Mailbag: A Moral Argument from Evil?

Question: Hi, MA team:

I've been working through an argument for God's existence which takes as its starting point a conception of evil as wrongdoing or injustice. In other words, when we think about great evils, whether moral or natural, we tend to think of certain states of affairs that *ought not* obtain, or which depart from the way things should be, or which are simply not owed to us. All of these different conceptions, it seems to me, essentially boil down to two elements: 1) we treat the existence of evil as being 'out of step' with the character of the world, that is, as having a certain normative pull; and 2) such normative character points to an understanding of evil as in relation to some end or perfection, some maximum.

The argument I have in mind, then, proceeds thus:

1. To the extent that we understand evil as a wrongdoing or injustice -- that is, as a departure from the way things should be, or as something not owed -- we understand evil in relation to some end or perfection, some maximum. 2. But, given atheism, no such perfection or maximum exists. 3. Therefore, plausibly, theism is true.

I would be very interested in your thoughts, please. One possible objection that has been marshalled against my argument is the following (and I wonder how you would address it, provided that you think the argument works):

"I think most moral philosophers think premise 2 is false. Aristotle argued there is a highest human end (without God), so injustices are departures from that. Similarly, Kant argued that his "categorical imperative" is objectively true, not dependent upon God. Finally, I argue...that (1) is false: that evil is not a departure from some objective "maximum," but rather deviations from a conception of fairness that is rational for human beings to adopt given human psychology."

Thank you very much for your time, Paulo Juarez


Reply: This is all very interesting stuff! Thanks for the query, and sorry for the delay getting back to you. This approach, to my thinking, has tremendous potential. The notion that the world is, in some very strong sense, not as it ought to be seems profoundly right, but also rather difficult to reconcile with naturalism. After all, in something like a fully determined world, why should anything be different from what it is? Evil in any robust sense makes more sense in a theistic world inhabited with creatures with meaningful agency who have used their agency wrongly. In God and Cosmos, Walls and I make the case that what’s worse even than the problem of evil is the inability of naturalism to account for the category of evil at all. When the problem of evil ceases being a problem for one’s worldview, so much the worse for one’s worldview.

You’re characterizing as an essential feature of evil a relation to some end or perfection or maximum. First a word on that. Personally I might disambiguate between these three notions. The second and third of them—perfection and maximum—seem to go well together in Anselmian theology. If the God of classical theism is construed along the lines of the greatest possible being, then his perfection is constituted by instantiating all the great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree. So, regarding goodness, God has as much goodness as is possible in light of his maximal power, knowledge, etc. Tom Morris and I did an article on this in the recent issue of the Christian Research Journal. I think that makes great sense.

When we speak of an “end” of something, however, I’m not as confident that we need speak of a perfection or maximum. Regarding human artifacts, for example, like a pencil, its end is to write well, or something like that. Or a car’s purpose or function is likely to transport us around. Aristotle thought teleology was shot through everything, but if it is, in lots of cases the telos in question has little to do with perfection or a maximum.

Now, if human beings in particular have a telos, and if Christianity is true, then you could more effectively argue that the goal, the purpose, the telos of human beings does involve perfection—at the culmination of the sanctification process when we’re entirely conformed to the image of Christ. That classical theism and orthodox Christianity feature the realistic hope of total moral transformation in this way enables the “performative” variant of moral apologetics that’s one of the four variants of the moral argument this website often discusses.

But you wish to characterize even natural evils as falling short of a perfection, which likely seems predicated on the idea that worlds admit of intrinsic maxima, and I rather doubt they do. Unlike the case of God, who does admit of intrinsic maxima, worlds likely don’t, which is related to why one of Guanilo’s criticisms of the ontological argument fails, since the criticism assumed that, say, islands admitted of intrinsic maxima when, in fact, they just don’t. How many palm trees are on the perfect island, for example? There’s no principled, nonarbitrary way to say.

So I’m of two minds about your argument. On the one hand, I think there’s something profoundly right about theism providing the best explanation of the category of evil—along with hope for its ultimate defeat (by relation with God, the ultimate Good, a good so incommensurably good that relation to him can make the sufferings of this world, however horrific, pale by comparison). On the other hand, characterization of evil as intrinsically connected to a maximum or perfection strains credulity a bit.

More plausible, I think, is the claim that evil, as an instance of the way the world shouldn’t be, reflects a missing of the mark (even if the mark isn’t best cast as a perfection). Not every imperfection is an instance of evil, but every evil does seem to be a radical missing of some normative state of affairs. So I’d likely be inclined to recast your argument more like this:

  1. To the extent that we understand evil as a wrongdoing or injustice -- that is, as a departure from the way things should be, or as something not owed -- we understand evil in relation to some end or standard.

  2. Theism provides the best explanation for such normatively binding ends.

  3. Therefore, plausibly, theism is true.

This still remains too brief and needs more fleshing out, but it’s the direction I’d encourage. And maybe I’m wrong! Perhaps you can still convince me of the need and plausibility of those categories I excised. But for now, my suggestion, for whatever it’s worth, is this: Leave behind the ontologically heavy notions of perfections and maxima and just refer to the intuitively strong idea that evil reflects something that is not the way the world ought to be. Then make the case that classical theism and orthodox Christianity can provide the better explanation of such normatively binding ends that make sense of how the world, people, etc. “ought to be.” On naturalism, assuming determinism at the macro level, it’s awfully difficult to distinguish between the way the world is and how it ought to be. That’s a very high price to pay for the committed naturalist, involving an eschewal of deep moral intuitions.

As for the Kantian and Thomistic concerns, I don’t think you have as much to worry with there as some might say you do. In various places in Kant’s works, he gives a variant of a moral argument for God’s existence. It tends to be a version of either the performative or rational argument (as discussed on this site and in God and Cosmos), but it’s undoubtedly there. Just recently I’ve been reading his Lectures on Ethics (which students of his put together based on his lectures). Here’s a telling passage (one among many!): “The ideal of the Gospels is complete in every respect. Here we have the greatest purity and the greatest happiness. It sets out the principles of morality in all their holiness. It commands man to be holy, but as he is imperfect it gives him a prop, namely, divine aid.” Even the categorical imperative is, to Kant’s thinking, connected in various and powerful ways to God, not least in Kant’s insistence we should think of all moral duties as duties to God for the sake of grounding their rational stability.

Regarding Aristotle, you might wish to read John Hare’s chapter on him in God and Morality. Our highest telos, for Aristotle, is contemplating the divine. So it’s actually not the case that the highest human good, for Aristotle, was independent of God. Naturalists who try to adopt him to their cause are misguided, for a number of reasons. Here’s one: Aristotle’s focus on what’s natural was by way of contrast with the artificial, not the supernatural. At any rate, much more could be said there (and has been said elsewhere), but take a look at Hare if you get a chance.

Thanks so much for the chance to reflect on this, and feel free to stick to your guns and defend your approach. Keep up the great work! Blessings!

Dave Baggett