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Friday, May 17, 2019


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Hi Bill. I've been enjoying these excellent posts on natural evil. And I'm sympathetic to skeptical theism. But is such a position consistent with your view of Islam?

After all, the skeptical theist claims that natural events that seem to us pointless even on careful reflection could be fully justified; so why would that same general point not hold for actions that similarly seem to us morally evil even on careful reflection, e.g. those that Muslim terrorists take to be commanded by God? If we are entitled to bracket our moral intuitions in the one case why not in the other? Why not hold that Allah is God and, therefore, slaughtering infidels must be morally good or acceptable given that Allah commands it?

(A related question is this: What distinguishes Allah morally from the apparently genocidal God of the Torah? Is traditional Judaism an equally sad and immoral form of theism?)

Thanks for the blog entry, Bill. Just one point of clarification: I made a typo howler: I meant to say "I am uncomfortable with the idea of saying no...." in my own reply to the "Is there any state of affairs that would rule out the existence of God?"

So I guess the kind of position you're advocating is a form of what I've seen called "Eschatological verificationism": if God exists and all is revealed and restored at the end then it will all have been justified. Plus it seems to make God a kind of utilitarian, does it not? All the evils are outweighed by a final superior good?

You raise two utterly fascinating questions that are not confined to the present topic.

One is whether a good end ever justifies an evil means. My 'inner Kantian' is feeling a little cognitive dissonance at the moment.

The other is whether a proposition could be true but unverifiable by anyone ever.

Thanks for the comments, Jacques.

>>After all, the skeptical theist claims that natural events that seem to us pointless even on careful reflection could be fully justified; so why would that same general point not hold for actions that similarly seem to us morally evil even on careful reflection, e.g. those that Muslim terrorists take to be commanded by God? <<

The cases are quite different. In the first, natural evil, in the second, moral evil. The Muslim terrorist evils arise from free finite agency; God is not on the hook for them if the free will defence holds.

You are on to something, however. Perhaps you could give your objection a sharper and clearer formulation.

If the created world is restored in the end, it doesn't seem to follow that God is a utilitarian or some kind of consequentialist. Regarding moral evil: assuming that created persons have libertarian free will (LFW), that moral evil is the result of misused LFW, and that God knew that such LFW would be misused if he were to create persons, perhaps God used something like the Principle of Double Effect (PDE) when deciding to create.

Regarding natural evil: perhaps the PDE is relevant here, too.



The SEP article expresses the PDE as follows: "The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides four conditions for the application of the principle of double effect:
1.The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
2.The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
3.The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
4.The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect“ (p. 1021).

Quick point regarding the suffering of non-human animals: suppose that for an animal to be aware that it is experiencing pain, the animal must possess self-awareness, i.e., an awareness that it is an “I.” Suppose also that animals lack self-awareness. They can’t think “I am in pain.”

If these suppositions are plausible, it seems plausible to hold that although animals experience pain, they are not aware that they experience pain.


Your second comment is especially intriguing. One might argue as follows.

1. To be in pain is to feel pain. (For pains, esse = percipi)
2. My cat is in pain. Ergo:
3. My cat feels pain.
4. My cat lacks self-awareness: he is not reflectively aware that he feels pain. He cannot think an I-thought, e.g., I now feel pain! Why is Big Pussy standing on my tail?
5. Only a being that is reflectively aware of its pain suffers from its pain. Ergo:
6. My cat does not suffer when I tread on his tail.

Generalizing: non-human animals don't suffer!

Would you endorse this argument? The crucial premise is (5).

Thanks for your response, Bill. That’s an interesting argument. I had something like it in mind when I posted the comment. I don’t know whether or not to endorse it. I agree that the crucial premise is (5).

I think (5) is plausible. Suppose animals are aware but not self-aware. If an animal is aware that physical distress is occurring but, lacking self-awareness, is not conscious that the pain is its own, what is the animal suffering? Analogy: consider calumny. Suppose someone defames me and I’m not aware that it’s happening to me. It seems I don’t suffer the calumniation.

But we should say something about the definition of “suffer.” Is self-awareness a necessary condition of suffering?

I can see someone questioning (2) as well. Perhaps your cat is instinctively repelled by physical damage to its body, but is not in pain. That is a difficult position to take, though. The cat’s behavior (e.g., caterwauling, scratching) is evidence that it feels pain. I don't know what it's like to be a cat (in Nagel's sense of "what it's like") but I believe cats feel pain.

Hi Bill,
I don't think the cases are relevantly different. Here is how a skeptical terrorist theist might argue...

"Yes it seems intuitively that God would not command the mass murder of unbelievers, since that seems intuitively to be immoral. However, I am justified in believing that God exists and has commanded just this. Therefore, I am justified in believing that my moral intuitions are unreliable on this point. And that's not too unlikely if God exists. Why would we expect that mere human beings are in a position to know What would be commanded by an omni-God? Just as apparently pointless suffering could well have a point unknowable for us, apparently morally wrong acts could be morally good and even obligatory in relation to the inconceivably greater knowledge of God, I.e. Allah. So the mere fact that terrorism seems wrong to me has little epistemic significance with respect to the question of whether it really is wrong. And so I don't agree that Islamic terrorism is a moral evil. Rather, since I justifiedly believe that God has commanded it, I justified believe that it's morally right (though I have no idea _why_ it's morally right or even how it could be right)."

Does this make the reasoning more clear?

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