of evil for the former type of theist is much less serious than it is for the theist of the latter type.
4. It is dialectically unfair for atheists to argue against all (classical) theists from the fact of the evil in this world when (i) not all theists are generic theists, and (ii) some theists believe that the transient evils of this short life are far outweighed by the unending bliss of the world to come.
5. It is arguable that there is no insoluble problem of evil for theists-A. Suppose this world is a "vale of soul-making" (the phrase is from John Keats) in which human beings, exercising free will, make themselves worthy, or fail to make themselves worthy, of communion with God. Combine this soul-making idea with post-mortem existence, and the existence of purgatory but not hell, and we have perhaps the elements of a solution to the problem of evil. (Cf. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Part IV)
Let me conclude by noting that a theism-C which holds to eternal damnation for some may exacerbate the problem of evil. Here I refer you to David Lewis' posthumous "Divine Evil" in Louise Antony, ed., Philosophers Without Gods, Oxford 2007, pp. 231-242. Lewis, may God rest his soul, maintains that the usual logical and evidential arguments from evil are a "sideshow" compared to a "simpler argument, one that has been strangely neglected" (p. 231) that focuses not on the evils that God fails to prevent, but on the one's he perpetrates. And then he goes on to speak of hell and eternal torment. You can guess what conclusion he comes to.
We shall have to examine Lewis' simpler argument from evil in a separate post. But I am happy that he in effect concedes one of my points, namely, that a serious discussion of the problem of evil must address the whole of a theistic position and not focus merely on God and his attributes.
Although Weilian disinterest may appear morally superior to Pascalian self-interest, I would say that the former is merely an example of a perverse strain in Weil’s thinking. One mistake she makes is to drive a wedge between the question of the good and the question of human happiness, thereby breaking the necessary linkage between the two. This is a mistake because a good out of all relation to the satisfaction of human desire cannot count as a good for us.
What “good” is a good out of all relation to our self-interest? The absolute good must be at least possibly such as to satisfy (purified) human desire. The possibility of such satisfaction is a necessary feature of the absolute good. Otherwise, the absolute good could not be an ideal for us, an object of aspiration or reverence, a norm. But although the absolute good is ideal relative to us, it is real in itself. Once these two aspects (ideal for us, real in itself) are distinguished, it is easy to see how the absoluteness of the absolute good is consistent with its necessary relatedness to the possibility of human happiness. What makes the absolute good absolute is not its being out of all relation to the actual or possible satisfaction of human desire; what makes it absolute is its being self-existent, a reality in itself. The absolute good, existing absolutely (ab solus, a se), is absolute in its existence without prejudice to its being necessarily related to us in its goodness. If God is (agapic) love, then God necessarily bestows His love on any creatures there might be. It is not necessary that there be creatures, but it is necessary that God love the creatures that there are and that they find their final good in Him.
But not only does Weil divorce the absolute good from the possibility of human happiness, she also makes a second mistake by divorcing it from existence. Thus we read:
If God should be an illusion from the point of view of existence, He is the sole reality from the point of view of the good. I know that for certain, because it is a definition. “God is the good” is as certain as “I am.”[viii]
But this is surely incoherent: God cannot be a reality if He does not exist. At most, a nonexistent God could only be an empty and impotent ideal, not a reality but a mere cogitatum, or excogitatum, if you will. To say that a nonexistent God is yet a reality from the point of view of the good is to divorce the good from what exists, while misusing the word “reality.” And although it is certain that “God is the good,” this is a merely analytic truth consistent with the nonexistence of God. As such, “God is the good” is wholly unlike “I am,” the truth of which is obviously not consistent with my nonexistence.
In divorcing the good from existence, Weil makes the opposite mistake of Richard Taylor. Taylor identifies the good with what is desired, thereby collapsing ought into is and eliminating the normativity of the good. Weil, sundering the good from desire, cuts it off from everything that exists thereby exalting the normativity and ideality of the good while rendering it impotent. The truth of the matter is that God, the absolute good, is a unity of ideality and reality. As a real Ideal, the absolute good cannot be identified with any mundane fact; as an ideal Reality, the absolute good must exist.
So although there may be no trace of self-interest in Weil’s Wager, this gives us no reason to suppose it morally superior to Pascal”s Wager. For the very absence of self-interest shows that Weil’s Wager is built upon an incoherent moral doctrine.
Thesis for consideration: It can reasonably be maintained that some arguments from evil beg the question against theism.
Suppose we consider the following passage from J. J. C. Smart:
It looks as though the theistic hypothesis is an empirically refutable one, so that theism becomes a refuted scientific theory. The argument goes: (1) If God exists then there is no evil, (2) There is evil, therefore (3) It is not the case that God exists. Premiss (1) seems to follow from our characterization of God as an omnipotent, omnsicient and benevolent being. (2) is empirical. We can hardly reject (2). It seems therefore that the theist has to find something wrong with (1) and this is not easy. (J. J. C. Smart and J. J. Haldane, Atheism and Theism, Blackwell 2003, 2nd ed, p. 60)
Smart's argument from evil is plainly valid, being of the form modus tollens. But for an argument to be probative, other conditions must be met. One of these conditions is that the premises be true. Another is that the argument involve no 'informal fallacy' such as equivocation.
So let us ask: how would 'evil' in (1) have to be construed so that (1) comes out true? I suggest that 'evil' must be short for 'gratuitous evil.' But then, to avoid equivocation, we would have to replace 'evil' in (2) with 'gratuitous evil.' The result would be:
1*. If God exists, then there is no gratuitous evil. 2*. There is gratuitous evil. --- 3. It is not the case that God exists.
The resulting argument is valid, and (1*) is plainly true, unlike (1) which is not plainly true, but false. That (1) is false can be seen from the fact that an omniqualified God could easily permit the existence of an evil that was necessary for the attainment of a greater good. So it is just false to say, 'If God exists, then there is no evil.'
But (1*) is plainly true. Now it may be — it is epistemically possible that --(2*) is also true. The reformulated argument would then be sound. A sound argument, by definition, is a deductive argument that is both valid in point of logical form and whose premises are all of them true. And for the record, a proposition p is epistemically (doxastically) possible for a subject S if and only if p is logically consistent with what S knows (believes).
But note that a sound argument will be probatively worthless if it begs the question, if it is such that one cannot know a premise to be true without already knowing the conclusion to be true. So let us ask a very simple question: How does one know that (2*) is true? Smart tells us that (2) is empirical. 'Empirical' is a term of epistemology. It is applied to those propositions that are known from experience, by observation via the senses and their instrumental extensions (microscopes, telescopes, etc.) Now I am willing to grant that (2) — There is evil — is an empirical truth. (2), however, is not what Smart needs to make his argument work. He needs (2*). But is (2*) an empirical truth? Can one know from experience (whether inner or outer) that there is gratuitous evil? Is gratuitousness an empirical attribute of the evils one experiences?
Consider the evil of intense pain. I am acquainted with pain by 'inner sense.' And I am willing to grant arguendo, though it is not quite obvious, that I am acquainted empirically with the evil of intense pain. But I am surely not acquainted empirically with the gratuitousness of experienced evils. Gratuitousness is no more an empirical attribute than the createdness of the natural world. It is not evident to the senses that nature is a divine creation. Similarly, it is not evident to the senses that instances of evil are gratuitous. Is it not epistemically possible that they are all non-gratuitous?
To say that an evil is gratuitous is to say in effect that it is an evil inconsistent with the existence of the omniqualified God. It is to say that it is an evil that no such God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting. Clearly, one cannot 'read off' such a complex relational attribute from any instance of evil.
The conclusion I am driving towards is that Smart's argument supra is question-begging. For in order to know that premise (2*) is true, I must know that the conclusion is true. That is, to know that there are gratuitous evils, I must know that God does not exist. For if God exists, then then there are no gratuitous evils.
Smart tells us above that the theistic hypothesis is empirically refutable. But I say Smart is mistaken: he needs (2*) for his argument to work, but this proposition -- There is gratuitous evil -- is not empirical. It may be true for all that, but it is not knowable by experience. You may be convinced that it is true, and I won't blame you if you find it much more plausible than the truth of 'God exists'; but it is not an empirical truth, if it is a truth. It is an interpretation imposed upon the data. It is as metaphysical as 'God exists.'
Suppose you are an atheist who considers life to be worth living. You deny God, but affirm life, this life, as it is, here and now. Suppose you take the fact of evil to tell against the existence of God. Do you also take the fact of evil to tell against the affirmability of life? If not, why not?
In this entry I will explain what I take to be one sort of problem of evil for atheists, or rather, for naturalists. (One can be an atheist without being a naturalist, but not vice versa.) For present purposes, an atheist is one who affirms the nonexistence of God, as God is traditionally conceived, and a naturalist is one who affirms that reality, with the possible exception of so-called abstract objects, is exhausted by space-time-matter. Naturalism entails atheism, but atheism does not entail naturalism.
Are the following propositions logically consistent?
a. Life is affirmable.
b. Naturalism is true.
c. Evil objectively exists.
1. What it means for life to be affirmable
To claim that life is affirmable is to claim that it is reasonable to say 'yes' to it. Life is affirmed by the vast majority blindly and instinctually, and so can be; in this trivial sense life is of course affirmable. But I mean 'affirmable' in a non-trivial sense as signifying that life is worthy of affirmation. This is of course not obvious. Otherwise there wouldn't be pessimists and anti-natalists. Let me make this a bit more precise.
To claim that life is affirmable is to maintain that human life has an overall positive value that outweighs the inevitable negatives. Note the restriction to human life. I am glad that there are cats, but I am in no position to affirm feline life in the relevant sense of 'affirm': I am not a cat and so I do not know what it is like 'from the inside' to be a cat.
'Human life' is not to be understood biologically but existentially. What we are concerned with is not an objective phenomenon in nature, but life as lived and experienced from a subjective center. So the question is not whether it is better or worse for the physical universe to contain specimens of a certain zoological species, the species h. sapiens. The question is whether it is on balance a good thing that there is human life as it is subjectively lived from a personal center toward a meaning- and value-laden world of persons and things. The question is whether it is on balance a good thing that there is human subjectivity.
Now it may be that over the course of a particular human life a preponderance of positive noninstrumental good is realized. But that is consistent with human life in general not being worth living. If my life turns out to have been worth living, if I can reasonably affirm it on my death bed and pronounce it good on balance, it doesn't follow that human life in general is worth living. Let us agree that a particular human life is worth living if, over the course of that life, a preponderance of positive noninstrumental value is realized. To say that positive value preponderates is to say that it outweighs the negative.
The question, then, is whether human life, human subjectivity, in general is affirmable. To make the question a bit more concrete, and to bring home the point that the question does not concern oneself alone, consider the question of procreation. To procreate consciously and thoughtfully is to affirm life other than one's own.
Suppose that one's life has been on balance good up to the point of one's procreating. Should one be party to the coming-into-existence of additional centers of consciousness and self-consciousness when there is no guarantee that their lives will be on balance good, and some chance that their lives will be on balance horrendous? Would you have children if you knew that they would be tortured to death in the equivalent of Auschwitz? Note that if a couple has children, then they are directly responsible for the existence of those children; but they are also indirectly responsible in ever diminishing measure for the existence of grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc. If life is not affirmable, then it is arguable that it is morally wrong to have children, life being a mistake that ought not be perpetuated. If on the other hand life is affirmable, then, while there might be particular reasons for some people not to have children, there would be no general reason rooted in the nature of things.
2. Is life affirmable in the face of evil?
More precisely: Is life affirmable by naturalists given the fact of evil? There is a problem here if you grant, as I hope you will for the sake of this discussion at least, that natural and moral evils are objective realities. Thus evil exists and it exists objectively. It is not an illusion, nor is it subjective.
The question could be put as follows: Is it rational to ascribe to human life in general an overall positive value, a value sufficient to justify procreation, given that (i) evil exists and that (ii) naturalism is true?
If naturalism is true, then there are unredeemed evils. Let us say that an unredeemed evil is an evil that does not serve a greater good for the person who experiences the evil and is not compensated for or made good in this life or in an afterlife. Thus the countless lives of those who were born and who died in slavery were lives containing unredeemed evils. In many of these countless cases, there were not only unredeemed evils, but a preponderance of unredeemed evil. Whatever these sufferers believed, their lives were not worth living. It would have been better had they never been born. If naturalism is true, then those sufferers who believed that they would be compensated in the hereafter were just wrong. Their false beliefs helped them get through their worthless existence but did nothing to make it worthwhile.
Here is an argument from evil for the nonaffirmability of life:
1. Human life in general is affirmable, i.e., possesses an overall positive value sufficient to justify procreation, only if the majority of human subjects led, lead, and will lead, lives which are on balance good.
2. It is not the case (or it is highly improbably that) that the majority of human subjects led, lead, or will lead such lives: the majority of lives are lives in which unredeemed evil predominates.
3. Human life in general is not affirmable, i.e., does not (or probably does not) possess an overall positive value sufficient to justify procreation.
It seems to me that a naturalist who squarely and in full awareness faces the fact of evil ought to be a pessimist and an anti-natalist. If he is not, then I suspect him of being in denial or else of believing in some progressive 'pie in the future.' But even if, per impossibile, some progressive utopia were attained in the distant future, it would not redeem the countless injustices of the past.
1. An important distinction for understanding the doctrine of original sin is that between originating original sin (peccatum originale originans) and originated original sin (peccatum originale originatum). This post will explain the distinction and then consider Immanuel Kant's reasons for rejecting originated original sin. It is important to realize that Kant does accept something like original sin under the rubric 'radical evil,' a topic to be explored in subsequent posts. It is also important to realize that Kierkegaard's seminal thoughts about original sin as expressed in The Concept of Dread were influenced by Kant, and that Reinhold Niebuhr's influential treatment is in turn derivative from Kierkegaard.
2. So what's the distinction? According to the Genesis story, the Fall of Man was precipitated by specific sinful acts, acts of disobedience, by Adam and Eve. The sins of Adam and Eve were originating original sins. They were the first sins for the first human beings, but also the first sins for the human race. Their sin somehow got transmitted to their descendants inducing in them a state of sinfulness. The sinfulness of the descendants is originated original sin. This originated original sin is hereitary sin: it is inherited and innate for postlapsarians and so does not depend on any specific sin of a person who inherits it. Nevertheless it brings with it guilt and desert of punishment. Socrates, then, or any post-Adamic man, is guilty and deserving of punishment whether or not he commits any actual sins of his own. And so a man who was perfectly sinless in the sense that he committed no actual sin of his own would nonetheless stand condemned in virtue of what an earlier man had one. This doctrine has the consequence that an infant, who as an infant is of course innocent of any actual sin, and who dies unbaptized, is justly excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Such an infant, on Catholic doctrine at least, ends up in limbo, or to be precise, in limbus infantium. A cognate consequence is that a perfectly sinless adult who lives and dies before Christ's redemptive act is also excluded from heaven. Such a person lands in limbus patrum. (See here for the Catholic doctrine.)
3. The stumbling block is obvious: How can one justly be held morally accountable for what someone else has done or left undone? How can one be guilty and deserving of punishment without having committed any specific transgression? How can guilt be inherited? Aren't these moral absurdities? Aren't we morally distinct as persons, each responsible only for what he does and leaves undone? There might well be originating original sin, but how could there be originated original sin? It is worth noting that to reject originated original sin is not to reject originating original sin, or original sin as such. There could be a deep structural flaw in humans as humans, universal and unameliorable by human effort, which deserves the title 'original sin/sinfulness' without it being the case that sin is inheritable.
Again I revert to my distinction between the putative fact of our fallenness and the various theories about it. To refute a theory is not to refute a fact.
4. Kant rejects the Augustinian notion of inherited sin. Sinfulness, guilt, desert of punishment -- these cannot be inherited. So for Kant there is no originated original sin. Of the various explanations of the spread of moral evil through the members and generations of the human race, "the most inept is that which describes it as descending to us as an inheritance from our first parents." (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, trs. Greene and Hudson, Harper 1960, p. 35) But this is not to say that Kant rejects the notion of original sin. He himself speaks of peccatum originarium, which he distinguishes from peccatum derivatum. (26) For Kant, original sin is a propensity in us toward moral evil which is universal and logically prior to specific immoral acts. I hope to say more about this in a subsequent post.
5. But what is Kant's argument against hereditary guilt and originated original sin? Kant as I read him accepts it as a fact that in all human beings there is radical moral evil, a peccatum originarium that lies deeper than, and makes possible, specific peccata derivata. What he objects to is the explanation of this fact in terms of a propagation of guilt from the original parents. The main point is that a temporal explanation in terms of antecedent causes cannot account for something for which we are morally responsible. If we are morally responsible, then we are free; but free actions cannot be explained in terms of temporally prior causes. For if an action is caused, it is necessitated, and what is necessitated by its causes cannot be free.
What is true of actions is true of moral character insofar as moral character is something for which one is morally responsible. Therefore our radically evil moral character which predisposes us to specific acts of wrongdoing cannot be explained in terms of temporally antececent causes. Hence it cannot be explained by any propagation of guilt from the original parents to us. Thus there is no originated guilt. Our being guilty must be viewed "as though the individual had fallen into it directly from a state of innocence." (36) Thus all actions which make us guilty are original employments of the will. All original sin is originating original sin.
Perhaps we can put it this way. Adam has nothing over Socrates. It is not as if Adam went directly from a state of innocence into a state of sin while Socrates inherited sinfulness and was never in a state of innocence. If there is such a thing as original sin then both are equally originative of it.
The Genesis account gives us a temporal representation of a logical and thus atemporal relationship. The state of innocence is set at the temporal beginning of humanity, and the fall from innocence is depicted as an event in time. But then we get the problems raised in #3 above. The mistake is to "look for an origin in time of a moral character for which we are to be held responsible . . . ." (38) We make this mistake because we want an explanation of the contingent existence of our radically evil moral predisposition. An explanation, however, is not to be had. The rational origin of the perversion of our will "remains inscrutable to us." (38)
6. Kant thus does accept something like original sin. We have within us a deep propensity to moral evil that makes us guilty and deserving of punishment. But there is no deterministic causal explanation for it. So while there is a sense in which our fallenness is innate, it is not inherited. For it is morally absurd to suppose that I could be guilty of being in a state that I am caused to be in. Each one of us is originally guilty but by a free atemporal choice. This makes the presence of the radical flaw in each of us inscrutable and inexplicable. The mystery of radical evil points us to the mystery of free will. On Kant's view, then, there is only originating original sin. Each of us by his own free noumenal agency plunges from innocence into guilt!
We shall have to continue these ruminations later. Some questions on the menu of rumination:
Q1. Is Kant's account with its appeal to atemporal noumenal agency really any better than Augustine's biological propagation account?
Q2. How can guilt be innate but not inherited, as Kant maintains?
Q3. Why believe in radical evil in the first place? If the evidence for it is empirical, how can such evidence show that radical evil is both universal (and thus inscribed in man's very nature) and ineradicable by human effort?
I want to give you a heads up on the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil". The phrase is probably an idiom that means something like 'universal wisdom' or 'all knowledge'. A better translation may be 'The Tree of the Knowledge of Everything From A to Z'. There is, in fact, nothing in the story that indicates that Adam and Eve had no free will before the eating of the fruit. God, in fact, gives them orders that presuppose the freedom to disobey...to tend the garden, to refrain from eating some fruit, etc. The eating of the Tree was literally to eat of the fruit that gives one the wisdom of God, to overcome the limits God had placed on them and become more like Him. And the result is the clothing of the self, and later the tilling of soil and animal husbandry and after Cain the building of cities. It is not 'moral' knowledge they are coming to but the knowledge of what it takes to enact their own wills to 'get what they want...things like technology and the building of cities.
Peace and Blessings, Joshua Orsak
1. The crux of the matter is indeed the interpretation of 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.' So one question for Mr Orsak is how he would support his interpretation. After all, the phrase speaks of the knowledge of good and evil, not the knowledge of all things.
2. In yesterday's post I did not say that Adam and Eve did not have freedom of the will before eating the forbidden fruit; I said that they were not moral agents before eating it. I specified two individually necessary conditions of moral agency (and I left open the question whether they are jointly sufficient). The one is free will and the other is knowledge of the difference between good and evil. Since both conditions are necessary, absence of either prevents a being from being a moral agent. So what I was arguing is consistent with Adam's and Eve's possession of free will prior to their eating of the forbidden fruit.
3. The point I was making (and I got this from Peter Lupu, to give credit where credit is due) was that there is something prima facie puzzling about Genesis 2 & 3. Roughly: How can God justly banish Adam and Eve from paradise for disobedience prior to their knowing the difference between good and evil?
4. Orsak's solution is to interpret 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil' as referring to a tree the eating of the fruit of which confers all knowledge. I agree that if this interpretation is defensible, then the puzzle collapses. But what considerations speak for Orsak's interpretation? After all, the most natural way to interpret 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil' is to interpret it as referring to a tree the eating of the fruit of which confers either (i) the knowledge that there is an objective difference between good and evil, or (ii) the knowledge of which actions/omissions are good and which evil, or (iii) both.
The value of a whole is not determined merely by the values of the parts of the whole; the order of the parts also plays a role in determining the value of the whole. One of several order principles governing the value of a whole is the bonum progressionis. Glossing Franz Brentano, R. M. Chisholm (Brentano and Intrinsic Value, Cambridge, 1986, p. 71) writes:
The principle of the 'bonum progressionis' or the 'malum regressus' might be put by saying: 'If A is a situation in which a certain amount of value x is increased to a larger amount y, and if B is like A except that in B there is a decrease from the larger amount of value y to the smaller amount x, then A is preferable to B.' Thus Brentano writes: "Let us think of a process which goes from good to bad or from a great good to a lesser good;then compare it to one which goes in the opposite direction. The latter shows itself as the one to be preferred. This holds even if the sum of the goods in the one process is equal to that in the other. And our preference in this case is one that we experience as being correct." (Foundation, pp. 196-197) (In comparing the two processes, A and B, we must assume that each is the mirror image of the other. Hence the one should not include any pleasures of anticipation unless the other includes a coresponding pleasure of recollection.)The bonum progressionis, then, would be a good situation corresponding to A, in our formulation above, and the malum regressus would be a bad situation corresponding to B.
Now let's see if we can apply this insight of Brentano to the question of the value of one's life. A human life can be thought of as a whole the parts of which are its periods or phases. It seems obvious that the value of the whole will depend on the values of the parts.
But order comes into it as well. Suppose lives L1 and L2 are such that the sums of the values of their constituent phases (however you care to individuate them) are the same quantity of value, however this may be measured. (There is also the serious question, which I set aside, of whether it even makes sense to speak of an objective measure of the value of a human life.) But whereas L1 begins well in childhood and adolescence but then deteriorates in quality, L2 begins poorly in childhood and adolescence and gets better.
If Brentano's bonum progressionis principle applies here, and I would say it does, then L2 is a more valuable life than L1 despite the fact that the sums of the values of their constituent phases are equal in value. So we can say that the value of a life is more than the sum of the values of its parts when the life is ascending in value, but less than the sum of the values of its parts when the life is descending in value.
This may shed some light on why some people in old age (which I define as beginning at age 60), feel their lives to be not very valuable or satisfying while others in the same age cohort from similar backgrounds find their lives to be valuable and satisfying despite the obvious limitations that old age imposes.
The above analysis of course only scratches the surface. Another thing to consider is that what is real and important to us is primarily what is real and important now. The memories of past satisfactions are no match for the perceptions of present miseries. So if the whole of one's life up to the present has been excellent while the present is miserable, the balance of good over evil cuts little or no ice. But to explore this further is for another time.
. . . most of what we conceive is possible. So if we say that
1) In 80% of the cases, if 'Conceivably, p' then 'Possibly, p' 2) Conceivably, God exists Ergo, 3) Pr(Possibly, God exists) = 80% 4) If 'Possibly, God exists' then 'necessarily, God exists' Ergo, 5) Pr(Necessarily, God exists) = 80%,
we seem to get by.
I had made the point that conceivability does not entail possibility. Hart agrees with that, but seems to think that conceivability is nondemonstrative evidence ofpossibility. Accordingly, our ability to conceive (without contradiction) that p gives us good reason to believe that p is possible.
What is puzzling to me is how a noncontingent proposition can be assigned a probability less than 1. A noncontingent proposition is one that is either necessary or impossible. Now all of the following are noncontingent:
God exists Necessarily, God exists Possibly, God exists God does not exist Necessarily, God does not exist Possibly, God does not exist.
I am making the Anselmian assumption that God (the ens perfectissimum, that than which no greater can be conceived, etc.) is a noncontingent being. I am also assuming that our modal logic is S5. The characteristic S5 axiom states that Poss p --> Nec Poss p. S5 includes S4, the characteristic axiom of which is Nec p --> Nec Nec p. What these axioms say, taken together, is that what's possible and necessary does not vary from possible world to possible world.
Now Possibly, God exists, if true, is necessarily true, and if false, necessarily false. (By the characteristic S5 axiom.) So what could it mean that the probability of Possibly, God exists is .8? I would have thought that the probability is either 1 or 0. the same goes for Necessarily, God exists. How can this proposition have a probability of .8? Must it not be either 1 or 0?
Now I am a fair and balanced guy, as everyone knows. So I will deploy the same reasoning against the atheist who cites the evils of our world as nondemonstrative evidence of the nonexistence of God. I don't know what it means to say that it is unlikely that God exists given the kinds and quantities of evil in our world. Either God exists necessarily or he is impossible (necessarily nonexistent). How can you raise the probability of a necessary truth? Suppose some hitherto unknown genocide comes to light, thereby adding to the catalog of known evils. Would that strengthen the case against the existence of God? How could it?
To see my point consider the noncontingent propositions of mathematics. They are all of them necessarily true if true. So *7 + 5 = 12* is necessarily true and *7 + 5 = 11* is necessarily false. Empirical evidence is irrelevant here. I cannot raise the probability of the first proposition by adding 7 knives and 5 forks to come up with 12 utensils. I do not come to know the truth of the first proposition by induction from empirical cases of adding. It would also be folly to attempt to disconfirm the second proposition by empirical means.
If I can't know that 7 + 5 = 12 by induction from empirical cases, how can I know that possibly, God exists by induction from empirical cases of conceiving? The problem concerns not only induction, but how one can know by induction a necessary proposition. Similarly, how can I know that God does not exist by induction from empirical cases of evil?
Of course, *God exists* is not a mathematical proposition. But it is a noncontingent proposition, which is all I need for my argument.
Finally, consider this. I can conceive the existence of God but I can also conceive the nonexistence of God. So plug 'God does not exist' into Matt's argument above. The result is that probability of the necessary nonexistence of God is .8!
My conclusion: (a) Conceivability does not entail possibility; (b) in the case of noncontingent propositions, conceivability does not count as nondemonstrative evidence of possibility.
What is it for an argument to beg the question? I suggest that an argument begs the question if it is impossible to know one of the premises to be true without knowing that the conclusion is true. The simplest question-begging arguments are of the form
p --- p.
Clearly, every argument of this form is valid, and some arguments of this form are sound. It follows that an argument can be sound and yet probatively worthless. In plain English, no argument of the above form proves its conclusion in the sense of giving a 'consumer' of the argument any reason to accept the conclusion; it rather presupposes its conclusion. One cannot know the premise to be true without knowing that the conclusion is true.
Now consider a richer example: (P1) We are creatures; (P2) There is no creature without a creator; therefore, (C) A creator exists. This argument begs the question in that it is impossible to know that (P1) is true without knowing that (C) is true. For only if I know that a creator exists can I know that I am a creature. The argument is not probative because it presupposes in (P1) what it needs to prove. (Of course, I am assuming that one is not equivocating on 'creature' and that one is using it in the sense in which it must be used for (P2) to be true; if one is equivocating, then naturally the argument is worthless for this reason.)
Now it might occur to someone to wonder whether logical arguments from evil for the nonexistence of God also beg the question. Is there anything to this notion?
Logical arguments from evil start with a fact, the fact of evil. No doubt evils exist. But for evils to prove the nonexistence of the omni-qualified God of traditional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, these evils must be gratuitous. A gratuitous evil is one that cannot be reconciled with the existence of the omni-qualified God, for example, an evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit, or an evil that God cannot prevent because it is the deed of a free agent. A gratuitous evil, then, is one the existence of which is logically inconsistent with the existence of God conceived in the traditional way.
Granted, evils exist. But only gratuitous evils are inconsistent with the existence of God. Only they pose a problem for the existence of an all-good God. Consider the pain of a just punishment, the pain of imprisonment, say, that convinces a miscreant, an armed robber for example, to reform his life. (Few penal punishments are truly rehabilitating, but certainly some are.) The pain of punishment is evil. But in my example, it is necessary for the achievement of a greater good. Thus the evil in question is not gratuitous.
How do we know that there are gratuitous evils? To know this, we would have to know that God does not exist. Thus we would have to know the conclusion of the LAFE to be true in order to know that its key premise -- Gratuitous evils exist -- is true. But this is the very definition of begging the question.
Therefore, it seems that LAFE begs the question. To appreciate my point, compare:
1. If there are gratuitous evils, then God does not exist.
2. If creatures exist, then a creator exists.
Both of these propositions are analytically true. So if one knows that there are gratuitous evils, then one knows that God does not exist. Likewise, if one knows that creatures exist, or that the physical universe is a creation, then one one knows that a creator exists. But how does one know either of these things? Suppose I witness a brutal and unprovoked physical assault on a human being by another human being. Witnessing this, I witness an evil. But by what mark do I recognize the gratuitousness of the evil? By no empirical mark since what I observe is consistent both with the assault's being gratuitously evil and with its being nongratuitously evil.
Something similar holds for (2). How do I know that what I see, mountains and valleys, cacti and sky is creation or created nature as opposed to uncreated nature? By what mark do I know that nature has the status of having been created? By no mark.
Return to the brutal assault. Imagine it to be perpetrated against a loved one. Atheists will naturally take such crimes as 'proof' that there is no God. But it is no more 'proof' than the existence and order of nature is 'proof' of an intelligent creator. Both athetist and theist interpret the data in the light of a worldview that precedes the data and is imposed upon them. Each can fit the data into his scheme. But fitting data into a scheme is not the same as data proving a scheme. Thus the brutal assault fits the atheist's scheme but does not prove it, and the existence and order of nature fits the theist's scheme but does not prove it.
So here is my challenge to Peter and others: explain how LAFE does not beg the question against the theist.
So is death evil or not? What is my answer? The answer depends on metaphysics.
1. If we are natural beings only, nothing but complex physical systems, continuous with the rest of nature and susceptible in principle of complete explanation by physics and biology, then I cannot see how death in general could be accounted evil. The premature death of some is perhaps evil on the ground that death deprives the decedent of what he might otherwise have enjoyed. The happy and healthy 20 year old who is cut down by a stray bullet arguably suffers a loss, not one that he can experience, but a loss nonetheless. (One can suffer a loss merely by being the subject of it without actually experiencing it.) There is of course a residual technical puzzle about how a person who no longer exists can be the subject of loss, but for present purposes I won't worry further about this.
My main point is that it cannot be maintained on naturalistic principles that death in general is evil for humans. For suppose a person lives a productive life of 90 or so years, a life which on balance has been satisfying to the person and enriching to those who have come in contact with him. What is evil about the death of such a person? And if death is not evil for such a person, then the philosophical question whether death in general is evil must be answered in the negative. Here are some further considerations:
a. It is a conceptual truth that one cannot be deprived of the impossible. Now healthy productive living after a certain age is nomologically impossible. So a person who dies at a ripe old age of 90 or 100 is not being deprived of anything by dying. (Adjust the numbers upwards if you care to.) At the point at which further living become nomologically impossible, one cannot be said to be deprived by death of a good. Of course, the old person may want to live on a another year or decade, but that is irrelevant.
b. Death removes from the decedent the goods of life but also removes the evils, which are not inconsiderable. I will spare the reader a litany of the miseries and horrors of this life. If he opens his eyes he will quickly become apprised of them. (But don't generalize from your own favorable experience: readers of this blog are members of an elite cadre of well-placed and fortunate individuals.)
c. Even if being dead involves a loss for the decedent after a long and satisfying life, there cannot on naturalistic principles be any experiencing of this loss by the decedent, so how big a deal could it be? Suppose your will stipulates that on your death $100, 000 of your estate shall go to Oxfam. Your executrix blows the whole wad at Nordstrom's. It is arguable though not perfectly clear that you have been violated -- but you'll be able to 'live' with it, right? Others can say that you were wronged. But what could that be to you who no longer exists?
On this naturalistic way of thinking, then, death cannot in general be an evil for humans. At most, the premature death of some individuals is evil. But even this is not clear because of the problem of 'the subject of loss/deprivation.'
But how do you know that naturalism is true? That you believe it with great conviction cuts no ice. As Nietzsche says, in his typically exaggerated and febrile way, "Convictions are the greatest enemies of truth." Can you prove naturalism? If you try, you will soon entangle yourself in a thicket of thorny metaphysical questions from which you will not escape unbloodied. You cannot prove it. I guarantee it.
2. How then could death be evil? Here is one way. Suppose there is the possibility of personal survival of bodily death (with divine assistance) and the possibility of further intellectual, moral, and spiritual development in fellowship with others who have survived and in fellowship with God. Now if some such version of theism is true, and if one dies and becomes nothing -- the possibility of survival not having been realized either because the person in question refuses the divine offer or is judged unworthy of it -- then one will have been deprived of a great good. One will have missed out on the beatitude for which we have been created. So death (annihilation) would be a very great evil on this scheme, an incomparably greater evil than the evil of death on a naturalistic scheme, assuming it could be said to be evil on a naturalistic scheme. (You will have noticed that 'the problem of the subject' arises on both schemes.)
As I see it, death is evil because it deprives us of what some of us feel is our 'birthright' as spiritual beings: continued intellectual, moral, and spiritual progress. We cannot quite believe that we are nothing more than complex physical systems no more worthy of continuance than trees and swamps and clouds. We feel it to be absurd that the progress we have made individually but also collectively will be simply obliterated, that our questions will go unanswered, our hopes dashed, that the thirsting after justice will go unslaked. We are not reconciled to the notion that there will be no redemption, that there will be no answer to or recompense for the terrible crimes that have been inflicted on the innocent. As easy as it is to be reconciled to the death of others viewed objectively, it is difficult to be reconciled to the utter annihilation of those we love. If death is annihilation, then this life is absurd, a big seductive joke, and we are the butt of it.
Think of the great questions that have tormented the best minds for millenia. Does it not strike you as a perfectly absurd arrangement that one day these questions will just cease with the last human being and go unanswered forever? All that painstaking inquiry and no answer, not even the answer that the questions posed were meaningless and unanswerable!
There is a certain sort of secular humanist who fools himself with dreams of human progress toward a 'better world' in which a sort of secular redemption will be achieved. But this is pure illusion and pure evasion. It is nothing but feel-good claptrap. On a naturalistic scheme there can be no redemption for the billions who have been the victims of terrible injustice. Be a naturalist if you must, but don't fool yourself with humanistic fantasies. There is no secular substitute for the redemption that only God could bring about. Be an honest naturalist, a nihilist naturalist.
But of course what I have just said in exfoliation of the sense some of us have of being more than complex physical systems, a sense of having a higher destiny, proves nothing and can be easily rebutted: Death is not an evil because none of what some feel is their birthright as imago Dei is really possible. It is just pious claptrap born of dissatisfaction with the way things are. One may feel that it is 'a rotten deal' and 'a bad arrangement' that one must die and be annihilated just when one is starting to make real progress toward understanding and enlightenment and happiness. But that feeling is just a quirk of some (malcontent) natures: it doesn't prove anything.
3. So once again we end up in good old Platonic fashion, aporetically, at an impasse. There is simply no solution to the problem of whether death is evil without a solution to the underlying metaphysical question in philosophical anthropology: What is man? (The fourth of Kant's famous questions after: What can I know? What ought I do? What can I hope for?) And to the question What is man? there is no answer that can withstand the scrutiny of, and receive the endorsement of, all able practioners.
That is not to say that there is no correct answer. It is to say that, even if there is, one cannot know it to be correct. And if one cannot know it to be correct, then it is not an answer in any serious sense of the term.
So I arrive once again at the following long-held conviction. In the final analysis one must DECIDE what one will believe and how one will live. There is no evading one's doxastic and practical freedom and responsibility. When it comes to the ultimate questions one must decide what is true and how one will live. No one can help you, not even God. For supposing God, or a divine emmisary, to appear to you right now, you would still have to decide that it was indeed God or a being from God who was appearing to you; and you would still have to decide whether or not to credit his revelation. What if the divine intermediary told you to murder your innocent son? What would you say? If you were rational your would say, "Get the hell out of here; by commanding me to do what is plainly immoral you prove that you are an illusion." Or maybe you would decide to accept the veridicality of the experience. Either way you would be deciding. (See Abraham and Isaac category and Doxastic Voluntarism category)
The decision as to what to believe and how to live is of course not whimsical or thoughtless or quick or light-hearted. It must be made with all due doxastic vigilance and fear and trembling, but there is no getting around the need for decision. But what if you refuse to decide and simply acquiesce in something imposed from without? Then that too is a decision on your part.
In the preface to his magnum opus, F. H. Bradley observes that "Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct, but to find these reasons is no less an instinct." (Appearance and Reality, Oxford 1893, p. x) The qualifier 'bad' is out of place and curiously off-putting at the outset of a 570 page metaphysical tome, so if, per impossibile, I had had the philosopher's ear I would have suggested 'good but not rationally compelling.' Be that as it may, the point is that our basic sense of things comes first, and only later, if at all, do we take up the task of the orderly discursive articulation of that basic sense.
Thus atheism is bred in the bone before it is born in the brain. The atheist feels it in his bones and guts that the universe is godless and that theistic conceptions are so many fairy tales dreamt up for false consolation. This world is just too horrifying to be a divine creation: meaningless unredeemed suffering; ignorance and delusion; the way nature, its claws dripping with blood, feasts on itself; moral evil and injustice -- all bespeak godlessness. There can't be a God of love behind all this horror! For most atheists, theism is not a Jamesian live option. What point, then, in debating them?
This deep intuition of the godlessness of the world is prior to and the force behind arguments from evil. The arguments merely articulate and rationalize the intuition. The counterarguments of theists don't stand a chance in the face of the fundamental, gut-grounded, atheist attitude. No one who strongly FEELS that things are a certain way is likely to be moved by what he will dismiss as so much verbiage, hairsplitting, and intellectualizing.
But for the theist it is precisely the horror of this world that motivates the quest for a solution, or rather, the horror of this world together with the conviction that we cannot provide the solution for ourselves whether individually or collectively. Evil is taken by the theist, not as a 'proof' of the nonexistence of God, but as a reason, a motive, to seek God. 'Without God, life is horror.'
Addendum 12/21: I should add that it would be pointless to seek God if any of the atheist arguments were compelling. But none are.
Clarity will be served if we distinguish the specifically Epicurean reason for thinking death not an evil from another reason which is actually anti-Epicurean. I'll start with the second reason.
A. Death is not an evil because it removes us from a condition which on balance is not good, a condition which on balance is worse than nonexistence. This is the wisdom of Silenus, reported by Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus, ll. 1244 ff.) and quoted by Nietzsche in The Birth ofTragedy, section 3:
There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: "O wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is -- to die soon."
B. Death is not an evil for the one who dies because when death is, one is not, and when one is, death is not. My being dead is not an evil state of affairs because there is no such state of affairs (STOA) as my being dead. Since there is no such STOA, there is no bearer of the property of being evil. If this property has a bearer it cannot be an individual or a property but must be a STOA.
And so the Epicurean line is consistent with life affirmation. The Epicurean is not saying that being dead is good and being alive evil; he is saying that being dead is not evil because axiologically neutral. The Epicurean is therefore also committed to saying that being dead is not a good.
The first reason is axiological, the second ontological. The Silenian pessimist renders a negative value verdict on life as a whole: it's no good, better never to have been born, with second best being to die young. By contrast, the Epicurean's point is that the ontology of the situation makes it impossible for death to be an evil for the one who has died.
This reinforces my earlier conclusion that there is nothing nihilistic about the Epicurean position.
Is death an evil? Even if it is an evil to the people other than me who love me, or in some way profit from my life, is it an evil to me? A few days ago, defying Philip Larkin, I took the Epicurean position that death cannot be an evil for me and so it cannot be rational for me to fear my being dead: any fear of death is a result of muddled thinking, something the philosopher cannot tolerate, however things may stand with the poet. But I was a bit quick in that post and none of this is all that clear. A re-think is in order. Death remains, after millenia, the muse of philosophy.
My earlier reasoning was along the following Epicurean-Lucretian lines. (Obviously, I am not engaged in a project of exegesis; what exactly these gentlemen meant is not my concern. I'll leave scholarship to the scholars and history to the historians.)
1. Either bodily death is the annihilation of the self or it is not. 2. If death is annihilation, then after the moment of dying there is no self in existence, either conscious or unconscious, to have or lack anything. 3. If there is no self after death, then no evil can befall the self post mortem. 4. If no evil can befall the self post mortem, then it is not rational to fear post mortem evils. 5. If, on the other hand, death is not annihilation, then one cannot rationally fear the state of nonbeing for the simple reason that one will not be in that 'state.' Therefore 6. It is not rational to fear being dead.
The argument is valid, but are the premises true? (1) is an instance of the the Law of Excluded Middle. (2) seems obviously true: if bodily death is annihilation of the self, then (i) the self ceases to exist at the moment of death, and (ii) what does not exist cannot have or lack anything, whether properties or relations or experiences or parts or possessions. (ii) is not perfectly obvious because I have heard it argued that after death one continues as a Meinongian nonexistent object -- a bizarre notion that I reject, but that deserves a separate post for its exfoliation and critique.
Premise (3), however, seems vulnerable to counterexample. Suppose the executor of a will ignores the decedent's wishes. He wanted his loot to go to Catholic Charities, but the executor, just having read Bukowski, plays it on the horses at Santa Anita. Intuitively, that amounts to a wrong to the decedent. The decedent suffers (in the sense of undergoes) an evil despite not suffering (in the sense of experiencing) an evil. And this despite the fact, assuming it to be one, that the decedent no longer exists. But if so, then (3) is false. It seems that a person who no longer exists can be the subject of wrongs and harms no less than a person who now exists. Additional examples like this are easily constructed.
But not only can dead persons have bad things done to them, they can also be deprived of good things. Suppose a 20 year old with a bright future dies suddenly in a car crash. In most though not all cases of this sort the decedent is deprived of a great deal of positive intrinsic value he would have enjoyed had he not met an untimely end. Or at least that is what we are strongly inclined to say. Few would argue that in cases like this there is no loss to the person who dies. Being dead at a young age is an evil, and indeed an evil for the person who dies, even though the person who dies cannot experience the evil of being dead because he no longer exists.
So we need to make a distinction between evils that befall a person and are experienceable by the person they befall, and evils that befall a person that are not experienceable by the person they befall. This distinction gives us the resources to resist the Epicurean-Lucretian thesis that death is not an evil for the one who dies. We can grant to Epicurus & Co. that the evil of being dead cannot be experienced as evil without granting that being dead is not an evil. We can grant to Epicurus et al. that, on the assumption that death is annihilation, being dead cannot be experienced and so cannot be rationally feared; but refuse to grant to them that dying and being dead are not great evils.
In this way, premise (3) of the above argument can be resisted. Unfortunately, what I have just said in support of the rejection of (3) introduces its own puzzles. Here is one.
My death at time t is supposed to deprive me of the positive intrinsic value that I would have enjoyed had I lived beyond t. Thus I am a subject of an evil at times at which I do not exist. This is puzzling. When I exist I am of course not subject to the evil of death. But when I do not exist I am not anything, and so how can I be subject to goods or evils? How can my being dead be an evil for me if I don't exist at the times at which I am supposed to be the subject of the evil?
(A reader found the following post, from the old PowerBlogs site, useful. So I repost it here with minor modifications and additions.)
It is important to distinguish between the problem of evil and the argument from evil. The first is the problem of reconciling the existence of God, as traditionally understood, with the existence of natural and moral evils. As J. L. Mackie points out, this "is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds." (The Miracle of Theism, Oxford 1982, p. 150) Mackie goes on to point out that "the problem in this sense signally does not arise for those whose views of the world are markedly different from traditional theism." Thus the theist's problem of evil does not arise for an atheist. It might, however, be the case that some other problem of evil arises for the atheist, say, the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with life's being worth living. But that is a separate matter.
The argument from evil, on the other hand, is an attempt to show the nonexistence of God from the fact of evil, where 'fact of evil' is elliptical for 'the existence of natural and moral evils.'
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE PROBLEM OF EVIL AND THE ARGUMENT FROM EVIL
The main difference between the problem of evil and the argument from evil is that the former is an ad hominem argument whereas the second is not. I am using ad hominem in the way Peter Geach uses it on pp. 26-27 of his Reason and Argument (Basil Blackwell 1976):
This Latin term indicates that these are arguments addressed to a particular man -- in fact, the other fellow you are disputing with. You start from something he believes as a premise, and infer a conclusion he won't admit to be true. If you have not been cheating in your reasoning, you will have shown that your opponent's present body of beliefs is inconsistent and it's up to him to modify it somewhere.
As Geach points out, there is nothing fallacious about such an argumentative procedure. If A succeeds in showing B that his doxastic system harbors a contradiction, then not everything that B believes can be true. Now can an atheist prove the nonexistence of God in this way? No he cannot: at the very most he can prove (with the aid of various auxiliary premises that he and his interlocutor both accept) that God exists and Evil exists cannot both be true. But it does not follow therefrom that God exists is not true. For the atheist to transform the ad hominem problem of evil into a non-ad hominem argument from evil, he would have to establish, or at least assert, that evil exists, and not merely that the theist believes that evil exists. To see my point consider the following conditional, where P is the conjunction of auxiliary premises:
C. If evil exists & P, then God does not exist.
The atheist who raises the problem of evil for the theist asserts (C), or rather a proposition of that form. But to assert a conditional is not to assert its antecedent, or its consequent for that matter; it is to assert a entailment connection between the two. Now although it is the case that for each argument there is a corresponding conditional, and vice versa, arguments must not be confused with conditionals.
Transforming (C) into an argument from evil yields:
God does not exist.
Clearly, an atheist who gives this argument, or rather an argument of this form, must assert both premises. Doing so, he ceases his ad hominem examination of the consistency of another person's beliefs, beliefs he either rejects or takes no stand on, and 'comes clean' with his own beliefs.
THE ARGUER FROM EVIL NEEDS TO AFFIRM OBJECTIVE EVIL
If the atheist's aim is merely to poke holes in the logical consistency of the theist's belief-set, then it doesn't matter whether he thinks of evil as objective or subjective. Indeed, he needn't believe in evil in any sense. He could hold that it is an illusion. But if the atheist's goal is to support his own belief that God does not exist with an argument from evil, then he needs to maintain that evil is objective or objectively real.
Consider all the enslavement of humans by humans that has taken place in the history of the world. Suppose it is agreed that slavery is morally wrong. What makes this true? Define a moral subjectivist as one who agrees that the claim in question is true, but holds that the truth-maker of this moral truth, and of others like it, is an individual's being in a psychological state, say, the state of being repulsed by slavery. For the moral subjectivist, then, sentences like 'Slavery is wrong' are elliptical for sentences like 'Slavery is wrong-for-X,' where X is a person or any being capable of being in psychological states. Furthermore, the moral subjectivist grants that moral claims have truth-makers, indeed objective truth-makers; it is just that these truth-makers involve psychological states that vary from person to person.
Now if our atheist subscribes to a theory of evil along those lines, then, although there will be objective facts of the matter regarding what various individuals feel about the practice or the institution of slavery, there will be no objective fact of the matter regarding the wrongness or moral evil of slavery.
If so, the fact of evil subjectively construed will have no bearing on the existence of God, a fact, if it a fact, that is objective.
Suppose a torturer tortures his victim to death solely for the satisfaction it gives him. And suppose that moral subjectivism is true. Then the torturing, though evil for the tortured, is good for the torturer, with the upshot that the torturing is neither good nor evil objectively. Now if I were on the scene and had the power to stop the torturing, but did not, would my noninterference detract from my moral goodness? Not at all. (The same goes a fortiori for God.) For nothing objectively evil is transpiring: all that is going on is that one person is securing his pleasure at the expense of another's pain. If you insist that something evil is going on, then that shows that you reject moral subjectivism. But if you accept moral subjectivism, then nothing evil is going on; the torturing is evil only in the mind of the victim and in the minds of any others who sympathize with him. If you accept moral subjectivism and continue to insist that the torturing is evil, then you would also have to insist that it is good, since it is good from the perspective of the torturer. But if it is both good and evil, then it is (objectively) neither.
What I am claiming, then, is that the atheist arguer from evil must construe evil objectively. This will result in trouble for the atheist if it can be shown that objective evil cannot exist unless God exists. For then the atheist arguer from evil will end up presupposing the very being whose existence he is out to deny. No doubt this is a big 'if.' But it is worth exploring. The problem for the atheist is to explain how there can be objective good and evil in a Godless universe.
And another line worth exploring is a theistic argument to God from the fact of objective good and evil. No such argument could PROVE the existence of God, but it could very well have the power of cancelling out the argument from evil.
Suppose evil is an illusion. Then the illusion of evil is itself evil, a non-illusory evil, whence follows the falsity of 'Every evil is an illusion.'
Or is that too quick? Then permit me some exfoliation.
1. Every evil is illusory. (Assumption for reductio ad absurdum) 2. The illusion that there are evils is not itself an illusion: it is real. (See subargument A infra) 3. The illusion that there are evils is itself evil. (See subargument B infra) Therefore 4. There is an evil that is not illusory, namely, the illusion that there are evils. Therefore 5. (1) is false: it is not the case that every evil is illusory.
Subargument A: The illusion or false seeming that there are evils, qua false seeming, is either nothing or something. If nothing, then it cannot be the case that every evil is illusory. (After all, evil must have some entitative status, however exiguous, if 'illusory' is to be predicable of it.) If, on the other hand, the illusion or false seeming that there are evils is something, then this false seeming, though nonveridical, exists in people's minds and is as real as can be.
Subargument B: The illusion that there are evils, which subargument A shows to be real qua false seeming, is itself evil because it is false and deceptive.
One of the metaphysical problems of evil is that, while evil cannot be an illusion, as I have just demonstrated, it cannot be fundamentally real either, as such luminaries as Augustine and Aquinas clearly saw. Evil has a strange 'in-between' status, an ontologically derivative status. This is what the classical doctrine of evil as privatio boni is supposed to capture. That doctrine, though, we have seen to be problematic. But progress has been made in better understanding the question, What is evil?
Some pains, though bad in themselves, are instrumentally good. You go for broke on your mountain bike. At the top of a long upgrade your calves are burning from the lactic acid build-up. But it's a 'good' pain. It is instrumentally good despite its intrinsic badness. You are satisfied with having 'flattened' that hill one more time. The net result of the workout is hedonically positive. But surely not all pains are classifiable as instrumentally good. Think of someone who suffers from severe chronic joint pain so bad that he can barely walk let alone pedal a bike. In alleviation thereof he daily ingests a cocktail of drugs with nasty side effects that make it impossible for him to think straight or accomplish anything. Surely the person's condition is evil. (But don't get hung up on the word 'evil' and don't assume that every evil is the responsibility of a finite agent. The evil of pain is a natural or physical, not a moral, evil.) Is this not a counterexample to the thesis that every evil is a privation or absence of good?
Now pains are counterexamples to the thesis that evils are privationes boni only if they are both evil and objectively real. Therefore:
A. One might argue that pains are evil but not objectively real in that they exist only 'in the mind.' I developed this suggestion in Part One and found reason to reject it.
B. Or one might argue that pains are objectively real, but not evil. One might point to the fact that pains are often very useful warning signals that indicate that something is going wrong in the body or that some damage is being done to the body: the pains in my knees inform me that I am running too long and hard and am in danger of an overuse injury. On this suggestion, then, pains are real but not evil. Consequently, pains are not counterexamples to the thesis that evils are privationes boni.
But this response is not very convincing. There are several considerations.
1. If pains are warning signals, then they are instrumentally good. But what is instrumentally good may also be intrinsically evil. The searing pain in a burnt hand, though instrumentally good, is intrinsically evil. Its positive 'entity' (entitas in scholastic jargon) is apparently not well accommodated on the classical doctrine that evils are privationes boni. Again, the pain is not the mere absence of the good of pleasure, but something positively bad. After all, the hand is not numb or as if aenesthetized; there is a positive sensation 'in' it, and this positive sensation is bad. So even if every pain served to warn us of bodily damage, that would not detract from the positive badness of the pain sensation. One cannot discount the intrinsic positive badness by pointing to the fact that the pain is instrumentally good.
2. If pains are warning signals, it seems that many of them could perform this function without being so excruciating. The intensity of many pains seems out of all proportion to the good that they do in warning us of bodily damage. This excruciatingness is part of the evil of pain.
3. It is a fact that the pain in my hand that warns me to remove it from the hot stove typically does not subside when the hand is removed. It continues to hurt. But what good purpose does this serve given that the warning has been heeded and the hand removed from the hot stove? The argument that pain is good, not evil, because it warns us about bodily damage fails to account for the pain that persists after the warning has been heeded. The pain in my burnt hand continues, of course, because the hand has been damaged; but then that pain is intrinsically and positively evil and the evil cannot be discounted in the way the pain at the time of the contact of hand with stove can be discounted.
4. There is no necessity that a warning system be painful. A robotic arm could have a sensor that causes the arm to retract from a furnace when the furnace temperature becomes damagingly high. The robot would feel nothing. We might have had that sort of painless warning system.
My interim conclusion may be set forth as follows:
Pains are natural evils
The evil of pain is not a mere absence of good
Not all evils are privationes boni.
REFERENCE: Jorge J. E. Gracia, "Evil and the Transcendentality of Goodness: Suarez's Solution to the Problem of Positive Evils" in Scott MacDonald, ed., Being and Goodness (Cornell UP, 1991), pp. 151-176.
A reader recalled my posts on evil as privatio boni from the old blog and wants me to upload them to the new, which I will gladly do. So far I managed to scare up two. Here is the first.
The goddess of blogging sent me Peter Lupu whose comments are a welcome stimulant. Peter displays the virtues of a good commenter and indeed co-worker: he is 'up to speed,' 'in there' with the terminology, and he knows how to oppose without becoming churlish. He tells me that theists, confronted with the logical argument from evil should not reject the premise that objective evil exists. I agree. But a good philosopher examines every aspect of a problem, no matter how bizarre it appears at first, and every premise and every inferential joint of every argument pertaining to the problem. So we need to consider whether perhaps evil has no positive entitative status and is only as a privation. In classical jargon, this is the view of evil as privatio boni. Thus Augustine, Enchiridion XI:
For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present --namely, the diseases and wounds -- go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance, -- the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils -- that is, privations of the good which we call health -- are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.
If evil is a privation or absence then the ancient problem -- dating back beyond Hume to Epicurus -- of reconciling the existence of God (as standardly defined) with the existence of evil seems either to dissolve or else become rather more tractable. Indeed, if the evil-as-privation thesis is coupled with the Platonic notion alive in both Augustine and Aquinas that Goodness is itself good as the Primary Good, the unique exemplar of goodness whence all good things receive their goodness, then one can argue from the existence of evils-as-privations to the existence of that of which they are privations. But that is a separate and very difficult topic.
Without going that far, let us first note that the evil-as-privation doctrine does seem to accommodate an intuition that many of us have, namely, that good and evil, though opposed, are not mutually independent. Thus in one clear sense good and evil are opposites: what is good is not evil and what is evil is not good. And yet one hesitates to say that they are on an ontological par, that they are equally real. They are not opposed as two positivities. The evil of ignorance is not something positive in its own right: the evil of ignorance consists in its being an absence of something good, knowledge. Good is an ontological prius; evil has a merely derivative status as an absence of good.
The Problem of Pain
But then how are we to think of animal and human pain, whether physical or mental? Pains are standardly cited as examples of natural or physical evils. Suppose you have just slammed your knee against the leg of a table. Phenomenologically, the pain is something all-too-positive. The Nagelian what-it-is-like is something quite distinctive. It is not a mere absence of well-being, but the presence of ill-being. Compare an absence of sensation in the knee with intense pain in the knee. An absence of sensation, as in a numb knee, is a mere lack; but a pain is not a mere lack, but something positive in its own right. This seems to show that not all evils can be privations.
The argument in nuce is that not all evils can be privations of good because a felt pain is a positive evil sensation that is not an absence, lack, or privation of something good.
The same seems to hold for mental pains such as an intense sadness. It is not merely an absence of happiness, but something positive in its own right. Hence, the evil of sadness is not merely a privation of the good of happiness. Examples are easily multiplied: Angst, terror, etc.
Two Possible Responses. Pains are counterexamples to the thesis that evils are privationes boni only if they are both evil and objectively real. Therefore:
A. One might argue that pains are evil but not objectively real in that they exist only 'in the mind.' One might flesh this out as follows. There is a certain sensory quale that I experience when my knee slams into the leg of the table. Call this the experiential substratum of the pain. But the painfulness of this substratum is a matter of projection or interpretation or 'attitude': it is something supplied by the subject. The substratum, the sensory quale, exists in objective reality despite the fact that its esse est percipi. But the painfulness, and thus the evil or badness of the sensory quale is an interpretation from the side of the sufferer.
What's more, this interpretation or projection can be altered or withdrawn entirely. Thus, with practice, one can learn to focus one's attention on a painful sensory quale and in so doing lessen its painfulness. If you try this, it works to some extent. After a long day of hiking over rocky trails, my feet hurt. But I say to myself, "It's only a sensation, and your aversion to it is your doing." Focusing on the sensation in this way, and noting that one's attitude towards it plays a role in the painfulness, one can reduce the painfulness. If you try it, you will see that it works to some extent. This suggests that the painfulness is merely subjective.
Unfortunately, this response is not convincing as a general response to the problem of pain. Imagine the physical and mental suffering of one who is being tortured to death. And then try to convince yourself that the pain in a situation like this is just a matter of 'attitude' or aversion. "Conquer desire and aversion" is a good Buddhist maxim. But I find it hard to swallow the notion that the painfulness of every painful sensation derives from the second-order stance of aversion.
B. One might argue that pains are objectively real, but not evil. But I'll leave the elaboration of this response for another time.
After leaving the polling place this morning, I headed out on a sunrise hike over the local hills whereupon the muse of philosophy bestowed upon me some good thoughts. Suppose we compare a modal ontological argument with an argument from evil in respect of the question of evidential support for the key premise in each. This post continues our ruminations on the topic of contingent support for noncontingent propositions.
A Modal Ontological Argument
'GCB' will abbreviate 'greatest conceivable being,' which is a rendering of Anselm of Canterbury's "that than which no greater can be conceived." 'World' abbreviates 'broadly logically possible world.'
1. The concept of the GCB is either instantiated in every world or it is instantiated in no world.
2. The concept of the GCB is instantiated in some world. Therefore:
3. The concept of the GCB is instantiated.
This is a valid argument: it is correct in point of logical form. Nor does it commit any informal fallacy such as petitio principii, as I argue in Religious Studies 29 (1993), pp. 97-110. Note also that this version of the OA does not require the controversial assumption that existence is a first-level property, an assumption that Frege famously rejects and that many read back (with some justification) into Kant. (Frege held that the OA falls with that assumption; he was wrong: the above version is immune to the Kant-Frege objection.)
(1) expresses what I will call Anselm's Insight. He appreciated, presumably for the first time in the history of thought, that a divine being, one worthy of worship, must be noncontingent, i.e., either necessary or impossible. I consider (1) nonnegotiable. If your god is contingent, then your god is not God. There is no god but God. End of discussion. It is premise (2) -- the key premise -- that ought to raise eyebrows. What it says -- translating out of the patois of possible worlds -- is that it it possible that the GCB exists.
Whereas conceptual analysis of 'greatest conceivable being' suffices in support of (1), how do we support (2)? Why should we accept it? Some will say that the conceivability of the GCB entails its possibility. But I deny that conceivability entails possibility. I won't argue that now, though I do say something about conceivability here. Suppose you grant me that conceivability does not entail BL-possibility. You might retreat to this claim: It may not entail it, but it is evidence for it: the fact that we can conceive of a state of affairs S is defeasible evidence of S's possibility.
Please note that Possibly the GCB exists -- which is logically equivalent to (2) -- is necessarily true if true. This is a consequence of the characteristic S5 axiom of modal propositional logic: Poss p --> Nec Poss p. ('Characteristic' in the sense that it is what distinguishes S5 from S4 which is included in S5.) So if the only support for (2) is probabilistic or evidential, then we have the puzzle we encountered earlier: how can there be probabilistic support for a noncontingent proposition? But now the same problem arises on the atheist side.
An Argument From Evil
4. If the concept of the GCB is instantiated, then there are no gratuitous evils.
5. There are some gratuitous evils. Therefore:
6. The concept of the GCB is not instantiated.
This too is a deductive argument, and it is valid. It falls afoul of no informal fallacy. (4), like (1), is nonnegotiable. Deny it, and I show you the door. The key premise, then, the one on which the soundness of the argument rides, is (5). (5) is not obviously true. Even if it is obviously true that there are evils, it is not obviously true that there are gratuitous evils.
In fact, one might argue that the argument begs the question against the theist at line (5). For if there are any gratuitous evils, then by definition of 'gratuitous' God cannot exist. But I won't push this in light of the fact that in print I have resisted the claim that the modal OA begs the question at its key premise, (2) above.
So how do we know that (5) is true? Not by conceptual analysis. If we assume, uncontroversially, that there are some evils, then the following logical equivalence holds:
7. Necessarily, there are some gratuitous evils iff the GCB does not exist.
Left-to-right is obvious: if there are gratuitous evils, ones for which there is no justification, then a being having the standard omni-attributes cannot exist. Right-to-left: if there is no GCB and there are some evils, then there are some gratuitous evils. (On second thought, R-to-L may not hold, but I don't need it anyway.)
Now the RHS, if true, is necessarily true, which implies that the LHS -- There are some gratuitious evils -- is necessarily true if true.
Can we argue for the LHS =(5)? Perhaps one could argue like this (as one commenter suggested in an earlier thread): If the evils are nongratuitous, then probably we would have conceived of justifying reasons for them. But we cannot conceive of justifying reasons. Therefore, probably there are gratuitous evils.
But now we face our old puzzle: How can the probability of there being gratuitous evils show that there are gratuitous evils given that There are gratuitous evils, if true, is necessarily true?
We face the same problem with both arguments, the modal OA for the existence of the GCB, and the argument from evil for the nonexistence of the GCB. The key premises in both arguments -- (2) and (5) -- are necessarily true if true. The only support for them is evidential from contingent facts. But then we are back with our old puzzle: How can contingent evidence support noncontingent propositions?
Neither argument is probative and they appear to cancel each other out. Sextus Empiricus would be proud of me.
It would be neat if all actions could be sorted into three jointly exhaustive classes: the permissible, the impermissible, and the obligatory. These deontic modes would then be analogous to the alethic modes of possibility, impossibility, and necessity. Intuitively, the permissible is the morally possible, that which we may do; the impermissible is the morally impossible, that which we may not do; and the obligatory is the morally necessary, that which we must do.
Pursuing the analogy, we note that the following two alethic modal principles each has a deontic analog, where 'p' ranges over propositions and 'A' over actions:
1A. If p is necessary, then p is possible, but not conversely. 1D. If A is obligatory, then A is permissible, though not conversely.
2A. P is impossible iff ~p is necessary. 2D. A is impermissible iff ~A is obligatory. (e.g. Sexually molesting children is impermissible iff not sexually molesting children is obligatory.)
But of course the following ab esse ad posse principle has no deontic analog:
3A. If p is true, then it is possible that p is true. 3D. If A is done, then A is permissible.
This is not surprising since the deontic is a species of the normative.
Now let's try to characterize (not define) the deontic concepts of the permissible, the impermissible, and the obligatory in terms of the axiological concepts of good and bad:
4. If A is impermissible, then A is bad to do and good to leave undone. 5. If A is obligatory, then A is good to do and bad to leave undone. 6. If A is permissible then A is axiologically indifferent: neither bad to do and good to leave undone, nor good to do and bad to leave undone.
These characterizations seems to leave conceptual room for two other sorts of actions, actions that are good to do but NOT bad to leave undone, and actions that are bad to do but NOT good to leave undone. The former are supererogatory in a wide sense of the term, and the latter are suberogatory.
For example, paying one's bill in a restaurant is (legally and morally) obligatory: it is good to pay the bill and bad to leave without paying. But tipping is (legally, though perhaps not morally) supererogatory: it is good to tip but not legally required, and in this sense not bad to leave no tip. If this is unclear, consider tipping in excess of 20%. Surely this would be supererogatory: good to do (ceteris paribus) but not bad to leave undone. One could plausibly argue that restaurant patrons are morally obligated to tip in the amount of 15-20% of the tab given that waiters and waitresses work for minimum wage and rely on tips for a livable wage; but surely no one is obligated to leave a 50% tip, say. And yet it would be a very nice thing to do for that pretty waitress working her way through school. It would be good to do but not bad to leave undone.
Do you balk at calling such trifling actions supererogatory because they are not grand or heroic like throwing oneself on a grenade to save one's buddies? Well then, I will accommodate your point by distinguishing between wide and narrow senses of 'supererogation.' Or I might just give you the word as long as you grant me a category of actions an example of which I have just provided.
Now for some examples of suberogation. A supererogatory act is a good act that is in excess of what is morally or legally required. A suberogatory act is then one that is bad but not so bad as to be impermissible. The following might be examples: talking too much, public displays of affection, breaking wind in public, picking one's nose in front of others. The practitioner of public rhinotillexis does nothing legally or morally impermissible, but it is something bad, and not just aesthetically. I want to say that it is a morally bad action that not impermissible. So I say it is suberogatory.
More needs to be said. I am not sure that in the end the sub- and supererogatory don't collapse into the permissible thus obviating the need for two further categories of actions. Further reading: the SEP article, Supererogation.
Richard Taylor, Good and Evil: A New Direction (Prometheus 1984), p. 134:
Goodness . . . is simply the satisfaction of needs and desires . . . the fulfillment of purposes. The greatest good for any individual can accordingly be nothing but the total satisfaction of his needs, whatever these may be.
There seems to be a tension in this passage, between the first sentence and the second, and I want to see if I can bring it into the open.
Taylor plausibly maintains that nothing is good or evil in itself or intrinsically. If a thing is good, it is good only relative to a being who wants, needs, or desires it. If a thing is evil, it is evil only relative to a being who shuns it or is averse to it. In a world in which there are no conative/desiderative beings, nothing is good or evil. This is plausible, is it not?
Imagine a world in which there is nothing but inanimate objects and processes, a world in which nothing is alive, willing, striving, wanting, needing, desiring. In such a world nothing would be either good or evil. A sun in a lifeless world goes supernova incinerating a nearby planet. A disaster? Hardly. Just another value-neutral event. A rearrangement of particles and fields. But if our sun went supernova, that would be a calamity beyond compare -- but only for us and any other caring observers hanging around.
Taylor's point is, first, that sentences of the form 'X is good (evil)' are elliptical for sentences of the form 'X is good for Y.' To say that X is good (evil) but X is not good (evil) for some Y would then be like saying that Tom is married but there is no one to whom Tom is married. Taylor's point, second, is that these axiological predicates can be cashed out in naturalistic terms. Thus,
D1. X is good for Y =df X satisfies Y's actual wants (needs, desires)
D2. X is evil for Y =df X frustrates Y's actual wants (needs, desires).
It is clear that good and evil are not being made relative to what anyone says or opines, but to certain hard facts about the wants, needs, and desires of living beings. That we need water to live is an objective fact about us, a fact independent of what anyone says or believes. Water cannot have value except for beings who need or want it; but that it does have value for such beings is an objective fact.
Taylor's view implies that there is no standard of good and evil apart from the actual wants, needs, desires, and aversions of conative/desiderative beings. Goodness consists in satisfaction, evil in frustration. But satisfaction and frustration can exist only if there are indigent beings such as ourselves. It follows that nothing that satisfies a desire or fulfills a need or want can be bad. (p. 126) It also follows that no desire or purpose is either good or evil. (p. 136) For if good and evil emerge only upon the satisfaction or frustration of desires and purposes, then the desires and purposes themselves cannot be either good or evil. The rapist's desire to 'have his way' with his victim, qua desire, is not evil, and the satisfaction of desire via the commission of rape is not evil, but good, precisely because it satisfies desire! (Glance back at the above definitions.)
We now have a reason to toss Taylor's book out the window. But I want to point out a rather more subtle difficulty with his theory.
If goodness is relational in the manner explained, how can there be talk of the greatest good of an individual? Glance back at the quotation. Taylor tells us that the greatest good for an individual is nothing but the total satisfaction of his needs. This is a higher-order state of affairs distinct from a ground-level state of affairs such as the satisfaction of the desire for water by a cool drink. What need does this greatest good satisfy?
Suppose I satisfy all my needs, wants and desires. How can this higher-order state of satisfaction be called good if a thing is good only in relation to a needy being? There would have to be a higher-order need or want, a need or want for total satisfaction, and the goodness of the first-order satisfaction would have to consist in the satisfaction of this higher-order need. But this leads to a vicious infinite regress.
Taylor should say about the satisfaction of desire what he says about desire, namely, that it is neither good nor evil. Consider the desire to drink a beer. By Taylor's lights, drinking a beer is intrinsically neither good nor evil. It is good only insofar as it satisfies some desiderative being's desire. Thus the goodness of drinking a beer is nothing other than the satisfaction of the desire to drink beer. The desire itself, however, is neither good nor evil, and the same goes for the satisfaction or frustration of this desire.
My critical point is that Taylor is using 'good' in two senses, one relative, the other absolute, when his own theory entitles him to use it only in the relative sense. By his theory, a good X is a satisfactory X: one that satisfies some desiderative/indigent being's need, want, desire, for X. But then desire can't be said to be good or evil, as Taylor himself realizes on p. 136. Similarly, the satisfaction of desire cannot be said to be good or evil. Otherwise, the satisfaction of desire would have to be relative to a higher-order desire. Hence Taylor is not entitled to speak of the "greatest good for any individual" as he does in the passage quoted.
It is a simple point of logic that if propositions p and q are both true, then they are logically consistent, though not conversely. So if God exists and Evil exists are both true, then they are logically consistent, whence it follows that it is possible that they be consistent. This is so whether or not anyone is in a position to explain how it is possible that they be consistent. If something is the case, then, by the time-honored principle ab esse ad posse valet illatio, it is possible that it be the case, and my inability, or anyone's inability, to explain how it is possible that such-and-such be the case cannot count as a good reason for thinking that it is not the case. So if it is the case that God exists and Evil exists are logically consistent, then this is possibly the case, and a theist's inability to explain how God and evil can coexist is not a good reason for him to abandon his theism — or his belief in the existence of objective evil.
The logical point I have just made is rock-solid. I now apply it to two disparate subject-matters. The one is the well-known problem of evil faced by theists. The other is the equally well-known 'problem of mind' that materialists face, namely, the problem of reconciling the existence of the phenomena of mind with the belief that nothing concrete is immaterial.
The theist is rationally entitled to stand pat in the face of the 'problem of evil' and point to his array of arguments for the existence of God whose cumulative force renders rational his belief that God exists. Of course, he should try to answer the atheist who urges the inconsistency of God exists and Evil exists; but his failure to provide a satisfactory answer is not a reason for him to abandon his theism. A defensible attitude would be: "This is something we theists need to work on."
Atheists and naturalists ought not object to this standing pat since they do the same. What materialist about the mind abandons his materialism in the face of the various arguments (from intentionality, from qualia, from the unity of consciousness, from the psychological relevance of logical laws, etc.) that we anti-materialists marshall? Does the materialist give in? Hell no, he stands pat, pointing to his array of arguments and considerations in favor of materialism, and when you try to budge him with the irreconcilability of intentionality and materialism, or qualia and materialism, or whatever, he replies, "This is something we materialists need to work on."
(A reader requested a post on evil. I am happy to oblige. The following has some relevance to the recent soul thread. So I'll leave the ComBox open in case Peter L. or others care to comment. As usual, the default setting for cyberpunk tolerance = 0.)
Suppose we define a 'generic theist' as one who affirms the existence of a bodiless person, a pure spirit, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and who in addition is perfectly free, the creator and sustainer of the universe, and the ground of moral obligation. This generic theism is common to the mainstream of the three Abrahamic religions. Most theists, however, are not 'generic' but adopt a specific form of theism. Christians, for example, add to the divine attributes listed above the attribute of being triune and others besides. Christianity also includes doctrines about the human being and his ultimate destiny in an afterlife. Generic theism is thus an abstraction from the concrete specific theisms that people accept and live.
Via Mike Gilleland, we read in Sophocles, Antigone 295-301 (tr. Hugh Lloyd-Jones):
There is no institution so ruinous for men as money; money sacks cities, money drives men from their homes! Money by its teaching perverts men's good minds so that they take to evil actions! Money has shown men how to practise villainy, and taught them impiousness in every action!
Mike has the Greek for you purists and elitists.
The Sophoclean sentiment, however, is quite false. For a view with a much better chance of being true, see Radix Omnium Malorum.
One often hears that money is the root of all evil. But this cannot be true, since money is an abstract form of wealth, wealth is a good thing, and the root of all evil cannot be something good. Perhaps it is the love of money that is supposed to be the root of all evil. But this too is false. Given that money is a good thing, a certain love or desire for its acquisition and preservation is right and proper. To fail to value money would be as foolish as to fail to value physical health. Well then, is it the inordinate love of money that is the root of all evil? Not even this is true. For there are evils whose root is not the inordinate love of money. The most we can truly say is that the inordinate love of money is the root of some evils.