Moral Defeatism
April 23, 2009 — 8:55

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Free Will Problem of Evil  Comments: 21

Let (R) be the denial of moral defeatism. I’m worried about the truth of (R) quite apart from God’s existence, so assume the possible moral responses in (R) do not include divine responses.
R. For any evil E that occurs, there is a possible response R to E such that R is a free moral response to E, R is impossible in the absence of E, the moral value of (R & E) is (neutral or) positive.
I include of course any evil E that is occurring, has occurred or will occur. The denial of (R) is the position that there exists some evil to which every possible moral response is defeated. That is, every possible moral response is such that (R & E) is negative. By free moral responses to evil I have in mind actions (individual and collective) that display moral courage, charity, perseverance, compassion, care, hope, mercy, generosity, justice and the like. Some well-known exemplars of free moral responsiveness include M. Gandhi, M. L. King, Mother Teresa, among, of course, many others. These individuals display what is possible in the way of free moral responses to evil. Now consider (P1) and (P2).
P1. If moral defeatism is false, then the existence of gratuitous evil depends largely on what we freely choose to do.
P2. If moral defeatism is true, then there is (was, will be) some evil E such that there is nothing anyone (or any group) could ever do, over any amount of time, in response to E that is not defeated by E.

Comments:
  • Luke Gelinas

    Mike,
    Can you say a bit about where the worry comes from? You’re worried that there are or could be evils which no amount of virtuous response could defeat–but why? Once we’re allowed to aggregate the value of virtuous response, why wouldn’t it always in principle be possible to defeat the initial evil? Unless the disvalue of the evil is lexically/infinitely worse than the value of responses. But that seems implausible.
    Is the worry that, as a matter of brute fact, maybe some evils are such that no world contains enough freely chosen virtuous responses to outweigh them?

    April 23, 2009 — 14:25
  • Mike Almeida

    Luke,
    It would be extremely bad news if something like P2 were true. But further some atheistic arguments (those against FWD, for instance) depend on something like P2 being true. Suppose moral defeatism is false. In that case, the existence of gratuitous evil depends on how free, rational agents respond to evil. It does not depend on what God does. But then arguments from evil lose their force: if E occurs and it is true that if I do R, then E is not gratuitous, then it is hard to see how E counts against God existing.

    April 23, 2009 — 14:56
  • Luke Gelinas

    I’m confused. I see that it would be bad news generally if P2 were true. But it would only be bad news for theists if the evils which failed to be defeated by virtuous responses failed to be defeated altogether. And it seems P1 is too strong. The evil could be outweighed by other connections to goods not including virtuous response; I’m not confident about the proportions and interactions of justifying goods.
    I think I see the repercussions of R. I just don’t see much reason to worry it’s false. Or more generally to think that it’s possible that some evil exists which is essentially pointless. (How do we trans-world identify evils anyways?) Sorry, I hope I’m not missing you altogether.

    April 23, 2009 — 15:26
  • Mike Almeida

    . . . I see that it would be bad news generally if P2 were true. But it would only be bad news for theists if the evils which failed to be defeated by virtuous responses failed to be defeated altogether
    This is where we substantively disagree, I think. As far as I can tell, if the free will response (or something similar) fails, then theists are in deep trouble (I mean, if they care about rational belief in God). I don’t see any plausible way to justify evil that does not appeal to the exercise of freedom (perhaps in the way I describe above). Moreover, I don’t see any way to plausibly deny that there is gratuitous evil, since it is as plain as day that there is. The skeptical theist response is just embarrassing in my view. But we can justify evil and also allow for the existence of gratuitous evil, if it turns out that the existence of such evil depends finally on how we respond to evil.

    April 23, 2009 — 16:25
  • Luke Gelinas

    Right, but even without going skeptical, don’t you think that there could be goods not tied to freedom that do at least part of the justifying? I agree that appeal to free will is essential to any sort of plausible overall theistic defense. But I don’t see right away that it needs to do all the work. Let’s see, a plausible example of an evil justified by non-freedom goods; well, at least small ones: I badly stub my toe, but in such a comical way that the resulting pleasure my friends experience laughing at me (and my own pleasure in their pleasure, and my idiocy, later on) outweigh the pain of the toe-stubbing. Are you skeptical about there being actual cases like this?

    April 23, 2009 — 17:11
  • Mike Almeida

    I badly stub my toe, but in such a comical way that the resulting pleasure my friends experience laughing at me (and my own pleasure in their pleasure, and my idiocy, later on) outweigh the pain of the toe-stubbing. Are you skeptical about there being actual cases like this?
    No, I’m not at all skeptical of there being such cases. I’m sure there are. But I’m not inclined to think that increasing the amount of pleasure in a world increases the moral value of that world. I think it increases the prudential or welfare value of it. Welfare value is nothing to sneeze at, but I don’t think it is moral value proper, and I think God/we have to worry about moral value in justifying evil.

    April 23, 2009 — 17:37
  • Luke Gelinas

    Well, I think we have to worry about moral value too. But I guess I don’t see much reason to think it’s the only value that can justify evils. What about the pleasure of communing with God in the afterlife? Surely this could be at least part–if not the whole–of what justifies God to permit some earthly suffering, no? It seems to me a bit prudish to insist that only strictly moral goods can do justificatory work. But I’m open to being convinced.

    April 24, 2009 — 8:18
  • Mike Almeida

    But I guess I don’t see much reason to think it’s the only value that can justify evils. What about the pleasure of communing with God in the afterlife?
    Now I’m confused! How could a non-moral good justify a moral evil? Even utilitarians deny it. There is an infrequently observed consequence of utilitarianism. We might have a world w in which everyone is exceedingly happy (make everyone as happy as you like), and no moral evil is justified. All you need to assume is that utilitarianism is true, no one ever maximizes overall good, and most people satisfice. Almost every action performed in this world is both morally wrong and producing good. But no matter how much good is produced in this way–and we can imagine it getting infinitely great–it never justifies the moral evil–i.e. the wrongdoing. Individual welfare is terrific in w, and w is a morally bad world. And I’ve made no non-utilitarian assumptions!

    April 24, 2009 — 8:49
  • Luke Gelinas

    Ah, I didn’t realize you were restricting your claim to moral evils. Assuming there exist genuine instances of natural evil, do you agree that non-moral goods could be relevant for their justification?
    The world you describe is interesting. I’m a bit unclear about what a moral evil would be in w. Some act which in fact isn’t optimific? Then right, it’s hard to see how any moral evil in w could be justified; by definition, moral evil is undefeated. Is a moral evil in w an act performed from bad motives, whether or not it’s optimific?
    Suppose Max goes around intentionally trying to cause harm. But Max’s luck is such that his attempts to maliciously harm somehow result in the alleviation of lots and lots of physical pain and misery (but no virtuous growth). I don’t see why God wouldn’t be justified to permit Max’s moral evil. I could still be missing you; my mind is pretty fatigued from end of term grading!

    April 24, 2009 — 9:41
  • Mike Almeida

    Ah, I didn’t realize you were restricting your claim to moral evils.
    I think ‘moral evil’ is getting used ambiguously here. It is contrasted on the one hand with natural evil and on the other with, say, a prudential evil. What I mean is the latter. Let me try to be clearer: I don’t see how a morally disvaluable event might justified by non-moral (e.g., prudential, aesthetic, etc.) value.
    I’m a bit unclear about what a moral evil would be in w. Some act which in fact isn’t optimific?
    Yes, right. But the important part I think is that it won’t matter how good the world gets, these evils won’t be justified. This is important because it seems to be a common belief that if the world were infinitely valuable, well, it could not be evil. But that’s false! It could be morally terrible and prudentially wonderful.
    Suppose Max goes around intentionally trying to cause harm. But Max’s luck is such that his attempts to maliciously harm somehow result in the alleviation of lots and lots of physical pain and misery (but no virtuous growth). I don’t see why God wouldn’t be justified to permit Max’s moral evil.
    I’m not clear on the example. If Max is doing what is right for the wrong reasons, then Max is (perhaps) blameworthy, though he does no moral evil. I’m not sure if such action would justify God in permitting evil.

    April 24, 2009 — 10:45
  • Luke Gelinas

    I don’t see how a morally disvaluable event might justified by non-moral (e.g., prudential, aesthetic, etc.) value.
    But can you say why? It seems like we can construct cases where intuitions cut against it. Take some plausible example of moral evil (where there’s no ambiguity due to act/agent evaluation): My taking pleasure in your pain. This is an intrinsically morally disvaluable state of affairs; it’s spiteful and vicious. But now suppose that my taking pleasure in your pain is causally connected to the alleviation of suffering (however you want the story to go), so that my viciousness prevents a whole bunch of pain which wouldn’t be prevented otherwise.
    Now ramp up the amount of suffering alleviated. And (if you like) ramp down the magnitude of the vice (maybe I don’t get positively ecstatic about your pain, but I’m still slightly pleased by it, enough so that it’s still vicious). At some point it starts to look real implausible that God wouldn’t be justified to permit my viciousness on grounds of greater and greater increases in well-being for creatures.
    In response to the world you describe, I think I would want to say that, yes, on (certain forms of) utilitarianism it’s a morally bad world. But that wouldn’t necessarily preclude God from justifiably actualizing it. The other forms of value/disvalue in worlds can be relevant to the moral status of God’s world-creating act.

    April 24, 2009 — 13:59
  • Mike Almeida

    Luke, you write,
    In response to the world you describe, I think I would want to say that, yes, on (certain forms of) utilitarianism it’s a morally bad world. But that wouldn’t necessarily preclude God from justifiably actualizing it. The other forms of value/disvalue in worlds can be relevant to the moral status of God’s world-creating act.
    I determine what is relevant by appeal to divine attributes. God is morally perfect, I assume, and so must actualize a world that includes moral value. Apart from moral reasons, I don’t see any reason for him to actualize a world in which prudential value is maximized. I don’t see any reason why he must actualize the most aesthetically pleasing world, either.
    But can you say why? It seems like we can construct cases where intuitions cut against it. Take some plausible example of moral evil (where there’s no ambiguity due to act/agent evaluation): My taking pleasure in your pain. This is an intrinsically morally disvaluable state of affairs; it’s spiteful and vicious. But now suppose that my taking pleasure in your pain is causally connected to the alleviation of suffering (however you want the story to go), so that my viciousness prevents a whole bunch of pain which wouldn’t be prevented otherwise.
    But this looks like a case in which moral value–the alleviation of suffering–justifies moral evil. What am I missing? My view is that the addtion of prudential or aesthetic value to a world will not justify moral evil in that world. I don’t see how such value is relevant to moral evil. “Yes, I stabbed you with my pen, but my evil act is justified because I bought you a nice painting?”

    April 24, 2009 — 14:18
  • Luke Gelinas

    Ack, isn’t there a song on Zeppelin I about this sort of conversational failure?
    I’m assuming that some kinds of increases in well-being, those not tied to a motive or intent to increase well-being, don’t involve increase in moral value. But I must admit I’m not very clear on the distinctions between the types of value you’re working with.
    Suppose that as a result of some blind natural happening my pain is decreased, and so my well-being increased. The world doesn’t gain moral value, does it? (If it does, I’m not sure how you see the distinction between moral/prudential value.) But now suppose as the result of some flukey causal connection my viciousness (unintentionally) results in less suffering. This doesn’t seem any different to me than the first case.

    April 24, 2009 — 15:08
  • Mike Almeida

    I’m assuming that some kinds of increases in well-being, those not tied to a motive or intent to increase well-being, don’t involve increase in moral value.
    I see. I’ve been working with the maximizing utilitarianism assumption. I’ve been assuming that you can perform a morally right action from any old motive. Motives I assume are relevant to agent evaluation. It would be easier for me to make htis the assumption. I have no intuitions about the relations of motives to moral actions.
    So I’m making the distinction between actions that are morally right and those that are wrong by appealing to maximizing behavior. If you fail to maximize, then your action is wrong, though it generates lots of welfare.
    I want to generally urge (as utilitarians do)that only moral good justifies moral evil, for reasons noted above.
    Does that make sense?

    April 24, 2009 — 16:19
  • Luke Gelinas

    I have questions about the distinction between moral/prudential value; but go back to the world w you describe. It’s morally bad b/c it’s filled with actions that don’t produce the most good. So you want to say at least some Es are undefeated unless there’s some free R that produces enough good to outweigh E. Is that right?
    I guess I don’t see why God would have reason to care whether the good produced in a world comes from just any old free act or from blind luck. Suppose at another world w* everyone goes around maliciously trying to harm people, but luck makes their acts optimific. So w* is morally better than w. Even if we stipulate that the satisficers at w consistently act from virtuous motives, sincerely want to help others, etc. It seems very strange to me to think that w* is morally better than w.

    April 25, 2009 — 12:26
  • Mike Almeida

    It seems very strange to me to think that w* is morally better than w.
    It sounds strange perhaps because you’re not a utilitarian or don’t have utilitarian intuitions.
    I guess I don’t see why God would have reason to care whether the good produced in a world comes from just any old free act or from blind luck.
    Well, it doesn’t matter, in a sense. It does add moral value to a world that people accidentally do what is right. I have no quarrel with that. But I don’t think the mere addtion of moral value will justify any moral evil. So, I’m asserting all of the following:
    1. The addition of prudential value does not justify moral evil.
    2. The addition of moral value does not in general justify moral evil.
    3. A free moral response R to E justifies E iff. R is impossible without E, and (R + E) is positive, and R occurs.
    I don’t deny that w* might be better than w, though w contains no gratuitous evil and w* does. I don’t deny that God might prefer the world with gratuitous evil. Recall, I hold that the existence of gratuitous evil depends on what we–we finite, free, & rational agents–do.

    April 25, 2009 — 12:58
  • Luke Gelinas

    Well, I don’t have utilitarian intuitions about axiology; but I do have some maximizing intuitions. I don’t see why maximizing consequentialism entails, or strongly supports, the requirements on defeat you’re assuming. First, I’m not really sure what makes an act an instance of ‘R’ on your view. Does there need to be some kind of cognitive or intentional relation to E?
    But I also just don’t see why the defeat of moral evil requires a special free response, given that ‘moral evil’ just covers the bad consequences of free acts. Many of these consequences will be far removed from the origination of the act; and it will usually be a matter of some luck how morally good or evil any act is. Given this, I don’t see why it matters much whether the justifying consequences are consequences of free, autonomous, etc. acts, or consequences of lightning hitting the tree next door.

    April 26, 2009 — 19:54
  • Mike Almeida

    Luke,
    I’m having a difficult time figuring out what you see as a problem. I have no idea, for instance, how a lightening strike, however good the subsequent consequences, could be considered a moral response to evil. I don’t deny that such events possibly have positive consequences. But presumably moral responses, are (i) actions, and (ii) freely performed. What am I missing?

    April 27, 2009 — 7:42
  • Luke Gelinas

    Right, my point is that I see no reason to think that moral evil can’t be outweighed by non-moral goods, given that moral evil includes all of the consequences of free acts, many of which are the product of blind luck and bear little or no connection to the motives or intention of the act itself. You say that utilitarians typically agree that moral evil can only be outweighed by moral goods. But I don’t see that they have to say this.
    I don’t see why all of the following couldn’t be true:
    (1) Maximixing act-consequentialism is true.
    (2) Some free action A produces a net disvalue of 10 units at w.
    (3) At w some lightning-strike produces 12 net units of value.
    (4) A is justified at w by the 12 units of value produced by the lightning strike.
    At this point my sense is that we share too few premises to have a really productive blog conversation about it! But I appreciate the interaction.

    April 27, 2009 — 13:16
  • John Edge

    I’ve been following this blog closely because I’ve always wondered just how the virtuous response theory is meant to work. I tend to agree that not just any old good (no matter how great or significant) will have a functional role in defeating moral evil. That is, I think the moral good must have some connection (e.g., causal, logical) to the evil it is intended to address. Moreover, I believe that in order for the response to work as it is supposed to, at least the following must be true:
    1 (R+E) is (in some sense) positive;
    2 as a result of the existence of (R+E) the world has a deeper moral richness than it had prior to E;
    3 anyone who knows/realizes/acknowledges that 1 and 2 are true will admit that E was worth having (or, alternatively, that God is justified in allowing A freely to bring about E).
    One difficulty I have with this is that the formula in 1 seems to invite only a quantitative analysis. For instance, in a concrete case, suppose that a wealthy business magnate charitably donates enough cash to pay off the debts of those on the verge of being evicted from their homes through an inability to repay their debts. Here, not only have the debtors been freed from want, they have (hopefully) learned about the downfalls of over-borrowing and will amend their ways. The result: a better overall state of affairs, according at least to the relevant quantities in question.
    According to Christ, the widow’s two mites constitutes a very big R. Here, quantity is the last thing of relevance. In Matthew 12 and Luke 21, we are told that Jesus watches as donations are made to the treasury in order to eliminate want. The rich donate much and the widow little. He says to his disciples, ‘Verily I say unto you, this poor widow cast in more than all they that are casting into the treasury: for they all did cast in of their superfluity; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.’ In what sense does she cast in ‘more’ and how could this amount outweigh the evil of want? In 1, above, the sense in which (R+E) is positive is not quantitative but something else outlined in Christ’s words, which surely concerns the agent’s intentions or motives more than the consequences of her action. If these apply to agent-, more than action-evaluation, then perhaps the virtuous response theory needs a little modification: a qualitative, as well as, or as opposed to, a quantitative analysis. (Or both?)

    April 28, 2009 — 2:10
  • Luke Gelinas

    Hi John,
    Here’s the way (I think) I see it. I want to use ‘moral evil’ more restrictively than Mike does. Moral evils are either intrinsically bad interior states of agent (my hating your good, or being disposed to hate your good), or intrinsically bad states of the world that bear some tighter connection to free actions than mere consequence (maybe intended consequences, or consequences for which the agent is culpable, or on the basis of which we would appropriately experience certain reactive attitudes toward the agent, etc.).
    When we talk about what it takes to defeat moral evil, I think we’re basically asking just how bad vicious inner states, or morally bad free acts (where the moral badness of an act is a function of how much bad the agent intentionally/culpably, etc. brings about in performing that act) are in relation to the goods of a world. If moral evil in my sense is very very very bad, while things like pleasure, etc. are just a little good, then we should be worried about pleasure being able to defeat moral evil all that often. But I don’t see any reason to think that at least in some cases increases in pleasure by themselves—regardless of their connection to free acts—can’t justify moral evil (in the way I’m using it).
    On my view what justifies the widow’s response will be the value of her inner states plus the value of her act of giving. I don’t see any problem for a quantitative analysis, since the character or quality of our inner states determines the value of those states. Jesus is saying that the widow’s inner virtue, expressed in the act of giving, is worth a whole lot.

    April 28, 2009 — 21:23