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!