Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A theodicy for the Country of the Blind

It is plausible that for a human being not to have sight would be to suffer a great natural evil. If, then, we can produce a theodicy for the Country of the Blind, the tools in developing this theodicy might well handle a number of other natural evils.

Begin with the observation that it is not an evil for dolphins not to be able to fly and for humans not to see in infrared, no matter how useful flying would be for a dolphin or seeing in infrared to a human. An evil is not just a lack of a good, but a privation of a good—i.e., a lack of a good that should be present. Similarly:

  1. If denizens of the Country of the Blind are members of a species where sight is not normal, their lack of sight is not an evil and hence does not require a theodicy.

Now suppose that you are a denizen of the Country of the Blind. You do not know of any other countries. The Country's science is highly developed. You know, for instance, that a lot of animals, like birds and non-human mammals, are able to receive detailed information about their environment through electromagnetic radiation in mid-hundreds nanometer ranges.

A bold scientist and philosopher now comes up with the Blindness Thesis (BT). According to BT, all the denizens of the City of the Blind are in fact members of a species that naturally can receive detailed environmental information in the 380-750 nm range, but all suffer a defect (e.g., a neurological one) that prevents this and has no other direct effects.

And if BT is false, then the only alternative theory available is the Merely Non-Sighted Thesis (MNST) that the denizens are members of a species for which such reception is not normal. The question whether whether BT is true is a very interesting one theoretically. But now my question is this: Do you have a self-interested reason, independent of special circumstances (such as that BT is your theory), to care about whether BT or MNST turns out to be true? Suppose that:

  1. You do not have a self-interested reason to wish for MNST to be true.

Now, come back to the question of theodicy. If MNST is true, then by (1) there is no need for theodicy for the lack of sight. But if (2) is true, then it does not seem that the denizens of a Country of the Blind in a world where BT holds are any worse off than their counterparts in a world where MNST holds.

Perhaps you're not convinced about (2). Well, let's vary the case slightly. God promises you that if BT is true, he will compensate you by giving you one free ticket to a cultural event of your choice every ten years, for life. It seems that now you have reason to wish that BT is true. This shows that in a world where BT holds you are at most somewhat worse off than your counterpart in a world where MNST holds—each day you're worse off by less than 1/3652rd of the value of a ticket to a cultural event of your choice. Since no theodicy for the Country of the Blind is needed in the world where MNST holds, there is not much of a theodicy needed.

Think about it this way. Suppose the Country of the Blind is about to separate off from the rest of the human population. The separation event, somehow, causes blindness. Now, God has a choice. He can make the separation event happen in such a way that MNST holds or in such a way that BT holds. If he opts to make it happen in such a way that MNST holds, then there is no problem calling for a theodicy. If he opts to make it happen in such a way that BT holds, he is making for a state of affairs that, intrinsically, is at most worse off by the equivalent of one free ticket to a cultural event of your choice every ten years. (Incommensurability makes the latter claim not exactly right, but only of heuristic value.) But there is a genuine good in making BT instead of MNST hold: the good of making the denizens of the Country of the Blind be members of a larger kind, the naturally-sighted human kind, and thus having a certain natural community with that larger kind. This good may not be all that great—but a great good isn't needed for the theodicy to work. Or maybe the mere having of a nature capable of sight is valuable (either intrinsically, or because if the denizens find a way to restore their sight in some future generation, they will thereby become naturally sighted, which is perhaps more valuable than being non-naturally sighted), and that can do the work of theodicy.

Objection: This is all very well for an isolated population all of whom share an impairment. But how would this work for impairments of people within a larger population, where the larger population lacks the impairment?

Response: Consider two countries. One is the Country of the Blind, and BT holds for it. The other is a country generally of sighted people, of the same population, but a subpopulation can't see, and BT holds for them. The second country is, I think, the better off. However, the people in the second country who can't see may individually be the worse off than people in the Country of the Blind. For two reasons. The first is that subjective happiness appears to depend on the contrast between one's well-being and that of others around. Thus, if can't see but others around one can, then one feels worse off. However, this is just a matter of subjective happiness, and is due to moral evil in the society—the wide spread of the vice of envy. So this is a subject for theodicies about moral evil, not theodicies about natural evil which is what I was interested in.

The second reason why non-sighted people in the country generally of sighted people may be worse off than denizens of the Country of the Blind is that in a country generally of sighted people, there will be many facilities not accommodated to the needs of those who cannot see. To some extent this may, again, be a matter of the problem of moral evil. But may not entirely—there may be resource limits precluding accommodation in various cases. However, in the country of generally sighted people, the availability of sight should make for somewhat greater scientific and technological progress and a stronger economy. If the benefits of this do not trickle down to the non-sighted persons, then that is a matter of a moral evil.

5 comments:

Heath White said...

Hmm. If

2. You do not have a self-interested reason to wish for MNST to be true

and

3. If MNST is true, you are not suffering a (sight-related) evil, while if BT is true, you are

it would appear that together these entail

4. You do not have a merely self-interested reason to wish not to be suffering an evil.

That appears absurd and a good reason to reject 2. It may be that

2'. You are not aware of any self-interested reasons to wish for MNST to be true

which would entail something like, you are not aware of your need for a theodicy.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It IS paradoxical. But remember that in the two scenarios the difference is not just whether an evil is present or not. There is also a difference between kinds of critters to factor in.

Maybe the way to look at the situation is like this. We have two kinds of critters. Humans and bhumans: humans are naturally sighted and bhumans aren't. Normally, we would prefer to be a human rather than a bhuman. A human is a better sort of critter. But in the case where the human in question is non-sighted, the degree of this preference is exactly, or almost exactly, canceled out by the fact that the human in question suffers from the evil of being non-sighted. So, if you are a non-sighted human, you have one good and one evil--the good is that you're normally sighted, but the evil is that you are in fact non-sighted. If you are a bhuman, you lack both the good and the evil.

The problem with this solution to the paradox is that you might have the intuition that being the kind of critter you are is irrelevant--what matters is what your actual capabilities are--and so there is no value per se in being human rather than bhuman. (This comes up a lot in discussions of abortion.)

I don't know if you can have this intuition while yet thinking it's preferable to be bhuman instead of human. And I think this intuition is importantly mistaken. It's mistaken for instance because in fact there is a fellowship one has with others merely by virtue of being of the same kind, and so being a member of a kind the normal members of which are sighted is a good thing. This fellowship intuition is supported by at least two kinds of cases:
- People do, in fact, rejoice when someone falling under the same kind--even when the kind is not a natural one--achieves something. One is happy when someone of the same ethnicity wins a medal, or when someone of the same gender overcomes some barrier to people of this gender even if you have no interest in overcoming it, and the happiness is rightly greater than a merely disinterested third-party would to have.
- A deep notion of fellowship among human beings is presupposed by Athanasian, and indeed New Testament, theology of the atonement--Christ redeems us precisely because he is like us.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The afterlife also helps. :-) If BT, then the denizens of the Country of the Blind will probably be blind in heaven. If MNST, they will be sighted in heaven. So, while the Country of the Blind was branching off from the rest of the human race, God would have reason to keep the denizens human--their being normally sighted means that those of them who go to heaven will be sighted and normally so. This assumes that being sighted and normally so is better than being sighted but not normally so.

Heath White said...

It seems to me there are roughly two ways to approach this. You could say that the only thing that matters is actual capabilities, and there is no difference to care about between being a blind human and a normal bhuman. But if you say this, then I think the general strategy for theodicy you are pursuing will fail, because it loses the importance of the distinction between absent goods and privations of goods. In a nutshell, you become committed to: No matter how much evil I am suffering, there is some possible normal creature for whom that condition is normal; they don’t need a theodicy; so neither should I. But that is obviously wrong, I would think.

The other way is to say that one ought, abstractly speaking, to prefer being a human to being bhuman, because the former is better than the latter. But this introduces a notion of “better” or “good” that is not a kind of “better for X” or “good for X” (since there is no X for which both being a human and being a bhuman are possibilities). Everything then turns on the claim that no theodicy is needed for bads or worses, just for evils. This is very debatable (dubious) I think, for at least some imaginable cases. But perhaps it is the more promising route.

enigMan said...

Of course, some blind people would deny that being blind is a great natural evil. But if it is, then why should 1 be true? Similarly, why should it not be a great natural evil that we are all mortal?