Ethical Realism

May 5, 2013

The Problem of Evil & Objective Morality

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 12:54 pm
Tags: , , ,

The problem of evil refers to the fact that certain traditional views of theism involve contradictory beliefs. The problem is that God should be willing and able to make sure evil doesn’t exist, but evil exists. Some theists argue that atheists can’t reject the existence of God based on the problem of evil because atheists would then have to assume objective morality exists, but objective morality requires God. I will argue that the theist’s argument is irrelevant in consideration of one argument against one type of traditional theism, but it is somewhat relevant against another. Even so, both arguments are unsound.

The first argument

Many traditional theists believe the following:

  1. God is willing and able to eliminate evil (because God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all good).
  2. If God is willing and able to eliminate evil, then evil does not exist (because God would have immediately eliminated it). (“Evil” here merely refers to the fact that the world could be a better place.)
  3. Evil exists. (Insofar as the world could be a better place.)

The problem is that these beliefs are inconsistent. The first two beliefs imply that no evil exists.

I think the problem of evil can be used as a good argument against the relevant view of theism and can be formulated in the following way:

  1. The three beliefs listed above are inconsistent.
  2. If multiple beliefs are inconsistent, then we know one of them is false.
  3. Therefore, we know one of the three beliefs listed above are false.

The problem of evil is not an argument against the existence of any type of God. Perhaps God is not all good, or God is not all powerful, etc. Those are potential solutions to the problem of evil.

A theist’s response

Some theists are arguing that the problem of evil can’t be used against any type of theism because it would require the atheist to believe in objective morality, but objective morality requires God.

But what’s objective morality have to do with anything? Notice that the argument against the relevant view of theism did not mention objective morality. The argument is merely that people with a certain view of theism have inconsistent beliefs. There is no way to attack the argument by referring to objective morality.

Also notice that the argument is not against the existence of every type of God. There are theists who could very well give the argument in order to refute the relevant type of theism.

Even so, notice that the relevant traditional theistic beliefs refer to the existence of evil and God’s absolute goodness. How could anyone who rejects moral objectivity know anything about evil or absolute goodness?

My answer: Even a person who rejects objective morality could critique the theist’s beliefs by showing how they are inconsistent. A theist believes they know something about absolute goodness and evil. What they believe about those things seems inconsistent. For example, the theist will claim that it’s evil for a parent or guardian to leave their child in a closet all week to starve to death. It’s also evil for no one to help the child who is easily able to do so. Why doesn’t God ever help children like this? Why would it be morally wrong for us to not help, but morally permissible for God? I would think the same actions would be right and wrong for God. After all, what makes the action morally wrong seems to be that it causes needless suffering and death.

It is true that the atheist must be familiar with theistic beliefs concerning objective morality, but it is the theist’s own beliefs that can be found to be inconsistent.

The second argument

Some skeptics could have a different argument against traditional theism using the problem of evil. Consider the following:

  1. Certain traditional theists believe that “God is willing and able to eliminate evil,” “if God I willing and able to eliminated evil, then evil doesn’t exist,” and that “God couldn’t make the world a better place because it’s the best of all possible worlds.”
  2. However, these theists are wrong that “God couldn’t make the world a better place.”
  3. Therefore, the relevant traditional theists have a false belief.

I think this argument is plausible, and it does require the assumption of objective morality. Again, an atheist can argue that objective morality seems to be perfectly compatible with atheism.

A theist’s objection

Does the above argument have anything to do with objective morality? Yes. A theist could object to the second argument in the following way:

  1. The second premise (that states “these theists are wrong that God couldn’t make the world a better place because this isn’t the best of all possible worlds”) requires the assumption that objective morality exists. (Otherwise the world can’t really be a better place.)
  2. Objective morality requires God.
  3. Therefore, the second argument is inconsistent.

Reply 1 – It should be noted that I reject the belief that “Objective morality requires God.” I know of no good argument in support of that premise. It should be pointed out that many atheists do believe in objective morality, and they believe that objective morality is compatible with atheism. I take “objective morality” to refer to “moral realism.” There are clearly many moral realist atheists, and the most reputable meta-ethical theories developed by philosophers have nothing to do with God. Such philosophers are not necessarily atheists. The point is that whether God exists or not, we think we know something about morality.

For more information about why I don’t think objective morality requires God, go here. If a theist is sure that God is necessary for objective morality by using premises I will likely agree with, then I would like to hear their argument.

Reply 2 – This argument is logically invalid. The second argument did not state that no type of God exists. The relevant traditional theistic viewpoint (that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all good) is being shown to be inconsistent with what we know about there being evil in the world, but that doesn’t imply that no type of God exists.

Moreover, even if it was inconsistent for an atheist to believe in objective morality, the same exact argument could be given by a theist. Not all theists believe God is all good or all powerful. Perhaps God exists, but doesn’t have thoughts or have much of anything in common with human beings. It is simply irrelevant who makes the argument. The argument will stand or fall on its own.

Let’s assume that atheism is incompatible with objective morality, and that an atheist gives the second argument against a traditional type of theism. Perhaps that atheist does know that objective morality exists, even though the atheist doesn’t know God exists. In that case the argument could still be based on the atheist’s knowledge of morality. The argument itself contains no inconsistent premises. Of course, the atheist could believe something false—perhaps that God doesn’t exist and that God isn’t required for objective morality. That is a separate issue.

Finally, the theist could argue that morality can only exist if their specific type of God exists (an omnipotent, omniscient, and all good God). However, I know of no good arguments that prove such a thing. Anyone that thinks they know of a good argument using premises I will actually agree with should let me know about it.

Conclusion

Anyone’s atheism should be irrelevant to the debate over the problem of evil as it has been described here. One type of argument against a traditional type of theism doesn’t require any assumptions about objective morality at all, but another does. The traditional theist who argues that the skeptic must assume objective morality exists will not be able to soundly refute either of those arguments using that as a premise. It is totally irrelevant to the first argument against a traditional type of theism, and it is somewhat relevant to the other. However, both of those theistic objections are unsound.

There are atheists who believe in objective morality and will argue against a traditional type of theism by arguing that evil exists. However, those arguments do not require that we reject theism entirely. Even if God was required for morality, the relevant atheists need not claim that the problem of evil proves no Gods exist at all. They merely need to argue that the problem of evil could prove certain types of traditional theism to require a false belief.

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6 Comments »

  1. “Notice that the argument against the relevant view of theism did not mention objective morality. The argument is merely that people with a certain view of theism have inconsistent beliefs. There is no way to attack the argument by referring to objective morality.”

    When using the POE as an objection to God, I generally use a version of the argument that points out it’s being inconsistent with God’s benevolence rather than his moral goodness. Even if there were no such thing as moral truth, there is still kindness or the lack thereof. The actions and nonactions of the Christian God are not consistent with his being of a caring nature. By framing the argument in this way, one can avoid having the discussion derailed by a diversion into metaethics.

    Comment by dbellis (@dbellis) — May 5, 2013 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

    • Epicurus came up with the problem of evil or at least popularized it, and he believed in the gods. He thought they didn’t care about us. That was his solution.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 5, 2013 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  2. Sure, that solves the problem….but it doesn’t address the God most theists believe in.

    Comment by dbellis (@dbellis) — May 5, 2013 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

    • And it doesn’t address the fact that the Gods seem to be unwilling to be ethical. If human life isn’t important, so the gods need not be concerned with us, then we need to reject morality as we understand it. It’s highly revisionary.

      Edit: Also, if we don’t really know anything about morality, then the belief that “God is all good” becomes meaningless. What would it mean to be good?

      Comment by JW Gray — May 5, 2013 @ 9:38 pm | Reply

  3. I appreciate @debellis’ point about not getting bogged down in meta-ethics, but as a moral realist atheist I would not at all mind getting “bogged down” in issues of meta-ethics. In fact I’m inclined to agree with the theist that the only kind of evil that makes sense is an evil described in terms of objective morality.

    Also, I think argument #1 has more bite if you’re not deferring to the theists’ definition of evil, because the theist can double down on a conception of evil that resolves the conflict between (2) “then evil does not exist” and (3) “Evil exists.” It may seem absurd, but a theist could just flat out insist that the world could not, in fact, be made a better place, or that whatever seems to be “evil” is not actually evil. In this case, if the atheist argument depends on the theist’s internal inconsistency, a belligerent theist can just insist there isn’t one, and you’re stuck.

    Perhaps the argument can be about whether that’s a fair thing for a theist to insist upon, but instead of getting bogged down by that I’d prefer to embrace objective morality, and appeal to my own conception of evil whenever necessary.

    Comment by josef johann (@josefjohann) — May 23, 2013 @ 7:50 am | Reply

    • josef johann,

      You said:

      It may seem absurd, but a theist could just flat out insist that the world could not, in fact, be made a better place, or that whatever seems to be “evil” is not actually evil. In this case, if the atheist argument depends on the theist’s internal inconsistency, a belligerent theist can just insist there isn’t one, and you’re stuck.

      The theist would avoid inconsistency by basically denying the second premise/belief that was listed. That is actually a popular response to the problem of evil. I talked about that issue in detail years ago here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/my-defense-of-the-argument-from-evil-an-argument-against-god/

      Comment by JW Gray — May 23, 2013 @ 7:55 am | Reply


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