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The Moral Argument From Evil

by Francois Tremblay



Traditional Problems of Evil concentrate on the existence of evils as rationally determined by an observer. We see things around us and point out that they are incompatible with the existence of a good Creator. There are two big disadvantages to this method. One is that the theologian has a lot of leeway to make up excuses – theodicies – to answer the argument. Another is that every evaluation of evil does not necessarily apply to the moral beliefs of the believer.

There are, however, simple ways to eradicate one or both of these disadvantages. I have put forward my own proposition in ‘Notes on the Various Problems of Evil’, by reframing the argument around the Creation event and thus eliminating the first disadvantage. The Moral Argument from Evil, on the other hand, eliminates both disadvantages, by using the subjective evaluation of the believer as proof.

The formulation that I will present is complicated, but we can express the argument very simply like this. If God exists, then all instances of evil are morally justifiable by definition. If all events are morally justifiable, then believers should not try to stop any instance of presumed evil. Yet they do intervene, just as we all do. Therefore their own behaviour proves that God does not exist.

To give a simpler way of expressing this, why would a believer feel the need to, for instance, stop a murderer in the act? If God exists, then the murder that is being effected is in fact perfectly justifiable, since God created it in its omnibenevolence (note that the concept of moral righteousness as I defined it in “Notes on the Various Problems of Evil” applies just as well here). If that is so, then why act against the murder? The believer is in fact acting against God’s perfect plan, as it were.

It is interesting to note that the same objection is also raised against the concept of karma. If people are fated to disaster, then there is no reason to stop disasters. Both karma and divine action hold man accountable to a perfect higher standard, which man is also unable to grasp, let alone calculate. Because of this, they nullify all moral righteousness of correcting wrongs.

The Moral Argument from Evil is very similar to the deduction on ‘The Immorality Of Theodicies’. Theodicies are immoral because the truth of any theodicy implies that all evil actions are justifiable. If all evil actions are justifiable, then not only is morality impossible, but there is no reason to feel indignation at anything – indeed, to feel indignation would be simply incorrect. The Moral Argument from Evil seems to me as an extension of this line of reasoning into a full-fledged Problem of Evil.

The Moral Argument from Evil is expounded by Dean Stretton in his article on the subject. Here is the full formulation as given by Stretton:

  1. A1. The most rational theists know (i.e., have a justified, true belief) that God exists.
  2. A2a. For any possible world W, if God exists in W, then every instance of evil in W is objectively justified.
  3. A2b. If God exists, then there is objective justification for any actual instance of evil, including those evils for which there is a human onlooker
  4. A2. If God exists, then there is objective justification for every actual instance of evil, justification that will occur even if no onlooker intervenes to stop or prevent that evil.
  5. A3. Some members of the class of most rational theists (as I have defined that class) are theists who know A2.
  6. A4. Some of the most rational theists (namely, those who know A2) know that there is objective justification for any actual instance of evil, justification that will occur even if no onlooker intervenes to stop or prevent that evil.
  7. A5. If human person P knows that there is objective justification for evil E, and that this justification will occur even if P does not intervene to stop or prevent E, then P is morally justified in allowing E to occur.
  8. A6. Some of the most rational theists (namely, those who know A2) are morally justified in allowing any actual evil to occur.
  9. A7. If the most rational theists know that God exists, then some of those theists (namely, those who know A2) are morally justified in allowing any evil to occur.
  10. A8. Even the most rational theists (including those who know A2) are not morally justified in allowing just any evil to occur.
  11. A9. Even the most rational theists do not know that God exists.
  12. A10. If the most rational theists do not know that God exists, then no theist knows that God exists.
  13. A11. No theist knows that God exists.
  14. A12. For any given theist, that theist’s belief that God exists is either false or unjustified.
  15. A13. If God exists, then some theists are justified in believing that God exists.
  16. A14. If God exists, then no theist has a false belief that God exists.
  17. A15. If God exists, then some theists know (i.e., have a justified, true belief) that God exists.
  18. A16. It is not the case that some theists know (i.e., have a justified and true belief) that God exists.
  1. A17. God does not exist.

    As I said, this is a complicated argument. It projects to the short version I gave like this:

    A1 to A2 – If God exists, then all instances of evil are morally justifiable by definition.
    A3 to A7 – If all events are morally justifiable, then some believers know that they should not try to stop any instance of presumed evil.
    A8 – Yet they do intervene.
    A9 to A17 – Therefore their own behaviour proves that God does not exist.

    The first thing to note here is that theodicies are no longer a coherent defense for the theologian. The fact that believers do intervene nullifies the efficacy of any such defense. For instance, the Free Will theodicy is contradicted by the fact that the theologian himself does not see free will as a sufficient excuse for him not to intervene against evil. Therefore he contradicts himself with his actions.

    Indeed, the fact that the Christian believes he has succeeded in justifying the existence of evil, only makes his case look worse. Suppose that a believer thinks the Free Will theodicy is valid. He can then argue that, for instance, people who were victims of the horrible tsunami used their free will in deciding to stay there, and thus paid the consequence. Now this does not apply to children, for instance, but let’s forget about the flaws for a moment. Rather what the argument says, is that the Christian, by thinking the tsunami a horrible thing and trying to help its victims, shows himself to be a hypocrite. He does not, in fact, think that the Free Will theodicy obtains, otherwise he would see the consequences of the tsunami as being fully imputable to the decisions of human beings defying the will of God. And to side with humans against God is rebellion against God.

    The believer becomes his own witness against himself. The only alternative is for the believer to claim that he does not, and has never intervened against any evil whatsoever, which is absurd.

    However, a believer may object by using the Soul-Building theodicy and argue that God made evils so that we may intervene against them and be edified – gain second-order goods. This theodicy neatly side-steps the problem common to all the other theodicies, since they make the desire to intervene part of the justification.

    In this case, we must note that the Soul-Building theodicy breaks A2, which states that all evil events are justified “even if no onlooker intervenes to stop or prevent that evil”. Stretton gives an explanation of this part which I would encourage the curious to read, which is basically that whether onlookers do intervene or not, the instance of evil must still be justified, as follows from A2a. If the Soul-Building theodicy was correct, then only evil events where we intervene are justified, but there are plenty of observed evil events where the observer does not intervene.

    Everything follows from the premises in A1, A2 and A8. If the most rational theists pretend to know that God exists, if the existence of God provides justification for all instances of evil, and if the most rational theists attempt to prevent evil, then A17 follows logically.

    There are many theists who do not in fact know A2. There is no denying that. However, it is reasonable to posit that the most rational theists do know A2 – for if they are rational, they understand the predictions of their proposition “God exists”, such as A2. Yet how can they know A2 and still attempt to stop evil? It is this internal contradiction that lies at the heart of the argument.

    Stretton points out in his article that A2 assumes two things:

  2. God and unjustifiable evil cannot co-exist.
  1. God can guarantee the occurrence of outweighing goods.

    He then asks the question whether the argument can still hold without the second assumption – which encompasses such thing as “middle knowledge” of man’s actions. Positing that God could not know of man’s actions is to posit contracausal free will, which is irrational. Nevertheless, Stretton demonstrates that the argument can still hold in the absence of middle knowledge. First he starts with two preambles:

  2. E1. If God exists, then E2.
  1. E2. Every actual evil E is such that (i) E belongs to a set of evils of equal magnitude the disjunction of which is logically necessary for the attainment of some outweighing good G, or for the prevention of some outweighing evil E’, and (ii) at the time he allows E to occur, God has good reason to believe either that G will be attained, or that E’ will be prevented.

    And then formulates his argument as such:

  2. S1. If any theist knows that God exists, Scrooge knows that God exists. [Scrooge is amongst the most rational theists]
  3. S2. Scrooge knows E1.
  4. S3. If person A knows proposition p, and knows that p entails q, then A also knows q.
  5. S4. Scrooge knows S5, where:
  6. S5. Scrooge’s history of failing to intervene in the face of evil makes it unlikely that he will intervene in the present case.
  7. S6. Scrooge knows E2.
  8. S7. There is objectively good reason to suppose that E will be outweighed by the occurrence of some greater good (or the prevention of some greater evil), a good that will occur (or an evil that will be prevented) even if Scrooge does not intervene to stop E.
  9. S8. Scrooge knows S7.
  10. S9. Scrooge rationally believes that E will be outweighed by the occurrence of some greater good (or the prevention of some greater evil), a good that will occur (or an evil that will be prevented) even if Scrooge does not intervene to stop E.
  11. S10. Scrooge is morally justified in allowing E to occur.
  12. S11. If Scrooge knows that God exists, then Scrooge is morally justified in allowing E to occur.
  13. S12. If any theist knows that God exists, then Scrooge is morally justified in allowing E to occur.
  14. S13. It is not the case that Scrooge is morally justified in allowing E to occur.
  15. S14. No theist knows that God exists.
  1. S15. God does not exist.

    I would like to conclude by pointing out that, while Stretton’s language and some of his justifications restrict his argument to the Christian god, there is no reason to restrict the Moral Argument from Evil to Christianity. Indeed, with more general justifications (and perhaps the use of “moral righteousness” as a general standard), one can use the argument against the god-concept. The fact that believers attempt to stop evil events proves that they do not believe in an all-good (or even a morally righteous) Creator.

    Last updated: January 27, 2005