Saturday, February 27, 2010

Socrates and the problem of evil

Consider Socrates' thesis: any amount of external evils (i.e., anything other than vice or loss of virtue) is worth suffering for any gain in virtue. So if twenty years in the Gulag made one slightly less selfish and did not make one more vicious in any way, then it was all worth it.

As far back as I remember thinking about these things, something like Socrates' thesis seemed obvious to me (not that you could tell from my behavior). The man on the rack isn't happy, but if one were to choose between being on the rack and slightly more courageous and not being on the rack, one would be prudent in choosing being on the rack.

Suppose Socrates' thesis is true. This makes some aspects of the problem of evil rather easier to handle. For rarely are we in a position to know that some evil did not either make the person slightly more virtuous or at least offer the peson a reasonable opportunity to become slightly more virtuous. Even if the evil is something like dying in one's sleep, it is not crazy to think that dealing with this death in purgatory might not have made the person more virtuous.

Of course, there is still the question whether the gain in virtue couldn't have as well been produced in other ways. But perhaps this precisely kind of gain of virtue couldn't have been—and different kinds of gain of virtue are incommensurable.

This is not meant to give a theodicy. Rather, it is meant to be one of those posts where I try to identify yet another tool for the theodicist's toolbox.


Andrew said...

It would also seem relevant to address the questions dealing with whether the 'long term' effects of a small 'sin' could result in a greater good than the good of not having committed that small sin in the first place. Perhaps this is off the mark theologically, but many, with consequentalist tendencies, might wonder this. After all *something* like this is recognized in the Church:
E.g., "O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem..."

brian_g said...

I've been thinking about this and here's something that occurred to me. It's by no means obvious (to me) that small gains in virtue are worth suffering horrendous evils for. Yet at the same time it seems good to believe it. Someone who believes that suffering horrendous evils for the sake of small gains in virtues places a high value on virtue which is a good thing. Yet, how can it be good to believe something that is false? This, to me, makes it much more likely that the Socrates' thesis is true.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's interesting!

Though there is a danger to believing Socrates' thesis: it might lead one to impose sufferings on others to lead them to virtue.

Of course, that would be a mistaken conclusion to draw. An obvious way in which it would be a mistake is that, unlike God, we simply do not have the insight into the effects that would be needed.

A less obvious way is this. I think that how we are permitted to play x's goods off against x's bads depends not just on the sizes of the goods and bads, but also on how one is related to x. If one is identical with x, then one has much more of an authority to impose or allow burdens on x for the sake of benefits to x. If one is x's parent or spiritual director one has a similar authority, though I suspect to a diminished degree degree. On the other hand, if one is a stranger to x, one's authority is much more limited. I conjecture that God's authority in this matter is like that of x himself, or maybe even in greater.

The long-term stuff is important, too. Especially if "long-term" means "for eternity".