The Point of Pointless Evil
January 25, 2015 — 10:41

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 6

William Hasker has interesting things to say about the consequences of the standard view that God cannot permit a single instance of gratuitous evil. I won’t fuss the metaphysical issue of the nature of gratuitous evil, but it’s really worth thinking hard about it. I’m interested in Hasker’s claim about what he calls the ‘limited harm principle’, (LH). Here’s the essential argument (EA) for permitting gratuitous evils.

. . . if (LH) is true, and an agent knows it is true, then the agent’s inclination to take moral requirements seriously is likely to be very significantly lessened. But this result is contrary to God’s intention that human beings should place a high priority on fulfilling moral obligations, and should assume major responsibility for the welfare of their fellow human beings. Put more briefly: If we know that God will permit a morally wrong action only if it results in a compensating good, then our motivation to take morality seriously as a guide to life is likely to be seriously impaired.(‘Defining Gratuitous Evil’, Religious Studies, 2010)

The limited harm principle states the following.

(LH) Whatever evil may result from a seriously harmful moral offence, the greater part of this evil (and perhaps all of it) is compensated by good results which could not have been obtained had the agent chosen a morally acceptable course of action instead. (ibid, my emphasis)

How does the argument against (LH) go? The argument in (EA) urges that if (LH) is true, then an important good is lost (viz., the good (G) that human beings place a high priority on securing the welfare of others). According to (EA), if there are no gratuitous evils E, then there is no good (G). But then (an obvious objection might go) E is necessary for a greater good (G), and so not gratuitous after all.

I think this objection is surely one to be anticipated given the interesting tension in his view. But it is too simple. There is definitely something to Hasker’s argument. I think I might boldly put it a different way.

Instead of focusing on the moral value of our concern for the well-being of others (which is no doubt very valuable), we should focus on the source of value for moral action generally. What makes a morally perfect world so valuable is not merely what agents freely do in that world, it is also what they freely do not do. It is because those agents freely refrain from the worst sorts of injustice (the duties of justice, note, are almost all negative, and they are the most stringent/important duties) that the world is valuable. It is because it is possible for these agents to actualize a morally terrible world, and because they have the reasons we all have to do so (self-interest, profit, greed, vanity….) and yet they don’t do it, that such a world is so good. In short, if there aren’t very bad worlds, then the moral value of constraining our behavior to conform with the requirements of justice loses much of it’s value: it would not be so bad if we did not so constrain ourselves. So, if there aren’t very bad worlds, then there aren’t very good worlds either. But we know that there are very good worlds, worlds that many aspire to realizing, so there must be very bad worlds: and such bad worlds would not be possible unless there were gratuitous evil!

  • Samuel T. X. Khoo

    What justifies the statement that “if there aren’t very bad worlds, then there aren’t very good worlds either”?

    January 25, 2015 — 18:06
    • Michael Almeida


      I argue that part of what makes good words good is the fact that moral agents in those worlds are not performing the terrible acts that they could perform. If they could perform them, then there is some world in which they do perform them.

      January 26, 2015 — 7:29
  • Milos

    Last paragraph give brief justification one sentence above your quotation.

    Actually, agents freely refrain from doing most terrible actions, so possibly there are worlds where agents do that actions and make ”terrible worlds”. I believe that this is basic idea of the argument?

    January 26, 2015 — 2:51
    • Remark

      Dr Almeida,

      I assume Hasker was not enlightened about the Principle of Indifference when he wrote this, or else he would (could) not have talked about God’s intentions regarding our moral actions – for God would (could) have had no such intensions. He (God) is indifferent to value, and hence to the moral value of our actions.

      For all appearances, your final paragraph does take the Principle into account, for no mention is made of God’s intentions towards, or regard for, value. Nevertheless, references are made to value, or to the source of value for moral action generally. I guess we may be concerned with moral values if our world is not actualised by God (or if God does not exist in our world). But why should we be concerned about them if God did actualise our world? For, if He did, value (according to the PoI) is not something He is concerned with; and if not, why should we be?

      January 26, 2015 — 7:08
    • Michael Almeida

      Right, it is the freely refraining from morally terrible actions that contributes to the value of a world. The refraining includes individuals not committing horrible actions, but also groups and entire populations refraining from large scale immorality (the sort of immorality that an individual cannot himself cause). All of this contributes to the value of a world. And, as i said, such acts of justice contribute more value than acts of beneficence do.

      January 26, 2015 — 8:38
  • Michael Almeida


    The post aims to show that Hasker is right (or, almost right) about the value of gratuitous evil. But (and this is the difference between what I say and what Hasker says) it’s value is not in the world in which the evil occurs, since in that world it is regrettable and worthy of prevention. But the occurrence of such evil in some world or other is necessary to the value of other possible worlds. The upshot is that the best worlds are possible–and for us achievable–only if the worst worlds are possible too. So, it explains why the world we are inhabiting is not so great. It’s not so great because (i) it is a genuine possibility that it be extremely good (ii) the fact in (i) entails that it is a genuine possibility that it is extremely bad and (iii) we have acted in ways to realize the second genuine possibility.

    January 26, 2015 — 8:44
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