Inscrutable evils
October 21, 2011 — 7:42

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Problem of Evil  Tags: , ,   Comments: 5

Rowe-style arguments from evil contend that there are evils that are inscrutable in the sense that we do not know a justification for them.
Let’s say a justification for E is a reason R such that, in light of R, God would be justified in allowing E.
An evil is inscrutable provided we don’t know a justification for E. But what does it mean not to know a justification? On the strongest reading, there is the ability to understand R in the full detail that God understands it in and know that the reason thereby understood justifies E. On the weakest reading, there is the ability to give some definite description D of R and know that the reason falling under D justifies E.
That there are evils on the inscrutability corresponding to the strongest sense of “know the justification” is not at all surprising given theism.
But on the weakest sense of “know the justification”, as long as we know that God exists, we are in position to know that there is a justification for E, since that God exists entails that E is justified. And then we know R under the description “the reason or collection of reasons that justifies God in permitting E”. And if we want slightly greater specificity, we might advert to some moral theory that gives us a characterization of the sorts of reasons that can justify a permission of an evil.
So for the Rowe argument to impress an intelligent theist who claims to know that God exists would require some in-between sense of “know the justification” that satisfies two conditions: (a) it is probable on theism that we would know the justification for every evil (or every evil that we have sufficiently investigated) and (b) the theist cannot plausibly claim to know the justification for every evil. These two conditions pull in opposite directions.

  • I think knowing a perfectly good God exists would entail that E is justified, but I think that is considerably harder to know than, say, a more abstract version of God that solves certain philosophical and scientific problems. In saying the theist might enter into the problem knowing that God exists, would it be based on arguments establishing high probability for the abstract version or can you know that a perfectly good God exists?

    October 21, 2011 — 11:10
  • Phil

    Why think of ‘knowing a justification’ as involving ‘knowing a reason’? The sense of justification at issue is the moral justification of an omission, in this case God’s omission that results in E. But can’t we know that a certain omission is morally justified or unjustified simply by having a reliable intuition that it is justified or unjustified. Many are assailed by the intuition that letting a child drown when she can be easily saved and when there is only a small cost to you is not morally justified. And on certain metaethical views, these intuitions produce moral knowledge of a basic sort. Although this is a case of knowing that an omission is *unjustified*, it seems just as plausible to me that a knowledge producing intuition of this type could result in knowledge that an action is justified. In either case, the person knows a justification without having any beliefs about the moral reasons that ground the moral judgment about the omission and, a fortiori, without having any knowledge of these moral reasons.
    If knowing justifications need not involve knowledge of reasons, then Rowe might have a way of avoiding the dilemma you pose. If knowing a justification that omission O is permissible is just having a reliable intuition that O is permissible, then inscrutability would amount to failing to have a reliable intuition that O is permissible despite having sufficiently investigated the issue. Or something like that. Since this account of inscrutability does not depend on a reasons-based account of ‘knowing the justification’, it does not fail for the reasons you present.

    October 21, 2011 — 16:46
  • Phil:
    The lack of a reliable intuition that O is permissible is surely very weak evidence against the permissibility of O. There are many tough cases where one just doesn’t have any intuitions either way.
    Rowe would do better to focus on a positive intuition of impermissibility. That would transform his argument into a stronger one (and then I’d run an anomaly line).

    October 21, 2011 — 17:35
  • Trent Dougherty

    Plantinga (1998) says we do know the good which justifies evil: the sum of the goods of this world. I bet he could hear Rowe spit his coffee out when he read that. We ought to look closer at it though. There are several versions of this gambit, but they haven’t been discussed much.

    October 22, 2011 — 15:00
  • Leibniz would say that what justifies an evil is that it is an evil in the best world.
    I think Plantinga’s answer isn’t quite right. A justification needs to have relevance, just as an explanation does (maybe a justification is an explanation of permissibility). Thus, it is false that if good G1 justifies E, and G2 is a good, then G1+G2 justifies E.

    October 22, 2011 — 16:25