Horrendous and trivial evils
July 1, 2010 — 10:56

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God Problem of Evil  Comments: 15

When we worry about the problem of evil, we tend to worry most about particularly horrendous evils. But consider the atheological inference from the occurrence of an evil to the claim that there would be no good enough reason for God to permit this evil. Is this inference any stronger in the case of a horrendous evil (e.g., genocide) than in the case of a trivial evil (e.g., uncomfortable pebble in shoe)?
Here is one possibility (which I got from Trent): Say that an evil is in principle unjustifiable iff it is not permissible to allow the evil no matter how great a good would be lost or how great an evil caused by preventing it. Obviously trivial evils are poor candidates for being in principle unjustifiable. So if the inference is: “E is in principle unjustified, and hence God has no good enough reason to permitted”, then the argument is indeed better off in the case of horrendous evils. Maybe there could be in principle unjustifiable evils. For instance: “everyone always suffering horrendously despite everyone being innocent”. But none of the evils we observe are in principle unjustifiable. For instance, let S be the mereological sum of all the human sufferings. Then, S is not in principle unjustifiable, because it would be permissible to allow S if the only way of preventing S would result in a hundred planets full of aliens each suffering in ways comparable to S.
Apart from in principle unjustifiable evils, then, is the atheological inference from horrendous evils better than that from trivial evils? I don’t know. On the one hand, allowing a horrendous evil requires a much more potent justificatory reason. On the other hand, many horrendous evils do very obviously bring along with them the opportunities for very great goods–exercises of courage, compassion, patience, forgiveness, etc. Granted, many will query if the value of the opportunities would be sufficient to justify God’s allowing the horrendous evil, and intuitions will differ, but at least we can, typically, point to a number of uncontroversial goods of quite high magnitude. On the other hand, with the trivial evils it can often be harder to point to any goods (e.g., consider the uncomfortable pebble in one’s shoe).
So maybe it’s not harder to say in the case of the horrendous evil “There is a justification, but we don’t know what it is” than in the case of a trivial evil. But if so, then why is it that when we worry about the problem of evil, we are more apt to worry about greater evils than smaller ones?


I suppose one possibility is that one might think that there is a good G served by having a large number of minor discomforts, but one might also think that no one minor discomfort is such that its loss would cause any measurable loss of G. So maybe God is justified in allowing a large number of minor discomforts, without God needing a reason for allowing each particular one. (Dean Zimmerman and Peter van Inwagen (and others, I suspect) have made arguments along these lines.) But reasoning like this seems repugnant in the case of horrendous evils. While it is easy to say: “I didn’t prevent you from having the pebble in your shoe because a good would be lost if I always prevented pebbles in shoes, and I had to draw the line somewhere”, to say the same thing about genocides seems morally insensitive.
But even though it seems morally insensitive, something like that line might be right. Suppose that some country keeps on burning down villages, including all the innocent villagers, near their border. You can prevent any particular such act. However, you also know that if you prevent too many such acts, then the country’s powerful ally will nuke you. Then you have to prevent some of the horrendous evils, but with respect to others you just have to say: “We had to draw the line somewhere.” If that’s right, then maybe the vagueness line works for horrendous evils, and not just trivial ones.
But even if the vagueness line doesn’t work for horrendous evils (and I am myself sceptical of the line), the horrendous evils may not need it. For the reason we seemed to have needed the vagueness line for trivial evils was the worry that any particular trivial evil contributes insignificantly to the good that justifies having many trivial evils. But any particular horrendous evil produces significant goods. Of course, as I said, there is a question of judgment whether these goods are sufficient to justify permitting the evil, but I still don’t see that saying that either these goods, or others that we are not aware of, justify the horrendous evil is any more problematic than saying that some good justifies having a lot of trivial evils.
I, too, have the intuition that the problem of evil is more of a problem when the evils are horrendous. But I don’t know that the intuition is correct.

Comments:
  • John Alexander

    Alex
    “So maybe it’s not harder to say in the case of the horrendous evil “There is a justification, but we don’t know what it is” than in the case of a trivial evil. But if so, then why is it that when we worry about the problem of evil, we are more apt to worry about greater evils than smaller ones?”
    I think that we (philosophers and maybe especially non-philosophers) worry about the greater evils because we cannot fathom how a justification for the types of evils that we categorize as horrendous can be constructed. Logically we know that if God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good that there must be such a justification, but without begging the question we, or at least I, cannot rule out that God is not evil if he is all-knowing and all-powerful and horrendous evils exist. Horrendous evils seems to fall in the category of evidence that , as John Wisdom pointed out, both the believer and the non-believer can use as evidence in support of their positions.
    Also, I think that the minor or lessor ‘evils’ are not the ones the come to mind when we think of the evils that befall Job, to reference a paradigm example. The word ‘evil’ might not even be appropriate in these cases. I doubt that anyone seriously curses God because of a stone in his or her shoe, or a toothache, or possibly even a death from causes that are ‘natural.’ We all know people who face their deaths – even ones that are painful and prolonged – with great equanimity because they believe that God will not give them something they cannot handle. But horrendous evils seem to go beyond this category to a realm where even this defense does not seem to be applicable.

    July 3, 2010 — 11:45
  • “I doubt that anyone seriously curses God because of a stone in his or her shoe, or a toothache, or possibly even a death from causes that are ‘natural.’ We all know people who face their deaths – even ones that are painful and prolonged – with great equanimity because they believe that God will not give them something they cannot handle. But horrendous evils seem to go beyond this category to a realm where even this defense does not seem to be applicable.”
    I think you’re right about how it seems. But I don’t know that this seeming is correct. First of all, the “God will not give them something they cannot handle” seems to apply just as well in the case of horrendous evils, given that many people–seemingly miraculously (and perhaps often actually miraculously)–manage to handle them.
    The remark about natural death is interesting, and I think correct as a description of how people feel about things. But, really, is it significantly worse for one to die of a heart attack in one’s sleep than to die in one’s sleep from an atomic bomb? And is one’s own death much worse when it is accompanied by 145,000 other deaths from the same cause? (One’s own death is typically accompanied by about 145,000 other deaths on the same day, but normally they’re not all from the same cause.)
    I don’t really have answers to these questions. I think one source of the intuition that cases where large numbers of people die from the same cause are more difficult for theodicy is the worry (cf., I think, Voltaire) that the deaths seem to be too indiscriminate to be providential. If people die from different causes on the same day, then it’s easier to imagine that God, in his providence, chose who would escape death, and those who did die, God had reason to allow them to die. I think psychologically the point here is effective, but I am not sure it’s very good evidentially. After all, providence can work in all sorts of ways. Take the bombing of Hiroshima as a paradigm examples of a horrendous evil. Taking the mid-point of the death-toll estimates in wikipedia, about 130,000 people died from the acute effects (about on the first day, I think). Now, the total population of Hiroshima was 345,000. So, one way for providence to have worked would have been by ensuring that people’s locations within the city would match up with whether God has reason to allow them to die. Moreover, providence could have worked by ensuring that when God had reason to prevent a death, the person would be out of town. Furthermore, apart from those who died instantaneously, presumably there was room for providence in deciding whom to allow to die from injuries. So at least in the case of Hiroshima, it doesn’t seem that it’s much harder to think that God could have reasons for why these particular 130,000 people should be allowed to die than to think that God could have reasons for why the particular 145,000 people that are going to die to die should be allowed to die. The kinds of reasons God could have for allowing a person to die in Hiroshima on the day of the bombing from the bombing might have been very much the sort of reasons that God could have had for allowing a person to die a day in Hiroshima from cancer.
    The one difference is that the bombing of Hiroshima involved also a grave moral evil, and that needs a theodicy, as well. However, insofar as we’re interested in moral evil qua moral evil (and not qua impacting others), free will considerations seem to work just as well. (Moreover, in the special case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the moral evil is decreased by the fact that one suspects that a lot of people were inculpable by reason of ignorance of the wrongness of the bombing.)
    In summary: I agree with you about how it seems to us, but I don’t know that I can defend it. And I agree that it would be very odd to hear someone saying “I have a minor pain, so God doesn’t exist” (it would either be a joke, perhaps in bad taste, or else a sign of a vice). But, at the same time, a minor pain involves an evil, and it’s not clear why the horrendous evil is that much greater a problem for theodicy. Maybe it is–we do feel that it is, after all, and that is some evidence for the claim that it is.

    July 3, 2010 — 12:17
  • John Alexander

    Alex:
    “So, one way for providence to have worked would have been by ensuring that people’s locations within the city would match up with whether God has reason to allow them to die. Moreover, providence could have worked by ensuring that when God had reason to prevent a death, the person would be out of town.”
    I think that this is a clear example of where many people find if difficult to imagine, or except proposed, explanations/justifications. It seems that if we were to accept this explanation then we are committed to the thesis that people die when God determines that they will die and that there are good reason for having them die at that time. Now this may be true, but then it follows that I am writing this response at this time because God thinks there is a good reason for me to do so. It seems to follow that no event can happen then that God does not determine to happen at that time. Does this not remove us from having (libertarian) free-will?
    “But, really, is it significantly worse for one to die of a heart attack in one’s sleep than to die in one’s sleep from an atomic bomb? And is one’s own death much worse when it is accompanied by 145,000 other deaths from the same cause? (One’s own death is typically accompanied by about 145,000 other deaths on the same day, but normally they’re not all from the same cause.)”
    This seems to presuppose that death, in itself, is bad. I think that many religious people would think that physical death is not a bad thing at all, but is sometimes preferable to continuing to live because they think that their souls (assuming we have them for a minute) continue to exist. They equate their ‘personhood’ to some state of the soul, not the physical body that houses the soul.
    As far as numbers are concerned, I am not sure that number matter re horrendous evils. One person being raped regarding the example of Adams in Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God versus many being people being similarly raped does not make the act described more horrific. In a sense this is similar to the thought experiment of James who asked, would we sacrifice one baby to a life of intense unending suffering if it meant no other human being would ever suffer. The suffering of one is equal in moral terms to the suffering of many. (I know there are issues with this – I bring it up to demonstrate that what would count as a justification regarding horrendous evils is not a easy concept to grasp. The fact that we cannot come up with one seems to count against there being one even if logically it does not rule out the possibility that one exists.)
    Another issue with an horrendous evil and overcoming it is what about the person who does not overcome it? Is this simply a lack of religious maturity on those who fail to overcome the horrendous evil? The idea of God and testing our faith seems to work for those who are overcoming it, but fails for those who are not unless we conclude some moral weakness on the part of those who fail. Now, I grant that it might be true that it is a sign of moral weakness, but I cannot (will not?) accept this as an explanation because it presupposes the truth of that which is in question. To me, the idea that ideas on consistent with each other is not very compelling as a defense.

    July 3, 2010 — 13:08
  • John Alexander

    Alex
    I have a question for you. Assume that a woman is raped and tortured and that she overcomes the evil of this act and becomes a stronger and better person and another woman who is similarly raped but does not over come it and commits suicide. If your example of the bombing of Hiroshima, etc. is correct and only those people who die should have died at that time or who lived should have lived at that time and God had a good reason for these people dying or living then it seems to follow that God has a good reason for the woman who is raped but does not overcome the evil and commits suicide. Do you agree with this and if so would this be an example of where the very idea of justification becomes epistemically messy in so far as there appears no way to falsify this type of explanation/justification?
    Also, if suicide is a sin then how can God have a good reason for allowing her to sin? This seems paradoxical.

    July 3, 2010 — 14:44
  • Great questions, I wish I had very good answers.
    “It seems that if we were to accept this explanation then we are committed to the thesis that people die when God determines that they will die and that there are good reason for having them die at that time.”
    Maybe, maybe not. It depends on whether perfect foresight + ability to prevent + non-prevention entails determination (and to some degree that just depends on what we mean by “determination”). If it does, then yes. But I think it doesn’t. So on my view, whenever anybody dies, God could have prevented that death, but had a morally justificatory reason for not preventing that death.
    Your questions point me to the idea that the notion of horrendous evil might be disjunctive: an evil is horrendous either (a) due to the number of people suffering it or (b) due to the depth of moral depravity involved or (c) due to the intensity of the harm (regardless of the numbers). Maybe to make progress we need to distinguish the three kinds of horrendousness, or three aspects of horrendousness (because a particular event, say the Holocaust, can exhibit all three).
    I think my earlier remarks suggest that type (a) horrendousness is not more problematic than the case of the thousands who die “naturally” every hour–not that the latter is not problematic! And type (b) horrendousness is the most amenable to free will responses.
    You rightly bring up aspect (c) in the rape examples. Of course, rape always also has aspect (b), and sometimes even has aspect (a). But I still don’t know that it is in principle harder to find not completely implausible theodical stories for type (c) horrendous evils than for minor evils, especially when the type (c) horrendous evil is known by the victim to be caused by a malevolent agent. For in that case, the victim has the opportunity for forgiveness. The actuality of forgiveness would, I think, defeat the evil. (I don’t know exactly how the concept of defeat of evil works, but I think forgiveness is a paradigm case.)
    Now, you bring up the case of someone who fails to overcome the evil, fails to forgive. In that case, it’s hard to give a very plausible theodical just-so story. But is it actually intellectually harder than to give a natural selection just-so story for the appendix? And, more to the point, is it intellectually harder than to give a theodical just-so story for some minor evil? After all, we can easily come up with half a dozen stories, of varying levels of plausibility. One feels a reluctance to give the just-so stories, however, but maybe this reluctance isn’t due to any greater intellectual difficulty, or any lesser plausibility in the stories, but due to moral considerations. There is something repugnant in giving just-so stories where great suffering is involved, maybe because such cases should not be the subject of mere low-probability speculation. We can give low-probability just-so stories for toe-stubbings and cactus prickings, but it seems inappropriate to do so in the case of rape or murder. The standards may just be higher in those cases.
    That said, I think one thing can be said with a fairly high degree of probability. A genuine opportunity for the exercise of virtue is always itself of value, even if one does not make use of the opportunity. (Here I assume libertarianism. I also think that the intuition here is more plausible when Molinism is false.)
    Here is another thought on horrendous evil and “natural” death. Suppose that someone were dying a “natural” death, but there was some medication on the bedside table that could cure the individual. However, the dying individual is in a building surrounded by enemies who rape all who fall in their power, but who do not kill them. The enemies will break into the building within two days. If the medication is not taken, the individual will die within a day. We would not consider the individual who took the medication to be clearly irrational in so doing. Likewise, most people would not consider it clearly irrational to refrain from taking the medication. This suggests that we do not judge the evil of being raped as in general clearly greater than even a natural death.
    Still, I do think that the problem of death–whether “natural” or not–is a really serious problem.
    “Also, if suicide is a sin then how can God have a good reason for allowing her to sin? This seems paradoxical.”
    If Molinism and compatibilism are false, then allowing people to sin is a necessary consequence of giving people the opportunity to freely not sin.
    p.s. I put “natural” in scare quotes, because I don’t actually know that death is natural to humans. I think a plausible reading of the early chapters of Genesis suggests that it is, but I am not completely sure that that’s the right reading.
    p.p.s. Death is always intrinsically bad, because death is the complete destruction of the body (the body–a functional unit–is turned into a corpse). It is thus intrinsically worse to die than to lose one’s arms and legs, and it’s intrinsically very bad to lose one’s arms and legs.

    July 3, 2010 — 16:40
  • John Alexander

    Alex
    thanks for the thought provoking exchange.
    “p.p.s. Death is always intrinsically bad, because death is the complete destruction of the body (the body–a functional unit–is turned into a corpse). It is thus intrinsically worse to die than to lose one’s arms and legs, and it’s intrinsically very bad to lose one’s arms and legs.”
    I not sure that this is true. I know people who would rather be dead then live as a quadriplegic and they seem to have good reasons that support their position. Question” why can’t choosing to die be an example of overcoming evil?
    “If Molinism and compatibilism are false, then allowing people to sin is a necessary consequence of giving people the opportunity to freely not sin.”
    I agree with this statement, but the point I was raising is the seemingly paradoxical situation that if your analysis of the bombing and deaths at Hiroshima is correct then God will allow evil (sin) if there is a good reason for doing so. If there is not a good reason, then He would not allow it. From this it follows that at any time for those who die there is a good reason why they die and for those who live there is a good reason why they are continuing to live. This is consistent, I think, with libertarian free-will and open-theism. One possible reason that God allows the rape victim to commit suicide is that she is not actually killing herself in so far as her soul will continue and in that realm she may be able to overcome the evil that befell her in her physical existence. I suppose that God does want us to learn from our mistakes and that His grace and salvation are always available, even if not accepted.
    “Your questions point me to the idea that the notion of horrendous evil might be disjunctive: an evil is horrendous either (a) due to the number of people suffering it or (b) due to the depth of moral depravity involved or (c) due to the intensity of the harm (regardless of the numbers). Maybe to make progress we need to distinguish the three kinds of horrendousness, or three aspects of horrendousness (because a particular event, say the Holocaust, can exhibit all three).”
    I think this is an interesting description of the possible ways of understanding horrendous evils. I have a problem with (a) – if there are a million people suffering from a stone in their shoe, is this worse then one women being raped and tortured as described by Adams? As I think about the issues you are raising it seems that the distinction between trivial evils and horrendous evils is an example of the paradox of the heap; at what point does evil change from trivial to horrendous ((one drop of water on the forehead does not cause much, if any discomfort and pain, but a continual dropping of drops of water on the forehead will eventually cause great suffering). There also seems to be a quality/quantity paradox in this issue. Moral depravity is qualitative and is represented by the rape while quantity is the stone in the shoe. Should we focus on the quality of the evil or the quantity, or both? If my two sons have a stone in their shoes that is causing them grief and I see a person drowning is it permissible for me to remove the stones from their shoes to relieve their suffering even if doing so results in the person not being saved? It seems clear that I should save the drowning person, but then this indicates that we should focus on the quality of the evil not the quantity of the evil so (a) seems not relevant.
    “That said, I think one thing can be said with a fairly high degree of probability. A genuine opportunity for the exercise of virtue is always itself of value, even if one does not make use of the opportunity.”
    I think that this excuses too much. Then the holocaust is of value because it provided numerous opportunities for the exercise of virtue. If we should promote things of value does it then not follow that we should promote holocausts because the opportunities for virtue are greater in those contexts then simply being on a beach with others and saving someone who is drowning? If we stop evil are we doing away with something of value, therefore we should not stop evil? We should not save the woman who is being raped because we then deny her the opportunity to overcome the evil and become a stronger and better person. However, I am fairly confident that we should stop horrendous evils from occurring or continuing if we can so, but this means eliminating something of value which it seems we ought to promote.
    One final comment (for the time being). Is it not the case that we must come up with ‘just-so stories’ to be able to even understand the nature of evil and to understand possible explanations for why evil occurs – Here is an evil and here is a possible explanation. I am a coherentist so the idea of story-telling is not without some epistemic value. A plausible just-so story may help ideas/beliefs fit together a bit more snugly.

    July 4, 2010 — 11:30
  • 1. “Then the holocaust is of value because it provided numerous opportunities for the exercise of virtue. If we should promote things of value does it then not follow that we should promote holocausts because the opportunities for virtue are greater in those contexts then simply being on a beach with others and saving someone who is drowning?”
    A couple of thoughts. First, and this one I got from my wife in a similar context, one of the opportunities for virtue that is presented is our exercise of virtue in preventing the evil.
    Second, I think what sufferings it is permissible to allow to happen to someone depends on how one is related to that someone. Take the case of birth. The pains of birth are horrendous, or so one is told (I don’t know how they compare to inventive tortures–the psychological component is obviously different). Nonetheless, many women, despite having the opportunity for effective pain control, opt to allow the pain, and do so for the sake of a fairly abstract value like “naturalness” (which may be a way of talking about a certain virtue of being in full perceptual contact with the central processes of human life). I think only a minority think what these women do to be completely rationally incomprehensible, and few would say that what the women do is immoral (a violation of duties to self, say). On the other hand, for a human third-party to allow someone to suffer such horrendous sufferings, when the means for relieving them was ready at hand and carried no significant cost, would seem to be wrong, unless the sufferer consented. The difference in relationship between being identical with the sufferer and being a stranger to the sufferer makes a great deal of difference as to what suffering it is permissible to allow.
    Similarly, parents can have the right to permit their children sufferings which a stranger might be obliged to prevent. For instance, when I was a kid–a wimpy and plump little boy–I knew a tough little girl who had some kind of very painful medical intervention–maybe the setting of a bone–and refused anesthesia, because she wanted to be aware of what was happening. Presumably, her parents agreed to this refusal, and they had the right to allow her this suffering. Here, it was her parents’ allowing the suffering that was crucial–not hers–because she was too small for her consent to count for much. I don’t know that the parents did the right thing here, but I also don’t know that they didn’t. On the other hand, if the girl had been brought for emergency surgery, and the surgeon was unable to contact her parents, I am inclined to think he wouldn’t be permitted to respect her wishes. Again, what suffering it is permissible to allow to happen to someone depends on one’s relationship to that person.
    Now, here my intuition is that (a) our relationship with God is more intimate than our relationship with ourselves (for one, God knows us much better than we know ourselves, and our life is supposed to be centered more on him than on ourselves), and (b) God has even more authority to choose between our goods than our parents or even we ourselves have.
    So it makes perfect sense to me that it would be wrong for us to permit some horrendous evil to someone else because it would present the victim with an opportunity for a great good, but it would not be wrong or irrational for the victim to allow herself to suffering this evil, and it would not be wrong for God to allow the victim to suffer it.
    Relevant to this is incommensurability. The moral goods that the horrendous evil presents an opportunity for do not dominate the sufferings. What decisions between incommensurable goods are permissible depends on the relationship.
    2. “I not sure that this is true. I know people who would rather be dead then live as a quadriplegic and they seem to have good reasons that support their position. Question ‘why can’t choosing to die be an example of overcoming evil?'”
    If I die, I lose all my four limbs, and the rest of my body. If I lose my four limbs, I just lose the four limbs. So the loss in death is greater. Granted, I may benefit from a decrease in suffering if I die rather than lose four limbs and continue to live. But the suffering after having lost four limbs is an extrinsic feature of the loss, and I was concerned with the intrinsic feature.
    Choosing to die isn’t an example of overcoming evil because it is a choosing of an evil. In choosing an evil one surrenders to an evil.

    July 4, 2010 — 16:24
  • John Alexander

    HI Alex
    “Again, what suffering it is permissible to allow to happen to someone depends on one’s relationship to that person.”
    I agree with this with the stipulation that we know that person A is in a relationship with Person B such that B (parents, spouses, etc) can have an input into what happens to A. The difficulty is that the problem of horrendous evils ( and being in labor is not an example of a horrendous evil) presents reason to believe that there is no God, or at least one as defined by traditional theists, that A is in relationship too. We would not allow parents to allow their child to be raped simply because they think the child can learn to overcome that evil.
    I agree with you statement: “A couple of thoughts. First, and this one I got from my wife in a similar context, one of the opportunities for virtue that is presented is our exercise of virtue in preventing the evil.” The only way to remove that paradox that I presented is to recognize that overcoming evil is a good thing when evil occurs, but does not justify the evil occurring. This seems to be the crux of the problem of evil: we can explain and justify the preference of overcoming evil and becoming a stronger and better person as opposed to succumbing to evil, but we cannot use that explanation to justify the evil occurring. To allow that God can allow a person to suffer is to grant a criteria for determining permissible moral agency that applies only to God and I cannot fathom what the criteria might be. And , it seems to me that the fact that we cannot fathom what this criteria might be counts as evidence that this criteria does not exists especially if we have a reasonable theory of moral agency sans God. Obviously, I am not a fan of skeptical theism.
    Here is a simple question: would you stop your wife from committing suicide? My guess is that you would in so far as your state that “Choosing to die isn’t an example of overcoming evil because it is a choosing of an evil. In choosing an evil one surrenders to an evil.” If you are not around, but another moral agent is, would you want (morally expect) them to stop your wife from committing suicide? My guess is that you would. If God is a moral agent and we have a reasonable theory of moral agency then how can it be permissible for God, as a moral agent, to allow you wife to commit suicide when you, as a moral agent, would stop her? Allowing God, as a moral agent, to do or allow, what we, as moral agents, would stop is a paradox! We have a position (x and -x is permissible) that allows one moral agent to do, or allow x when other moral agents should stop x without any plausible explanation of why this is permissible. The idea that God, if He is completely good, etc., has a reason that is beyond our ken is, to be, not an explanation at all. It simply states a condition that must be met if God exists, but cannot serve as evidence, or a reason, for believing that God does exist.

    July 5, 2010 — 12:08
  • John:
    I am really uncomfortable with all this discussion of rape, and worry about the hurt that the discussion can cause a victim of rape. I think this is not sufficient reason to refrain from the discussion, much as I’d like to.
    “We would not allow parents to allow their child to be raped simply because they think the child can learn to overcome that evil.”
    But notice that there are some very interesting things happening here–it’s not just a question of value. For instance, if the only way to save a child’s life resulted in exposing the child to certain rape, it could still be permissible for the parents to save the child’s life. This might even be true if it wasn’t a matter of saving the child’s life, but of restoring the child’s eyesight. In the eyesight case, it would no doubt be a very difficult decision, and I do not think we should say that one or the other decision is wrong.
    But now observe the Socratic point that moral goods are far more important than the value of eyesight. I think this point is hard to dispute. And yet we do not think that parents should allow children to be raped when the goods involved are moral goods. This is already paradoxical, independently of the divine case. So what is going on here?
    Well, one thing that’s going on is epistemic. It’s easier to imagine cases where the parents know that it is certain that their child will not recover eyesight without visiting Clinic A and yet it is certain that their child will suffer being raped after visiting Clinic A than it is to imagine similar cases involving moral development where we have as good knowledge. It seems to be a part of the complexity of human life that we do not know what further opportunities for moral development will present themselves if a present opportunity is removed.
    A more crucial issue is that of authority and relationship. Suppose George has personally decided on nonviolence as a way of life. Let’s suppose this commitment does not generate moral obligations to be nonviolent–it does not involve a vow or a promise, and George does not have a conscientious belief that nonviolence is a moral obligation–but it is simply a way of life that he has reasonably adopted. If George is threatened with rape and the only way to prevent it is by violence, he may reasonably and permissibly allow his being raped so as not to depart from his nonviolent way of life. On the other hand, if George’s children are threatened with rape, George ought to use violence to prevent the rape, even if this destroys his nonviolent way of life, and maybe even if it makes a nonviolent way of life impossible for his children (maybe they too are decided on nonviolence, but he expects his violent example to shift them out of that).
    So it is can make moral and prudential sense to allow oneself to be raped in order to preserve moral goods–even moral goods that do not involve obligation. But when one’s children are involved, something different is happening. My thesis is that the kinds of rights God has with respect to us are more like the rights we have with respect to ourselves than like the rights we have even with respect to our children. If it can be compatible with self-love that I allow myself to be raped when moral goods are at stake, it can be compatible with divine love that he allow me to be raped when moral goods are at stake.
    I still don’t have a very good answer to the paradox that eyesight is less valuable than moral goods. Maybe a partial answer is that while parents have significant duties with respect to moral development, ultimately the true work of moral development is God’s, and this holds in such a way as to make it impermissible for the parents to allow great sufferings for their children for the sake of moral development, while it is not impermissible for God to do this, or for one to do it in one’s own case.
    “Allowing God, as a moral agent, to do or allow, what we, as moral agents, would stop is a paradox!”
    There is a lot of variation in what is to be allowed based on relationships. Thus, if you see your brother shoplifting, you should stop him before he carries the item out of the store. On the other hand, a police officer might have reason to let your brother carry the item out of the store, so that she would be able to arrest him. The police officer’s role makes it reasonable for her to focus especially on the value of justice. Your fraternal role makes it reasonable for you to try to prevent your brother from carrying his immoral deed to completion. (Of course, there could be cases where it would be appropriate to let one’s brother get arrested. If the scenario has been played out many times, that might be the case. I am assuming this isn’t the case, though.)
    Take a different case. Suppose your wife is the holiest person you know, and you are convinced that she will go to heaven immediately after death. Nonetheless if she is accidentally walking into traffic, you ought to pull her back. This is paradoxical, even if we don’t bring God into it (imagine a non-theistic but still quite delightful heaven, to the extent that that is imaginable). My story here is that this is a choice between incommensurable values: the value of bodily integrity and the value of immediate heavenly life. How we are obliged to choose between incommensurable values depends a lot on the relationship. Humans have a special obligation to safeguard the bodily integrity of fellow humans. God, however, does not lie under such an obligation, and so he is permitted to allow her to walk into traffic and go straight to heaven, and he is permitted to pull her back by miracle or by your quick reflexes.
    “being in labor is not an example of a horrendous evil”
    I wouldn’t say that. The pain is incredibly intense. If the pain is not a horrendous evil, that’s for reasons extrinsic to the pain–namely, the great goods connected with childbirth. But if great goods connected with an evil can make the evil non-horrendous, then the theist has a different move in the case of alleged cases of horrendous evil: “These are not in fact horrendous evils, because they are connected with great goods, in the way that the pains of labor are with childbirth.”

    July 5, 2010 — 13:52
  • John Alexander

    Alex
    Thanks for a great discussion. I need to back out now – my wife has some medical tests coming up tomorrow and I need to help her prepare and need to be there. I do hope we will discuss this and related issues again. I do gain a lot from our exchanges.
    John A.

    July 5, 2010 — 21:22
  • I found the discussion very helpful. Thank you! All my best to you and your wife!

    July 6, 2010 — 8:31
  • Luke Gelinas

    It looks like what you think about an ‘agent-centred requirement’ on the justification of evils can make a difference here. If you go in for an agent-centred theme, like M. Adams and Stump, horrendous evils might generally provide stronger evidence against theism–at least insofar as we have the intuition that it is more difficult meaningfully to incorporate horrendouse evils into individual lives than it is to incorporate stubbed toes.

    July 6, 2010 — 22:31
  • Luke:
    One meets more people who say “I am who I am now because I suffered X” when X is a horrendous evil than when X is a trivial evil.
    While it is harder for us to incorporate horrendous evils into our lives, when we do in fact succeed in so doing, the result is much more significant to the life. And the “harder” is the “harder” of effort–it needs more grace, etc. But it is not harder for God to give more grace.

    July 7, 2010 — 11:24
  • Luke Gelinas

    Is the ‘harder’ necessarily taken care of either by more effort or more grace? It seems epistemically possible to me for the incorporation of horrendous evils to require a measure of good luck that no amount of effort on our part, or willingness to bestow grace on God’s part, can guarantee. Maybe the same is also true of trivial evils, though.

    July 7, 2010 — 14:07
  • I find that the greater good defense and the His ways are higher base themselves on the argument from ignorance! They purport that our minds just cannot fathom his justifiable reasons, but no amount of good has resulted from the Shoa: Israel could have come into being otherwise and the resulting Arab-Israel conflict brings on more suffering!And the ways argument distorts morality!
    Pruss, more grace blasphemes humanity,sir! No one can justify pointless evil, especially since the problem of Heaven [ Oppy, Martin. Skeptic Griggsy, others] eviscerates all defenses and theodicies! Plantinga, as usual, depends on sophistry to defend his claim to have eviscerated the logical problem of evil!
    Oppy, my Amazon friend, in “Arguing about Gods,” eviscerates with much cogent reasoning. Then as we are fallibilists, that is our thinking,inviting further though.
    Were he here!

    July 17, 2010 — 12:54