Two Excellent New Papers from Maitzen on the Problem of Evil

Just in time for Christmas:

Happy reading!


Patrick said...

Quote from Stephen Maitzen’s paper “Perfection, Evil, and Morality”: “... I’ll assume that God, if God exists, must be perfect in at least knowledge, power, and goodness. The following question, therefore, looms large: why does a God answering to that description ever allow evil that he could prevent? The problem of evil, as I see it, arises as a philosophical challenge to theism because of the allegation that humans and other animals experience suffering that a perfect God, if one exists, morally ought to have prevented and therefore would have prevented.”

One reason that one can put forward in order to explain why God doesn’t prevent evil is that He accepts man’s free will. Now it can be objected that it is possible that man has free will, but that God would keep man from putting his evil intentions into practice. However, in order to prevent evil acts, God would not only have to prevent sins of action but also sins of omission (see Matthew 25,41-45, Luke 12,47, James 4,17). In other words, God would have to make people do good works. But by doing this God would definitely violate their free will. Moreover, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in the following quote, if God prevented all evil man would be incapable of even having evil thoughts, which clearly would violate man’s free will as well:

“We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them.”


Patrick said...

Quote from Stephen Maitzen’s paper “Perfection, Evil, and Morality”: “In order to have a specific example before us, consider a case to which I’ve referred elsewhere (Maitzen 2013a, 2013b): the case of Dominick Calhoun, a four-year-old boy from Michigan who died after days of being beaten and burned by his mother’s boyfriend. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is the worst case of child abuse I’ve ever seen,” said the local police chief about Dominick’s case; “in all respects, he was tortured.” Dominick’s body was found covered with bruises and with all of his teeth knocked out. His grandmother reported that “burns covered his body” and that his brain was “bashed out of his skull.” A neighbor told police he heard Dominick screaming, over and over again, “Mommy, make him stop.” The allegation is that God, being perfect, would have prevented Dominick’s torture. Yet the torture occurred. So God doesn’t exist.”

Now it can be objected that God should not prevent all evil acts but only the worst ones, such as the case of Dominick Calhoun mentioned here. Now the problem is where exactly one should draw the borderline between evils that God should prevent and those that He needn’t. Wouldn’t any identification of such a borderline be arbitrary? Moreover, one can argue that God, being impartial, cannot interfere on a person’s behalf and not on other persons’ behalf.

A Biblical passage explaining why God doesn’t intervene in order to prevent moral evil may be Matthew 13,27-29. This passage obviously suggests that if wicked people were removed supernaturally this would affect other people as well. This may be explained by the fact that all people are to a larger or lesser degree wicked and that, being impartial, God cannot punish only some wicked people and not others. Another conclusion one could draw from this passage is that the greater God’s beneficial power due to His love, the greater God’s destructive power due to His justice. Striving to prevent as much suffering as possible God can only interfere to such a degree that the beneficial effect of the interference is not neutralized by the destructive effect of it. A Biblical illustration of this point may be found in the description of the church in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts. Here God’s beneficial power was so great that it could heal a crippled beggar (Acts 3,1-10) yet at the same time His destructive power caused the death of two persons who committed what might be regarded a minor sin; they had been cheating (Acts 5,1-11).

One can also argue that Dominick Calhoun is better off in the afterlife with having experienced what is described here than without it. Maybe if he had grown up and become an adult, he would have led a sinful life for which God would have to punish him in the afterlife. So God may not be inclined to interfere in cases like Dominick Calhoun’s.

Patrick said...

Quote from Stephen Maitzen’s paper “Perfection, Evil, and Morality”: “Again, the question is how we human beings can ever have a moral obligation to prevent suffering, at least if we easily can and at little or no personal risk, when God – for whom it’s always easier and less personally risky – has no such moral obligation himself?”

Another reason why God doesn’t intervene in order to prevent evil – moral and natural – may be the following one: If a sinner received supernatural help from God, he certainly would interpret such help as an approval of his way of life and thus be encouraged to go on sinning. But a perfectly just God certainly would never do anything that would encourage people to sin. Accordingly, one may only expect God’s supernatural intervention on one’s behalf if one lives a godly life (see Isaiah 59,1).

From the fact that God doesn’t intervene in order to prevent suffering one cannot draw the conclusion that one can or should behave likewise. As unlike divine intervention a sinner wouldn’t interpret human intervention on his behalf as an approval of his way of life, there is no reason for a Christian not to help. According to Matthew 5,16, 1 Peter 2,11-12, and 3,1-2 the good works done by Christians may even make a sinner receptive of God’s work of redemption, which in turn frees this person from suffering in the afterlife.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi, EA

Interesting papers, thanks for posting the links.

Except for a couple of minor issues (e.g., I think firefighters, like police officers, etc., sometimes have moral obligations to take some risks even when other people with the same capabilities and in the same place do not, as a result of having agreed to do the job previously), I agree with Stephen's points - a powerful case.

Angra Mainyu said...


Some of your replies have the problem of bringing up the Bible. The Bible commits the theist to a specific form of theism, and makes the case against theism easier, given the behavior attributed to Yahweh, and generally the moral claims or implications contained in it.

Even leaving that aside, I would like to address your points:

1. With regard to whether God should stop all immoral behavior:

1.a. God would probably not create flawed moral agents in the first place. All moral agents would have perfect moral knowledge, and would not be inclined to do anything evil.

1.b. If 1.a. does not work for whatever reason, one may ask: should God prevent all immoral behavior in Heaven? If not, where does he draw the line? More to the point, if the "where to draw the line?" argument worked on Earth, why would it not work in Heaven?

1.c. If the rationale you provide worked and showed that God has no moral obligation to intervene, the same argument would succeed in the case of humans, since the rationale can be used too.

For example, if Bob sees that his neighbor Jack is engaging in child torture like that mentioned in the paper, and Bob is an athlete and martial arts expert who knows he can easily defeat Jack (who is unarmed), Bob should use force and stop the torture.
On the other hand, if Bob sees that Jack is engaging not in child torture, but instead is cheating on his spouse, then it is not the case that Bob should forcibly stop Jack. In fact, Bob shouldn't do so (all other things equal, etc.; e. g., no threats of nukes exploding if he does not intervene, etc.).

But now suppose someone raises your challenge, and says: Now it can be objected that Bob should not prevent all evil acts but only the worst ones, such as the case of child torture. Now the problem is where exactly one should draw the borderline between evils that Bob should prevent and those that he needn’t. Wouldn’t any identification of such a borderline be arbitrary?

The objection fails, because it's apparent that Bob ought to stop some evil acts, he ought not to stop others (and there are others that he can permissibly try to stop or not).

I don't know whether there is a line, or a fuzzy transition, but the answer is that if there is a line, that's morally required, so it isn't morally arbitrary - and if you mean something by "arbitrary" other than "morally arbitrary", then regardless, the point is that Bob morally ought to prevent some evil acts, and we at least can tell in many cases when he ought to interfere.

Note that the fact that Bob is not God is not a factor in the "where to draw the line?" rationale, so it fails in the case of God as it fails in the case of Bob.

2. As for the claim that God, being impartial, cannot interfere on a person’s behalf and not on other persons’ behalf, I would say that:

2.a. Bob is not being partial, because the basis for his interference or non-interference is not who the person in question is, but rather, what the evil done on that person is. It would be partial to save one child from being tortured but not another, given the same situation, capabilities, etc., but there is nothing partial about forcibly preventing child torture but not spousal cheating.
But if the theist insists that that would be partiality for some reason, then in fact, Bob ought to interfere by force in one case, but not in the other, so assuming that's being partial, then he ought to be partial - it would be a case in which being impartial would be immoral (if we assumed that Bob is being partial, which is not the case).
Similar considerations apply to God.

2.b. Given that you bring up the Bible, one can easily point out that in the Bible, Yahweh (who Christians believe is God) interferes plenty of times, but clearly not always (I would say Yahweh often intervenes by doing the wrong thing, but that answer is not available to a Christian), so your suggestion that God cannot do that would contradict many biblical passages.

Important Recent Work on Theodicy

Hill, Scott. " Why God Allows Undeserved Horrendous Evil ", Religious Studies (Online First 28 Sept. 2021). In the paper, Hill ap...