Monday, January 24, 2011

Horrendous evil and indignity

Many horrendous evils are horrendous largely because of horrendous indignity to the sufferer. Such "horrendous indignities" may seem to provide evidence against the existence of God. But on reflection, I think, they do not. For only a being with a dignity can suffer an indignity. It is no indignity for a rock to have mud poured over it. Making fun of a monkey does not harm the monkey. Moreover, only a being with great dignity can suffer a great indignity. Thus, that some beings suffer horrendous indignities entails that these beings have great dignity.

The evidence that many suffer horrendous indignities thus tells us that:

  1. There are many finite beings with great dignity,
  2. who suffer great indignities.
Now, is this better predicted by theism or by naturalism? Theism predicts (1), though it may not predict (2). Naturalism does not predict (1)—it could even be that naturalism is incompatible with (1) since perhaps great dignity requires being in the image of God; I do not know what it says about (2) (even conditionally on (1)). In any case, the existence of horrendous indignities is also a problem for naturalism, because the existence of beings of great dignity is a problem for naturalism.

Let us step back and ask if (2) is usually such a great problem given theism. We need distinguish "o-dignity", the innate "ontological" dignity of a being, from the "m-dignity" which is a manifestation of o-dignity. In (1) we are talking of o-dignity. Indignity, however, is not the opposite of o-dignity, but of m-dignity. The person who suffers an indignity still has o-dignity—if she didn't have it any more, she wouldn't be suffering an indignity, just as a rock cannot suffer an indignity because it lacks o-dignity. (One's pride can only be hurt when one has pride; otherwise, at worst one's former pride is hurt, and that's not a present hurt.) Thus manifest indignity as such highlights the o-dignity of the being suffering from the indignity. Only the evidently holy can be manifestly blasphemed.

In other words, manifest indignity is a kind of m-dignity. Manifest indignities are self-defeating—they highlight the dignity of that which they demean. (This may remind one of Hegel's master-slave dialectic and of the mockeries Christ suffered.) But horrendous indignities tend to be manifest. As such they paradoxically conduce to the manifestation of o-dignity, and hence there is reason for God to allow them to occur.

True kingship is most manifest when stripped, on the cross and with the side pierced.


Matt said...

I think it'd be helpful if you said more about what it means for ontological dignity to be manifest.

Your post also reminds me of this one, from Mirror of Justice relating the central idea of Gilbert Meilander's new book:

awatkins69 said...

I believe the way that Marilyn Adams understands horrendous evils is that they are evils which would on reflection make someone consider that their life is not worth living.

Do you think that a naturalistic worldview can reasonably accommodate some sort of optimism about the world? Maybe humans can make themselves have dignity by conquering all of its evils and overcoming prejudice, injustice, etc.?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think there are or could be any evils that should make one think one's life not to be worth living.